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Ask the Fact

The Revisionist

by Douglas Crase
Little, Brown, 85 pp., $10.95; $5.95 (paper)

The Everlastings

by Norman Dubie
Doubleday, 78 pp., $6.95; $4.95 (paper)

The poets who mean the most to us are those who tell us about what we cannot see by reason of its very proximity. What we look for in the voices of young poets is news of the freshest modifications of our consciousness. Some of the interest our friends (and our lovers) have for us seems to lie in their ability to tell us things about ourselves we could not otherwise have known. While poems can hardly take the place of friends, it does not seem right for friends entirely to take the place of poems. The man who would know himself will not wish to forgo either.

Of course, only the strongest and most intuitive poets (like friends) can provide us with real insights about ourselves; we are anxiously looking for them, for only they have the power, by showing us the way we live our lives, to enable us to change. So we scan the emerging poets of this country for signs “of the metaphysical changes that occur

Merely in living as and where we live,” to use Stevens’s phrase. What we find mostly, of course, is evidence of changes in the models used for imitation. The best of our young poets, however, show us the various paths open to the contemporary mind.

The disconcerting quality of Douglas Crase’s poems seems to lie in their straightforwardness. Crase states even his most peculiar propositions in a tone so matter-of-fact that one is likely to be caught off guard, forced to retrace one’s steps to grasp the import of some seemingly unarguable statement. The self in Crase’s poems does not make its own performance the matter of the poem, does not indulge in gestures trying to expose or erase the self. Even Crase’s “I,” because it addresses a “you” at once personal and extended, seems to take on that extension, and present us not with opinions, but with statements of fact. Statements of imaginative fact, to be sure, but information, nevertheless, delivered in a broad summarizing way that tends to submerge peculiarities of voice and viewpoint.

The intense and steady concentration with which Crase grasps and works at his subject suggests attention to the Emersonian admonition to “Ask the fact for the form.” Crase seems to give us the energy of thought brought directly to utterance:

Nothing is ever over in a place like this, which is one
Of the reasons why people come to look at it. As an
Exhibit the waterfall is naturally unsurpassed: part of
Its fascination must be in the way it demonstrates how
An event can be still permanent when it depends for its
Definition on continually going over the edge….

The revisionism that Crase announces in his title lies in his attempt to read, in the “sediment of history,” the crucial points of contact between the past and our own situation. Crase has an exact sense of the pressures of historical time and cultural place, neither diminishing those forces to elements of an autobiography nor reducing them to abstractions. Whether in his frequent poems about places, or in poems about love, Crase defines his subject to include its broadest imaginative possibilities, then proceeds to reveal and examine those possibilities:

The thing is,
With a swamp you’re between a dying lake and still-emerging
Land, the end product sinks to the bottom and there’s no
Place for certain where the original processing leaves off
Just as the latest technologies began. The thing about a
Swamp in this state is the place it occupies in time: the
First settlers passed the whole territory for fear of fever
And water moccasins, and, despite the irreversible success
Of immigration when it came, those who remember still warn
You of the worst: all Michigan to be a swamp someday.

Crase views things from an unusual angle but his vision nowhere obtrudes as merely a peculiarity. In the book’s title poem, the “you” addressed seems at once a former lover and America itself, a conception that in other hands surely would seem a tour de force; Crase treats it so naturally that one is convinced he really does conceive of love affairs and his relation to America in the same terms:

Not dead, not even past, in this enclosure you could
Make yourself available to me and if I haven’t reached you
It doesn’t mean that you are out of reach. Diligent,
As sure as I know your name, I know that you are there
Between the live honeysuckle and the cast anthemion,
Between the linden flower and the honey from the flower.

