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Varieties of Religious Experience: New Work By Galway Kinnell, Jane Hirshfield, and Rodney Jones


ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

Doctrinal religion has lost its shaping force on poetry, but its symbol systems remain suggestive, and the living kernel of religious experience itself cannot ever disappear. The three poets under consideration fight shy of received dogma, but each in a distinct way is earth-bent on writing testaments of faith.

The title of Galway Kinnell’s newest volume of poems, Imperfect Thirst (Houghton Mifflin) is taken from a saying of the twelfth-century mystic, Sohrawardi:

If your eyes are not deceived by the mirage
Do not be proud of the sharpness of your understanding;
It may be your freedom from this optical illusion
Is due to the imperfectness of your thirst.

Kinnell gives this passage its own page, preceding the table of contents, making it hover above the proceedings as an augury. Like most auguries, this one is consarnedly ambiguous when we try to apply it. Sohrawardi’s idea seems to be that skepticism is not enough; he may also be implying that we need the kind of faith that carries the true seer beyond both belief and skepticism. But how does Kinnell mean for this apply to his work? While the emphasis in this volume is very much on the thirst, not the imperfection, there are some crucial, powerful moments, particularly at the beginning and end of the volume, where he sheds light on what is askew. One such moment is the opening poem, “My Mother’s R&R,” which describes how the speaker and his brother, after being weaned, were allowed back, for one day, to their mother’s breast. The implication is that the mother’s imperfect thirst is thereby passed on to the sons, who, after getting their “nip,” would “taste every woman and expel / each one who came to resemble her.”

It is possible to read Kinnell’s work, as the opening poem seems to invite, as a reflection of an imperfectly resolved relationship with his mother. But this is not a book of second-guessing, psychological self-analysis. As always, Kinnell mainly revels in his thirsts and remains convinced that earth, “this heaven,” is the right place for love. And as for Sohrawardi’s mirage, he remains largely, though not entirely, uninterested in any other heaven beyond earth where love might go better. The result of Kinnell’s renewed embrace of lusty thirst is his most fully realized, or least imperfect, work in years. There is a particularity of celebration here that lifts the poems and gives them gusto. In a typical moment, Kinnell imagines the two lovers in “Night” drinking in each other’s words like long-unpainted clapboards absorbing paint, “almost with a slurp.” When they wake, entwined, they are surprised to see it is only nine in the morning; they are shocked because it seems to them as if “they have been lying on this bed since before the earth began.” No less absorbed in the transport of the moment is the protagonist of “The Cellist”:

Her knees tighten
and loosen around the big-hipped creature
wailing and groaning between them
as if locked with her in syzygial amplexus.

For the tall-talking, Whitmanian streak in Kinnell, the sweat spreading through this cellist’s hair is as “miraculous as the waters / the fishes multiplied in at Galilee.” The uncalibrated hyperbole serves both to secularize gospel and sacralize the mundane.

The celebrations in Imperfect Thirst range from a home base of eros to poems about trees, the Isle of Skye, snakes, and flies. There is even a poem about fly heaven: feces. If one is going to celebrate the physical world, feces come as no minor part of the territory. Kinnell jumps enthusiastically into the task of its praise in “Holy Shit.” The poem begins with what may be a world record—eleven headnotes, almost Moby-Dick-style extracts, from Plato to Jung. They display a range of responses, from the body-horror of the early Christian fathers to Whitman’s acceptance of the miraculous-as-Galilee human body and its by-products. The poem begins with some prose-like pedagogy:

Often we forget, and imagine we’re immortal.
If the gods don’t shit, why must we?
And we would feel distinctly less like animals
if only we could sever the chain of linked turds
tying us to some hole in the ground—
the cesspool Dante used as his model for hell . . .

