- I wanted to salvage
something from my life, to fix
some truth beyond all change
- Ellen Bryant Voigt
The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, tells of a birch tree where, Sweeney-like, he spent much of his time as a farm boy. When the farm was sold, the tree was felled in the name of efficiency, but its image haunts Heaney and he can imagine, when he dies, his soul following its vanished roots into the earth. Poetry cannot undo the work of axes; it seldom restores lost loves or undoes hurt. But poets have always been drawn into their pasts, especially to decisive scenes of joy and pain. The four poets under consideration, each very different, and each of whom happens to be a woman, all have recently written distinctive books which treat, among other things, compelling events in their own or their families’ histories. Though their approaches range from the reticent to the confessional, they share a common commitment not to let the past sink into oblivion without salvaging a memorably humane understanding.
Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Lotus Flowers (Norton, $13. 95 cloth) keeps straying back to her upbringing on a farm in Virginia, a place which was partly idyllic and partly a vale of tears. She explores her origins from the complex perspective of someone who finds home a place that’s necessary to leave and to return to. Voigt’s speaker at one point describes herself as having embarked on a lifelong swim, leaving the island of her origins, heading toward, but never arriving at, a distant mainland. The poems embody stages of her passage, both in the swim and above it, in a vantage of provisional transcendence.
Voigt is masterful at making the vanished landscape bear thematic weight. One particularly powerful example occurs in “The Photograph,” a poem about her mother’s reverberating despair: “The horseshoe hung in the neck of the tree sinks / deeper into heartwood every season.” Such an image seems so right, so indigenous, that we might be tempted to assume it’s not invented, that it’s a felicitous found-object from her past. It is not an accident of landscape; it is Voigt’s way with words that supplies the psychic charge of “hung in the neck” and “sinks deeper into heartwood.”
Virtually every one of her poems contains clusters of images rich enough to resist the simple discursive glosses that less accomplished poems invite and sometimes supply. We’re almost always left with an image or phrase that takes us somewhere inevitable, yet unexpected. In “The Field Trip,” for example, Voigt describes a nature walk taken by a group of 13-year-old school children. One troubled boy in particular holds the speaker’s attention because he’s studiously ignoring the others while courting danger out on the edge of a cliff. When he ironically becomes the first to spot a passing hawk, it strikes in the speaker a deep chord of rueful sympathy. She wants to praise the boy,
so much does he resemble
if not the hawk then the doomed shrub
fanned against the rockface there beside him,
rooted in a fissure in the rock.
But soon the hero swings back up to earth,
the group divides. Just like that
they’re ready for home, tired of practicing:
sixteen children, two adults, and one
bad boy who carved a scorpion on his arm.
This is a passage written by a poet who knows how to end a poem. Voigt prompts us to see the boy in a montage, first as a predatory hawk, next as a doomed cliff shrub. Then, to close, the montage finds summary focus in the self-incised scorpion tattoo, an image of self-predation that fuses and amplifies the implications of the hawk and the shrub.
Voigt lets much of her meaning be released through natural imagery, often in a rural landscape, where her command of detail is very strong. But she can be just as resonant in her descriptions of the city. In the sinister “Nocturne,” a poem about a woman being trailed home by a rapist, she dramatizes his menace by stressing how at home he is in the urban hunt:
The two similes—comparing the stalker’s movements with the assuredness of a cab and then a dog—are as misleadingly benign as the observation “he’s neither hungry nor afraid.” But the truth emerges: he’s “a man with a knife,” a stark reality which she then holds in the light of an elegant abstraction, describing the man as “evolving coolly from the traffic of strangers.” Because of the densely circumstantial background out of which it arises, this abstraction carries a devastating charge of inevitability, as if the rapist were not an anomaly but a natural function of the estrangement of the urban landscape.
Trailing her from the bus, deft as a cab
in the dense streets, as a dog on the broad common,
he’s neither hungry nor afraid, a man with a knife
evolving coolly from the traffic of strangers.
Every reader of Voigt will be struck by how palpable her poems are, yet a phrase like “coolly evolving from the traffic of strangers” embodies an equally distinctive, though less pervasive, signature: her capacity to wield abstraction with magisterial elegance. In a poem which seems to grow from a Virginia landscape, a farmer is suddenly attacked by the bees he’s been keeping for years. The poet explains the farmer survived because his system had been immunized by a lifetime of small, miscellaneous stings, “like minor disappointments, instructive poison.” In its context at the end of the poem, the quietly precise “instructive poison” provides a fine consummating epitome that lets us see the bee stings as emblematic of an entire life informed by disappointment.
