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 …