For Kinnell, to deny our animal natures is an unholy act of hubris and of repression, one extreme consequence of which is the dropping of clean bombs on the unwashed masses. The poem is baldly didactic in the oldest American tradition, but the moral outrage that fuels it is buffered by the affection for and sense of humor about the reverse alchemy that keeps the natural world whole:

The black bear who swatted down the apples
from the lower branches began before first light
expelling foot-long cylinders of apple-chompings
—some apple nectar removed, some bear nectar added—
which could almost be served up in a restaurant
in Lyons or Paris as Compote de Pommes des Dieux.

In passages like these, the poem comes alive as a poem. The sound-values, precision, and affectionate wit bring grace to a vision of Edenic road apples.

One of the most piquant poems in the volume is a redemption of a moment where Kinnell’s thirst for justice was clearly sufficiently intense. Concerning the visit of the poet to an English class, “The Deconstruction of Emily Dickinson” skewers those who perpetrate the revenge of the intellect upon the imagination. It also taps, and turns ironically on, the universal experience of failing to come up with just the right remark in fraught circumstances.

When the poet walks into the class-in-progress, the topic is Dickinson as a victim of male publishers. He chips in his view of the situation: Dickinson, put off by the meddling of the local newspaper and by the “hidebound” response of male critics, vowed not to publish. The gap between her own “harsh knowledge” and the “poetic wishfulness” of her age was too great. Kinnell-as-protagonist begins to recite the famous poem beginning “Publication- is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man-” when the professor breaks in with a pedantic deconstruction, via philology, of “auction,” arguing that it comes from the same root as a “to author.” Such a meaning, inserted into the poem, subverts its ostensible rejection of publication and, thereby, shows her collusion with “the bourgeois commodification of consciousness.” Having thus interrupted Kinnell, the professor asks him to résumé the recitation. Kinnell says he refuses to recite out of loyalty to Dickinson, who would not have wanted her work spoken in the mincing presence of yet another unseeing male. However, before we have a chance to cheer the poet’s bravery, he admits he never delivered his rejoinder because, he rationalizes, Dickinson would have wanted him to finish the professor off “with one wallop.” He goes on to record such a wallop, then admits he never actually said it. Nor did he utter his coup de grace, an especially devastating reminder to the professor that, philological pedantry aside, in 1860 “auction” meant “slave auction,” the implication being that Dickinson refused to sell her mind as if it were chattel.

Despite his heart-of-target stiletto toss, the poet was, in reality, co-opted into a meek recitation. Not only did the professor triumph but the poet’s lack of readiness betrayed Dickinson:

As people got up to go, I moved
into that sanctum within me where Emily
sometimes speaks a verse, and listened
for a sign of how she felt, such as,
“Thanks—Sweet - countryman -
for wanting - to Sing out - of Me—
after all that Humbug.” But she was silent.

The reality of the poem, as opposed to the situation it describes, is that the professor’s attitudes will remain pickled in Kinnell’s brine as long as the poem endures. But so will Dickinson’s silent rebuke of a man with an imperfect thirst.

Imperfect Thirst concludes with the moving poem, “Neverland,” in which the poet’s outlook on the opening quotation from Sohrawardi receives its most complex elaboration. The poem describes the thoughts of the poet during a visit to the deathbed of his sister. The sight of her dying constellates a set of coordinates in his life: his own infancy, his compulsive, erotic moves against destiny, and his relationship to death. The poem strikes an early philosophical note: “Knowing death comes, imagining it, smelling it, / may be a fair price for consciousness.” But conceding the necessity of being aware of death does not quench his ungrantable wish that his sister not be snatched away. Nor does it quell his self-admitted tendency to flee from this awareness, as he puts it, ironically, by climbing “the pure forms / that surmount time and death.” These “pure forms” turn out to be the grid of streets he needs to follow to reach a woman with whom he could taste “the actual honey of paradise.”

