New Things Come into the World
The Invention of the Zero
I’m tempted to call Peter Kane Dufault a “little-known poet”—even if nowadays that’s something of a redundancy, like “commercial athletics” or “formulaic top 40.” He’s someone who doesn’t appear in most anthologies, and whose name is likely to raise a fuzzy look of semirecognition when dropped among contemporary poets. He doesn’t seem to teach anywhere, and one senses, both in his life and in his poems, an impatience with the “poetry scene” (an impatience extending, I’m afraid, to the niceties of his own books, which harbor more than their share of typos). His most recent collection, New Things Come into the World, is his fourth. The other three—Angel of Accidence (1954), For Some Stringed Instrument (1957), and On Balance (1978)—are out of print. None of the four has provided many details about the author’s life or the poem’s chronologies. But my guess is that he has been steadily writing verse for something like half a century.
“I will have to marvel,” he remarks in a poem about a cedar log. On the opposite page, contemplating a crab shell, he declares, “It’s amazing.” Later in the book, seaborne, hoping to lay eyes on a humpback whale, he says, “I came to marvel,” and, further still, “It’s wondering we live by.” In New Things Come into the World, the poet is at his best when brought up short in two senses: when transfixed by an unexpected glimpse of something beautiful and when embarked on modest-looking poems of few-syllabled lines.
Dufault is a poet of vivid landscapes. Although his poems supply few place names, the environs are unmistakably the remoter stretches of the American Northeast. His terrain rolls with hills. Winters are long and summers cool. His trees are birch and hemlock and pine. His skies are dotted with birds, with a special emphasis on raptors. The sea just over the horizon’s horizon, whose depths are “grey palisades of shuddering iron,” is the North Atlantic.
The creatures that shift and scramble through his back country are neatly and minutely rendered. He’s as fine an “animal poet” (a designation I imagine he’d wear with pride) as any American now going. Here’s a peek into the nest of a mud dauber wasp:
wrinkled as a raisin
and rigid as Pharaoh
embalmed and mummified,
the dauber’s pupa-doll
sits in its shroud or pod—
a mere seed of a thing,
a bean, cold as the wall
it crooked against, and god-
forsaken now, though Spring
comes in a week…
And a mastodon, inspired by a “child’s picture book”:
the groping divinity
that heaved that hulk,
heavy with ivory, forward
out of the black
cone forest and grey muskeg,
snows on his back.
And a collection of “small wild creatures along a road at night”:
Not to be seen…Not to be seen…
We can hardly conceive
such a curse on the light,
such a love of oblivion, as
in the weasel’s dense muscular
bolt from the highbeam;
the fox’s flattening cringe
into his shadow; the rac-
coon’s shambling retreat
on the road-shoulder, his coat
humped up over his head.
His are animals depicted with a hunger for exactitude that is its own antidote to sentimentality, and with something of the hermit’s fondness for lives resentful of intrusion—even by poets who come with no weapon in hand more lethal than a notebook and pencil. Like many a spurned lover, Dufault cherishes his loved one all the more for its wish to be rid of him.
As any serious nature poet does these days, he is continually brooding on the mounting pollution of the earth. His work increasingly seems tinged by race hatred in the largest sense, for the human race. We are the ones who have “killed off and logged off and sold off” the Old Wilderness, whose beaches are “blackened with dead dolphins and pelagic birds.” Actually, Dufault seldom is at his most successful at such times. In recent poems, especially, he sometimes loses sight of the counsel that Richard Wilbur, in perhaps the most memorable environmental poem of recent years, “Advice to a Prophet,” offers to poets: that the prospect of global destruction by nuclear weapons (or, analogously, by any of our other poisonous technologies) is an enormity which readers cannot assimilate. Better to keep the focus on the individual creatures we stand to lose, the moment when, as Wilbur writes, “the white-tailed deer will slip / Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy, / The lark avoid the reaches of our eye…”
Dufault is an admirer of Wilbur’s, as he makes clear in a poem about peregrine hawks (and Wilbur an admirer of Dufault’s, as he makes clear in a blurb on the dustjacket). But a gulf divides them. Dufault doesn’t seem fully at home in Wilbur’s strict metrics, with its exact rhymes and stately symmetric cadences. I would place Dufault, or at least a good many of his poems, in a twentieth-century constellation whose earliest-emerging star was Marianne Moore, and which includes Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Amy Clampitt. These are all hybrid poets, blenders of formal and free techniques, and the landscape of their prosody might be likened to a marsh during a thaw: a mixture of the formal, in the lacy regimentation of the ice crystal, and the free, in the surge and sweep of snowmelt. It’s a system of versification destined to take some knocks from critics on both sides—those steeped in orthodox metrics, who deplore its “laxities,” and those for whom any adherence to meter and rhyme seems hidebound and retrograde.
