Bertha, and Other Plays
Reasons of the Heart
Cipango’s Hinder Door
Richard Lewis is a musician, a teacher, a man gifted in the music of feeling. For some years now he has been teaching children to listen to words. In return, he listens while the children speak, particularly when the speech is verse. The subtitle of his book is: “poems by children of the English-speaking world.” As his earlier anthologies imply, what he values in these poems is the rush of wonder, the sense of life as miracle. It is not clear to what extent this has determined his reception of the poems. There must be some children who are not thrilled by the olé of things; who think of the sun, the moon, the weather, the sea as strictly neutral events, perhaps merely yet another version of the “malady of the quotidian.” If there are such children, they are not heard in Mr. Lewis’s anthology. These young poets write as if the world were an astonishing treasury, a carousel of metaphor. Mr. Lewis loves to attend to these sweet sounds. Splendid; but the chorale is misleading if it excludes that childish sound which is laden with distress, where the metaphors are stillborn and the new year says nothing new. Perhaps Mr. Lewis, wanting children to be happy, prefers happy children to the other kind. Or perhaps only happy children speak. I wish Mr. Lewis would tell us a little about his poets, beyond their names, countries, and ages. At the moment, many of the poems sound as if they were written by one well-adjusted child on the first morning of Summer vacation, playing with a basket of miracles. Maura Copeland (age 10) sees a skyscraper piercing the fog on a hot day, making the shapes “like temples of an ancient land.” Diane Cairns (age 10) imagines that the wind “is half the flower” because “it is in the flower”; as the white flower is in the clouds. Peter Shelton writes of a singing class in school, the children with their mouths open “like sleepy fish,” the teacher waving her arms “like a rhyme in water.” Peter Kelso, already moving at the age of eleven into adult assumptions of imagination and reality, speaks as if he were a young Wallace Stevens: “With a wave of words, a poet can/Change his feelings into cool, magical, mysterious/Mirages.” But the most remarkable poems in the book are those few that come from a darker imagination, where life is not a miracle play and we see fear in a small handful of dust. Charles Gluck (age 10) says in the poem “November”: “The birds have all flown/And I am alone/In the big sky’s mouth.” David Recht, an Australian boy of ten, has a Roethke-like poem:—
The little fish cries;
His mother has been
To the bottom
Trying to forget.
His stillness makes
He swims after his
I would like to know something of that boy’s mind, to which the stillness of a fish is the mark, the cause, of fear: fish-fear. And I want to know what prompted an American girl, Sarah Mason, age 10, to write the following poem, “War”:
Not bad, but miserable
Drenched in gray sadness
Lonely grief handed out to all.
“Handed out,” mark you.
KENNETH KOCH (age 41) is not for children or miraculists. The miracle is dead, long live the miracle, he seems to say. And if Peter Kelso in Australia writes about the wave of words and the imagination changing the world into its dazzling self, Mr. Koch in New York City answers:
My grandfather at eighty offered
The stanza a million dollars
That could make him feel as though
He were really a lagoon.
This anecdote comes from the Nurse, a character in Mr. Koch’s play, Without Kinship, but the author is prompting her. Mr. Koch is a parodist of the poetic imagination, making fun and game of its high moments; as in the same play a character called Pebble makes fun and game of poor Ophelia in the company of a nightingale, an ironing board, and (because he is a boy-pebble) a Girl-Pebble:
Kenneth stands for constancy.
