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Whole Volumes: Quality of Vision In the Work of Sadoff, Bursk, and Hoffmann

ISSUE:  Spring 1989

Most readers encounter poetry, when they encounter it at all, almost by accident, as a column with a ragged right flank that intrudes into the more resolved march of prose in, for example, The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Fortunately, literary journals and little magazines afford poetry an arena of its own. And sometimes, as in the VQR, we may find an author represented by a cluster of poems, which gives us a better chance to intuit some sense of the poet’s overall sensibility. But no selection can really substitute for an entire volume of poems by an author in self-conscious charge of his or her vocation. While not every poem will be equally compelling, the best collections give readers the chance “to make progress,” as Frost puts it, “by circulation.” The shrapnel of deconstruction notwithstanding, one of the chief aesthetic pleasures of a new collection of poems will continue to be the opportunity it grants to experience, to imagine, the tacit wholeness of a sensibility percolating through its apparently discrete forms. Of course, since poetry is not mathematics, that unity is always putative and never complete; and, in less accomplished work, it may be superficial or absent entirely. Anyone who reads a generous sampling of the year’s poetry will be rewarded with potent evidence that, even in an increasingly discontinuous universe, the centripetal energy of the analogical imagination remains an authentic countervailing force. But, at the same time, that reader will also be struck by how much verse merely mimes the fragmented quotidian. In most collections, too many poems simply do not seem inevitable. The works now under consideration comprise a few of the exceptions: they have palpably been driven into form by central urgencies of the poet’s being, galvanized by a sense of vocation that amounts to vision.

Emotional Traffic (Godine, $14.95 cloth, $10.95 paper) is Ira Sadoff’s third full-length volume of poems. Though it has been ten years since his second book, he has hardly been idle in the meantime, having published a novel, a chapbook, and a considerable number of other poems and short stories. But Sadoff slowly broods his books into being, and the reward for our wait is a beautifully sustained volume in which virtually every poem seems necessary.

Sadoff may be our poet of the family romance. A tangled childhood provides the matrix and sets the mood of his art. In his second volume, Palm Reading in Winter, several of his strongest poems reckoned with the poet’s father, who abandoned his family when his children were still young. In Emotional Traffic, Sadoff adopts the risky strategy of devoting much of the first section to an exploration of the troubled relationship of a son to a mother who has never recovered from her husband’s departure. Reading these brave, complex meditations, the reader is reminded just how few male poets, even in this age of the confessional lyric, risk exploring the mother-son bond. The reasons for the army of averted eyes are understandable: oedipal heebie-jeebies and the widespread subscription to a macho myth of unconditional psychic freedom. Sadoff, to his credit, manages to handle profoundly intimate meditations with honesty, with tact, and, in the conclusion to the volume’s opening poem, “In the House of the Child,” with muted self-ironic humor. The speaker says of his mother:

I never think of her.
Never, or almost never, and always when
I first wake up, when the bedroom door’s ajar.

Revising himself as he goes, retreating from “never” to “almost never,” and then to “always when,” the speaker mocks, and outdistances, his natural desire to repress memories which threaten to qualify the ego’s dream of ascendency over origins. That the poem ends on the slightly open threshold of the primal scene is perhaps the closest Sadoff comes to doctrinal obeisance, though his Freudianism bears a metaphorical, provisional stripe.

Sadoff’s meditations on the family are particularly distinguished by the way they dovetail with his views on language. He is interested in subtle parallels between the way meanings inhere, mostly hidden, in language and the way the emotional truth of family relationships persists, however concealed, in memories and feeling tones. “Incest,” the poem which explores these parallels most directly, begins with three words, “Inbred. Inscribed, interred,” which, taken together, imply linkage between inbreeding and the use of language both to define and to bury truth. In the poem, sexuality is seen metaphorically as a kind of unsublimated language, “an utterance with body parts,” whereas actual speech entails the deferral or displacement of desire. “What speech,” the poet asks, “does not imply / withholding union?”