Each of these poets has paid painstaking homage to the earth’s flora and fauna, and in this, too, they are sometimes misunderstood—even by their admirers. In recent years, Moore and Bishop in particular have inspired some books and articles which (despite their often adulatory tone) one suspects would have disheartened the poets themselves. Perhaps those readers who have no germ of the nature poet in them will never make full contact with Moore or Bishop—or Swenson or Clampitt or Dufault, for that matter. Certainly, for critics who espouse the hoary, but hardy, axiom that a poem’s ultimate subject is always poetry itself, the nature poet’s queer, exteriorizing impulse to “do right” by some obscure specimen of flora or fauna must remain somewhat alien.
Moore, Bishop, Swenson, Clampitt, Dufault Even readers conversant with all of them might be forgiven some uncertainty when asked which of the five poets had penned this sketch of an old turkey:
A goitrous bird, the head
like a loading-hook
from a drowned galleon, cal-
careous with corals and whelks; feathers
a dun desert of dandruff and lice;
fan like a shattered snowfence; and feet
two blasted elm stumps. (It doesn’t
walk, it uproots—first one
then the other.)
One senses in all five poets profound feelings of obligation toward the object under survey (whether animal, mineral, or vegetable), whose essence is to be isolated only through an illuminated intensity of observation. If we seek out nineteenth-century forebears, we naturally come upon Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose journals movingly explore this penetration of an object’s “inscape” and whose example has been explicitly embraced by most of the poets in question.
When Dufault portrays an animal (like a turkey—that goitrous bird” is his), the task is frequently magnified by its elegiac overtones: he is drawn to creatures that are much diminished or are dying out—whales, eagles, lions. It is, as he acknowledges, a mixed undertaking, noble and absurd at once: this attempt to make amends to the creatures we’re exterminating by writing verses extolling them.
I suppose that most devoted readers of poetry compile various loose and informal anthologies in their heads. In Dufault’s case, I once went this one better and, chagrined at his unavailability, amassed a folder containing copies of every poem of his listed in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Most of these had appeared in The New Yorker (whose pages, over the decades, have also proved hospitable to Moore, Bishop, Swenson, and Clampitt). Unfortunately, although New Things Come into the World serves as a selected poems, it does not fully supersede my ragged folder. A number of favorites were unaccountably overlooked or jettisoned. All the same, the indispensables are here. In that informal anthology I keep in my head entitled Best American Short Poems Since World War II, four Dufault poems are gathered: “Fisherman,” “A First Night,” “Hemlocks—April, ‘80,” “End View of a Cedar Log.” All four are found in New Things Come into the World.
In its offhand and softspoken way, “End View of a Cedar Log” seems a quintessential Dufault poem. The entry is enviably direct and stream-lined; the enjambments are clean; the progression from observation to speculation, from spareness to sumptuosity, is sure-footed. It’s also a lyric short enough to be reproduced here in entirety:
Before I burn
any of this cedar,
I will have to marvel
a while at its wine-red
marrow, like a bright ore
in the bones of a mountain, buried;
a color yet not a color
in the absolute introverse
where it formed, locked from any light.
Here it turns up by accident—
and axe, a branch having snapped
from snow—this unsettling mandala
with its lustre of satin and porphyry—
never meant to be seen at all….
