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The Fun of the End of the World: David R. Slavitt’s Poems

ISSUE:  Spring 1990

It has been 20 years since David R. Slavitt invented Henry Sutton and embarked on a series of schlock novels under that pseudonym. But it is still fun to recall people’s outrage when they learned that The Exhibitionist was the work of someone who had also written more serious fiction, and even poetry. On the one hand, people of Jacqueline Susann’s ilk were irritated because someone had done easily and laughingly what they worked hard to do; on the other hand, purveyors of solemn literature were offended at the success of this prostitution of talent. Even Tom Wolfe, who had no reason to feel either envious or superior, took a cheap shot at Slavitt’s next serious novel, saying in a review that it was not as good as The Exhibitionist.

Meanwhile, having found a way to excuse himself from grantsmanship and literary politics, Slavitt kept on working. By 1975, when he published Vital Signs: New and Selected Poems, he had behind him 16 books: four Sutton novels, six Slavitt novels, and six books of poems. Vital Signs established Slavitt as one of the most interesting poets in the country.

From the beginning, Slavitt’s poetry has been characterized by profound wit, neoclassical attention to form, and a generous erudition. Slavitt is also a master of tonal variety; within the same poem he can make shifts of tone which most poets would find too risky. Up through Vital Signs, which added 85 new poems to the selection from his previous volumes, Slavitt’s poetry was fairly consistent: often cast in forms of sufficient difficulty that the poems were a celebration of the art itself, they meditated with a calm, almost cynical tone on the repetitions of history, the touching folly of people’s relationships with one another and with the objects they are doomed to accumulate, and, more recently, on the pain of diminishing love.

A poem short enough to quote, and still substantial enough to represent the interested and interesting voice, is “Swoboda,” which takes its epigraph from a set of program notes to La Traviata: “Wilhelm Kuhec remembers that as a boy in Prague he met Wenzel Swoboda, a double bass player, who had been a member of the orchestra on the first night of Don Giovanni in 1787, conducted by Mozart himself.”

Kuhe reports that Swoboda remembers . . .
but what could he remember? I have been
serif to the ELI’s L, have marched,
strapped to the big, blue bulldog’s thoompa-thoom,
and have heard the fweedle of the clarinets
dribbling down my ears. The trumpet’s tune
was yards away, fluttering the flags
at the end of the bowl. We marched down the field
as letters we could not read, were ourselves the words.
And Swoboda heard nothing, and saw nothing,
remembered nothing but that his bow had moved
with a baton as twigs of the same tree
moving in a wind. What was there to tell
but his double bass’s zormm-zormm-zormm?

Here, as in many of Slavitt’s poems, there is an insistence not only on sharp observation, but also on the limits to the knowledge we may gain by it.

“Precautions” begins with an amusing account of having readied a boat for a hurricane, all the while looking forward to what would happen to the boats left unprepared; but the storm does not come. The poem concludes:

Take Noah, with the ark all built, the hold
an incredible zoo, waiting, waiting for rain
which is predicted but never quite appears
and instead follows a low pressure trough, or a cold
front to the Persian Gulf. Or take Lot,
packing, quitting the cities of the plain
to which nothing at all happens. The careers
of these men are dreadful—rage at the world for not
ending at noon for its wickedness as it should.
The wicked are comforted. It corrupts the good.

There’s no sense to it. I remember a tree,
a dead pine that a gust of wind blew over
and the way it hit, just a few feet away
from my children. It was out of sight of the sea
but it was the same wind, the same whim
of the wind, and we could feel the earth quiver
as if it were water. The children stopped their play
a moment, then balanced, danced upon the grim
dead threat, delighted. Lord, let me
keep that balance, that equanimity.

Slavitt keeps that balance, that equanimity, as his intelligence and imagination lead him gracefully through difficult transitions. Part of his success lies in his ability to deal with formal restrictions which are too much for most poets; though his stanza forms are often intricate, they never prevent, or even impede, the explorations of a mind which takes suggestions as they come, weaving them into the pattern.