Roommate for regret:
But Mr. Koch’s mockery is delicate, almost affectionate; like the mock-heroic poet glancing ruefully at conventions which are archaic only because we cannot live up to them. So he invokes the conventional forms only to tease them and send them away, at last, with blessings on their dear, silly heads. Thus his play Bertha is a parody of Coriolanus or any other play in that idiom. George Washington Crossing the Delaware is the kind of play in which the Great Man, reverting to a childhood dream, hears his father say: “He’ll never amount to a hill of beans.” In three plays Mr. Koch smiles at the notion of art itself, creation, construction, putting choice things together: The Construction of Boston, The Building of Florence, and Angelica. Haussmann’s miracle designed for young lovers. Angelica was written as an opera libretto, but the project fell down, appropriately enough since incomplete things are by definition funny. The libretto is the kind in which “Champ de Mars,” spoken in perfect French, provides a delicate off-rhyme against “these streets in little cars,” spoken in good American. Beaumarchais said that anything too silly to be said can be sung. Mr. Koch implies in his smiling way that nothing is too silly to be said or sung, provided we know exactly how silly it is. Several of these playlets sound as if they were written on a bet; like a New Statesman competition for the best parody of any book to be published by Grove Press or New Directions. The standard this week was very high. I hesitated a long time between Guinevere and The Merry Stones before giving the prize, a book token, to Pericles, a play of history written as a tribute to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
In the forest a sparring partner whispers. “We grow”…
which comes after
The stops have been removed and the bottle is filled with leeks (stet)
Mr. Koch’s plays, I hope I have implied, are a special taste. It would be interesting to see five or six of them on the stage, a multiple bill, with Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Dance of Death, but this is not a good idea. George Washington Crossing the Delaware would be considered a rather oblique piece in any other company, but in Bertha, and Other Plays it is almost broad in its effects, and very funny in the old way. Most of the other pieces are parody-happenings, improvisations on a minor bouquet. To describe them in this way is not to suggest that any able-bodied man could compose six of them before his breakfast. Only one able-bodied man. Kenneth Koch, would find that miraculous feat easy; just as he is the only writer who would end a play with the line. “Did you send for the bugles of Lancaster?”
EDWARD DAHLBERG (age 66) is something else again. Swift said that if the Irish flourish “it must be against every law of nature and reason; like the thorn at Glassenbury, that blossoms in the midst of winter.” So Mr. Dahlberg blossoms, a freak, a sport of lusty nature: he should have died long since, of neglect and exposure. The only explanation for his survival is that, rejected by men, he is on easy terms with the earth and the sea; the most resourceful leech-gatherer in modern American literature. No Bostonian, though born in Boston, he insists upon the nobility of the savage. “The enigma of North American literature is to be comprehended,” he writes, “by putting one’s ear to the savage ground, for American literature is aboriginal rather than reflective, or homiletical.” Many of the poems in Cipango’s Hinder Door are cries of range against those who would deny his truth. “Go back, go back,” he roars. “The black alder does not cast its leaf on Forty-Second Street.” So he turns to prophecy. Reasons of the Heart, not to be confused with the autobiography of the Duchess of Windsor. The Heart Has Its Reasons, is a collection of Mr. Dahlberg’s wise saws; aids to reflection: notes toward a new Sacred Book, a new Ecclesiastes. Or coming nearer Mr. Dahlberg’s home, a new Chilam Balam, the Mayan prophetic and miraculous books, homilies, annals, wisdom of the heart and the secret places.
This is a tall order. Indeed, I am not sure that Mr. Dahlberg is wise to put himself forward as a prophet. John Jay Chapman said of Emerson that if an inhabitant of another planet should visit the earth, he would receive a more accurate notion of human life by attending an Italian opera than by reading the works of Emerson: “He would learn from the Italian opera that there are two sexes: and this is the fact with which the education of such a stranger ought to begin.” There is no evidence in Mr. Dahlberg’s prophetic writings that the human story has gone beyond this first chapter: that there are two sexes is the message he brings from “the saline depths.” He speaks of “man’s ontological need,” but this is only another way of saying “a woman.” The things he hates include: cities, money, trousers, solitude, “the average man,” trade, ice, sleep, travel, taste. Henry James. The things he loves: women, passion, the sea, grass, fables, energy, “the felicities of the flesh,” Whitman, William Carlos Williams. Hazlitt, Webster, Swift, Nashe, and Gogol. These are sturdy options, but hardly the gist of prophecy. Indeed, it may be Mr. Dahlberg’s fate to be read, finally, for his style. Desdemona understood the fury in Othello’s words, but not the words themselves: as we may discount the fury in Mr. Dahlberg and attend to his “well-languaged” idiom, taking the sweet sounds as a miraculously pure poetry. Surely this has already happened. Mr. Dahlberg’s most celebrated admirers are Sir Herbert Read and Mr. Allen Tate: Is it possible to believe that these men take Mr. Dahlberg’s prophetic itch with any gravity? But they listen to his sentences as if they were composed by Mozart. The reader who goes to Reasons of the Heart to discover how to live is a fool. The reader who applies the prophecy to his daily life will get into trouble with husbands and policemen. A more cautions reader will take the new books “as literature,” intransitively, with a weather eye open to spot those passages which are so foolish that they should be sung. When Mr. Dahlberg takes himself most seriously, we should receive his words as if they were an unfinished libretto for an Italian opera. That should fix him.