Crase’s trick is to accept the impoverishment of the imagination, to acknowledge its contingency on the history and culture that surround or engulf it. The poetic self surrenders its privileged position, opening itself to the pressures that limit the imagination. Yet having accepted this diminishment, Crase goes on to locate the imagination outside himself, outside imagination, in the very realm of facts that seemed to confine and suffocate it. If “Our imaginations have let us down” in the face of the world, we must renounce sublime aspirations, and the world itself must grow imaginative:

Aren’t waters from the land of the watersheds
Flown to the city where all of the watertowers
Are on their nests? Now in such infra-
Structure of course are social costs
But places as well where, as a citizen,
You drink for free and no one assembles
To picket or object, the system having
Been built for you. No matter that “you”
Were intended in the abstract; your tap
On these works fulfills their intent
To the glory of those who proposed them
And of their engineers….

First books of poetry show promise more often than achievement. For a first book to show at once as much achievement and as much invention as this one marks it as an important event. This is a poetry that convinces us not merely by an assured and masterful style, but by its ability to acknowledge its own limits without bitterness or nostalgia, by its ingenuity in turning the losses of experience into imaginative gain.

Speculating on the path that American literature might take, Tocqueville noted the general dreariness of daily life in a democracy, and predicted that poets in a democratic nation would be led to “purely imaginary realms” as they fled from ordinary reality. Whether daily life is less dreary now than in Tocqueville’s day, the impulse to escape it has not lost its power. Norman Dubie’s work manifests a powerful disposition to relocate his imagination out of its own time and place. The places to which he escapes, however, are not purely imaginary, only removed historically and geographically. Furnished with a wealth of period detail, they offer themselves as visions of Rodin’s studio, Beethoven’s household, a party given by Jean Renoir.

Dubie’s model, of course, is the dramatic monologues of Browning, whose speakers are historical figures. But where Browning’s interest seems largely psychological, revealing nuances of character through a vivid rendering of the speaking voice, Dubie resists penetrating the minds of the historical personages he presents. One might say that Browning takes a tape recorder to the past, Dubie a camera. Dubie seeks to evoke emotion through a highly particularized rendering of a world of objects:

The wassail is
Being made by pouring beer and sherry from dusty bottles
Over thirty baked apples in a large bowl: into
The wassail, young girls empty their aprons of
Cinnamon, ground mace and all-spice berries. A cook adds
Egg whites and brandy. The giant, glass snifters
On a silver tray are taken from the kitchens by two maids.

Dubie’s poems are more often third than first person, and even his own dramatic monologues tend to adhere scrupulously to the surfaces of the world they portray. The sense of immediacy, of the activity of thought in the mind of the speaker, recedes, and in its place is a rich, leisurely flow of concrete imagery.

Dubie’s method relies on accumulation rather than concentration. The poems build slowly, and tend to trail off rather than close; their characteristic gesture of farewell is an ellipsis. The contrasts and incongruities characteristic of Dubie’s sensibility arise not from a mental habit of paradox, but from a search for means to intensify the image: “The boughs of evergreen are / Like the large messed feathers of parrots, leaning / And diseased in their ivory cages.” What modulation or emphasis one finds springs from the violence Dubie frequently interjects, but even that violence has no more pressure than any other retinal vibration. It forms a brief punctuation, then drifts off along the lengthening chain of images:

The expedition like a ribbon of smoke climbed all day
Up the slippery green wall of this abyss, the youngest
Of the infected officers fell backwards,
   growing smaller
And smaller, his brains like rope following him into the water.
His scream was lost to the deafening waterfall. His fellow soldiers
Are lost to their progress up through fog.

Dubie’s attempts to add terror to beauty fall short of suggesting a realm of experience beyond or opposed to the beautiful. Like so many other poets in their thirties, Dubie seems to have no skepticism about the sense of sight, and about the ability of accumulated imagery to record a real vision. Visual particularity has its place and its virtues, but the contact of the eye cannot substitute for the contact of the mind. Dubie reduces the language of poetry to a sort of mechanical instrument for recording appearances, and indeed he achieves a certain purity in diction and voice. But that achieved purity can hardly substitute for the complexity of poetic argument. Dubie has, in his swerve from Browning, done away with just the quality that gave the earlier poet his vitality, and the loss can be felt only as a diminishment.

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