Slavitt’s most ambitious earlier poems are perhaps “Elegy for Walter Stone,” from The Carnivore (1965), and “Another Letter to Lord Byron” and “Exhortation to an Arab Friend,” from Day Sailing (1969). All three are extended, risky, shifty in tone, and finally quite moving, with the feel of performance. The background for “Elegy for Walter Stone” is given in a headnote: “In August of 1959, I interviewed John Hall Wheelock at his home in Easthampton, N.I., on the occasion of the publication of Poets of Today VI, which Mr. Wheelock edited and which included the poetry of Messrs. Gene Baro, Donald Finkel, and Walter Stone.” By the time of the book’s publication, Stone had committed suicide. The first section of the poem sets the scene, sketches in a few facts, and establishes Finkel as a living foil to the dead Stone; Slavitt’s Finkel transcends the actual Donald Finkel to become, by contrast, all that Stone rejected. The second section speculates on the manner of Stone’s death—hanging—and on his motives and final destination. The final section moves between the conversation with Wheelock and statements about death:

            All death is nature’s,
whether by germ in the blood or idea in the head,
or sudden mischance in the wasteful order of things.
Gaze fixedly at it, and the distinctions

In 1967, Slavitt and I read with George Garrett at Washington University in St. Louis. As we approached the building in which we would make our first appearance, our student host turned and said, “Mr. Slavitt, there is someone here who looks forward to meeting you.” “Oh? Who’s that?” “Donald Finkel.” There was a moment of real apprehensiveness; but during that afternoon gathering Slavitt read “Elegy for Walter Stone,” and Finkel said, loudly enough for the group to hear, “That’s why I forgive you.”

It is Slavitt’s custom to gaze fixedly at things, notions, and ideas, until he can summon precise ways of stating their essence, or the essence of his reaction to them. Even when the formal gamesmanship is of a very complicated sort, as it is in “Another Letter to Lord Byron,” there is wisdom in the spectacularly rhymed stanzas. The first word of the title reminds us that Auden addressed a letter from Iceland to Lord Byron; but Slavitt mentions Auden only in order to establish his own place in what might become a tradition. The poem’s actual subject is contemporary literature’s low seriousness, and the vacuum which Byron’s “hock and soda water” might fill. After a gloomy vision of dead authors as “volumes of blank pages, buckram bound,” the poem focuses on Byron’s liveliness:

You come through whole, and live, and are not merely
 a name on the spine of your book and its index card.
The gestures you make in your poems, the jokes, are clearly
 those of a man who’s trying very hard
—and willing to pay the price, even pay dearly—
 not only not to be boring, but not to be bored
himself. Yourself. Myself. I know how it is.
It’s always tough in the Quality Lit. Biz.

“Exhortation to an Arab Friend (1965)” seems to draw on all the peculiar resources Slavitt has demonstrated—passion and skill, to begin with, but, more pertinent to this poem perhaps, an interest in history, and in the music strange words and names can make. The message of the exhortation is simple—let there be peace between us. The poem recounts the ancient history of the conflict, concentrating on those things which both tribes have in common; it ends,

There is faith enough to finish us both. We have swarmed
the earth, have died like flies. Exiles or rulers,
it makes no difference. But coming back here, now,
after all those years, should Ishmael and Isaac
repeat, complete, what Cain and Abel started?

A somber quality in Slavitt’s earlier work is tempered, in Day Sailing, by the joy which is more recently in evidence; Slavitt’s is a truly affirmative spirit, rendering things as he sees them, clearly and compassionately, and in a spirit of hope without which no one could make poems such as these.


The new poems in Vital Signs are arranged in three sections; the first, “Vital Signs,” contains a number of poems having to do with the ecstasies and disappointments of love and marriage. However painful some episodes might be, the poems, like the lovers in “A Parting,” are “correct, restrained.” The poems are the more affecting for their restraint, their refusal to specify their autobiographical origins, whatever those may be. “A Parting” is concerned with the healing of those deep wounds which we try to keep open, out of a sense of obligation to the episodes which dealt them:

Tenderness turns to tough
scar tissue. We lose the nerve,
can suffer no more than we loved. It’s never enough,
but it’s what we deserve.