The poet evaluates his devotion to erotic nepenthe as a “flaw,” an imperfect thirst for “what is not to be had here,” the desire to “drink / and drink and yet have most of my thirst / intact for the water table.” This takes a bit of meditation. A version of paradise is to be had here, but it does not satisfy the symptom of an unquenchable thirst for what is not to be had here—swallowing the whole “water table,” the whole world? Such wishfulness is not much in evidence in the volume as a whole where desire, though persistent and even tempestuous, is not accompanied by reality denial.

The poet’s sister figures in the poem as a kind of gift giver who shows him it is possible to become ready to die. In a partial delirium, she says, “Lets go home,” whereupon he hears a car start outside. It is not necessary to ask for whom the car starts; he’s being lured by her eloquence and bravery to the threshold of wise surrender to the brute fact of our mortality. When she dies, he describes the effect on him in terms that recall a near-death experience. She is carried into a far landscape which he sees “as if from above, / much light, much darkness, tumbling clouds.” And from the far edge of that landscape, that neverland, he hears her voice. But the voice sets like the sun and, when it is beneath the horizon, he finally cannot hear it. The power of the poem, particularly of this concluding vision, is that Sohrawardi’s “mirage” makes a potent integrating claim on his imagination. The skeptical modern evaporates for a moment as he succumbs to the mirage of the otherworld. Or is he having a vision? A moment of perfect thirst?

The paragon of perfect thirst in American literature is Emerson. In a moment both loving and outrageous, lyrical and revolutionary, he addressed the Divinity School at Harvard in 1838 and genially de-institutionalized communion and unroofed the church:

In this refulgent summer it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. . . . The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward has not yielded yet one word of explanation.

For Emerson, the Eucharist was ubiquitous, and no amount of theology could even begin to explain how the self-sufficient suchness of the natural world came into being. Of course, this did not stop Emerson from divining. In the second paragraph of his Address, he goes on to celebrate how, once we begin to perceive patterns and laws, the world seems to become a fable of the mind.

Is this expansive rhetoric of wonder hopelessly out of date, crucified by the events of this century? Have the collage aesthetics of modernism and post-modernism relativized everything into a self-consciously ironic or unconsciously absurd commentary on everything else? They have in many venues, but certainly not in the meditative and lyric pastorals of Jane Hirshfield, The October Palace (HarperPerennial) radiates a serenity and a sense of wonder that regrounds poetry in the natural religion which in American literature begins with Emerson, though in Hirshfield’s case there are also strong connections with Buddhist traditions.

When Emerson says “Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one,” he might be describing both the world as figured forth in Hirshfield’s poems, and the poems themselves. As someone who is clearly and comprehensively influenced by Buddhism, Hirshfield values those moments of silent mindfulness where we are equal to seeing ourselves from a condition of non-attachment. October Palace begins with these words: “At times / the heart / stands back / and looks at the body, / looks at the mind, / as a lion / quietly looks / at the not-quite-itself, / not-quite-another.” But Hirshfield’s flood subject, her metier, is the process of incarnation, or metamorphosis. In the human sphere, in a partial contrast with Emerson, she loves best the moment when the heart, not the mind, says yes to its ache to enter into the world again, accepts the certainty of hunger, sorrow, and death, in the name of knowing “what it once owned.” Hirshfield’s strongest writing occurs when celebrating what she sees as being’s own aching desire to become incarnate, its “wanting so much to be heard.”

If we were to reduce Hirshfield’s vision to one word, it would be “yes!” When she meditates on nature she tends to see one form surrendering to another. Not surprisingly (she is also the editor of Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women), she finds saints particularly moving—Francis, for example, who learned “it is possible to cast yourself/ on the earth’s good mercy and live.” St. Francis takes this lesson of courage from animals who were brave enough to come to him with trust. In the poem “Happiness,” she sees saint-like surrender everywhere:

Even the least amoeba touched on all sides
by the opulent Other, even the baleened
plankton fully immersed in their fate—
for what else might happiness be
than to be porous, opened, rinsed through
by the beings and things?

