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On the Thread of Language

The Kingfisher

by Amy Clampitt
Knopf, 149 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Amy Clampitt writes a beautiful, taxing poetry. In it, thinking uncoils and coils again, embodying its perpetual argument with itself. The mind that composes these poems wants to have things out on the highest premises; refinement is as natural to it as breathing. Like all poetic minds it thinks in images, drawn here from an alluring variety of origins—nature (from Iowa to Greece), religion (from Athena to Christ), science (from geology to entomology), art (from manuscript illumination to Beethoven), and literature (from Homer to Hopkins). Clampitt is unself-consciously allusive; the poems are rich with geographical and literary texture, a texture that supports and cushions and gives body to the meditation—sometimes eager, sometimes resentful—that forms the main strand of each poem.

Clampitt’s poems, the best ones, are long, as painful ruminations have to be. Clampitt is a woman in middle age contemplating, in retrospect, a difficult Iowa childhood and adolescence, a move East and travels in Europe, and, in the present, love and friendship, periods of happiness on the Maine coast, and recently the death of parents. This life is very discreetly presented, in ways almost bare of anecdote; and yet the intensity of response in Clampitt’s language suggests a life registered instant by painful (or exalted) instant. If Iowa has not had a poet before, it has one now.

Here is Clampitt’s Iowa, its frightful weather (blizzards in winter and tornadoes in summer) vengefully and exactly drawn:

…the air,
that rude nomad, still domineered,
without a shape it chose to keep,
oblivious of section lines, in winter
whisking its wolfish spittle to a froth
that turned whole townships into
one white wallow…
Against
the involuted tantrums of spring and summer—
sackfuls of ire, the frightful udder
of the dropped mammocumulus
become all mouth, a lamprey
swigging up whole farmsteads, suc- tion
dislodging treetrunks like a rotten tooth—
luck and a cellarhole were all
a prairie dweller had to count on.

Such “description” has in another sense nothing to do with Iowa weather and everything to do with the barbarism of farm life, unaesthetic and uncivilized, presenting itself to the child Clampitt as one full of male wolfish spittle and female udders of ire, where one hid out and hoped for the storm to pass without tumultuous dismemberment. Against all that inexplicable violence, there occurred, the poem concedes, occasional moments of sweetness, experienced perhaps in the undergrowth of a woodlot:

…Deep in it, under
appletrees like figures in a ritual, violets
are thick, a blue cellarhole
of pure astonishment.
It is
the earliest memory. Before it,
I/you, whatever that conundrum may yet
prove to be, amounts to nothing.

That a poem beginning with the barbedwire fencing in an Iowa woodlot should end (after its savage weather report in the middle) with the philosophical conundrum of identity, is surprising, but only until one sees how typical such a proceeding is in Clampitt, where one thing is sure to lead to another. I take “The Woodlot” as typical because it, like most Clampitt poems, seems at once unpredictable and conclusive, straying into an expressionist fantasy with the storms, distilling a purity of feeling with the violets, and raising fundamental questions of a metaphysical order in its conclusion.

All of these qualities are displayed in Clampitt’s several bravura pieces in this volume, of which the most transfixing is her three-part piece “Triptych”: its parts are called “Palm Sunday,” “Good Friday,” and “Easter Morning.” These poems are about the human inclination to cruelty and to victimage, sometimes in the name of love, sometimes in the name of art, sometimes in the name of religion. In the first, Clampitt writes of “the gardener’s imperative…to maim and hamper in the name of order,” and, worse, of “the taste for rendering adorable / the torturer’s implements.” The art of the garden has its hidden mulch of entrails; ritual (“Sing, / my tongue, the glorious battle”) requires the gallows.

There follows the heart of “Triptych,” a Good Friday meditation on the mutual relation of victim and predator, phrased as a long, brilliant set-piece on the Darwinian survival of the fittest (and death of the unfit), on our descent from vegetarian primates and our adoption of carnivorous habits, on the evolution of sacrificial ritual (the Passover) in order to institutionalize the victim in religion, and on women’s peculiar addiction to masochistic piety. What I have said gives only the briefest sketch of what animates this poem: the vivid colors of the writing do justice to the exacerbated sensibility that here considers our evolved, but primitive, behaviors.

Good Friday” begins with a picture of the chain of predators. Lions in Serengeti have killed a wildebeest; vultures gather to join the lions in their bloody feast; maggots follow the vultures; and they are all so innocent in their instinctive savagery that the restless mind of the poet asks, “How did a notion that killing was wrong ever arise in our evolutionary history?”

Think of the Serengeti lions looking up,
their bloody faces no more culpable
than the acacia’s claw on the horizon
of those yellow plains: think with what
concerted expertise the red-necked,
down-ruffed vultures take their turn,
how after them the feasting mag- gots
hone the flayed wildebeest’s ribcage
clean as a crucifix—a thrift tricked out
in ribboned rags, that looks like waste—
and wonder what barbed whimper, what embryo
of compunction, first unsealed the long
compact with a limb-from-limb out- rage.