Moreover, the phrase “instructive poison” indicates something essential about Voigt’s whole experience of the past. In a given situation, she’s acutely sensitive to its tragic dimensions, to the sting of mortality; but at the same time, she’s resourcefully determined to be instructed and enlarged, not overwhelmed, by what she has faced, what she has owned.
A would-be suicide on the roof of a city building; a subway encounter between a white person and a black who looks, to the speaker, like a mugger; a newborn child left in a garbage can; a torturer castrating someone; 17th-century Siamese twins, one of whom grows from the other’s chest; a man being beaten to death for stealing food in Uganda; a rape victim who ends up being a pom-pom girl; talking penises left over from sex change operations; an apocalyptic fantasy about a “sex center” where customers stand under signs indicating their preferences; the nightly devotions of the Pope’s privates; a mother watching the nuclear holocaust with her child, who thinks it beautiful. These are the first eleven poems in The Gold Cell (Knopf, $14.95 cloth, $8.95 paper), a volume unmistakably by Sharon Olds, whose poetry incorporates violence, cruelty, broiling sexuality, as well as love. Olds treats both the present and the past with a make-you-squirm explicitness that’s buffered only by an ingenuous honesty about her relationship to the events she describes.
Close to two centuries ago, Wordsworth proposed his Lyrical Ballads as a potential antidote to what he saw as the “savage torpor” induced in the common reader by the sensationalism of the melodramatists in the popular press. His aim was to gentle us back to health, to make a rural-seeming space for quiet contemplation, a poet’s revolution for the preservation of the psyche. There are vigorous poets still writing in the Wordsworth tradition. But they don’t, like Olds, work in New York City, and few have seen the kind of alcohol-induced violence to which Olds apparently was subjected as a child. And most will never sell as many books of poems as Olds, books that share the subject matter, though not the outlook, of the tabloid press. Olds apparently never has had the privilege of believing, with Wordsworth, that nature never betrays the heart that loves her; and though she everywhere affirms the power of love, her affirmation is anything but gentle. She aims to shock us back to consciousness, to speak what Melville calls “the sane madness of vital truth.”
People have responded. Both in The Gold Cell and in The Dead and the Living, which won the Lamont Prize and the National Book Award in 1983, Olds’ work has excited a shock of recognition among a wide variety of readers, some of whom would ordinarily be strangers to poetry. Her confessional poems often blaze with a fierce and sometimes inexplicable love, even for the villains in her life. And Olds has the voice of a peculiarly exuberant survivor who speaks with gusto, whether relating the details of her present blessings or past deprivations. Many of her poems are undeniably gripping. But is the fact a poem is gripping necessarily a sign of its value?
Olds’ work is open to two kinds of criticism—technical and moral. Other poets, when they criticize Olds, often fasten on her weak use of line, which has her ending many lines with “and,” or “with,” or especially “the,” a strategy which lacks the compelling musical or dramatic motives that justify similar choices in the shorter lines of, for example, W.C. Williams or Robert Creely. But it is one thing to acknowledge that Olds’ lineation leaves much to be desired and quite another to conclude that her poems lack art. Olds may share her subject matter with the tabloid press, but she’s very much a poet. If, in The Gold Cell, the poems too often seem in the same voice, searching for the same kinds of insights with the same rhythm of acceleration as her last book, that should not obscure the fact that she writes with great flair and often shows a resonant dramatic intelligence in searching out the contexts, or the frameworks of implication, in which to lodge and justify her dark witness-bearing.
Olds is gifted, too, with a fertile metaphoric imagination that allows her, when she is going well, to enter completely into her subject matter; her analogical imagination often insightfully graces what otherwise would be raw reportage. A distinguished example of her gift for metaphor occurs in “The Food Thief,” a poem describing a Ugandan man being slowly whipped to death for stealing food during a drought. The first, expository half of the poem eschews metaphor, but the rest of the poem is an extended conceit, amplified by a series of similes which compare the thief’s body to the once fertile land. The comparison is not merely verbal because, in an elemental sense, the man is an inextricable part of the land, and she makes us see how they are dying together. After she has established that the thief is being driven along and “slowly, slowly” being beaten to death, the poem turns as the thief turns to face his attackers:
As Olds’ extended comparison unfolds, it makes both the food thief’s and Uganda’s loss increasingly evident, until her concluding lines fix exactly how dire their plight is: at the end of an ecosystem, no one needs to be reminded for whom the bell tolls, though the tribesmen’s insight into their mutual plight is more Darwinian than Christian.
with all the eloquence of the body, the
wrist turned out and the vein up his forearm
running like a root just under the surface, the
wounds on his head ripe and wet as a
rich furrow cut back and cut back at
plough-time to farrow a trench for the seed, his
eye pleading, the iris black and
gleaming as his skin, the white a dark
occluded white like cloud-cover on the
morning of a day of heavy rain.
