The Sense of Occasion
Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems
Uncommon is the word for Chester Kallman—uncommonly attractive and uncommonly odd. Probably no other poet of Chester Kallman’s generation, the generation of “the nineteen-twenties-born,” the generation which, as he mordantly remarks, “had no name,” seems so singular, so dryly or vividly himself. And yet, for all that, no other poet, I think, seems, here and there, so quaint, so much the poor proverbial drunk endlessly searching for his wallet under the streetlamp although he lost it up the alley. Storm at Castelfranco and Absent & Present and The Sense of Occasion—certainly the three collections of his poems are arresting performances. And certainly a number of the poems grow better from book to book, poems full of nipping lines, of “wry and borrowed ambiguities,” of contraries and conceits.
Yet often with Kallman just when a fancy’s having its head it becomes gnarled, just when the whimsey sparkles or stirs it turns crabbed. Here is a poet who knows most of what there is to know about meter and form (the mesmeric iambs of “Missing the Sea,” the exquisite syllabic variants of “The African Ambassador”). And here is a poet who knows most of what there is to know about rhetoric (the bravura style of “Testament of the Royal Nirvana”—it is small-scale virtuosity, but virtuosity nonetheless). Yet here, alas, is a poet who, now and again, appears to know nothing—or to know everything and forget everything—about tone.
Tone, after all, is the heart of the poem, “the heart hot within,” as the Psalmist says. It is what makes or breaks a voice. I don’t, of course, mean tone color. The author of “Griselda Sings” or “Weighty Questions” is a master of consonants and vowels; these poems, in particular, have the grace and delicacy of a Vittoria madrigal. I mean, rather, the steady dramatic shaping of one’s moods, one’s expectancy, one’s belief. About that, I think, Chester Kallman can be astonishingly inapt.
Consider “The Body’s Complaint to the Soul,” for instance. It is a pretty, playfully allegorical quarrel between the fleshly and the idyllic, the “cage” of appetite and the “lark” of spirit. The couplets are a bit sprung, but the poem, in its rippling way, is stately enough, and the reader ripples along pleasantly with it. But then, lo and behold, a bolt from the blue:
As I live,
Miss Skylark! titivated in
The touchy dungeon of my skin….
What is one to make of that? Is it John Rechy misreading Ronald Firbank, or Firbank mimicking John Rechy? And all the other inconsistencies of tactic and tone in all the other poems, which, in so exacting, so moving or witty a poet, cannot help but rankle the reader. All those hot-house jokes (“Come as you are if you have nothing on“), all those fey interjections (“My foot!”), all the lexicographer specialties or Anglo-American slang (“Orts of me,” “beastly,” “con”), all the greenroom improvisations on the theme of “We Happy Few,” worthy …