The second section, “At Home, In the World,” takes advantage of the ambiguity the comma gives the phrase, and ranges with humor and tenderness from the death of a family pet to a shop in Jerusalem. Beneath many of the poems is the idea that we pay for what we get, whether we intend to or not. “Airfield Rabbits,” for instance, is a grim sonnet about rabbits who invade airfields for their lush grass and high fences, only to be deafened by jet roar, so that they cannot return to the wild where owls swoop down unheard. Slavitt’s elegant use of the sonnet form for such a subject is one of my favorites among his many tactics; I have often wished that he had collected in Vital Signs a poem from The Carnivore called “Grenade Fishing,” which argues in favor of this illegal method of killing fish by the dozen: “Morning’s at seven/and the fastest is the best death you can get.”

“Tough Characters,” the third group of new poems in Vital Signs, takes up the lessons of history, which has occupied Slavitt for years; the poems dwell sometimes on extravagant revenge, sometimes on the mystery of fragmentary classical writings. “Tough Characters” are, for the most part, men like Nebuchadnezzar, Hadrian, or Hitler; but the title poem is about written characters—the alphabet:

                On the Sixth Day,
late, as if in afterthought to His will,
the Lord brought forth written characters: they
are savage, with the reek of Chaos still.

Slavitt’s productivity since Vital Signs has been about equal to that which preceded it: five pseudonymous novels, seven novels under his own name, two books of nonfiction, and six collections of poetry, two of those being adaptations from the Latin. A recurring theme or tone in Slavitt’s recent work appears to arise from the poet’s perception of the worsening of our times, as seen by an observer aware of his own increasing nearness to death. However, the bleakness of such a view is mitigated by the attention the poems have received during their making, and by the poems that draw parallels between our time and the bad times of ancient history. In writing alone, there is something consoling; at best, there may be more than consolation. In a brief poem called “Youth, Age, Life, and Art,” first collected in Rounding the Horn (1978), it comes down to this:

Innocent, young, I wove syntactical nets
to snare moments of joy, but when one gets
older, the trick is reversed, and, late at night,
to fend the beasts off—fear, rage, and despair—
that prowl the dark or hover in the air,
I sit in my circle of lamplight and I write.

There is considerable pleasure in finding the right lines above which to hang a ponderous and abstract title. Thinking of the tradition and the poet’s stance toward it, I notice that this poem is a sestet, and ponder the knowledge and luck which kept the poem from ballooning into a sonnet. Such thoughts are prompted not by this poem alone, but also by several other poems in this book which take various stances toward the tradition and the techniques of sonneteering.

In the first several poems in Rounding the Horn the theme is generally that of physical decay and moral disintegration; in this part of the book, there are four poems with various clear relations to the sonnet. “Revolutionaries,” the first of these, is close enough. Set in an imaginary country which could be our own, it describes the growing anarchy of the workers from the viewpoint of someone higher on the social scale. The vagueness of the location gives the poem the sound of a fable, but in the last sentence the sense of doom is brought close:

The only question is when the regime will fall
from the cancer. It is not a metaphor.

The poem’s rhyme scheme, wittily enough, is upside-down: a sestet precedes two quatrains.

Similarly, “The Korsakoff Syndrome” consists of a sestet, a three-rhyme octave, and a sestet, in that order: a sonnet that does not know which way is up. It describes an advanced state of forgetfulness achieved by some alcoholics, who remember “their names, the brands/of cheap whiskeys—no more.” And, as in “Revolutionaries,” we are warned away from figurative interpretations: “The brain pickles—it is no conceit/but happens.” But in both poems, the denial of metaphor and the form act with paradoxical power, to lend the poems metaphorical force. The Korsakoff Syndrome is clearly described as an affliction that strikes only the most accomplished and dedicated of drunks; but the poem still frightens us as the disease frightened Dr. Sergei Korsakoff. Somehow, safe as most of us are, the poem suggests that something like this could strike us at any moment.

And in “ENGL. 498-C,” an unrhymed sonnet (true, there is no such thing; but in the context of a tradition, or of a well-made book, such things can seem to be) about teaching, the speaker leaves the classroom when he has finished for the day, misses his train, and returns to the classroom, where all the students are still gathered. But now they are naked, drunk, disposed about the room in sexual postures of varying degrees of intricacy,

                   and I perform
my usual office, suggesting it might help some
if this leg were moved there, or that conjunction
somehow strengthened. Nobody pays any attention.
I’m not surprised. Finesse will come later.
Their crude energies serve them. I wish them well.

Absence of rhyme prevents the poem from commenting on itself in a distracting fashion, diverting attention from its subtler, unrhymed statement about contemporary mores and literacy.