While she explicitly mentions the privative side of St. Francis’ discoveries, “Hopelessness, Desperateness, Loneliness, / even the fire-tongued Anger,” they are listed as abstractions and do not have the same purchase on her imagination as happiness. Hirshfield goes almost as far as Wordsworth’s belief that nature does not betray the heart that loves her. Ripe fruits await in almost every room of The October Palace, apples in particular functioning as totems of earth’s generosity: “You put them to your lips,” she says in one poem, “as you were meant to, / enter a sweetness / the earth wants to give.” In a later poem, about sweetness, there the apples are again, ready to fall, willing to “lose themselves in [the earth] as much as they can at first touch / and then, with time and rain, at last completely.”

Hirshfield’s poetry by no means records a constant state of bliss consciousness; she muses in various poems about violence, death, and the curious way we manage to ignore the radiance through which we constantly wade. In “Each Step,” for example, her metaphor for the not-quite-conscious way we relate to the natural world, is a horse who is carrying his own food but does not know it; but even this image ends on a note of vastation:

Like a horse
that carries on his own back
the sacks of oats he will need, unsuspecting,
looking always ahead,
over the mountains, to where sweet springs lie.

He remembers this much from his youth,
the taste of things, cold and pure—
while the water-sound sings on and on, unlistened to,
in his ears;
while each step is nothing less than the glistening
river-body reentering home.

The affirmative emphasis of this conclusion is representative. Beckett might have left us with the image of the oat-laden horse plodding towards starvation, but Hirshfield sees the horse in its journey as continuously entering and being entered by the waters it seeks.

The metaphor of “reentering home” is, for Hirshfield, paradigmatic. The at-homeness in these poems is profound. More even than Mary Oliver and Richard Wilbur, Hirshfield is an optative poet, a celebrant, a poet of heart who aims to hearten, a seer of beginnings and possibilities. Not surprisingly, wedding celebrations fire her imagination into song. In the richly textured and surprising “The Wedding,” the opening scene, despite its flashing allusion to the mordancies of Larkin, displays natural abundance in a moment of opulent equilibrium. It is a divinity school address:

The high windows stream with fish,
the gold luck of carp,
the tiny silver luck of minnows,
while the earth gives back her buried wealth
of skunks and star-crossed badgers:
pure stripes of seeing unfurl themselves
out of moonlight, and the dark bodies
follow as closely as boat follows sail
and know no harm will come to them in their wholeness.
All beings rise, uncaught, for this beginning.
Cousin Death joins a table at the wedding,
the white cloth gleams, the waiting plates,
all are made welcome.
Mother War smooths the silk of her dress,
she feels young and will dance again, after years,
with her husband, Pity.

This catalogue of Tightnesses and reconciliations lengthens until an ocean buoy sounds “with the slow ringing fire of rust.” This image of de-creation prompts the speaker to imagine the whole wedding scene whisked back to nothingness and, therefore, into a different, more absolute, order of peace. By suddenly turning on the proceedings and invoking an “unassembled” world, Hirshfield cajoles us into thinking of creation as a dance of forms being cast into and out of material being. When at the conclusion she returns us to the wedding scene, it too becomes an alchemical dance of transformation from multiplicity into unity:

Now see this very world, where all is transformed,
quick as a child who cries and then laughs in her crying—
now ingot, now blossoming ash,
now table, now suckling lamb on that table.
How each thing meets the other as itself, the luminous,
 changing
mirror of itself—mercuric oxide tipped from flask to flask,
first two, then one, wedded for life in the vow.

In The October Palace it is almost as if life is a wedding where vows are lifelong and the poet’s archetypal role is to write epithalamiums.

