The Light Around the Body
Damned Ugly Children
The Light Around the Body is a meditation on politics, fatigue, failure, war, where we are now. In its theme and sensibility, its eerie passivity and suppressed anguish, it is, I suppose, a jeremiad at half-mast.
The President dreams of invading Cuba.
Bushes are growing over the out- door grills,
Vines over the yachts and the leath- er seats.
All of the poems in Robert Bly’s second collection spread themselves in the same sad, gray, moonlit language, the emotions deceptively bedded deep below the surface, a sort of post-contemplative, post-surrealist style, the mind drained of its data, possibility wrung dry. Yet, too, the poems seem ennobled by the small rightness of tone, images, indictment, the modest urgency of the poet’s response.
Like Thoreau and Tolstoy, Robert Bly is a puritan at heart. I think he would renounce art for truth, the imagination for “reality,” and both, should he be forced to do so, for morality—perhaps an unappealing Middle-Western morality, thin-lipped, reedy, self-righteous. In Bly’s America, an America very much of the moment, everything’s a cheat, or everything’s ersatz; or everything becomes so, even, at times, Nature. The silence in the snowy fields (the title of the poet’s first collection) becomes here the official silence of injustice, or the babble of the insane.
Bishops rush about crying, There is no war,
And bombs fall,
Leaving a dust on the beech trees…
The good Germans drink cokes and watch the hockey match, dressed in different suits, different roles, but aimless, apprehensive. The swinging society swims into sight like some barren planet tufted with tokens of USA today: “Tiny loaves of bread with ears lie on the President’s table.” The President is the great devourer, the smyler with the knyfe beneath the cloke, everyone’s monster…
Bly is a strange poet, austere yet tender. A sense of distaste or personal disquiet haunts much of his work; the poet himself, in his wayward, intensely musing way, drawn close to disintegration. But he is also strong-willed, carefully armored, defensively settled in his beliefs and sense of place or of history. He is tremendously subjective, but his subjectivity has always been pitted against objectivity. In Silence in the Snowy Fields the contrast was between his self-enclosure and his everyday existence, his Minnesota farm, horses, hunting. In The Light Around the Body the dramaturgy is that of the poet’s interior journey through Vietnam, imperialism abroad, materialism at home. The new poems are political, but not agit-prop.
Very likely all of these poems should really be read as one poem, or as a set of variations on a single complaint. “Merchants have multiplied more than the stars of heaven,” a sardonic echo of Kant’s “the moral law within and the starry heavens above,” is the first line of the first poem. Luxury, indolence, boredom, the TV set, the Chase National Bank, Johnson’s cabinet, people existing in an affectless calculating well-fed indifference—these thematic properties appear again and again, giving an air of noxious confinement. “Accountants hover over the earth like helicopters/Dropping bits of paper engraved with Hegel’s name“—system-building estrangement, decision-making machinery all about man, beyond man.
THROUGHOUT the tendency is to present a fantasy-like landscape of drift and disjunction, or scenes from our day in a more or less newsreel setting:
The saint is born among tin cans in the orchard…
Black beetles, bright as Cadillacs, toil down
The long dusty road into the moun- tains of South Dakota.
Narrow-eyed pitiless montages, the indifferent voice of the news media tripping over the wires, the bulletins, antiseptic, caressing: “We have violet rays that light up the jungles at night, showing /The friendly populations…” Figures from the past (Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy) are introduced, democratic institutions seen as another form of deceit or detachment, the American dream disappearing in conquest, avarice, recriminations:
Last night we argued about the Marines invading Guate- mala in 1947,
The United Fruit Company had one water spigot for 200 families,
And the ideals of America, our freedom to criticize,
The slave systems of Rome and Greece, and no one agreed.
