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Lives on Leaves

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981
Things That Happen Where There Aren’t Any People. By William
Stafford. BOA Editions. $8.95 cloth, $4.50 paper.
In a Fugitive Season. By Robert Dana. Swallow/Ohio. $8. 95 cloth,
$4.95 paper.
The Need to Hold Still. By Lisel Mueller. Louisiana. $9. 95 cloth,
$5.95 paper.

I study the lives on a leaf: the little
Sleepers, numb nudgers in cold dimensions,
Beetles in caves, newts, stone-deaf fishes . . .

Theodore Roethke, “The Minimal”

I take these lines by Roethke to be both an explanation of one of his central approaches as a writer and an invitation to us to imitate his enterprise—to carry, always, our various magnifying glasses. For Roethke, the notion of the minimal had many aspects: the short-lined, tightly metered couplets and quatrains that dominate his first book, Open House; the subject matter of the brilliant greenhouse poems in The Lost Son, where the poet’s close attention to “the little sleepers” awakens his sense so violently that he can pass through the greenhouse and notice how “my knees made little winds underneath/Where the weeds slept”; and the minimal philosophy of fear, ennui, and emptiness in such late poems as “The Thing” and “In a Dark Time.” Roethke was far from unique in his concern with such approaches to writing. But he was as intensely devoted to them as any other American poet, and to evoke him seems right as I discuss new books by three fine writers—William Stafford, Robert Dana, and Lisel Mueller—who have all followed paths of their own toward the minimal.

For Stafford, the minimal becomes primarily a matter of subject, and as the title of Things That Happen Where There Aren’t Any People announces, the poet looks for simplification through a version of a most fundamental Romantic theme: uncorrupted and primitive Nature as a wellspring of wisdom and love. This is no new theme for Stafford; in fact, his insistent returns to this idea have been almost pathological. The first poem in his first book, West of Your City (1960), concludes,

Cocked in that land tactile as leaves
wild things wait crouched in those valleys
west of your city outside your lives
in the ultimate wind, the whole land’s wave.
Come west and see; touch these leaves.

The penultimate poem in his newest volume begins,

Try it, being still in the mountains. They wait.
And where ferns have taken their kind of green
stillness you learn the slow steps of daylight.

A more pragmatic Emerson might have written these lines, or a less allegorical Thoreau. But Stafford’s dogged faith in the teaching power of Nature has been matched by his persistent demand for a plain-spoken poetry—even, at times, a bardic poetry—and in this respect he is more like Whitman than like any other American Romantic. While stylistic comparisons of Stafford and Whitman could not be carried very far, there are certain points in Things That Happen where the Gray Poet’s rolling voice of the open road cannot be missed. In one poem Stafford addresses “Nobody,” the Everyman of an empty landscape:

             I looked far ahead
and saw you making the tracks in the snow that
I was walking faster and faster to fill.
After I catch up and we travel on together
you will no longer need to make those tracks in the

The poet as wise and loving comrade—who else but Whitman? Elsewhere in the volume, in “Address to the Vacationers at Cape Lookout,” we hear another of Whitman’s tones, that of the earthy seer distraught by the blindness of men: “this place is too real for that blame/ people pin on each other, for honor or dishonor.” This is the Whitman of “The Animals” in Song of Myself: “They do not sweat and whine about their condition, / They do not lie awake at night and weep for their sins.”

Stafford must abandon man in order to see him again. In a way Stafford’s landscape is full of people but not in the usual sense. Rather the people are there as spirits invited to renew themselves at the altar of Nature. These poems are written for those not present in the poems. “An Offering,” the last piece in Things That Happen, addresses beautifully just this notion of Nature as renewing force. Stafford begins by asserting that we have built-in protections against adversity:

Had you noticed—a shadow
that saves us when day stares
too hard?—inside our eyes
there’s this shadow?

The best such protection, the finest shadow of them all, is the one cast by Nature, and this is the one Stafford offers as his final gift:

And there is one shadow so great
we live inside it our whole life long.
And it is here right now.
These poems are for that shadow.

Whitman spent his entire career rewriting a single volume of poems, and I have mentioned already the unity that Stafford’s canon exhibits. Such persistency and constancy can be the marks of a major poet but can also carry dangers, and these two poets share flaws as well as strengths: recurrent ideas can become repetitive poems, and plain-speaking can become flat poetry. The first of these potential weaknesses threatens Things That Happen most often, and Stafford may be countering the problem of repetitiveness when he emphasizes the omnipresence of the natural world’s power:

You can’t give away, or buy,
or sell, or assign these hills—
they hold what they always held.

And it’s the same all over the world—
any tree, any rock, any hill.

But still the poet must give new words to the old ideas, and by the time we reach the title poem at mid-volume, we feel we have already been there. In short, Stafford’s collection may have too much unity for its own good, so that respectable poems pale beside finer poems on the same subject.

Stafford is willing to have his language collapse at times as the price paid for building a voice virtually ungirded by poetic gestures. When this voice is clear and fresh, the result is marvelous, as when he describes glaciers in “The Early Ones”:

They carved on the rocks—these are what stay,
hardly worn at all if sheltered, some
broken and all of them gray, that distant
gray that clouds have, or storms that moan
at the coast. They carved and went away.

But there are times when freshness departs from Stafford’s writing, and we are left only with the clarity of easy statements. There is a note in Stafford’s natural songs which tends toward the sentimental (“little animals call/us, tiny feet whisper”), and another note which sings clichéd philosophies (“it’s alive, the whole world’s alive,” or “sometime the truth will come”).

Things That Happen has fine moments, but it shows Stafford eliminating too many of his strengths in single-minded pursuit of his vision of the natural world. Empty lands have always been his subject, but so have people, and many of his finest poems in earlier volumes have brought individuals to life with precise, loving detail. A poem late in Things That Happen concludes, “What disregards people does people good,” but while Stafford often convinces us of this truth as we read his new collection, there are times when we would wish people back into this landscape—people who would regard us, and whom we would regard, in ways that would also do us good.

In A Fugitive Season is Robert Dana’s strongest volume to date. It continues his previous concerns with minimal forms and lines, but also achieves a depth of emotion sometimes missing from earlier poems such as those in Some Versions of Silence (1967). Influenced by his readings and translations of Oriental poetry, Dana has always worked for compression of language and expansion of emotional nuance—a common pursuit of many poets, but radically important for Dana. He is a poet of white space, giving equal and sometimes predominant weight to the unspoken words he refuses to place upon the page. Dana’s work is always undeniably poetry, yet he is never traditional in any limiting sense. He abjures rhyme, strict meter, and even punctuation; but he uses image and metaphor with care and frequency, and he restores the importance of the poetic line with such dedication that, as in much Oriental verse, the line is the crucial unit of sense and rhythm. The opening poem of In a Fugitive Season invites us immediately into this vigorously poetic world where the reader must be willing to work just as hard as the poet:

If I say
the sky runs to a blue glaze
in the bottom of my dish

the moon is the sweetness of long bones

will you believe me?

Dana’s concern in this volume is with the deep-set complications and difficulties we create for ourselves as loving and social creatures. The bulk of the 52 poems in the sequence—and most of the best ones—portray emotional chaos in the lives of a man and woman whose love has broken down. Potentially the stuff of cliché and bleeding hearts, this private world is made new for us by Dana’s incessant pushing of language away from the ordinary. He enters with equal facility and care the minds of both lovers, and he shows how for each the world has become nothing but emblems of loss:

She walks the weeds barefoot speaking their names
  to the water

Buckthorn    Lambs-Quarters    Sheep-Sorrel
Yellow Rocket    Black Medic     Heal-All

Fish tug the sun into silent targets on the lake

It’s all there
the emptiness gentle in her hands

Nothing sharpened his days
The winter and the snow

the snow in successive ripples successive waves
cresting into scarps by the roadside wire
The winter and the snow
The sun on the snow in the broken encampments of
His fields burning like white phosphorous

Fall and winter are perpetual seasons for these fugitives, these lovers who have nearly escaped one another but who have no safe place to go toward: “Between them/loneliness is what’s left of the sacred.” These seasons are also the ones Dana projects elsewhere in the sequence as metaphors of a world wider than that of the lovers. Drawing on specific events of recent American history, he is capable of using these to hint at the apocalyptic threats beneath. “The Watergate Elegy” begins on a grimly clever note—”All those years spying/ years of fear/The cold tit of the Capitol”—but quickly becomes solemn, ominous:

Spring is long gone from this city
The mallards
shackled to their Potomac slough in a surprise of
waiting for the sun to warm
They too are gone

The country and its dreams are fading as surely as the lovers’ relationship, with all promises shattered in this new, more difficult season of our lives:

This city is not a wheel for nothing
not white for nothing among its blacks and cherry

But the axle is broken
the hub empty

And at the end of his reflection
Lincoln shrinks into the dark memorial of his penny