Finally, near the end of the first part of Rounding the Horn, “Landscape Artists” strikes another balanced attitude by deviating slightly from the usual sonnet form. Describing the lawns and gardens of insane asylums, deciding that orderly prospects might be therapeutic, the speaker says that, out in his “jungle,” those clean visions have sometimes tempted him to go mad; but he knows that he needs his jungle to hide in:

                 The sun
sets, the cat prowls, the owl blinks,
and under the close-clipped bushes, blood and hair
punctuate what those gardeners have done.

The octave of this otherwise regular sonnet is rhymed a b c a d b d c, the d rhymes thrown like stumbling blocks in between the repetitions of the first three rhymes.

The second section of Rounding the Horn begins with several poems which owe their excellence largely to Slavitt’s detailed knowledge of history. He is so at home in this mode now, and his readers so at home with him, that we can foresee from the title alone that “The Later Ptolemies” will be, at least in part, a meditation on our present decline.

But Slavitt has not lost his ability to surprise us, even when we are with him on familiar ground. “Glaucus” takes as its epigraph a few lines from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad; it is said that Glaucus had traded his gold armor for bronze, because Zeus had deprived him of his wits. The poem argues Glaucus’s sagacity, gold being less useful than bronze when what is wanted is a sharp spear-point. Glaucus bought some time in this life, the poem says, and that is worth more gold than anyone has. In the end, it makes little difference; at the wall, Glaucus listens to Sarpedon, who in his quest for glory delivers a pep talk:

  Biddledeegoo giddledeebah diddledeebee
  Honor giddledeeboo vines and fields
  Biddledeegah duty biddledeegee
  Wives children giddledeebah glory
  Deathless biddledeegoo we will attack!
So Sarpedon spake, the morning sun
kindling fire behind him, and on the wall
Menestheus, hearing it, scared shitless, hollered
for help, any help he could get—Tall Ajax,
Little Ajax, any Ajax, Teucros,
anybody, but quick . . .
             but held the position
as long as he had to, waiting for help to come.

Slavitt’s audacious control of his medium is such that the sharp contrast between the first five lines above and the rest of the poem is not enough to drown out the modulation in the second part of the passage, from epic echo to slang and back again. The satiric comment on Sarpedon’s speech is not merely literary in its effect; we are enabled to see these soldiers as real people.


Such clear knowledge of the poet’s connection with us is what makes Slavitt’s translations as interesting as his historical anecdotes and meditations. Some years ago, he produced versions of Vergil’s Eclogues (1971) and Georgics (1972) which were startlingly free by traditional standards, but which made the central concerns of those poems appear more durable than they often do in the versions produced by professional classicists. His few “adaptations” in Rounding the Horn continue to make a successful connection between the living language and the cultural remoteness of the original, as in the shift toward classical distance in this first sentence of “Adaptation from Callimachus”:

Book club selections, interstate four-lane
roads, school-hall fountains, and fall
homecoming queens . . .any public thing
disgusts me.

Much more recently, Slavitt has published his versions of poems by Ovid, and by Tibullus, of whom Ovid, in Slavitt’s version, said, “I knew Tibullus, but he died/young—there are poems of his that I admire/but can hardly bear to read, missing my friend.” The Elegies To Delia of Albius Tibullus (1987), are, in outline, conventional enough: Tibullus loves a married woman, she loves him, then ceases to; he ceases momentarily to love her, then addresses a final elegy to Eros, trying to make the best of it. But the energy and quickness of Slavitt’s translation makes these poems immediate and engaging.

The Tristia of Ovid (1987) seems to be in a class with the best verse translations of the century. Ovid began these long, self-pitying poems in the hope that they might help cut short his exile. As years passed and he saw that this would not occur, he lapsed more deeply into anguish; this is one of the most elegantly sustained whines in literature. Removed from the society he loved, from his wife, even from other speakers of his language, Ovid is by turns praiseful, cajoling, satirical, bitter, and never quite resigned. This book has more narrative strength than many novels, and a flexibility in the use of an accentual elegiac couplet—six stresses, five stresses, un-rhymed—that seems as close to the Latin version as we can get in the American language.