The focus is the Vietnam War, though many of the poems dealing with it are among the least successful in the collection. Here the psychological and political footholds grow deeper and duller, a drudging back and forth, the tone hardening. Often Bly’s imaginative resources get lost in the purity of his appeal, the sensitivity seeming secondary to the Jacobin effects. The particulars themselves become abstractions, like the titles: “Asian Peace Offers Rejected without Publication.” Beyond that, an amorphous lament, suggesting the smash up of the great society in slow motion, with the poet as the dying commentator, recording the split in man and his two worlds, identity and environment, the inner and the outer, and in another part of the morass, history thrashing about fatalistically, intent on a wrong turning, a cornered beast…
Let me present a typical poem:
There is another darkness,
A darkness in the fences of the body,
And in moles running, and tele- phone wires,
And the frail ankles of horses;
Darkness of dying grass, and yellow willow leaves;
There is the death of broken button- holes,
Of brutality in high places,
Of lying reporters,
There is a bitter fatigue, adult and sad.
The poem is called “Listening to President Kennedy Lie about the Cuban Invasion.” But it seems to me it could just as well have been called “Watching Television” or “Turning Away from Lies” or “The Hermit” or practically any of the other titles in Robert Bly’s collection. Like most of Bly’s work, the poem is distinctive and arresting, with its own sort of spiraling queerness (“the fences of the body,” “the death of broken buttonholes”), but many of its lines could be transplanted quite easily into neighboring poems, and lines from neighboring poems transplanted right back into the empty spaces, with few readers the wiser.
BLY HAS ARRANGED his volume in five sections, with each of the sections repeating some theme, some nuance from every other section. Demarcations are made only to evaporate or overlap. So the most damaging remark to be leveled against The Light Around the Body, even while granting its necessarily oppressive or “alienated” atmosphere, is that there’s still something monotonous in the cumulative effect, and something a little arbitrary in its aesthetic strategy. After a while, too, the political content, I’m afraid, seems predictable, even pious. Some of the poems, for instance, suggest hapless mutations, an “ironic” cross between The Other America and Thinking About the Unthinkable, or copy from the National Guardian and the National Review inexplicably entangled—an all-too-easy, and currently all-too-familiar, juxtaposition of the Left and Right, the angelic and satanic, the pop apocalyptic. “Tonight they throw the fire-bombs, tomorrow/They read the Declaration of Independence.” “Rusk’s assistants eat hurriedly/Talking of Teilhard de Chardin.” The anger in the first statement, and the satire in the second, come across as purely perfunctory, or as wasted gestures.
No doubt, it is easy enough to assent to Bly’s political commitments. Certainly they are warranted by the times. But time is fickle. Auden on the Spanish Civil War, some of Brecht, some of Neruda, Aragon’s Front Rouge—you can’t really say there have been many lasting marriages between politics and poetry, not in our culture, probably not in any culture.
Actually, the one instance that I know of where the individual imagination and what Marxists call a revolutionary consciousness do naturally engage each other, is in the work of Cesar Vallejo, the comparatively unheralded Peruvian poet and Loyalist fighter who died in Paris in the late Thirties and whose grave and beautiful poems have, not surprisingly, influenced Bly. Also, I believe, through Bly’s example, others such as James Wright (“Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959”) and W. S. Merwin (“The Asians Dying”). What Bly seems to share with, or has taken over from, Vallejo, aside from technical models (the Peruvian’s singular metaphors, dry lyricism, the movement from the colloquial to the obscure and vice versa), is a feeling of loss or isolation so pervasive, or so famished by, or for, experience, that surrender to it is all: a new sort of stoicism, a new humility arises.
Paradoxically, too, there’s the creation of an underlying communion with man and nature and the pressure of the times—especially in Vallejo, who knew poverty and imprisonment. No thunderous statements are made. Instead, the poetry presents an accretion of small illuminations, sunken images, memories, contacts, a dream world, but without the flamboyance and libidinal extremity of dreams—with the impenetrability of dreams, but more earthy, life-like. Vallejo, undoubtedly, is an important figure, piercingly human, full of blindingly right moments or accents which once heard, even if the reader’s understanding of Spanish is rudimentary, he does not forget:
Cesar Vallejo ha muerto, le pagaban
todos sin que el les haga nada…
Bly is more ascetic, thinner in texture and ideas, a little edgy and evangelical. Bly is always seeking to atone:
Therefore we will have
To go far away
For the sufferings of the stringy- chested
And the small rice-fed ones, quivering
In the helicopter like wild animals,
Shot in the chest, taken back to be questioned.
