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An Unacknowledged American Poet

ISSUE:  Summer 1990

The Time Traveler. By Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton. $18.95.

Several years ago, John Updike told an interviewer that critics of contemporary poetry ignore, almost by reflex, the poems of any writer whose primary genre is fiction; despite having published several well-received volumes of poetry, he claimed wryly that he hadn’t reached the status of even a “minor poet.” Although a handful of writers have been recognized for their work in both genres—Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Robert Penn Warren come immediately to mind—most fiction writers who also write poems would probably sympathize with Updike’s complaint. His remarks certainly apply to the career of Joyce Carol Oates, whose first volume of poems, Anonymous Sins, appeared in 1969, and who has now published her seventh collection, The Time Traveler. Although nine book-length studies of Oates’ work have been published to date, not one of them (including my own) makes more than a passing reference to her considerable poetic output. In 1978 she told a Paris Review interviewer that her then forthcoming volume, Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money, would probably be her last, adding: “No one wants to read a novelist’s poetry.” Fortunately she has reconsidered, for this ample and richly various new collection is easily the best in her already distinguished (if largely unacknowledged) career as an American poet.

To read Oates’ volumes of poetry over the past 20 years is to witness not only her characteristic fecundity of imagination but also an increasingly skillful command of form and image. The poems from her early volumes—Anonymous Sins (1969), Love and Its Derangements (1970), and Angel Fire (1973)—often had a fluidity and near-formlessness that attracted harsh responses from such critics as Helen Vendler, who wrote of Angel Fire that the poems “have an awkward gait and an ungainly structure, an incoherence of parts and a lack of conclusiveness in the whole.” Oates herself, in a 1973 interview, remarked of Love and Its Derangements: “Each of the poems is a blur to me, a continuously shifting and changing emotional event, which in my frustration I somehow declared permanent.” She also speculated that “the writing of poetry might be too direct for me, too troubling and explosive.” But her 1978 volume, Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money, exemplified a new level of formal control, even as it showed Oates continuing to write poems that parallel, in many ways, the concerns of her fiction. Just as the “explosive” poems of Love and Its Derangements suggested the searing emotions to be found in her novel them (1969) and her story collections The Wheel of Love (1970) and Marriages and Infidelities (1972), such poems as “Visionary Adventures of a Wild Dog Pack” in her 1978 volume clearly grew out of her novel Son of the Morning, published that same year. As she told an interviewer, “Everything is related. If it wouldn’t alarm me, I’d someday go back through all my writing and note how the obsessions come and go. . . . The poems are nearly all lyric expressions of larger, dramatic, emotional predicaments.”

In 1982, interviewed again on the subject of poetry, Oates offered her definition of the genre: “Poetry is a rite involving language—at its very highest a sacred rite in that it transcends the personality of the poet and communicates its vision, whether explicitly or by indirection, to others. Many poets speak of the almost impersonal nature of their art when it is most pure and inspired.” Although The Time Traveler often suggests such a transcendent impersonality, it seldom lapses into the flat philosophical statement that marred some of the earlier volumes and is far more adventurous than the early work in its variety of form, tone, and verbal texture. As in her fiction, however, Oates’ themes have remained remarkably consistent throughout her career. The rapacity of natural processes, the violence and hypocrisy at the heart of American culture, the consoling power of art—these obsessions continue to “come and go” throughout her poetry, with an impressive variety of emphasis and modulation.

This is not to say, however, that The Time Traveler offers nothing entirely new. Like her recent novel Marya: A Life (1986) and her collection of essays (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (1988), these recent poems show Oates becoming far more explicit in dealing with feminist issues. “Luxury of Being Despised” shrewdly exposes the misogyny of historical figures as various as St. Paul, Nietzsche, Freud, and De Kooning, but finds reason for exultation in a woman’s “despised” condition: “What bliss, to be so despised: / the closed thighs all muscle, / the Church Fathers’ contempt, / the Protestant chill, what freedom / to have no souls!— / what animal delight.” Oates’ feminist poems make fine use of a quality not usually associated either with feminist writing or with Oates’ own work: a sense of humor. In “Peaches, Pineapples, Hazelnuts . . .,” Oates quotes Paul Valery: “Women are fruits. There are peaches, pineapples, and hazelnuts. No need to continue: it is clear.” But Oates does continue, with effective deadpan irony: “No need to continue, it is clear / how ecstatic we are you’re dead, / though we must not say so, but compose / our faces otherwise.” In a lengthy prose poem, “Love Letter, with Static Interference from Einstein’s Brain,” Oates uses uproarious humor to satirize the canonization of patriarchal figures and the correspondent subugation of women, whose “duty” is not to think but to love: “while it is perhaps true that most women are in (undiagnosed) terror of bleeding to death, it is historically true that they have put their terror to good use in cultivating the art of the warm and engaging smile.”