His lips are open to his brothers as the body of a
woman might be open, as the earth itself was
split and folded back and wet and
seedy to them once, the lines on his lips
fine as the thousand tributaries of a
root-hair, a river, he is asking them for life
with his whole body, and they are driving his body
all the way down the road because
they know the life he is asking for—
it is their life.
In poems as potent as “The Food Thief,” Olds’ dubious line break strategy seems a relatively minor issue. Not so minor, however, is the objection that Olds relies too heavily on extreme situations, often highly personal and that, at times, her poems verge close to the level of self-dramatizing, melodramatic tattle-tales. What, to some, appear as brave, liberating acts of witness-bearing, to others seem a breach of propriety or the eradication of the virtues of privacy.
Her detractors, as well as her supporters, have good evidence to support their claims. Olds, however, deserves, like all other writers, to be granted her subject matter, though it be marital relations on the rug or a self-confessed fascination with her father’s alcoholic nose. It’s not the subject matter but the vision it serves that is the proper issue of judgment. For Olds, her violent father, no less than her relationships with her children, are subjects beyond ignoring. And it’s true that none of her poems fails to move beyond graphic description to a consideration of the human implications of what has been described. But sometimes the insights seem, at least in part, unconscious excuses for exhibitionism. “It” is an ambiguous case in point. For many readers, the poem’s description of sex with her husband makes public what probably should remain private, or at least less explicit. And yet her conscious aim is to affirm the extravagant pleasures to be had through the flesh, an aspiration which, in principle, and in light of the long tradition of erotic verse, is hardly reprehensible. Moreover, Olds hits upon a startling analogy by which to clarify the quality of the speaker’s gratitude for fleshly pleasure. She says, “sometimes it is sweet as the children we had / thought were dead being brought to the shore in the / narrow boats, boatload after boatload.” We may object that comparing orgasms to the rescue of innocent children betrays a lack of ethical perspective. That is just her point: intense pleasure obliterates distinctions and searches out unruly connections. In an over-rationalized age, and to audiences perhaps over-adept at forgetting our animal natures, Olds has a point worth making. But the reader may well ask whether her purpose is best served by taking us into her bedroom.
There are other Olds poems, often those dealing with her father, that seem insufficiently conscious of the damage sustained in the family crucible. The father in the poems is a profound sadist who delights in frightening his children, sometimes to the point of incontinence. For example, one poem explores his habit of holding one of his children upside down in the laundry chute, threatening to drop him or her. That he doesn’t drop them seems scant reason to conclude, as Olds’ speaker does, that “although it’s a story with some cruelty in it, / finally it’s a story of love / and release, the way the father pulls you out of nothing / and stand there foolishly grinning.” The affirmation rings false. In another poem, Olds’ desire to be knowingly dramatic fuses with an apocalyptic despair and yields a declaration of the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, “I wonder now only when it will happen.” While nobody can argue with such a feeling, we might well expect a poet who grapples with the nuclear dilemma to refresh our sense of crisis without helping to spread the demoralizing fallout of resignation.
At the same time, it’s clear that despair is not characteristic of Olds’ overall outlook. Indeed, her work is sinewed with affirmative bravery, and that bravery and resiliency constitute no small part of her appeal. Given her family history and given a world that wastes so much of its creative energies on engines of destruction, The Gold Cell is saner and more full of love than anyone could reasonably expect, which, in itself, argues indirectly against the inevitability of mutual assured destruction.
Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon, $14. 95 cloth, $6.95 paper), winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, has a distinctive, ambitiously unified design. It traces the history of two blacks who separately move North, to Ohio, meet and get married in the 1920’s, and go on to raise four girls, enduring many vicissitudes before their deaths in the 1960’s. Arranged serially and accompanied by an almost essential chronology, the poems, we are told in a note beforehand, are meant to be read in order. Much as Michael Ondaatje has done in his poem-like novel, Coming through Slaughter, Dove reconstructs the past through a series of discontinuous vignettes which enter freely into the psyches of the two main characters.