In one of the best poems in Rounding the Horn, “Reunion Elegiacs,” Slavitt loosely adapts the classical meter to the subject of his 20th reunion at Yale, where men come briefly to grips with what they and the world have failed to become, or worse, what they have begun to see falling away from them. It is a moving poem, the more so when one recalls that Slavitt’s first book contains “Class Poem,” written for his graduation in 1956. That poem ended,

My valediction then: “It’s understood
Yale men do well; may some of you do good.”

Twenty years later, he writes

  Battered as we may seem, we’re the golden boys,
still fortune’s darlings, who once roistered here,
  blessed: it is up to us in turn to bless.

It is a note of hope and perseverance, perhaps called for by the occasion; but, unlike the earlier poem, this one transcends its occasion, and earns its stated conviction that the main thing is survival.

That survival is hard, and certain to fail eventually, is the theme of many of these poems; perhaps it is most powerfully handled in the final section of the book. “Garbage,” “Dickens’ Inkwell, Etc.,” “Mess,” and “Poison” are all concerned with the things we clutter our lives with, thinking that the things may speak to us or for us; and, if they sometimes do, the poems ask what they might say to someone else after we are gone. But the most sustained and thorough evocation of our trip through bundles of baggage is the title poem.

“Rounding the Horn” is composed of 25 numbered stanzas. The first 24 are eight lines each; the last is 14. For several pages, the octaves are unrhymed, but by stanza 20, rhymes have begun to take predictable places, and in the 24th all the lines are rhymed in a predictable pattern. The final stanza is a sonnet, though its rhyme scheme is not quite a textbook model. Part of this poem’s effect is that of a sonnet preceded by 24 attempts at its first eight lines. But throughout the octaves, there is a careful balance between discreteness and continuity; what emerges, rather slowly, from the progression is an example of a subgenre, the voyage poem. The metaphor is stale, perhaps; but there is always room for one more, if the vision is distinctive enough. In this poem, as various figures for the body’s slow decline are taken up and then passed over, the lightening of burdens becomes almost palpable, and the fact of death almost consoling:

There, on the ocean floor, ships may ride
in impossible attitudes, toe-dancer poses,
stand on their noses, or roll over like kittens
and dream what they like in the weatherless aimlessness.
We think of our own manifests and, seasick,
fear their gloom and silence less than the freedom
catastrophe offers. Richly encrusted, they sport,
make pets of monsters, have learned how to settle.

And so, in the end, one prays to be set loose from “clamorous mouths and tyrannical organs,” and

                 The earth,
making its late amends for the trauma of birth,
opens, receives, quiets our grumbling dust.

The many approaches to the sonnet, and the repetitive structure of “Rounding the Horn,” come to seem like warm-up exercises for something more ambitious—such is the distorting power of hindsight—when we come to Dozens (1981), which is a long, loosely structured poem consisting of 144 numbered stanzas of 12 lines each. It is a startling achievement, partaking of roughly equal parts of journal and fiction, “confession” and elaborate satire. Many of the stanzas appear to be set in the speaker’s home city, wherever that may be; it is a modern urban nightmare of the East-Coast sort. Other stanzas are set in a tropical dictatorship where something like Spanish is the primary language, and corruption, indolence, and inertia are the primary spiritual qualities. The comedy of the imaginary police state, though, becomes less comic as the boundaries between these two worlds become less well defined, and the strategy of the poem reveals itself. In the 14th stanza, one of a few which make direct reference to the poem itself, the imaginative task is set out:

If stanzas are rooms, then poems must be buildings,
and volumes, streets, whole towns, impositions
of minds upon topography. A harbor,
a defensible hill may prompt, but the human eye,
full of its own humors, orders the prospect
and fails—one’s best vision being blind.
These dodecahedrons then are living rooms
in a random dwelling. I sit in its dark, guessing
what city would least disresemble mine,
what square, what series of shops, what gable,
slick in the streetlit rain, reverberate right
to the footsteps I want to take, or want to have taken.

The tropical world is a caricature, its denizens gathered at the Hotel Magnifico, sporting names like El Jefe, II Grande del Prospettivo, and Coronel Corrupcion, pondering the decline of their civilization; and the poet, sometimes there and sometimes nearer home, shows us that most middle-class city dwellers are as remote from the poor as the Hotel Magnifico is remote from, say, Philadelphia. The poem shifts rapidly in tone, from breezy cynicism to regret, as in this first sentence from stanza 40:

The picador horses around. The matador
does dumb tricks with his cape, veronicas,
betties, archies . . . . It’s the exterminador
I cheer for from my seat on the sombre side,
with his can, his pump, and the sweet smell of a death
I hope will be exquisite, lingering, and thorough.

