The Triumph of Achilles
Cats of the Temple
Thomas and Beulah
The catchall nature of the label “lyric poetry” is put into relief by four such different species of the genus as the books under review. A duckbill platypus, a panda, a whale, and a monkey, gazed at, do not immediately suggest the label “mammal.” And what we remember, visually, of these animals is not their uninteresting potential for lactation but their wonderful singularity of appearance. In the zoo of the new (Sylvia Plath’s phrase) the four books under review are arresting forms. Of their authors, two (Dunn and Glück) are in midcareer, while Dove and Leithauser, both in their thirties, are publishing third and second books respectively. In writing briefly about each of these poets, I want to take up the aims of lyric as they become visible in their work.
Louise Glück has tried in her poetry to give experience the permanent form of myth. Hers is the sort of lyric poetry that turns away from specific details and observations (names, places, dates, quotidian details—what Lowell, for instance, made the stuff of poetry) to an abstract plane, sometimes narrative, as in the Greek myths, sometimes archetypal, as in the encounter of Man with Woman. The tendency for lyric to turn mythical is often irritating to readers who yearn for biography (Who was the Fair Youth? Who was the Dark Lady? Who, for that matter, was Shakespeare?) as if facts would resolve meaning. We all began as sophomores in this respect; but we learn as we read more poetry that it is possible for novelistic detail to obscure, rather than reveal, fictive experience—that the lean shape of myth is the nakedness guaranteeing all stories.
A better argument for mythical lyric is that the beauty possible in mythical or archetypal poetry—with its own lexicon and thesaurus of images—is different from the beauty of the historical quotidian (which too has a lexicon of its own, a specific museum of images). In the treatment of Christian anecdote, for instance, there have always been what one could call artists of essence (those, e.g., who painted hieratic crucifixions showing a monumental and untormented Christ in glory on the cross) and, on the other side, artists of the actual (those who painted crucifixions exhibiting a tortured corpse in a realistic social setting).
The chief obstacle in writing mythical or archetypal poetry is that the story is already known, its conclusion familiar. Interest consequently has to center almost entirely on interpretation and manner. (It is no accident that Milton, who decided to retell archetypal stories that every literate person already knew by heart, became the poet with the most highly developed manner in our history.) Glück retells, in “Mythic Fragment,” Ovid’s story of the myth of Daphne, saved from Apollo’s advances by her father the river god Peneus, who turned her into a laurel tree. The lyric poet, facing a narrative, must choose the point at which the lyric aria will occur: Glück gives us Daphne’s postmetamorphic voice. The tree, once a girl, retells the myth with the brevity proper to lyric:
When the stern god
approached me with his gift
my fear enchanted him….
I begged my father in the sea
to save me. When
the god arrived, I was nowhere,
I was in a tree forever. Reader,
pity Apollo: at the water’s edge,
I turned from him, I summoned
my invisible father—as
I stiffened in the god’s arms,
of his encompassing love
my father made
no other sign from the water.
This may be the first time that the myth of Daphne has been retold as a Freudian story, the tale of a girl too much in love with her father to accept a lover. “Reader, pity Apollo,” she says; we are to reflect on the many young men who lose the young women they pursue to that unacknowledged rival, the father. And pity Glück’s Daphne: begging her father to save her, she imagines that the result will be Apollo repelled, herself unchanged. Instead, she stiffens into the wood of the sexually unresponsive. Her last words are, “Of his encompassing love / my father made / no other sign from the water.” The blankness of that vista—as the stiffened bark looks to the silent father—is characteristic of Glück’s poems of desolation and impossibility. In this Oedipal retelling of the myth there are no compensatory moments—no laurels bound about Apollo’s brow, no ecstatic, Straussian joy in leafiness. The manner of the poem has changed the manner of the myth, turning Ovid’s story into a demystifying modern story of virginity, revealing its roots in incestuous desire.
Glück’s poems bend erotic stereotypes into her own forms of mannerist anguish:
I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood
it will make no forms but twisted forms.
That splendid Yeatsian close states the poetic of Glück’s book: writhing, to be stationary; stationary, to be writhing. This is the poetic of myth—animating what is eternal, freezing what is temporary and vanishing. As Glück’s two adjectives imply, motion does not cease, but any notion of “progress” or “advance” or “improvement” ceases. Yeats at one point called himself a marble triton growing old among the streams; that moment when a poet becomes marble is the moment of myth. Myth and archetype offer themselves as the only formally tenable vehicles for a sense of the unchangingness of writhing human experience. The older we get, the more we “progress,” the more we find our situations anticipated in Ovid, in Homer, in Genesis.
It is no accident that aphorism suits archetype. Glück shows an aphoristic talent that harks back to the Greek Anthology:
You have betrayed me, Eros.
You have sent me
my true love.
“Only victims,” she says elsewhere, “have a destiny.” And she offers these Yeatsian lines:
Why love what you will lose?