Yet meant for something.
unsuperficial, like grace
perhaps, or however we see in a dark
room in a dark skull the purples and ivories
of our improbable dreams.
The coinage of “introverse,” in the second stanza, intimates a little of the metaphorical journey to come. But the poem’s fulcrum arises in the next stanza, with the wordplay on accident/axe. This axe’s blade cuts deep, driving us into that mystical realm, that enchanted heartwood, where tree limbs might be metamorphosed into human limbs, and sap into blood, and blood into the far-flung spectrum of consciousness itself.
Philip Larkin once posited a world in which, miraculously, his every freshpenned line was already stored on microfilm. That poem, “Posterity,” was written in 1968, and today its premise may look far less surreal than it once did. It’s easy, anyway, to envision a future in which you could summon every new book of poetry on your home computer. Were such a system already in place, I could now test, with a wordsearch program, whether my suspicion is correct that this past year saw the publication of precisely two books of American poetry, Dufault’s New Things Come into the World and Richard Kenney’s The Invention of the Zero, in which the word “azimuth” appeared (“an arc of the horizon measured between a fixed point [as true north] and the vertical circle passing through the center of an object usu. in astronomy and navigation clockwise from the north point through 360 degrees”—Webster’s Ninth Collegiate).
Actually, the two poets have more in common than a fearless use of a specialized scientific vocabulary. They share an often self-mocking sense of humor and, prosodically, a taste for concealment. Reading the two volumes simultaneously, I sometimes wound up feeling happily befuddled, unable to recall where I’d come across that odd serenading woodcock (“at concert’s end / he descends in a teetering spiral / like a drunk coming down from a box / at the opera”—Dufault), or the penguins “strung like clothespins on the line of the equator” (Kenney), or “the indeliberable gnat of life” (Dufault), or DNA reproduction transformed into a spring dance (“Where once upon a time one sweet beribboned / maypole of a molecule approximates / itself”—Kenney). I say “happily” befuddled because it was comforting to link Kenney’s book to anything else. The Invention of the Zero is a nonpareil concoction.
I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned. If quite a handsome book, it’s also a very weird-looking one. In the royal court of American poetry, Kenney may well inherit the title, vacant since the death of E.E. Cummings, of Typesetter’s Chief Torturer. His fiendish “implements” include a plethora of typefaces, bizarre punctuation, and an abundance of italics and capital letters, to say nothing of various arcane marginalia: rune-like ideograms (crescent moons, scientific symbols, Greek letters) and cryptic fragments of a sailor’s journal.
But to the daunted or skeptical reader (in whose ranks I initially stood) I would say, Wait. Something more than mere coherence will emerge. This one is brilliantly structured.
Four lengthy narrative poems make up the heart of the book. Although they range across eons and firmaments (Kenney is fond of geological and astronomical imagery), each is anchored in the Pacific Ocean and the Second World War. In the title poem, the unnamed narrator returns to Nevada, where he once helped develop atomic weapons, but the story naturally glances westward across the Pacific, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second poem, “The Encantadas,” is set in the Galapagos Islands, where an American anti-aircraft battery, stationed far from combat, initiates its own deadly war of nerves, this one across a chessboard. The third, “Typhoon,” travels to the plunging center of one of the great naval miscalculations of the century, Admiral Halsey’s decision to pilot the United States Third Fleet into a “circular storm” near the Marianas on December 18, 1944. The final poem might be said to open when something doesn’t: it’s about a Navy Seal on his first parachute jump. In addition, the book offers, by way of preamble, a “Colloquy of Ancient Men,” in which we listen to the scrambled voices of Newton, Oppenheimer, Melville, Conrad; an epilogue; an afterword; and various verse-snippets of “machine conversation.” These last serve as a kind of chorus in the wings—or on the wing, for they take as vantage point the eye of a satellite.
Kenney’s work presents substantial challenges not only to the reader but to the reviewer. How to convey the texture of his verse in a few short passages? The rangy lines, complex subject matter, intricate skeins of metaphor, and convoluted diction all make excerption difficult. It’s a little like re-creating one’s recent trip to the Alps by means of a series of walletsized snapshots.