Despite her obedience to the Rilkean dictum, “Praising is everything,” Hirshfield is not unconscious of the importance of establishing some distance from the dazzle of the numinous. In the poem “The Task,” this challenge is put succinctly in rhyme:

And yes, it is a simple enough task
we’ve taken on,
though also vast:
from dusk to dawn,

from dawn to dusk, to praise, and not
be blinded by the praising.

Her directive to herself is to be both the cat and the mouse, the predator and prey, in other words, to see all sides with sympathy. This does not exactly meet contemporary standards of political engagement or partisanship. Hirshfield is unfashionably serene. If we require that poems be hip either in a beat or post-modernist vein, The October Palace is neither. The volume’s habitual arena of engagement is the natural and not the political or social world.

When Hirshfield does address political events, what she calls “the chronicled world,” her judgment upon them is compassion. “For the Autumn Dead: Election Day, 1984” considers the day’s news: sectarian violence in Delhi, has killed six hundred Hindus and Sikhs; the famine in Ethiopia, “sixty thousand following drought / across the continent’s floor.” Such destruction is imaged forth as a “bud fatten[ing] for centuries; / rose rusty as blood, blood spilled out like roses”; and for what?:

for the right to call a place by one phrase or another, to tell its history with the shadows on the right side or the left.

This quiet critique of nationalism may strike some as a bit too transcendental to qualify as political analysis, but it does point out an inconvenient fact occasionally ignored by the left-leaning, right-thinking world likely to be interested in poetry, that much of the suffering of this century has been unleashed by the “left.”

Hirshfield’s consistent aim is to awaken the conscience of those bent on combat. Perhaps her most poignant poem dealing with violence is “The Ritual,” which concerns Wu Feng, who, two centuries or more ago, was an emissary from China to Formosa. He befriended the Formosan mountain tribes, but was troubled by their rituals of human sacrifice. Unable to persuade them to stop, he disguised himself and was sacrificed. Discovering too late, the elders were horrified at what they had done and stopped the practice. The speaker in “The Ritual” wonders whether the students who sacrificed themselves at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square were aware of their predecessor, Wu Feng. And in a closing rhetorical question that may show Hirshfield’s compassion tinged by anger, her speaker wonders, “And the elders, these new elders—what of them?” The question, which leaves open the possibility that some people may be unshamable, hangs eloquently in the silence.

These poems show great respect for silence and for what cannot be said. In this, they resemble classical Buddhist poetry. And like such poetry, Hirshfield places faith in the cleansing power of image, of invoking the red wheelbarrow. The concluding poem of The October Palace, “ The Stone of Heaven,” is essentially a paean to earthly detail and to importance of naming those details with reverence. At the outset, the speaker is in a place where jade, the stone of heaven, is dredged up from river bottoms. Once it is dredged up, it receives earthly names: “muttonfat jade, kingfisher jade, jade of appleskin green.” The rest of the poem continues this process but applies it to things not traditionally associated with the godhead. Here we see Hirshfield’s love of particularity paying strong musical dividends:

O baker of yeast-scented loaves
sword dancer,
seamstress, weaver of shattering glass,
O whirler of winds, boat-swallower,
germinant seed,
O seasons that sing in our ears in the shape of O—
we name your colors muttonfat, kingfisher, jade,
we name your colors anthracite, orca, growth-tip of pine . . .

By aligning jade on the same plane as the kingfisher and anthracite, Hirshfield aims to rescue heavenly jade for earth. Although she is a profoundly religious sensibility, her work seems predicated on undoing heaven as anything other than radiant immanence: the stone of heaven is earth itself. The act of naming stones freshly does two things: it helps the namer to “begin to see,” and through such seeing to “begin to assemble the plain stones of earth.” She concludes the volume with this humble-sounding metaphor of masonry on which “so much depends.”

The hugely eloquent Rodney Jones is in basic sympathy with the theology of Hirshfield’s jade-rescue project. But he is not very hopeful and not even a little bit serene. Apocalyptic Narrative (Houghton Mifflin) is a furious, dark book, chock-full of long sentences where words grow restless and jump against the bars of their cages. In a typical Jones poem a story is being told, often about flamboyantly doomed characters from America’s South. He has the timing of a practiced oral story-teller, but his poems often disrupt traditional ways we expect anecdotes to be regaled; the pace condenses as it enters the manic grip of metaphors and expands as it jazzes off into syntactical riffs that require we listen carefully.

Jones has always been a gifted story teller but in this book he seems on fire, a fire fed by the whiskey of rage and oxygen of compassion for those who suffer. In “Speaking Up,” an apocalyptic narrative, about the impulse that calls him into song, the poet likens declaiming, as Thoreau did, to a chanticleer delivering wake-up call. But the stylistic twists and self-irony of his call are very much Jones’ own, full of volatile combinations and vivid disruptions. The rooster does not sound a wake up call, he “grasps the cold night by the throat, / And he shakes it like a bad fig or a rat.” After the night has been throttled, the Latin-American city begins to stir in a densely figurative, Jonesean way, that deftly shows the normalized smoldering of violence in the air:         along the green arroyos that crimp the cones of     the volcano, Each mud and cardboard hut struts the black plumage of its  fire. The soldiers are walking their rifles like dogs, and now and  then a bomb shatters a pole, And still the rooster swells and drives his six red syllables like a spike.

The rooster becomes a figure for the urge to speak up, in both its affirmative and destructive dimensions. Jones’ speaker owes his kinship to the rooster, to the impulse to declaim his “ever-repeating irrevocable deed,” empowered to do so by “the rightness of love.” But he also distrusts hammering declamations, for example, the tendency of prophets and didacts to become demagogues, whom he describes with great freshness and economy as “that low breed of saints who mean / To concentrate millennia in a sound or stop the human heart with a thought.” Jones sometimes has a tendency to get caught in the digressive kudzu of his complexly associative mind, but he almost always bursts into the clear as he does here, expressing his dislike of those who would reduce human complexity for the purposes of control.

The anguish in this volume hangs heavily in the air and may be seen in the conclusion to “Speaking Up.” The very act of speech is seen as problematic, and innately tragic, even, to borrow from the jargon which Kinnell makes fun of in the poem about Dickinson, undercut by “commodity fetishism”:

When I was a boy, I meant to be good and quiet, to own
 nothing and no one, but now
It seems I must take my cue from the night’s blind tripe and
 the shrill of the morning sun,
To call what is mine up from the depths or make biscuits of
 these words.

The incarnations of naming, which happen in such a lyrical and peaceful way in Hirshfield’s pastorals, are seen as necessary, highly contingent, sacrificial compromises in Jones. The idea that individual speech is hemmed in and compromised by manipulative public discourse is one that runs deep in Apocalyptic Narrative. There are various sources of language pollution: politics, war, Hollywood, the bland deceptions of the Miracle Mall where history is “humming the forgetfulness of a popular song.” But the main theme and the source of much of the imagery is Christian, particularly the promises and threats of the Southern evangelical Protestantism:

When I was a boy, I loved my mother’s biscuits, And feared the dark; deep space; vengeance Of the desert prophets driving their vision dogs Until the sexual animal was treed in fire.

Although this description is crisply driven along by Jones’ inimitable swagger stick, this element of Jones’ engagement with religion is, in idea at least, a predictably unmitigated critique. He no longer believes either literally or metaphorically that his prayers rise to “the balmy rafters of Zion and the eminent ether of Christ.” Therefore, he must not discuss religion with his family, lest he tell them his beliefs, for example, that an angel is part “dead girl” and part “living bird.”