Perhaps the most pervasive theme in The Time Traveler is the simultaneous cruelty and humbling beauty of the natural world. “Loves of the Parrots” caustically views a strutting male parrot (“Bright green, bright yellow, / bright arterial red!”) dominating his fearful harem of females, and concludes: “Love, not death, is the bitter thing.” Other poems focus upon leeches, buzzing flies, and the tyranny of weeds (“Already the apshalt is cracking, giant / weeds pushing up from beneath. Weedy logic.”). Yet several view nature with a sacramental awe that is relatively rare in Oates’ work. In “The Mountain Lion,” the splendid animal enters the speaker’s dream as a force of both destruction and beauty:

In my dreaming head the mountain lion paced.
His wisdom was sudden as bones being crunched.
When he leapt his muscles rippled,
his splendid skeleton defined itself—
hunger in motion!—godly
in motion.

Similar in tone is “New Jersey White-Tailed Deer”:

Tonight—last night—
the years before yesterday—
these childhood apparitions
accursed with useless beauty—
Pray for us.

Creatures of legend and perfection—
erect white “flags” for tails
for hunters’ gunsights—
Pray for us.

As Oates writes in “The Consolation of Animals,” “It’s their not knowing how they must die./ The emptiness of their beautiful eyes./ The heat and damp and pulse of their breaths, / the way joy seixes them like a miniature death— / and no shame in it.” Such a poem recalls Whitman’s rhapsodies on natural innocence, and much of Oates’ work here conveys a Whitman-inspired optimism. (Even as others slyly controvert Whitman’s relentless enthusiasm: his well-known “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing” is echoed in Oates’ rather less cheerful poem, “I Saw a Woman Walking into a Plate Glass Window.”) Likewise the other great 19th-century American master, Emily Dickinson, inspires some of Oates’ spiritual apprehensions within nature, especially in the 13 brief poems contained in “A Winter Suite.” “Winter Solstice” responds fearfully to the featureless nullity of a snowstorm: “This is the pitiless North we are afraid / we deserve— / the year gone in mouthfuls, / tiny bones, / skeletons./ This, our true finitude: / the soul crying a perfect 0.” Yet poems such as “Winter Boredom” suggest a turning away from the tragic starkness of Dickinson’s vision: “Winter is a fiction, so sheerly white, / its facets dazzle like truth.” In “The Thaw,” Oates evokes an alternate truth:

With the tide of noon the buried sea rises,
the long grasses begin to float.
The very air begins to pulse.
Even hurts, stiched over so long,
have become small glittering jewels.

Since The Time Traveler is a selection of Oates’ poetry of the past seven years, it often reads like a miscellany. One poem responds to her travels through Eastern Europe, another describes an encounter with heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson; “Makeup Artist” and “Photograph Session” suggest moments transcribed from the life of a celebrated writer. There are several elegies: one for Oates’ grandmother, others for novelists John Gardner and William Goyen. Still other poems, such as “Waiting on Elvis, 1956” and “Roller Rink, 1954,” have the character of sociological still lifes, brief looks at American society that could easily appear, in expanded form, in one of Oates’ novels or stories. Yet, unlike her earlier volumes, which seemed a “blur” even to Oates, the majority of poems in The Time Traveler are memorable, finely executed stays against confusion; as a group they look unflinchingly at the darker manifestations of time and nature, yet the persona behind these quite various poems, their unifying voice, finds a transcendent pleasure and compensation in the mere act of bearing witness. As the title poem insists, to bear witness, and to remember, is a “luxury” even if what is remembered appeals to neither the eye nor the soul:

   In remembered dusk
strolling behind
the boarded-up
train depot—
broken glass,
scattered papers,
tall sinewy weeds—
but the flowers
tiny, pinched,
exquisitely blue—

To have the luxury,
now, of picking a
mere handful!—
a mere handful.

For all the terrors of nature, society, and the self that are evoked in The Time Traveler, this intense nostalgia for the passing world inspires the tone of loving homage that characterizes the volume as a whole. In all, these new poems reveal an important American poet continuing to develop her skills and to broaden her skeptical but sympathetic vision.


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