In the concluding poems the poet retreats to a private demesne, robbed of growth and purpose, becoming an analogue of contemporary disrelation and affluence: melancholic interior mutterings, new fallen snow, a funeral, waters rising, wind “rising, swelling,/Swirling over everything alive,” a ship sinking. Later, the dying bull “bleeding on the mountain” till the “mountains alter and become the sea.” “The Executive’s Death,” the opening poem of the collection, is a mosaic of decay; the final poem, “When the Dumb Speak,” a muted celebration of innocence. As prefaces to four of the sections there are quotations from Jacob Boehme, pretty much the Boehme of Life Against Death, the chapter entitled “The Resurrection of the Body.”
The remarkable quality in Robert Bly’s work is the detail: it is clear cut, disturbingly imagistic, at times cunningly evocative, with rarely a word produced by sloth or insensitivity, as in “Opening an Oyster.” Still, unlike Vallejo, unfortunately, little on the whole really quickens, really develops, little’s revelatory. More than anything, there’s always that sense of movement across vast stretches of waste, or a sense of sequences and impressions enacted in double focus: the socio-political notations or condemnations, and a series of mystical redemptive rendezvous, pro remedio animae à la Boehme. With Bly, the politics of concern, however heart-felt, tend to sound somewhat hortatory, nagging, second hand. With Vallejo, both the political temper and the particular psychology are indelibly inscribed: instinct, indictment, vision are one, sans any intimation of posture at all…
A few years ago Sartre announced he would be unable to read Robbe-Grillet or Claude Simon in an underdeveloped country. Ingmar Bergman has refused to mount any more plays in Stockholm. The younger New Left critics, clearly in command, continually regard his presentations as manifestations of a bourgeois ideology. The master’s mise-en-scène does not sufficiently illuminate the class struggle or class interests. The Students for a Democratic Society consider the campaign of Senator McCarthy a “bourgeois diversionary tactic.” It seems, in mysteriously omniverous ways, that much of the critical paraphernalia or sentiment of the Marxist Thirties is back in vogue, along with Carole Lombard gowns and union songs.
Certainly, though there are the obvious and striking differences, similarities or parallels with the Thirties do abound, if you look for them. The military-industrial complex and civil disorders of the present, for instance, can be taken as the equivalents of, respectively, the specter of fascism in the depression era and capitalist “breakdown.” The new dawn that was thought to be surfacing in the Soviet Union (Malcolm Cowley in 1933: “What would happen if 3,000 proletarians marched on the Kremlin? They wouldn’t do so, because the Soviets are their own government. But if they ever did march, the government would yield to them, or cease to be communist”) can now be observed, at least through the eyes of some of the young, in Cuba or China or the Third World, generally. Those reactionary individualists or humanists who were to be swept away by the wave of the future and The New Masses are perhaps reincarnated as the “regressive liberals” of Chicago and elsewhere.
The situation, I gather, is embarrassing to older intellectuals. After Popular Front disenchantment, during the de-radicalized Forties and Fifties, the vocabulary of most of the little magazines and cultural journals was, to put it mildly, more mandarin than Marxist; a vocabulary perhaps crowned by Leslie Fiedler’s remark that “the unemployed libido loves to walk on picket lines.” Well, now we have picket lines or demonstrations, sensory awareness, “cool” media, confrontation, participatory pandemonium, the color war, and the return of the artist as social activist. As for the latter, is he remembering or studying or learning from the see-sawing crusades and retrenchments of the recent cultural and historical past? Or is art, again, “irrelevant”? Much of what I have seen or heard of neo-Brechtian balladeers, “revolutionary” poems and paintings, political cabaret sketches, gut theater and street theater seems to me irrelevant as art—simplistic, sloganeering, pontificatingly primitive. Compared to these productions. Robert Bly’s The Light Around the Body shines on the uppermost reaches of Parnassus.
