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A Shelter, A Kingdom, A Half Promised Land: Three Poets In Mid-Career


ISSUE:  Summer 1987

Many of the young poets who began publishing during the turmoil of the late sixties felt commanded by interior and exterior pressures to plunge beneath received moral and aesthetic discourse, exploring the special potencies of images rescued from the depths of the unconscious. Because the archetypal aura of their early, psyche-laden imagery was so strong, because the personal and political anguish of their youth was so intense, some of these poets have understandably been reluctant to pull away from the pyrotechnics of deep imagery and the cathartic charges of the surreal. But the three under consideration—Thomas Lux, Gregory Orr, who is the Poetry Consultant of VQR, and Laura Jensen—have, in their own distinctive ways, grappled with the challenges of surviving their youth and remaking their work into something no less potent but more conscious and more directly communicative than their earlier work.

If there is such a thing as the natural history of the imagination of a given time and place, then the recent work of Lux, Orr, and Jensen has something important to tell us about the the inside face of history, and about how poets seek out the sustenance necessary to survive into a creative maturity—in a vocation where survival has sometimes seemed the exception rather than the rule. Each of the three offers us an example of a fire-tempered conscience and each has returned, in different ways, to the oldest impulse of American poetry, moral witness-bearing. My sense is that Lux, Orr, and Jensen feel empowered to pass on their moral, psychological, and social insight because they’ve turned personal corners, survived themselves and their youthful rites of passage.

II

Half Promised Land (Houghton Mifflin, $13. 95 cloth, $6. 95 paper) is Thomas Lux’ fourth collection of poems. In some ways he hasn’t changed at all. He’s always detested cant, used humor as a way exploring darkness, held to a diction that reflects his affection and preference for a blue-collar world. And unlike many poets who have used surreal imagery, Lux has always had a strongly musical ear, especially for the spoken-sounding phrase, and he’s always had a James Wright-like sympathy for lost souls. But there used to be in his work a strong desperado element, sometimes near to nihilism, which released itself through fantastical humor, as evident, for example, in the ironically romantic conception of “the Pals of Death Club,” in The Glassblower’s Breath. The voice of many early Lux poems resembles that of a Holden Caulfield who’d lived into young adulthood, still acutely sensitive to human violations, but still too hurt himself not to take refuge occasionally in despairing sentimentality.

Lux still occasionally risks sentimentality, as James Wright did, because it’s so clearly the defect of his great virtue, human compassion. But to the exercise of compassion in Half Promised Land Lux very consistently brings a mature and fully integrated sensibility. He has survived, to use Blake’s phrase, into “organized innocence.” In fact, his descriptions of childhood often focus, as Blake does, on the ways in which corruption undermines innocence, as in the fear-inducing child’s prayer, “If I Die Before I Wake.” In a poem which borrows that prayer for its title, Lux explores a cynical paternalism which justifies cruelty on the grounds that it prepares children for the real world or, as he puts it, for “the buzzards and the bees.” In addition to poems that turn a sympathetic eye to the adult-shadowed world of children, Lux writes with controlled, complex passion on subjects as offbeat and various as the sense of smell, the natural history of poverty, and the paradoxical “thirst” of sea turtles in their long, solitary swim to lay their eggs.

“Pedestrian” is a representative example of Lux’ poise. The poem concerns a blue-collar loser. He’s viewed with sympathy, even to the point of making him a double for the speaker, but there’s a clear distance, too. The characteristic Lux signatures of colloquial diction and humorous exaggeration survive in the opening of this poem, under exact control:

Tottering and elastic, middle name of Groan,
ramfeezled after a hard night
at the corpse-polishing plant, slope-shouldered,
a half loaf
of bread, even his hair tired, famished,
fingering the diminished beans
in his pocket—you meet him.

The poem goes on to explore the pedestrian’s fear “of becoming too dextrous in stripping/the last few shoelaces of meat/from a chicken’s carcass.” Although he relies on quirky comedy for much of the poem, when it comes time to resolve the speaker’s—and, indeed, our—relationship to the pedestrian, Lux’s speaker drops comedy and irony and becomes quietly straightforward:

    You meet him in the corners,
in bus stations, on the blind avenues
leading neither in
nor out of hell, you meet him
and with him you walk.