The most interesting dialogue with religion occurs when Jones enters provisionally into the idiom and rhetoric of belief. The six-part “Apocalyptic Narrative” is presented as “the last testimony of the last days.” The reality is that we are getting a series of revelations about false ultimates from Armageddon to the Bomb to free love. The opening section concerns the dismantling of a bomb shelter, the hauling off of the “last provisions.” The workers joke and do not address the horror: “That blind nightmare we fattened for forty years. / It ran with hell. It ended. It was not the world / We took on wobbling dollies, up the steep ledge / Under the bat-fouled bluff, and dumped in the truck.” The empty cave leaves a void so palpable that, later on, a local dentist turns the mouth of the cave into a live nativity “so popular the church put bleachers up.”

With this image of “hope” the darkness gets filled with light. Jones’ own faith is to hunker down in darkness and thereby “gather a choir from all the losses.” In “Counting Potatoes,” a poem full of echoes of poetic fathers like James Wright, Richard Hugo, Robert Hayden, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Levine, the poet remembers how, as a boy, he watched his father harvesting potatoes in the field. The vivid description borders on the anti-pastoral:

And with one booted stroke his pitchfork brought Them plopping up from the fresh blossom of loam Like the heads of children shaved for surgery Or bald statesmen—this one Krushchev, that one Ike—

Despite this rather gothic take on spuds, the speaker honors the process, the unearthing of the earthy, and declares that if there is “something else,” presumably an immortal element within our being, it would only have significance for him in terms of its origins within our core: “let it be from that earthiest flesh, / That root and core, that potato, that I compose a faith.”

Jones’ earthy loyalties, his gothicism, his cynicism, his preoccupation with losers, losses, injustices, and public idiocies, all provide the proving ground out of which rises his thirst for affirmations that do not unduly reduce human complexity. Along these lines, perhaps the most beautifully realized poem in the volume is “The Bridge.” It concerns a man named Arthur Peavahouse, whom many had thought a coward, until the day he rescued a mother and two children from a car that had sunk in a creek.

The poems weaves various elements, the story of the rescue, the narrator’s memories of Peavahouse in high school, and a questioning of the reality of the words we use to evaluate character and behavior. And since Jones will have any way but an easy one, he also calls into question the reality or truth of his own discourse. The poem begins:

These fulsome nouns, these abbreviations of the air, Are not real, but two of them may fit a small man I knew in high school . . .

Part of our job as readers is to figure out what two words Jones has in mind. The two obvious ones are “coward” and “hero.” Peavahouse has been labeled as a man “afraid” because as an open field runner in football he didn’t like being tackled. Jones never calls him a hero and he keeps interfering with our natural desire to construe him as such by saying Peava-house is “the false name of a real man” and the creek he jumped into is not real “and the valley is a valley of words.” This counterpoint may be Jones’ way of resisting Sohrawar-di’s mirage but it only serves to heighten our engagement with the story.

When the “two words” that fit the rescuer finally emerge, Jones de-emphasizes them and focuses us instead on the action itself. The conclusion of the poem where those two words appear is worth quoting as a whole because it epitomizes Jones’ self-quarreling faith and his sure sense of how to delay important narrative information for maximum dramatic effect:

        Arthur Peavahouse was smart To run from the huge tackles and unthinking
To throw himself into that rolling water
And test the reality of his arms and his lungs.
Many times I have thought everything I have said
Or thought was a lie, moving some blame or credit
By changing a name, even the color of a lip or bush,
But whenever I think of the lie that stands for truth,
I think of Arthur Peavahouse, and not his good name,
But him deciding, as that car settled to the bottom,
To break free and live for at least one more moment
Upward toward light and the country of words
While the other child, the one he could not save,
Shrugged behind him in the unbreakable harness.

The ostensible point of the poem is that what others call “cowardly,” Jones sees as “smart.” What others call “heroic,” he calls “unthinking.” But this is not the crux of it, for Jones. The crux, the inside truth of the story, is Peavahouse’s choice, revealing the limit of his endurance, to swim for his life, leaving, as we only discover in the last two lines, a child behind, trapped forever in Jones’ resonant phrase, “the unbreakable harness.”

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