Even so, I’d offer a few of my favorite “peaks.” Here are the Galapagos, awaiting Darwin’s arrival:
The year mankind began
again: 1835: the Beagle
found the archipelago in place, and fixed
it there forever, spindled on a small bird’s beak.
What change! Of course, the world’s been brought to focus
since. Each small astigmatism on the surface
of the sea is marked, each shoal, each benthic peak
has been imagined to the second of an arc
by now; no man an island but he’s known,
discovered here in the satellite’s official survey—
And a parachute drop likened to a delivery room:
Is this the oldest dream? oh, the heart
floods in the babe’s chest in the dam’s womb, and always
will, to this, till moon and stars have ricocheted
across the last human eye the last time—
two ways in mind, and this comes back: the waltz
of divers down that darkened cor- ridor, all packed
in chest-to-back in full regalia, wet suits, tanks
and all, the engine noise, the bay doors shuddering
into the wind—
And a physicist viewing an atom bomb test:
I understood the theory
of the thing, the queer unearthly thought, the sleight
of physics balancing its spindly tower there
not seven miles away…
In his afterword, Kenny identifies his meter as hexameter (“common, sprung, or truncate”). That isn’t quite how it strikes my ear. The hexameter has traditionally been a perilous measure in English—potentially stiff, cumbersome, segmental—and most readers probably haven’t the familiarity with it that would allow them to keep its basic pulse intact while multiple variations are being played upon it. For this reader, anyway, the hexameter’s six beats are muffled in much of what Kenney writes; what we have, simply, is a capacious line.
A similar sort of category-slippage occurs with Kenney’s rhymes. There are times when I would swear his bold operating principle, like Louis MacNeice’s in “Bagpipe Music,” was Any rhyme but an orthodox rhyme. He speaks in his afterword of a penchant for Celtic consonance, which may help us to identify rhymes like flat/fleet or even hollow/holy, but what in the world does one do with stoneaxe/onyx of forty/4D? On his title poem’s first page, he rhymes aria/aurora, ortho-/throw, beckons/beacons, liters/leaders, parochial/keyhole, and misfire/semaphore/M is for; but there’s nothing resembling an ordinary exact rhyme.
I can’t help feeling that Kenney derives fewer benefits than he might from the detonations of these little auditory pyrotechnics, brilliant as they are. The length of his lines, the distance between rhymes, and the complexity of his narrative all conspire to ensure that many of his best rhymes go unnoticed. Or they become what might be called “visual rhyme,” not in the usual sense of a word-pair whose appearance misleadingly suggests a rhyme (bough/cough), but in the sense of linkages that the eye discovers subsequently, the ear having missed them. One might say, placing Coleridge’s famous lament in a new context, “I see not feel how beautiful they are.”
There probably wasn’t single page of this book where I didn’t want to wrangle over some small detail—a jarring enjambment, a roundabout locution, an elusive allusion. But isn’t this only another way of saying that the book engaged me fully, wholeheartedly? Invention of the Zero was compelling enough to inspire me to read it twice aloud. I don’t know when I last found a book of contemporary verse so enlivening in this hurtling, hellbent way. If Kenney, who was born in 1948, can still be called a younger poet, you could safely describe him as one of the most gifted and multifaceted and original of younger American poets; or if his youth were questioned, “younger” could simply be struck. The description would be equally accurate without it.
There’s a certain mad inevitability to Kenney’s enterprise—one can see how a poet with talent to burn would take up the atom bomb. The entire volume bespeaks personal obsession, filtered through idiosyncratic thought processes, quirky locutions, eccentric chains of metaphor. The result, despite a subject matter that could hardly be more expansive, is a somewhat hermetic feel. I do wish the book contained fewer passages that left me feeling not only puzzled but (not a necessary by-product of puzzlement) excluded. I hope other readers, arriving with different background knowledge and a different internal ear, will find this easier going than I did.