What Lux insists on here is not a crucifying guilt but a recognition of everyone’s relationship with the “ramfeezled.” He’s not moralizing, but he is exercising his moral and existential imagination, and he includes us in its mandates.

It would be hard to overstress the American-ness of Lux’ poetry. We hear real people speaking, using, though not overusing, this kind of language: “sweatbox,” “brokedown,” “heebie jeebies,” “your dog gets runned over,” “not an eek’s chance.” And even though many of the characters in the poems don’t have “an eek’s chance” to cash in on the material side of the American dream, they nonetheless persist and often prevail in tragicomic ways, as, for example, a father in a New England mill town who has been wiped out by a flood. Because his car is underwater and because “there’s no other way . . .[he] gets in a rowboat/so he can go to work.” Likewise in “Triptych, Middle Panel Burning,” the long, third person, but apparently autobiographical poem which ends the volume, the narrator recognizes both the “asunder of a purely American loneliness” and the persistence of the main character’s “instinctual conscience.” Out of a similar tension between anarchic isolation and inborn decency, much of the best American literature has arisen, the classic example being Huckleberry Finn and Huck’s decision to go to hell rather than return Jim to slavery. The main character in “Triptych” seems a mix of Huck Finn and James Dean: he has put in time in the lawless territories, driving a hundred miles an hour with his eyes shut while counting to five: “It was not for lack of trying he did not die.”

What rescues him? The revival of an abiding, peculiarly American experience: he’s reborn—after seeing the light. Crucially, however, this light is not personified, or supernaturalized. We’re not, by any means, bearing witness to the progenitor of a new Protestant sect. The vision is modest and disestablishmentarian. He sees,

a little light: electrical, metaphysical,
mizzling on a thousand pinpoints;
no symbol like an X burned his forehead:

But the illumination nonetheless ends up in the last three lines of the volume, dispersing a blackness “like drops/of blood borne off a battlefield/on the backs of ants, and following: rain, rain.” This passage is deeply felt, a record of spiritual regeneration; but in making that record, Lux does not abandon his sense of humor or his sense of perspective. The darkness of his protagonist’s life is borne away by nothing more grand, or less industrious and ubiquitous, than ants. Whitman would have admired this aspect of the poetry of Tom Lux because Lux shares with Whitman an abiding sense of the reciprocity and interpenetration of the mundane and the sublime, a sense of how, for example, down at the dump, in “The Milkman and His Son,” a son will urge his father to toss the worn-out milk bottles in the air and try to hit them in midair with rocks. The result: a father and son share the simple aesthetic and cathartic satisfaction of seeing “[o]ne thousand astonished/splints of glass.”

III

Eliot’s famous remark about “personality,” only those who have it “know what it means to want to escape from [it],” could be applied, with a variation, to Greg Orr. Only someone simultaneously so concerned and impatient with meta-physical issues would know what it means to want to escape from their abstract clutches, into poetry. But just as Eliot’s personality followed him, albeit transmuted and intensified, into poetry, Orr’s metaphysical impulses persist and find embodiment in We Must Make a Kingdom of It, his fourth full-length collection (Wesleyan, $16.00 cloth, $8.95 paper). The result is a deeply coherent volume of what R.P. Blackmur called “irregular metaphysics,” an honorific term for literature in the 20th century which succeeds in putting “the treasure of residual reason in live relation to the madness of the senses” with the aim of realizing “the wisdom of our violent knowledge.”

Early in his career, Orr’s quest for vision took the form of brief, brooding lyrics which lived or died on the strength of the psychic charge of their key images. We saw a rose being swallowed by its own stem and, in “Gathering the Bones Together,” one of the most haunting American poems ever written, we witness the poet, at 27, imagining a bridge, made of his own bones, arching towards another shore. He’s been crossing that bridge ever since and, more recently, has developed his vision in less surreal terms.