These changes of attitude serve the poem well at those moments when it comes closest to a direct treatment of the ills of our civilization; Slavitt avoids excessive didacticism, but manages to provide chilling moments of realization. Stanza 69 begins with a jaded description of the local electrical system, which goes out from time to time, causing appliances to fail:

         and there’s a buffet
of what would spoil, sumptuous, candle lit,
delighting our reactionary tastes.
It’s not the end of the world but, say, the fun
of the end of the world. And then the lights come on,
radios blare, and we reset our clocks.

The use of the first-person plural helps to keep the satire from becoming too Swiftian for its own good; by the end of this wonderfully imaginative excursion, when the poet finds himself and his son and daughter in New Haven “on an ordinary evening,” there is still the possibility of the affirmation which the writing itself has consistently implied:

          Let our havens
always be new and the broken down world heal
as the poets have taught us to think it may. It may
if we say so often enough and loud enough.

The balance between love of the world, and life, and contempt for human behavior, is more precariously maintained in Big Nose (1983) than in any of Slavitt’s previous books. The title poem recounts an appalling episode in the history of Rawlins, Wyoming, where a forgotten outlaw named Big Nose George Parrott was captured, tried, hanged, and finally flayed so the hide could be turned into a pair of boots for the sheriff’s office window. Slavitt imagines the town’s turning against this act, until the sheriff could stand it no longer, and disappeared into Saskatchewan, still pursued by the vision of what he did—as the speaker, driving on eastward, is pursued by the memory of the story, having been shown a reminder of what we are. The sheriff miscalculated; all he wanted to do was provide a lesson. And the poem contains other, almost incidental reminders of the cost of carelessness, taking well-known phrases from Robert Frost, Or the conventions of the law, and remarking, by the way, on their absurdity:

Two roads diverge . . . if they didn’t there wouldn’t be two
 roads but only the one, as any greenhorn kid
can plainly see. Correctly, it’s the one road that diverges
 to make the two. . . .

And in the account of Parrott’s end, there is this:
               [they] hanged him by the neck
—as judges say who dislike creative prison wardens
trying to hang men by their ankles or nuts. . . .

Big Nose opens with an excoriating address “To His Reader,” railing against the idiot culture of our time, in which the attention typically paid to poems is worse than inattention. The poem ends, “You and I/depend thus on one another, and serve, /but you are not my friend. Nor am I yours.” Despite this declaration, one remembers Baudelaire’s “Au Lecteur,” a similarly scornful accusation, and its ending:”—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!” That Slavitt knows this poem well was wittily demonstrated 20 years ago, when his first Henry Sutton novel, The Exhibitionist, was dedicated to a couple of gentlemen who turned out to be a garbageman and a septic-tank cleaner—“mes semblables, mes frères.”

That sort of wicked enjoyment characterizes many poems gathered at the end of Big Nose under the spendthrift title “Throwaways and Encores.” “Titanic” advances the curious yet convincing notion that most of us would book passage on that boat if we had the chance: “We all go: only a few, first-class.” And “Ramon Fernandez Recollects” describes Wallace Stevens from the standpoint of the man addressed in “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

What he remembers is the portly yankee,
down for a good time, walking the beach
to clear his head from the drink or to get drunk
just on the salt air the way they can,
and a girl singing. He got very excited,
yammering on and on about the sea,
her song, Christ knows what. He wasn’t rowdy
but pointed at the fishing boats and the sky
and talked and then fell silent. It was his tie,
the way he never unbuttoned his collar button
or loosened his tie. That’s what made him crazy—
not enough blood gets to the brain. In Hartford,
are they all like that? It must be very odd.
Still, he paid in cash and he tipped well.

Poets are sometimes scolded for collecting their slighter poems, as if more serious poetry were too sacred to be thus adulterated. It’s a silly notion, of course, carried over from the “high seriousness” of Arnold; the desire to write the best poem in the world possesses all poets to some extent, but the smaller things delight, and keep the poet sane.