It is important that the poems are arranged chronologically because we often need all the help we can get in clarifying many of the references. Even with chronology as a guide, the poems sometimes seem unnecessarily obscure and cryptic. More often, however, the difficulty of the work is justifiable because the insights are exactly as subtle as they are oblique. In exploiting the virtues of ellipsis, Dove evidently has faith we will have gumption enough to stare a hole in the page until our minds leap with hers across the gaps. For example, in the opening poem, “The Event,” Thomas dares his drunken friend, Lem, to jump off a riverboat and swim to a nearby island. Lem jumps and drowns. Later in the volume, we find out that Thomas is haunted by Lem’s death for the rest of his life. But in the opening poem, the aftershock goes unmentioned:
Given Dove’s reticent lyricism, we can’t be completely sure from this description that Lem has drowned; we can only guess. That leaves us uncertain and, therefore, vulnerable, which is quite appropriate because the world we are entering with Thomas is fraught with deceptive beauty and danger. Even the shirring of roiled water can indicate death.
on deck, saw the green crown shake
as the island slipped
in the thickening stream.
At his feet
a stinking circle of rags,
the half-shell mandolin.
Where the wheel turned the water
One of the great strengths of this book is the depth of Dove’s sympathetic understanding not only of Beulah but also of Thomas; she manages to convey the inner savor both of Thomas’ early ebullience and of his later frustration and despair at not being allowed a part in the world equal to his considerable sensitivity. The mandolin provides him with a creative outlet, but it becomes the bittersweet outlet of the blues. As Dove’s narrator puts it in “Straw Hat:”
The diction of this passage, which includes the elegant phrase “narrow grief,” is a good indication of how Dove manages to use the more abstract resources of English to telling effect, without sacrificing the credibility of her account.
To him, work is a narrow grief
and the music afterwards
is like a woman reaching into his chest
to spread it around.
In her forays into the black vernacular, Dove chooses not to be phonetic; instead, she concentrates on diction and speech rhythm and does so with dialectical pizazz, as in the conclusion to “Jiving:”
Here, the juxtaposition of two voices and styles highlights the virtues of both. It’s difficult to make such switches in the level of diction while still maintaining a plausible narrative voice; yet Dove most often succeeds. Because she has thoroughly imagined her characters, Dove can handle her vernacular material convincingly from a decided stylistic remove.
The young ladies
saying He sure plays
that tater bug
like the devil!
sighing their sighs
Moreover, the poems appeal so directly to the five senses that we’re convinced of their authenticity before, and after, we’ve had time to plumb their artfulness. Consider, for example, with what resourcefulness and immediacy Dove dramatizes Beulah’s reluctant attraction to the wild mandolin player, Thomas, during their courtship:
Beneath its sensuousness, the passage conceals a delicately comedie irony. Beulah may snobbishly prefer a pianola to the mandolin, but snobbery is no defense against the flamboyant appeal of Thomas’ scarf and “cool” hands, whatever “cool” may mean, and it may mean many things, from graceful to calculatingly seductive. Thomas lives long enough to be worn down by time and by the lack of meaningful work, but in his prime, especially in his courtship of Beulah, he was a prodigy to behold, the “King of the Crawfish.” And no less remarkable is Dove’s portrayal of Beulah herself, whom we first see as an elegant woman, fending off Thomas in “pleated skirt [that] fans / softly, a circlet of arrows”; we follow her into a dignified, though sadly reduced widowhood, where the best she can say, in retrospect about her marriage is “we were good, I though we never believed it“The psychic cost of suffering makes itself keenly felt in Thomas and Beulah, a blues book that aims, through music and sympathy, to reach an affirmative answer to the question posed by Melvin B. Toisón, which Dove includes as the epigraph to the volume:
She’d much prefer a pianola
and scent in a sky-colored flask.
Not that scarf, bright as butter.
Not his hands, cool as dimes.
Black Boy, O Black Boy,
is the port worth the cruise?
The epigraph to Heather McHugh’s To the Quick (Wesleyan, $18.00 cloth, $9.95 paper) is a brief blues lyric from Emily Dickinson about the desire to flee from “the mind of man.” Although many American women poets, most notably Adrienne Rich, celebrate Emily Dickinson as an important precursor, few have actually matched wits with Dickinson or have tried to put as much pressure on language to perform feats of association. Heather McHugh provides an exception. She shares with Dickinson a penchant for the use of wit as an anodyne for anguish; a heterodox bent for metaphysics; and, most importantly, a compulsively playful language gift that constantly refreshes the terms of our understanding through surprising turns of language.