Certain sections of the sequence fall over into obscurity, but we are willing to sacrifice them for what stays so often with a burning clarity. We join the great lament for all things fallible, tarnished, and aging—the lament which is at the heart of this volume, and which is most powerfully uttered by the man in the broken love relationship. Beginning from the realization that “The small towns of the strange middle of our lives/remain small,” he widens his thinking to achieve an understanding that the world at all levels and in all ways shares his entrapment:

men wire their bodies to grenades
jets sizzle blind from the decks of carriers
In the streets
something dies

Finally, the man tries to set himself against this backdrop of the world, and what he sees is both an epiphany and a fall into chaos:

Too far arrived to go back
I see that I am what I always was

that ordinary man on his front steps
bewildered under the bright mess of the heavens
by the fierce indecipherable language of its stars

Lisel Mueller’s third book, The Need to Hold Still, shows her to be a minimalist of words and forms as is Dana; but while her style is spare and musical, she rarely employs his expressionistic mode. Like Dana, she takes a stand in her opening poem. She offers her 13-year-old daughter a copy of Sister Carrie as a birthday gift:

And so I give you Dreiser,
his measure of certainty:
a table that’s oak all the way through,
real and fragrant flowers,
skirts from sheep and silkworms,
no unknown fibers.

Mueller will offer us this same hard and pure world in her poems, but not because we should be finally content with such a world:

I give you names like nails,
walls that withstand your pounding,
doors that are hard to open,
but once they are open, admit you
into rooms that breathe pure sun.

A quantum leap from plain experience to some complex revelation about or through that experience—such is Mueller’s goal, a goal she announces (interestingly for my present discussion) with the following quote from Stafford as epigraph to her volume:

So, the world happens twice—
once what we see it as:
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

Stafford believes that the natural world can speak its own legends, but for Mueller all legends have human sources. Among the legends she explores are those of ancient religions, historical figures, folk and fairy tales, and childhood dreams and fantasies.

In The Need to Hold Still Mueller perfects a voice that has learned to react personally to all people, things, times, and places. The title poem, speaking of an aging woman who gathers bouquets of skeletal winter weeds, renders in human terms what Mueller’s voice has learned in poetic terms: living is caring, simplicity can be wisdom. If we care, we can sometimes see ourselves in the world just by speaking its names, without any intervention from any applied forms or notions: “Teasel/ yarrow/goldenrod/wheat/bedstraw/Queen Anne’s lace/ drop-seed/love grass:/plain, strong names, /bread and water.” To become that world, to be governed by its winter, can be immeasurably sad:

A woman
coming in from a walk
notices how drab
her hair has become
that gray and brown
are colors
she disappears into

that her body
has stopped asking
for anything but calm.

But the sadness carries wisdom unavailable to blossoming weeds and young women, “the dignity of form/after seduction/and betrayal/by color.” We look beneath the surface to a beauty born of, and surviving, experience: “dullness of straw, /which underlies/the rose/the grape/ the kiss/the narrow leaf blades, /shape of the body.”

This is the world legending itself deep, and time after time Mueller’s language helps us break through to such depths. In the historical monologue, “The Triumph of Life: Mary Shelley,” the dead poet’s wife derides all who would be offended by Byron’s rescuing of Shelley’s heart from the funeral pyre:

You don’t trust the heart
though you define death
as the absence of heartbeat

You would have taken a ring,
a strand of hair, a shoelace
—a symbol, a souvenir

not the center, the real thing

Brazenly and imaginatively touching the real to get beyond the real—this is Mueller’s tactic. Sometimes she applies herself to a subject as apparently simple as children’s drawings of themselves, with the result that we see innocence and experience—those tired poetic troopers—become meaningful one more time:

In the beginning, you only needed
your head, a moon swimming in space,
and four bare branches;
and when your body was added,
it was light and thin at first,
not yet the dark chapel
from which, later, you tried to escape.

Other times, Mueller goes after realities and legends as large as the poetic process itself. In “The End of Science Fiction,” she argues that our chaotic space-age life has outstripped our forward-looking imaginings, and that therefore we must look backward and inward for meaningful subjects: “invent a child that will save the world/a man who carries his father out of a burning city.”

Nothing about such a task, such legend-making, is easy. Nothing about vigorous and sincere working toward minimal subjects, words, and forms is easy. William Stafford in late career, and Robert Dana and Lisel Mueller in mid-career, all deserve our attention for their respective efforts in these directions. Perhaps Dana and Stafford would not be offended if I offered the following lines by Mueller as a final gloss on the poetics of all three writers. Perhaps Roethke would also approve.

Invent real tears, hard love,
slow-spoken, ancient words,
difficult as a child’s
first steps across a room.


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