The central terms of Orr’s dialectic, directly alluded to in over half the poems, are, as abstractions, familiar: he’s trying to bridge the Western gulf between body and soul, or matter and spirit. His healing, or talismanic, word is “desire.” Orr’s poetry is haunted by the ghost of the absolute and tries to divine, in the many dimensions of desire, a this-worldly response, a “kingdom” in which to lay that ghost provisionally to rest. Orr maintains a running quarrel with otherworldly absolutes and their expositors from Plato and St. Paul onward. In one seriously humorous poem, Orr’s persona, an explorer, admits his residual impulse to credit something hidden, as he says, “at the heart of knowledge—/ some fabulous palace,” but the emperor of that inland palace keeps sending messages, “Don’t come.” The explorer responds by sticking to the coast, continuing to navigate its every inlet and bay, trading with the ordinary citizens.

Because of his ambitions as an irregular metaphysical poet, Orr occasionally risks rather bold formulations of his commitments, but in general, he puts his vision to the test by plunging into images that realize precisions beyond the reach of intellect. The last two stanzas of “November” show rather clearly the enlivening tension between abstraction and concreteness in his poetry:

   But desire’s
my god and resides in this world,
floating at night on a sea of ghosts
that rises and falls, sorrowful water
pulled by the moon.

    And at dawn, desire’s
there in the white field below my window
where three cows kneeling make small
green spaces around them with their body heat,
shapes in the frost like hopeful boats.

In some ways, cows melting frost, exposing greenness with body heat, is a minimalist image of desire and, in this case, hope. But Orr would rather be undeceived than falsely sublime. His aim is to pack such a complex of emotion into his quiet insistences that they create their own anti-hierophantic sublimity, as in this last section of the title poem, “We Must Make a Kingdom of It”:

It was green, I saw it—tendril
flickering from dry soil
like a grass snake’s tongue;
call it “flame”—light
become life, what the world
wants, what the earth
in its turning
yearns for: to writhe and rise up,
even to fly briefly
like the shovelful over
the gravedigger’s shoulder.

This surprising final image, the soil in its brief earthward curve from the gravedigger’s shovel, could hardly be less grandiose as an emblem of Orr’s kingdom. But this is his integrity: he sees our flight is brief, sees where gravity tends, and his solution is not to erect a compensatory heavenly kingdom. He would rather celebrate the tendril’s brief flicker, or praise, as he does in “The Fifth Month,” the dispersal of a dandelion globe’s “skeletal radiance,” which he musically describes as “bones of delight a light wind/blows apart.” The image of bones, as a momenta mori, has long haunted Orr’s poetry, but the bones have lost some of their Gothicism and have even begun to take flight, lifted by music, humor, and eros, into a song “whose burden,” as he characteristically reminds us, “is the earth.”

One of the distinctive pleasures of reading through the whole of Orr’s poetry is witnessing the gradual lightening of this “burden” and the lifting of his spirits. He remains, however, a blues singer, true to the experiences of fear, loss, darkness, and evil. For every antigravitational thrust of eros and agape, there’s a descendental counterthrust or a reminder how much of life is a night flight over an unlit ocean.

Sometimes darkness descends on a poem, as in “Memorial Day,” which begins with Boy Scouts proudly listening to ceremonies on a hilltop but ends when their fifth-grade teacher, a war-vet, plucks his glass eye from its socket during recess. The poem’s last gesture fixes our attention on the vet’s looted German pocket watch as it “ticks on its chain,” almost as if it were a bomb and not a timepiece. A very strong poem which moves in the opposite direction from “Memorial Day” is “Solitary Confinement.” Beginning in hell and rising out of it, it concerns Orr’s imprisonment as a civil rights worker in Haynesville, Alabama, in 1965. The speaker has waded in over his head in Southern affairs, has gotten beaten up and thrown in jail, where, sick to his stomach, he manages to resist despair by reading Keats late into the night. He’s determined to make a kingdom, even if it rises from a prison on the imaginary wings of a nightingale or, in this American case, of a mockingbird:

Imagination is good wood; by midnight
I’ll be high as that mockingbird
in the magnolia across the moonlit road.