ANDREW GLAZE is a poet who searches for love the way archaeologists go about digging up dinosaur bones or lost civilizations. It’s perfectly apparent to him that love is as lost as Atlantis, and if he found it he wouldn’t be able to live with it or even breathe its air for more than an hour. Still, trudging with infinite for-bearance, he makes the rounds. Places and wounds, funnybone aches, disruptive affairs or marriage, crackpot ideas or people, travels of the heart—these identify himself to his mirror and the world to him. His poems are full of explanations, telling you of things—a dirigible in his living room, mud and George Washington, what it’s like to watch a parade in the Village, “the secret of Louis Fifteenth’s good time”—and yet he’s obviously numbered his years, and worn out his heart in dreams, looking for someone, the special “you,” to whom he would have to explain nothing at all, to whom he would be “the center of attention” forever and ever, the ending of a fairy tale timelessly arrested. Nor is it clear (nor probably does it really matter very much to him), whether the “you” is a woman, a man, a child, a dog, or even, since he has written a poem about one, a carp.
Naturally, he comes from the South (he has a tearfully crabbed valentine of a poem to that sad land, full of conscience-stricken whimsey), and lives in New York, so combines two solitudes in one—a quirky rolling misty regional that must no doubt be very trying to his friends, along with a cool cosmopolitan despair and Horn and Hardart self-mockery. His poems are indeed Damned Ugly Children:
I love every one of you anyway—
your scabby hook noses, wall eyes and crab feet.
If like children they presume too much, or go on too long, or impose too knowingly (“I made up my mind when I was fifteen years old/to be always fifteen“), nevertheless, they all share an emotional state “where the impossible squats/dressed in long rainbow-colored questions,” a state of sparkling tatterdemalion inconclusiveness and a jumpy amenable poignancy, at times ready to explode in anger or drown the country in tears given half a chance. It is a state that Andrew Glaze makes peculiarly his own.
I don’t think he bears much relationship to other poets, perhaps Edward Field, perhaps a few pirouettes from Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, or here and there the Theodore Roethke of “The Geranium.” I do think behind much of his crackerbarrel romanticism and direct indirectness of speech can be heard the folksy babble of the Southern Gothic: Eudora Welty’s sketches, Faulkner’s tall tales, and, in a sort of muffled way, Tennessee Williams, when he’s being dog-eared and fancifully alcoholic—an aria or two from Camino Real and Slapstick Tragedy, Tom’s reveries in The Glass Menagerie.
Andrew Glaze cultivates a certain charm, a certain style, but most of all he cultivates failure, and that like a clown, though a clown of the old school, who bows gallantly before starting his spiel. “What’s misery for, except to make us funny?” There’s a gentlemanly school-masterly titter throughout some of the humor, and an all too seductively ramshackle involvement with himself and his problems. The endings of many of the poems are limp, the craftsmanship not always right. But, in general, he has wit, a pictorial luminosity or energy, and, up to a point, a genuine veracity. Still, the real trouble, it seems to me, is that Andrew Glaze always only half believes whatever it is he says:
What is important except to be what you are?
Make them call out the cops if pos- sible.
Poetry had better be shocking or shut up.
It would be pleasant to predict that when he gets down to a wholeness of insight and spirit, he may well write the “shocking,” funny, touching, and yes, even dazzling works he is in his best poems, or best passages from other poems, always on the point of just doing. But to bring that about, the poet will have to hang up the cap and bells, wipe away the grease paint, and look at himself and his world deeply and unforgivingly. Such an act, one feels, again and again reading these poems, is for Andrew Glaze the most frightening prospect in town.