Slavitt’s most recent collection, The Walls of Thebes (1987), dwells more on the ugly side of things than is the case in his earlier books; but it opens with a poem that reminds us of transient pleasures. “Visions” is about those gifts from the world that catch us up and hold us momentarily, like “those half dozen hot-air balloons in flotilla, /a progress of dowager queens across the sky”; they turn out to be hard to remember, sometimes; they fade, and cannot be saved up. “But it isn’t such hoarded visions that can redeem us/so much as the hope that their like may happen again.” Despite the violence, and the close questioning of justice and belief that occur in the poems that follow, this hope of redeeming visions does not diminish as the book proceeds; and therein lies its triumph: it is easy to give up, and to justify doing so; it is much harder to provide reasons for giving up, and then convincingly to show how and why not to do so.

Once in a while, there is a burst of exuberance characteristic of Slavitt’s earlier poems, as in the opening of “Herz-Werk”:

The eyes and ears, let us say, bite, and the brain
digests, chewing the cud, but the heart absorbs:

this is the system by which the soul is nourished
and it builds—as fat and muscle accrete—wisdom.

Comes then like some tv-fitness bozo
with a program of strenuous calisthenics, Rilke!

But the tone of many of the shorter poems is pessimistic. The Walls of Thebes has two central sources of power. One is “Bloody Murder,” about the murder of the poet’s mother, who was bludgeoned to death by a burglar whom she surprised in her house; the other is “Amphion’s Lyre,” a 555-line retelling of the Greek legend about the musician whose lyre caused the walls of Thebes to rise up of their own accord. On the one hand, these poems say, here is the terrible way things often are; on the other, here is what is sometimes made of what we do. Many of the other poems in the book take their places somewhere along the spectrum between these points of view.

“Bloody Murder” opens with a stanza composed of didactic statement, then moves to the particulars; it’s a rugged transition:

Beauty and truth may dally together,
but when it comes time to pop the question,
it’s ugliness that settles in
to take the vows with truth for the long
haul, the enduring and faithful companion.
The difficult lesson we all must study
is how to be children of such a marriage
and honor what we cannot love.

After the burglar bludgeoned my mother
to death with a bathroom scale and a large
bottle of Listerine, the police
recommended Ronny Reliable’s
Cleaning Service—one of a growing
number of firms that make it their business
to clean up after messy murders,
suicides, and other disasters.

A surprising number of things are being done here with apparent effortlessness; this is not the place to name them all, but notice that in treating a subject of such intrinsic power, in such conversational language, the poet would trouble to achieve the metrical parallelism between the first lines of each stanza. That sort of wit is rare in any age, and the wisdom to control it is even rarer.

There are several poems in The Walls of Thebes which are directly illuminated by “Bloody Murder”; an indirect light from that poem shines on several more. “Old Photo” even draws some of its power from it. A brief meditation on a roll of film left undeveloped for years, this poem might merely be a fine little evocation of one of those stern reminders of time’s ravages; all the information we would need is there. But the presence of “Bloody Murder” in the collection gives added poignancy to certain passages in “Old Photo”:

        . . . The Quinlans’ tree
had not yet been cut down. Neither had Mother.

* * * *

Mother’s face in the one shot is far away.
Dad doesn’t even appear. I close my eyes
to see better, but not better enough.

“Jephthah’s Prayer,” “The Last Dalmatian,” and “Parodos” are among the other poems whose close scrutiny of dark realities seems to arise from the opening proposition in “Bloody Murder.” All three poems are concerned with loss; “Jephthah’s Prayer” is an imaginative reconstruction of the story in the Book of Judges, in which Jephthah prays for victory in battle, promising God that on his return, whatever first emerges from his door will be sacrificed as a burnt offering; this turns out to be his daughter, and, this time, there is no reprieve, as there was in the case of Abraham and Isaac; and so Slavitt imagines Jephthah abandoning his faith at the moment his daughter dies.

“The Last Dalmatian” takes its point of departure from an imaginative proposition that has come to seem typical of Slavitt’s wide-ranging wit: imagine, early in this century, the last aged speaker of a dying language, Dalmatian, gradually losing her vocabulary as occasions to use her language become ever scarcer. In the same way, we all suffer losses of things we once knew, or nearly knew:

I am a parrot, can say, “Hello, hello,”
and utter at inappropriate moments a few other
simple phrases, telling all I know.