In the family described in “Incest,” family secrets end up deferred beyond words, like “bone[s] a dog buried in the yard.” Part of Sadoff’s calling as our guide through emotional traffic is to take us to places in the psyche usually inaccessible to consciousness. This urge to explore dark familial inheritances carries with it an implicit hope for the partial liberation of the psyche’s energies, but the poems in Emotional Traffic also convey the felt danger of self-interment, a danger which lends the poems both their sense of urgency and their mood of bluesy melancholy.

Danger naturally enlivens the senses, but it takes experience and craft to be able to epitomize with precision something as entwined in a poet as his pervading mood. The ars poetica of Sadoff’s searching blues is “Mood Indigo,” which begins: “I’ve tried to trace the reverie / without a source. Why I love / that shade of blue the veins become / when you press a thumb against my wrist.” Beginning with that disturbing image of deflected eroticism, pleasure caused by someone else’s thumb blocking his blood flow, the poet goes on to gather other heavily charged correlatives of melancholy, including an indigo bunting bereft of its mate and the anaerobic hue of an infant before its first breath. Overarching all of these blues hangs the legend of an argument between his parents before his birth, an argument disruptive enough to turn the future into “the violent blue of storm.” While the content of that argument lies shrouded, it does serve as a provisional symbol of origins, or of the Fall, a dead end in the beginning. And once he has reached as far as he can toward the source, the speaker turns forward with a willful self-admonition to quit luxuriating in melancholy, to “put a stop to it,” to move into the present. “I must,” he says, “consume the cold sublime.” The irony is that that the “cold sublime” is bodied forth in indigo, as a “bowl of plums.”

The imperative voice at the end of “Mood Indigo” resonates interestingly with a poem by Rilke that has affected many poets of Sadoff’s generation, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Inspired, almost shamed, by the uncanny, quasi-procreative energy of a now-headless Greek statue, Rilke builds his poem to a crescendo and closes with a vow that he “must change [his] life.” For Sadoff’s speaker, the problem is not a lack of intensity, which art then inspires him to overcome; rather, he suffers from a surfeit of intensity, inherited from his family, which threatens to envelop him and finally prompts him to declare that he must “put a stop to it” and turn toward the cold sublime of the present. It is no escape. The plums of the present may be nourishing, but they are still colored indigo by the sadness of the past.

The subject matter of the poems in sections II and III becomes, in a sense, the plums he has vowed to nourish himself upon. And the poems themselves represent the fruits of the poet’s commitment to approach the present as searchingly as he has the past. The second section is largely focused on his closely shared existence with his wife, though it does not ignore the distances that intervene in even the most intimate relationships. Sometimes shudderingly, sometimes with a palpable sigh of relief at his own normality, the poet in these later poems reflects on life in a town where a neighbor cultivates gardenias while a stranger makes an anonymous anti-Semitic phone call.

While the Sadovian sadness persists, the weight of the past lightens in the second and third sections, receding partway toward the horizon’s edge. An epitomizing figure in the latter sections of the book is not the poet’s mother but a former girlfriend with the light-hearted name of Lucille, who, in memory, comes back to haunt his amours, greedily demanding to be rescued from the past. Lucille is emblematic of the comic irony that sifts into the later poems. This irony is, however, just as often tinged with anger, and when the topic is political, it edges toward satire, although Sadoff’s persona is never so single-minded or impersonal as to put poetry in full service of political satire. Whether he’s telling a story or evolving a lyric, his speaker is, first and last, a solicitous meditator, too faithful to the ideal of self-understanding to give much ground to either excoriating projections or sybaritic fantasies of escape.

Some of the most unusual and moving poems in the volume are in the final section and concern jazz. The players excite Sadoff’s full sympathies, both through the restless brilliance of their music and through the costs extracted by their constant exploration of exaltation and pain. Their example prompts Sadoff to his own form of jazz. Saxophones “shatter into eighth notes”; a drummer takes out “his history on the snare”; Mingus celebrates the night Eric Dolphy broke “the bounds of octaves.” Too aware of the risk of self-delusion, Sadoff does not much trust moods of transcendence. But in his meditations on jazz, one hears a tone of respect, at moments bordering on awe, which adds liberating color to his emotional spectrum. It is as if jazz provides the self with a connection to domains of feeling, of abandonment to feeling, larger than the self alone can well sustain.