MEANWHILE, AND OFTEN, he writes like an angel; a fallen angel, of course. since he would not be caught dead or alive with any other kind. His favorite trope is the translation of one thing into another. From Reasons of the Heart: “In most women virtue is rank plagiarism.” (Yes, Edward, and so is vice.) More elaborate versions turn up in the wonderful autobiography Because I was Flesh, where kansas City becomes Paul’s Tarsus, and the Missouri becomes the Cyndus, concupiscent both. The whores of Topeka have “dimpled thighs” because there were whores in Corinth and Ephesus. In the same spirit the shaving-mug in the Star Barber Shop at 16 East 8th becomes the Helmet of Mambrino, just as, more generally, man’s purpose is to convert rotten apples into the mandrakes of Haran. So, over a long and sorrowful course, we have Mr. Dahlberg declaring himself a miraculist. This is his way of redeeming the time, language his means, a Jacobean rhetoric the form of his willing force. He speaks somewhere, not in these new books, of turning the “rude American vernacular” into style; turning stones into bread. Given the life he has suffered, the long haul from Kansas City, he deserves a few crumbs of miracle. Some of the poems in Cipango’s Hinder Door are prayers for the grant of crumbs. “May the letter be not separate from the olive, Or bereft of the garden.” And some are stones made bread:
Go, go, sweet language, like the gazelle
Among the pine-cones and the rooty mushroom,
Lest it wax fierce,
Lurking in toothed, pard places.
So it goes. In Reasons of the Heart:
After we have given up the search for the Golden Fleece, and our veins no longer throb when we read in Ptolemy that the promontory of Cory closes the bay of Colchis, what is left? Not even despair can be urned in our breasts. How much can we relinquish between now and the grave and still pulse like the Pleiades?
We read this as we read Browne’s Urn Burial, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, or any other book in which the matter has lost its particular application and the style keeps everything alive. The style is a proliferation of internal events; sounds so intimate in the music that the sense can take care of itself. Thus the first sentence is astonishing in the risk it takes; the two long, heavy clauses magnificently sustained by the question, “what is left?”; three syllables lifting forty. The second sentence is prompted by the disproportion of the first, rather than by the demands of the sense; though the sense is strong. The sense matters, but only because words are not, after all, music. What we attend to, reading Mr. Dahlberg, is the tone of voice, the ear to the savage ground: the man speaking, rather than things, true or false, being said. When he writes well, everything comes together: Kansas City, Lizzie of Bottom Dogs and Because I Was Flesh, the eccentric but handsome erudition, the chime of other writers, friendships, enmities, the whores of Topeka, and the personal cadence, his own energy. Some of this is verbal, but not all; as Mr. Dahlberg, his head full of miraculous sounds, nevertheless knows and says that “water cresses are better than diphthongs.” Perhaps this explains why Because I was Flesh is such a remarkable book, Mr. Dahlberg’s masterpiece: the wonderful balance of word and fact, all those dreadful facts waiting to be redeemed, somehow, by the first miracle of understanding and the second miracle of words. Kansas City, Tarsus, Corinth, Topeka, Monte Carlo, Brussels, the Village, and now again, I gather, Kansas City: “Because I was flesh, and a breath that passeth away and cometh not again,” the “I” Edward Dahlberg after Saint Augustine. One says of Mr. Dahlberg’s writing what Vicky Williams, age 13, says in Miracles of a tree: “A tree is like an old friend—it grows on you.”