Clampitt’s momentum, once started—“Think…think”—takes over the whole poem, until at the end, when we are asked to think of Passover (and its extension in Good Friday), we see the victim convincing itself that it once had the glory of being the killer:

…think, whatever
rueful thumbprint first laid the rubric
on the sacerdotal doorpost, whose victim,
knowing, died without a murmur,
how some fragment of what shud- ders,
lapped into that crumpled karma,
dreams that it was once a tiger.

This meditation on the lion and the lamb (with Biblical roots in Isaiah and literary roots in Blake) is given a distinctively modern note not only by Clampitt’s evolutionary perspective (“The spearpoint glitters in the gorge…at Olduvai”) but chiefly by her lashing out at the immemorial appeal of victimage to women: “think how Good Friday / can…serve” as

an ampoule of gore, a mithridatic
ounce of horror—sops for the maudlin
tendency of women toward ex- tremes
of stance, from virgin blank to harlot
to sanctimonious official mourner—
myrrh and smelling salts, baroque
placebos, erotic tableaux vivants
dedicated to the household martyr,
underwriting with her own ex votos
the evolving ordonnance of murder.

This shrapnel-burst of language flings out in rapid succession caricatures of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen, and the Marys at the tomb of Jesus, and thence progresses to all the virgin martyrs and sanctimonious female saints, half erotic and half religious, all projections of the complicity of both men and women in the creation of the socially sanctioned “household martyr” who herself worships at these altars, contributing her mite to the sado-masochistic joint rite of marital brutality and submission. Refusing the easier conventional views of both religion and women, Clampitt lays bare the unpleasant satisfactions she perceives.

Finally, we come to “Easter Morning,” the last poem of “Triptych”: It has finished with those rites of the body, and rises in a bodiless purity. It gives up on all “the travesties that passed as faces” and on the “insistence / on the need for naming”: poetry, like sex, is of the body. Instead, all is now “imageless,” “grace”:

…the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless

In its inhuman and disembodied stillness, “Easter Morning” tells us that while we are in the body we cannot escape the bloody ritual of Good Friday. There has not been for a long time a poem that sees us so helplessly in love with the rhythms of victimage and brutality, societal, sexual, and religious.

If Clampitt often leaves us exhausted by her headlong and pitiless investigations into the roots of behavior—which by themselves would be only horror stories if they were not mediated by her exquisite lines—she can also revive us by the way she can lose herself in the visibilia of the world. In a one-sentence fifty-line poem on fog, named, as a painting might be, “Marine Surface, Low Overcast,” she takes on the specific task of the poet who wants to represent as many lusters and hues and transitions as a painter can. These old rivalries between painting and poetry renew themselves in each generation, and many notable recent poems (Bishop’s “Poem,” Lowell’s poem “Marriage” on the Arnolfini portrait, and Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” among others) have renewed questions about aesthetic illusion in painting and poetry.

Clampitt’s debts in her descriptive poems—to Keats’s luxurious lingerings, to Hopkins’s Ruskinian notebooks and poems, and to Marianne Moore’s scientific notations—are joyfully assumed. Among the interesting new things in Clampitt’s descriptive vocabulary, visible in her “Marine Surface,” is a whole lexicon of the diction of women. This lexicon (which did not particularly interest Dickinson, Moore, Bishop, or Plath) is a natural resource for Clampitt. It appears here in words relating to cloth, thread making, and fashion (herringbone, floss, déshabille, spun, fur, stuff, train, rumpling, suede, texture, nap, sheen, loom, fabric), in other words connected to household activities (churn, stir, solder, whip to a froth) and household objects (buttermilk, velouté, looking-glass, sheets, basin). Clampitt runs words through her fingers like someone spinning with a distaff: she looks at the fog and writes:

Out of churned aureoles
this buttermilk, this
herringbone of albatross,
floss of mercury,
déshabille of spun
aluminum, furred with a velouté
of looking-glass,

a stuff so single
it might almost be lifted,
folded over, crawled underneath
or slid between…

(The two pieces of the quotation are typical of Clampitt’s liking for mysteries of texture followed by the plain and simple; a knot of words draws us to the page, and the simplicities of statement then unsnarl the riddle. This is a very satisfying procedure, appeasing in turn the love of conundrum and the love of direct feeling.)

Clampitt’s language changes like a change in weather. If a moment before it has been raining fabric and cooking, next it rains anatomy: the fog becomes

…a mane of lustre
lithe as the slide
of muscle in its
sheath of skin,

laminae of living tissue,
mysteries of flex

The inventions of the natural world are so manifold, Clampitt makes us see, that only by responding to their prompting, in their marvelous changes, can “pure imagining” equal them. Testing the feasibility of invention in language against the changeableness of natural appearance is the tireless work of the writer who values the visual world (and many do not). But it is not just visual “rendering” (by whatever analogies) that makes visual poetry “work.” Poetic diction has its own laws that must be satisfied along with the requirements of the eye. Poetic diction demands that words be linked one to the other so that it will seem that they “grew” there by natural affinity. The tried-and-true linkage by sound is most beautiful (as here in “albatross” and “floss”) when there is some disproportion—as here in word length and semantic category—between the members, so that alliance does not resemble identity.

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