The feelings in jazz are both humanizing and unsettling. In Sadoff’s world, jazz has a privileged place, perhaps because it bypasses what he refers to as the “haze” of language and works more immediately on the heart. Poetry must use the language of thought to tease us beyond it. But just one grief-laden note on the saxophone can “crush” the composure of a character in a Sadoff poem. In “At the Half-Note Cafe,” the speaker describes how, as young man, he took his date to hear Gene Ammons, but was unprepared for the way Ammon’s version of “Willow Weep for Me” shattered his veneer of savoir-faire and made him anxiously aware of his own vulnerability to intense emotion. In retrospect, he says:

I found the blues unfair
to boys like me who came to bars
unprepared for grief
that wasn’t strictly personal.

The poem drives on, doing honor to the poignancy of Ammon’s music while remaining true to the poet’s confusions. This double vision, a risk-drenched equipoise between inner and outer realities, characterizes Sadoff’s maturity, resulting in poems that sing the blues, poems that are deeply, but not strictly, personal.

The unifying focus of Christopher Bursk’s equally personal collection of poems is aptly signalled by the title, Places of Comfort, Places of Justice (Humanities and Arts Press, $8.50 paper). The achievement of this, Bursk’s third book, is vividly to bring us back to the wellsprings of his search for comfort and justice—the need to compensate, mostly in the realm of wishful imagination, for a childhood shadowed by his mother’s madness—and then to carry us forward into an adult life which transforms those early, desperate fantasies into a compelling vision of moral, political, and aesthetic commitment.

Bursk’s poems are not all equally well-realized. Some of his language lacks differential torque, and some poems go on too long, accruing superfluous details. But the reader must ask himself whether a flawed grandeur is not preferable to the punctilious achievement of less ambitious aims. Despite the often painful and sometimes near-Gothic subject matter, Bursk’s work is suffused with enormous generosity, sympathy, and an anachronistic nobility of spirit. The poems about his childhood carry a Rilkean urgency and seem as if they are responding to the closing challenge of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, “What is the deepest loss that you have suffered? / If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.”

The transformation of bitterness to wine begins with the first poem, “Ice Fishing.” A boy sits fishing, awash with extravagant imaginings of his isolation, that he is “the last person alive, / left with the task of testing the world’s depths.” His self-appointed role as saving remnant results from tremendous family tension, and we find out that he’d gladly settle just to catch a fish, if somehow that fish could lure his mother out of chaos by filling the kitchen with the smell of sizzling tarragon butter, providing even a temporary surfeit of happiness.

The pathos of “Ice Fishing,” and of many other poems in the volume, springs from our awareness of the unbridgeable distance between the boy’s wishes for comfort and justice and the actual misery of his family life. Despite that distance, Bursk’s work also testifies eloquently to the potentially psyche-saving importance of imagination, however childlike and wishful. While the childhood imaginings in the book are often dark and even, on occasion, delusory, they resemble the often lyrical drawings made by children in concentration camps; they insulate the speaker’s younger self from devouring despair. Another moving embodiment of such salving imaginative compensation is “Rowing Cutthroat Creek.” A boy, who is almost drowning in impotent anger at his father, goes out for a furious row. The poem evolves a strange and stunning simile between the river and the father, in which rowing becomes a sublimation of murderous fury. As the boy rows, his arms thrust before him, “as if shoving a man against a wall, / jerking him back.” The dipping blades give a “rhythm to his rage,” and provide him with a ghost dancelike sense of immunity, as though “nothing could stop him now, / make him feel stupid or small again.” The poem rises to a highly charged lyrical conclusion:

   He had lifted the creek,
the sun flashing on his oars, water
had unraveled at his touch,
the face of the man in the waves
and he broke it,
and the body of the man stretched out under him
and he moved over it.

The act of rowing supplies the boy with such a cathartic feeling of mastery that the poem seems, at the end, almost celebratory, in spite of the patricidal content of the fantasy. His strange discovery of comfort creates a justice all its own.