Three virtues, so far as I can tell, worked to hold me entranced. The first is Kenney’s intelligence, manifested not merely in the ability to funnel so much extraordinarily technical material into complexly musical verse, but in a supreme flair for startling metaphor, by which atomic blasts are seen as “matchlight, / hand-cupped, licking in the tinder of the Ark,” or a ship under tropical sun is turned into “a brown sphinx moth / perched on a roaring lantern’s rim,” or a parachutist becomes “just the last word in a long / skywritten manuscript beginning with the drifting pollens / of the first seedbearing plants, seed ferns, four / hundred million years ago.”
The second virtue, close kin to the first, is a matter of sensibility. Science tends, given its preeminent place in our lives, to receive surprisingly short shrift in our verse—a result, doubtless, of its boggling difficulty. And even when it does appear, in those poets who make occasional forays into modern scientific or mathematical terrain, it generally winds up feeling like mere embellishment. The material isn’t “owned”—it’s borrowed profundity. The same few figures (Darwin, Einstein, Wittgenstein) and the same few references (relativity, Gödel’s proof, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) keep popping up. But in Kenney’s case, you sense a mind temperamentally adapted to the rigor and grandeur of the technical imagination. Readers who are drawn to contemporary scientists who write for the layman (to Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eiseley, Jared Diamond, Timothy Ferris, Paul Colinvaux, Jack Horner, et al.) here will feel themselves in the presence of a man who, while a sibling-soul to such writers, also happens to be a magnificent poet.
Finally, there’s a question of passion. Although Kenney’s clearly a man of oblique and reticent temper, the rationalist and scientist within him are eventually revealed to be contending with a mystic and romantic. He has a sharp eye and a soft heart. As such, he’s likely to move me more when writing about an exploding nova than will many of his contemporaries when they’re composing elegies for their parents or dissections of their broken marriages. His portrayal of a feral pig attacking a tortoise haunted me:
one hopeless tortoise
looking old as earth herself was stumping towards
me, chugging forward fast, while a great wild sow was dragging
back with all her might and shak- ing, wrenching, side
to side like some immense rat- terrier,
jaws clamped fast to the rim of the carapace. A piece tore
loose, and the reptile lurched ahead a moment, dragon’s
neck extended, frantic, torn, try- ing to hide—
never a chance. The pig closed in again,
and the whole scene over again—again—
Just a pig and an overgrown turtle, I suppose you could say. But they represent as well the introduction of a new predator into a closed island ecosystem; the tortoise had, over millennia, evolved into a world free of all such feral creatures, and so—evolution being far slower even than the movements of a tortoise—its protracted doom is now assured. We have here a sort of Aesopian tableau or symbol for any gentle human culture or creed beset by a rapacious future it’s wholly unprepared for. The slaughter opens…
There are times when I found myself longing to see Kenney write a different sort of poem entirely. It might be lovely to see him devote himself to the pondlike virtues of the pellucid short poem—the cupped waterlilies and lilypads (so much like a graceful tea-setting) of the lyric. But perhaps his talent is destined ever to run like a river in spate, at flood-time, with the reader standing as on a slippery bank, watching while the current shoulders its bobbing burden of branches, fenceposts, fishing lines, rubber boots, tennis balls, portable phones… The show is mesmerizing. What in heaven will surface next? And who could resist the sheer force of the thing?
Ours is an era when trade publishers have largely abandoned verse and poets seem to exist, commercially speaking, on sufferance. Many of them have moved to the often subsidized university presses, or to small presses, or to various makeshift and ingenious outlets. Dufault’s publisher is Lindisfarne, a small press specializing in spiritual and mystical subjects and in what their catalog calls “psychology/ inner development.” He seems to be the only living American poet on their list. Kenney’s book, on the other hand, arrives from Knopf, which probably publishes more contemporary American poetry than any other trade publisher.
Both books, filled with so many quirky, rarely sighted creatures, are ultimately bound up with another one: the poetry forager, that elusive, wan, and wonderful beast, which is occasionally glimpsed pawing around dusty nooks in out-of-the-way book-stores. That two collections as good as these should spring from such disparate sources reminds us that nowadays this creature must be prepared to range some distance. Sustenance is still to be found far afield, but as replenishing as ever.