In “Parodos,” a term denoting the ode sung by the classic chorus upon their first entrance, Slavitt’s meditation on the chorus’s effect becomes a moving evocation of what community is, and what balm a prayer can be, even to the non-believer.

As grim as the subjects of these poems are, Slavitt’s artistry is more than equal to the task of lifting the subjects from the realm of individual suffering to the realm of literature. Almost as if to emphasize that he has done this, he has included in The Walls of Thebes a few poems which explore directly some of the relationships between art and the life depicted in art. Some of these are more amusing than solemn, though all of them are, finally, serious. “The Whippets” begins as an account of a minor disaster in a production of Der Rosenkavalier; that opera contains a scene in which, among the “super-numeraries filling the stage,” there is a man offering small animals for sale; in some productions he is given a caged bird or a monkey; on this occasion, he has a pair of whippets on a brace lead, and they disrupt the performance by giving in to their amorous urges. The poem goes on to present the main characters’ reactions to the interruption, the gradual restoration of order, and a conclusion describing the lesson learned. An arresting feature of the poem is that the distinction is blurred between the characters and the singers who perform the roles; the interior monologues of Octavian, the Marschallin, and the Baron are presented from the point of view of the characters, but they take note of their stagy surroundings, hovering between being characters and performers. The Baron concludes his observations by noticing the conductor:

    . . . the maestro raises his baton
for us to resume the pursuit of our quarry of meaning,
driven, perhaps hounded, but not forgetful
of who we are or where we are in the score.

The complicated irony of “not forgetful/of who we are” is introduced so gracefully that the careless reader might miss it; there is no apparent strain in the speakers’ ability to inhabit two worlds at once, or in the poem’s brilliant realization of a seldom-articulated truth: if we often use art as an escape from “real life,” there are also times when, for the sake of our health, we flee in the opposite direction.

This inexhaustible theme is explored further in several other poems, notably “Wilson’s Pen,” an intelligently playful ramble around the idea of the pen’s might, prompted by recollection of a headline on the eve of the treaty of Versailles; it should have read “WILSON’S PEN IS READY,” but a dropped space between two words had embarrassing effects; Slavitt’s ability to play with this in a manner both witty and tasteful is one of the high points in this collection. “Guts,” “Tambourine,” and “Mocking Bird” also work productively in the difficult, blurred area between what is lived and what is made.

The last 16 pages of The Walls of Thebes contain “Amphion’s Lyre,” a magnificent poem in eleven parts, in which Slavitt’s amazing ability to make classical myths speak to our time is at its best. The legend itself has most of the more powerful ingredients: a set of twins, fathered by Zeus, abandoned on a hillside only to be saved by a shepherd and allowed to grow up, learn their true identity, and wreak revenge; a king whose lust for power and for women leads him into self-destructive error; and the magic of the maker, in this instance represented by the musical ability of one of the twins. When the twins return to their actual homeland and take power, the walls of Thebes come into being:

Zetus built the wall; Amphion played his lyre—
 as simple as that. Anyone who was there
can tell you Zetus planned it, supervised the masons,
 even worked beside them himself, sighting
the hewn stones along the taut strings and plumb lines.
 His brother, worse than useless, was only a nuisance
good manners contrived to overlook. But the story
 is still told—how the walls around the city
of Thebes somehow sprang up, grew together, built
 themselves, because of the music Amphion played.
To call it magic is not to dismiss it as arrant nonsense.
 Miracles happen. Mysteries aren’t mere
demonstrations of how we need more information.

In meditating on the myth’s aptness to our time, the poet puts both hope and pessimism in their places; in the face of impending death, the work of the artist goes on, and there is always the chance that the believer is right,

     and I, in my unbelief, am wrong,
too cautious, too timid, lacking in the real imagination
in which there is said to be tranquillity

and a peace I can almost imagine that I imagine.

The power of narrative to transform the events it recounts is among the most rewarding mysteries by which we can be absorbed. David Slavitt is among the most accomplished living practitioners of that art, in both prose and verse; his poems give us a pleasurable, beautiful way of meditating on a bad time. We can’t ask much more of literature, and usually we get far less.


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