Because of the pressure of the horrors which they serve to deflect, fishing and rowing take on a mythic charge as rituals of atonement. Bursk presents several other such rituals, enough for a private mystery religion, were he so inclined. Often the mythic energy is liberatingly benign: when the speaker identifies with baseball players or explores the dunes and valleys of adolescent sexuality. But sometimes the world of fantasy verges on the deranged, as in the second section, devoted to a single disturbing poem, “The Two Princes of Azarth.” The poet’s brother invents Azarth, a kingdom of bondage into which the two children retreat, as if tying themselves up and flirting with candle burns were refuge from their mother’s insanity. “Here in Azarth, / in the tower, you’ve been allowed inside all of history, / weighed down with its chains, / you feel light, exotic.” In some ways the Azarth poem unfolds artlessly, or with relatively less art than, for example, the work of Anne Sexton or Sharon Olds, which also charts the countries of madness and cruelty. The Azarth poem does not always pack the density that would allow all its separate parts “to bear,” as Pound puts it, “repeated examination,” but it is, at the very least, distinguished and sustained by an uncanny, in-seeing openness, and by a voice that speaks of horror from a vantage beyond destructive rancor. And there are also passages where Bursk’s apparent artlessness has certainly been achieved by grace of craft, as in the conclusion of Azarth’s section 8, which describes the speaker’s attempt to stab his brother to death:

And now I feel the blade dipping under the wings
of your back, the surprise
of the skin slitting, the knife sinking
as if summoned,
searching deeper. I’ve done it.
I hold the knife to the window, amazed
at how clean the blade is. It seems a terrible accident
that I’ve imagined such an act
and done it.
And then an even more wondrous accident
that I have not.

What makes this passage work is its economy and the fact that, as Aristotle preferred, the moment of recognition and the reversal, as well as the climax, virtually coincide. There is also a sidelong metaphor that lends weird resonance. The knife sinks in “as if summoned,” a description which embodies a double displacement: a knife, not a person, receives the summons; and the summoner seems not to be wielder of the knife but the victim, or perhaps a force outside the speaker, which makes his brother’s flesh seem uncannily receptive to the blade.

After the Azarth poem, the volume turns forward and outward to incorporate the social and political world—at protests, in classrooms at penitentiaries and homes for the aged, in a letter-writing session for Amnesty International. Bursk’s world remains stark with crisis, but pervaded with sympathy for others. For example, “Vigil” described a nonviolent protest where people, including the speaker, are being pushed around. Bursk finds room to sympathize even, or perhaps especially, with the soldiers. The large irony of the poem is that the protestors, by their “determined gentleness,” are being “cruel” to the soldiers, tempting them to violate their own humanity, trying to awaken their consciences. The small irony, which gives the poem’s Gandhian outlook its poignancy, emerges at the poem’s climax, the moment when a young soldier forcibly separates the speaker from his son. The poet’s glance lands neither on the poet nor on his son, but on the soldier, who is beyond his depth, whose “heavy riot gear / seems too big for him—like wings / he could never lift.” The poem closes with the soldier’s eyes fixed on the speaker’s son, “as if this eight year old were the only safe place / for his eyes to fall.” The irony of this tableaux goes right to the heart of the sustaining pattern of these poems as a whole. The child, whose name is Justin, is anything but safe; and yet the commitment to nonviolence has worked: the boy is saved from harm because his innocence awakens the conscience of the soldier. For Bursk, safety or comfort are, in the final analysis, inseparable from justice. The only comfort of real interest to him in this volume is the satisfaction of the demands of conscience. When his whole sensibility, is, as the Quakers say, “inclined to Testimony,” his poems are urgently alive and will remain so.

While the poems in Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann’s The Metamict State (University Presses of Florida, $10.95 cloth) do not pursue the path of radical inwardness followed by Sadoff and Bursk, the volume does display an uncommon degree of wholeness. We might expect this from a Nobel Laureate if laurels were for literature. But Hoffmann is a chemist!

Certainly, Hoffmann’s stature as a poet does not equal or even closely approach his preeminence as a chemist. His use of molecular theory to predict chemical actuality is, after all, recognized as one of the great contributions to chemistry in this century, while The Metamict State is a first book, written by a poet who has not yet fully emerged from his apprenticeship. Nevertheless, his work expands the arena of poetry by drawing on a lifetime of reflection about the relation between science and human values, between the behavior of molecules and of people.