Throughout her career, McHugh has possessed, or has been possessed by, a knack for making aphoristic definitions reminiscent of Dickinson’s. She often combines that knack with a distinctive ability to liberate unexpected meanings from ordinary idioms and turns of phrase. We can see this combination at work in this stanza from “Spot in Space and Time”:
Taken out of its context, with only its relentless, wry wit and strong iambic beat to help categorize it, this passage might seem an example of light, satiric verse. But it’s more than that. The passage in question is lodged in a complex, multitheme poem which, by the end, becomes tinged with anguish about man’s relentless, accelerating self-obsessiveness: “The thinker / stands still, thinking of himself, while there / (in his abandoned microscope) / a million mountains move.”
The indignant have a word
they cannot say alone: here here.
The soothers say: there there.
The dog’s confused. He’s neither
fowl nor fish. He cannot go to Esalen
and find himself; he scowls into the new
It might be urged that McHugh’s poems, by virtue of their impulse towards reflectiveness, tend to call attention away from the object in the microscope and toward the private play of mind. This was truer of her earlier work than it is of To the Quick. The speaker in these new poems carries on a lover’s quarrel with her own braininess and shows herself to be acutely aware of how an isolated intellect can build itself a hall of mirrors: “your head / in the clouds, your likeness in mind— / you could fall in love with reason. This / is the mistake. You think too much / of your life, far from oceans, far / from rivers, far from streaming.” Throughout the volume, the speaker’s sympathy lies with direct experience as opposed to intellection. But direct experience, especially in love, has proven perilously corrosive and has excited in her a compensatory desire to escape vulnerability by creating a verbal world elsewhere. McHugh’s poetry is charged with bittersweet pathos because, even as it drives toward what Frost calls “a momentary stay against confusion,” it battles the impulse to turn that momentary stay into a permanent retreat, where pain is distanced at the tragic cost of not being “touched or moved again.”
The advance marked in To the Quick over A World of Difference, the volume which precedes it, is McHugh’s increased ability to dramatize the private motives that fuel the drive for verbal transcendence. Those motives are pain, loss, anger, wonder, amusement, and despair. A typical poem in To the Quick begins, like many another McHugh poem before it, with a sharp phenomenological observation about the latent metaphoricalness of everyday language. For example, “The Trouble with “In”” starts by turning an ear to one of English’s most common turns of phrase:
It’s difficult not to feel simple pleasure at seeing a cliché rescued, and the pleasure continues as the poem accrues a host of ancillary insights about other hidden metaphors in the idiom of love relationships. But what gives the poem torque enough to send it into memorable orbit is the closing revelation of the speaker’s stake in her meditation: “I loved you / to no end, and when you said / So far, I knew the idiom: / it meant So long.” McHugh hasn’t abandoned her phenomenological wit at the end of this poem; rather she has adapted it to convey a highly charged personal report on the irremediable loss of a lover.
In English, we’re in trouble.
Love’s a place
we fall into so
sooner or later they ask
The poems in this volume seldom stray far from the quick of her two abiding preoccupations, language itself and the loss of love. Loss hangs very heavily in the air and would weigh the volume down were it not for the jazzy buoyancy of her gift for wringing multiple meanings from almost every phrase. The poems are never merely symptoms of the grief or grievance they dramatize. “A Point of Origin” is a fine example of how her “doubletalk,” as she has called it, recoups a vitally ironic energy from loss. The dramatic situation is tragi-comic. The speaker has argued with a lover up to the instant she boards a plane. Upon boarding, she finds she’s lost her seat to an old man who speaks no English and so, unexpectedly, she gets to travel first class, which cheers her, but hardly enough to let her to forget what she has left “behind”:
Here McHugh unobtrusively fuses two situations: an infant’s pain and the speaker’s pain at a broken relationship. There’s no mistaking McHugh’s lyrical cry for a child’s wail, but she would also have us see how, at the quick, their suffering is shared. And this is the great virtue of McHugh’s startling “doubletalk”: when it’s in full balance, as it is a great deal of the time, it welds the interior and exterior worlds, and the past and the present, into a reciprocal, inevitable-seeming unity.
a couple of lunches, have my little weep
in private, take a glass of wine to make
abstractions of, in geometric light.
But all the while behind me there
where calm cannot be bought, where I
was meant to stay,
cries and cries and cries,
impossible to pacify . . . .