Transcendence is not something easily won in an Orr poem, but when it occurs, it has been earned in extraordinarily convincing and authentic ways.

IV

Laura Jensen is a poet whose personae find themselves in a different kind of prison than Orr’s, more interior, closer not just to what Blackmur calls “the madness of the senses,” but also to madness in a clinical sense. From the beginning, Jensen’s poetry has exhibited enormous imaginative resources. But in her widely admired first book, Bad Boats, the imaginings were often hectic, as if promiscuous invention were a way of outdistancing a troubled psyche. In “After I Have Voted,” for example, the speaker leaves the voting booth only to find herself in an Algerian cafe where, among other things, “Jell-O sighs into the candlelight.” The here-and-now in that first volume was constantly being annihilated by whimsy, often to comic and horrific effects. For Jensen, this was a matter of principle, “I watch whim, with narrow eyes, /fly true into the darkness like an arrow.” But whim is a fickle arrow, and its discoveries often seem dearly bought in Jensen’s early poems, at the cost of an Ashbery-like retreat into the arbitrary and the private.

In Shelter (Dragon Gate, $14. 00 cloth, $7. 00 paper), Jensen’s third full-length collection, there’s still an abundance of imaginative leaps and sudden shifts of venue, and sometimes there may be an overabundance of inexplicable dream-laden images. But the emotional range of her poetry has opened and deepened, most movingly in the expression of a liberating grief. And the poet’s hard won perspective on mental illness has become an abiding and compelling strength. In the opening poem, “The Storm,” Jensen successfully evokes the sense of a consciousness on the edge of chaos by having the speaker deliver a childlike, incantatory inventory of her surroundings:

In the room with the bed
there has not been a dream
where your heart is screaming
let me wake, let me wake.
At the windows are trees.
At the windows are swallows.
On the table are books.
On the table are candles.

Each little room is clean,
and at the door are pansies.
And a rosebush down the stairs.

This poems ends with the simple but, in its context, devastating declaration, “I think winter is here”; and winter thus becomes her archetype for psychic shutdown. Jensen has, like Wallace Stevens, a way of giving basic images—for example, winter, rain, the moon, windows—a special twist that transforms them into the obsessive signposts of a personal mythology.

At their best, Jensen’s poems seem to rise out of Rilkean depths, obeying the Rilkean imperative to praise, and to change bitterness to wine. In “Destinations” the speaker, feeling oppressed, goes for a walk. She cannot allow herself to walk without a set destination, so she goes to pick up photographs, a wood saw at her parent’s house, a book at the library, each task innocuous enough, but collectively amounting to an excursion from the mundane surfaces of the present into buried memories: the photos contain forgotten friends; the saw engenders a story of her father in the war; and the book at the library concerns a woman named Christina whose life plans have been ruined by war. The speaker’s last memory in the poem is one of Christina as she “rushes a fence in the sunset,” which, in its turn, rushes the speaker to her true destination, a flood of tears which are compounded of grief and a healing relief at having recuperated sundered memories, painful though they may be.

To me, the finest, most poignantly lyrical poem in the volume is “While the Cherry Tree is Flowering.” The poem both grieves and praises a saintly woman identified as “Hennenberg’s sister,” who, as the headnote explains, was childless when she arrived at a death camp, but found “she could choose to stay alive, or to pick up a child and hold it while they were gassed.” She chose to comfort the child. This incident begets a meditation on mercy, which begins:

Floating cloud, Kwan Yin, she is the woman,
merciful Kwan Yin, momentary
as the flowering cherry, too luminous
to be hidden by the dark, too fragrant
to be forgotten.

By the end of the poem, the speaker has woven in Cannonball Adderly’s ballad “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and has become so enveloped in sadness that she despairs of her poetic task, “I cannot bear to tell you/the story of her mercy.” Fortunately for us, the story has been told, refracted through the mysterious Kwan Yin; the unbearable has been borne, carried alive into a poem that mixes lament with praise, flowering cherry trees with mercy, in ways “too luminous/to be hidden by the dark, too fragrant/to be forgotten.”

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