The pattern-making tension of the volume, and of creation itself, when viewed from the perspective of a poetically-minded molecular scientist, is that order and change depend upon disorder. One molecular manifestation of that disorder is what chemists call “the metamict state,” which may be described as a disrupted condition of matter, formerly crystalline, which radiation has reduced to an amorphous jumble. Hoffmann is in love with the interplay between what he calls the “submicroscopic tap dance” and the sudden—often dangerous, often enlivening—irruptions of chaos. He has studied and meditated on that interplay for so long that it has come to serve him as a metaphor for a wide range of experience. Indeed, the coherence of the volume depends upon the analogical implications of the metamict state for the human estate.

For Hoffmann, the mind is “ever-conservative,” desiring to freeze the world into patterns, but those patterns are ever-changing, ever-disrupted, because mind, as well as matter, exists “in sublime bondage to the anarchy that drives things.” In the poem “Three Japanese Edo-Period Pots,” he focuses on the fruitful interaction between the recalcitrant material world and the human dream of perfection. The bowls, created in 1629, might well appear, to an uninformed Western observer, to bear blemishes. The pots are full, as he says, of pocks, crackles, dimples, burrs, and scratches; one even contains a cleft which exposes unglazed clay. But those “imperfections” only energize the beauty of the pots. Hoffmann savors the chance interplay between the metamict state of the clay and the ideal of wholeness implied by their circular shape. The poem celebrates the way the bowl’s “cultivated . . .imperfection” reveals “to refractory / man the perfection sought / in the potter’s mind.”

His outlook on the Japanese pots is just one indication that Hoffimann has a highly developed aesthetic sense. One of the pleasant surprises of Hoffmann’s work is the range of its appreciations—from the molecular structure of glass to El Greco, from the Swedish landscape to the androgyny of a photograph of Cavafy. In these poems, the world is everywhere aswarm with potential and ever-dissolving patterns that excite both the poet’s analytical mind and his impulse to praise. For example, during a simple walk across a college quad, he sees in the “[s]eemingly substanceless air” a festival rife with the “untended weft of events,” ranging in scale and kind from invisible “contrails of causality” that “gamble with gravity” to highly visible frisbees set afloat by bare-legged girls with legends on their T-shirts.

At times, Hoffitnann’s treatment of the scientific seems prosy, reminding one of Melville’s complaint about how difficult he found melting down the bubbler of cetology into poetry. But, in general, his poetry is distinguished by the appreciative ease which it moves between scientific and nonscientific understanding. Best of all are the moments when science and lyricism utterly fuse. “Mind Crackles” is one such moment. It concentrates on the way the wing serves as an airfoil, but clearly the complex balance of forces necessary for flight has implications for the way the imagination works. “Mind Crackles” is Hoffmann’s version of Plato’s myth of the chariot, one of whose horses wanted to soar, while the other wanted to plunge. To “gentle” the g-forces, he says, “we must learn / to curl our winds just right, / so that which passes / passes / overwing.” At that instant of “balanced falling,” of ideal equilibrium, “the wing is wind,” and the mind swings “out of the blue-black / squawk of us” up into the air.

Although he appreciates “the sublime anarchy” that undoes order, and although he says he can’t get out of his mind the tune of the American poets who have committed suicide, Homnann does not primarily focus upon “the blue-black squawk,” in any psychological sense comparable, say, to Lowell’s or Sadofif’s. He is most attracted to the moment when “the wing becomes wind.” Hoffmann’s version of jazz is the atomic dance of the various elements, the way atoms are “tethered by the massless springs / of electrostatics.” While Hoffinann has a light touch, he has not been exempted from pain. He is, by ethnic origin, a Polish Jew who fled Hitler’s armies, and he mentions, in passing, a memory of being carried by his mother across wet fields toward the distant Russian lines, of his mother sinking in the wet clay of those fields. Clearly, for any poet with eyes to see, there is a world of pain for woe to work on, but Homnann, in this first volume, chooses flight, not in the sense of escape, but in the sense of rising above grief toward celebration. It is a promising first flight.


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