There is nothing else to love.
This couplet may resemble, in content, Yeats’s lines in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?” But the chill of Glück’s preordained universe is different from the historical turbulence of Yeats’s interpenetrating gyres; his manner is tragic rather than fatalistic. Glück’s manner suits her matter; the manner is as stationary, as foreseen in its pastness, as her myths.
Glück’s nonmythic poems here, chiefly about love, are as ahistorical and nonquotidian as her myths. A long love affair which has come to an end is reviewed in a sequence called “Marathon.” Some of it seems to me to topple over the line that separates self-scrutiny from self-dramatization: “We have acted a great drama.” On the other hand, Glück’s harsh and self-incriminating valedictory to the lover who has made her conscious of her greed in passion sticks powerfully in the mind:
Sooner or later
you’ll begin to dream of me. I don’t envy you
those dreams. I can imagine how my face looks,
burning like that, afflicted with desire—lowered
face of your invention—how the mouth betrays
the isolated greed of the lover
as it magnifies and then destroys:
I don’t envy you that visitation.
I don’t recall this precise human moment elsewhere in poetry. One aim of lyric poetry is to trace a contour not recorded before; saying the unsaid is a mark of the poet’s courage, and Glück is not lacking in it.
The title poem of Stephen Dunn’s sixth book, Local Time, asserts—in the greatest possible contrast to Glück’s glacial myths—a need to stay in touch with the local:
What was foreign never occurred
until we heard it here,
wasn’t that true?
And didn’t enough happen here?
The retarded girl nearby
Schultz stepped off that ledge,
because his house wasn’t home.
With Schultz and the retarded girl we are far from Ovid. Many poets who deal with the local, as Dunn does, fall into a gritty naturalism. Dunn, for all his affirmation of plain speech and plain encounters (an earlier book was called Work and Love), has a delicacy of touch in treating his plain material. Of his many poems on marriage and the gulf between male and female experience, I quote “He/She,” a poem about the different ways boys and girls grow up, and the consequent limitless possibilities for misunderstanding in marriage. The poem begins with a marital argument and continues the argument into the next day. This too is a moment rarely treated in poetry—a moment of tangled accusation and comprehension:
Brought up never getting punched in the mouth for saying more than the situation can bear,
she argues beyond winning, screams indictments after the final indictment
has skewered him into silence, if not agreement. The words she uses
mean she is feeling something large which needs words, perhaps the way Pollock needed paint.
Next day the words are unimportant to her, while all he’s thinking about
are the words she used—if recovering from them is possible.
Years ago, the schoolyard taught him one word too many meant broken fingers, missing teeth;
you chose carefully, or you chose war. You were the last word you let live.
She was in the elsewhere girls were, learning other lessons, the ones men learn
too late or not at all; you took in, cared for, without keeping score you shaped a living space
into a kind of seriousness.
Retract those words, he says. But she is only
sensing his reserve, his inability to perceive that her wrong words meant so much hurt and love.
Because Dunn’s poems explore contrary theses (emotional, intellectual, aesthetic), he needs to be quoted whole. He navigates slowly through shoals, peers into shallows, marks buoys, and makes port in uncertainty. He is, in his later books, a careful poet, balancing his stern bare passages with delightful flurries of visually and phonetically pleasing language. We wake, he says of the married, to the pleasure of being alone, but
Soon the equally mysterious world of women and men, of momentary
common agreement and wild mis- understanding,
will impose itself naturally on the simplest event. Anatomy will send
its differing messages to syntax and sense.
The language here has many charms, from the simplest (a host of double letters) to the more complex affinities of “equally” and “naturally,” of “mysterious” and “misunderstanding,” of “wild” and “will,” “simplest” and “syntax,” “send” and “sense.” The “matter”—how the mysteriousness of the sexes to each other imposes itself on the simplest domestic event—generates the inner paradoxes joining mystery and simplicity, imposition and naturalness, agreement and misunderstanding, syntax and the senses. At his best, Dunn encodes mystery in speech that remains plain vocabulary, while doing syntactic and structural justice to psychological complexity.
Dunn is an autobiographical poet. We learn of a father and grandfather attached to drink, a father intermittently out of work, the grandfather a story-teller, a mother “insisting with Carlyle on an Everlasting Yea,” while the son is the one in the Roman Catholic family “needing to debunk, destroy.” Dunn leaves Catholicism, marries, has children. His idea of a poem is a room (the old pun on stanza) in which everything has been “grooved and tongued…wedged, fitted, nailed.” He is proud of “the miter work and joists, / the fluted molding above the door.” The image of the poet as artisan suits Dunn’s reflective poems, but I find something sentimental and willed about the working-class anecdotes in which he attempts a language simpler than his own—one, for instance, in which a cocktail waitress (presumably attending Dunn’s creative writing class) says, “On my night off I try to write,” and continues: