Robert Duncan has been publishing, with little renown, for more than fifteen years. Nominally attached to the Black Mountain school, he is indebted primarily to the technique of Williams and superficially to the esthetics of Olson. Covered with the measles of multiple allusions, haphazardly read in everything from the classics to the Surrealists or the theosophists, Duncan’s intellectual growth resembles a convolvulus spreading its tendrils across a floating world, catching a bit of information here, an insight there.
In much the same way, as man can be considered always more than the sum of his thoughts, so the majority of poems in Roots and Branches appear to be always more than the poems themselves, each of them part of an evolving process, anti-scientific in temperament, yet strangely scientific in method. That is to say, all statements remain more or less relative, awaiting the “corroboration” of further statements, and just so all significations seem tentative. Thus emerging only to be expunged, Robert Duncan’s microscopic particulars extend backwards and forwards, within and without, entertaining a moment-by-moment accretion and subtraction. On the subjective level, a kind of libidinous drift; on the objective one, a philosophic monologue.
He is, I think the most unusual (though not necessarily the most idiosyncratic) of practicing poets. Inevitably, he is also one of the most difficult. Through his constant experimentation, his occasional homemade spellings, his “programmatic” search for a psychic clarity, for a cleansing power, he can be, as they say, queerer than God. But he is also one of the most rewarding, and not only as a stylist. Much of his subject matter curiously parallels, probably unintentionally, certainly unsystematically, the concerns of Heidegger and Whitehead. More on that later. Here now, in a form which Williams abhorred because, as he said, it “does not admit of the slightest structural change,” one of Duncan’s simplest, most personal (though, it should be stressed, least typical) poems, an elongated sonnet:
Now there is a Love of which Dante does not speak unkindly,
Tho it grieves his heart to think upon men who lust after men and run—his beloved Master, Brunetto Latini, among them—
Where the roaring waters of hell’s rivers
Come, heard as if muted in the distance, like the hum of bees in the hot sun.
Scorcht in whose rays and peeld, these would-be lovers
Turn their faces, peering in the fire- fall, to look to one another
As men searching for an other in the light of a new moon look.
Sharpening their vision, Dante says, like a man seeking to thread a needle,
They try the eyes of other men
Towards that eye of the needle Love has appointed there
For a joining that is not easy.
It is “confessional,” yet surprisingly innoculated against the virus of special pleading or stridency usually infecting such utterances, so that even the riskiest phrases (especially “a joining that is not easy,” which could no doubt produce a smirk) seem “just right.” The half-quirky, half-gentle rhythms (widening, then ebbing, or the halting “to look to one another”), release that exact note of inadequacy, the apprehension of its peculiar place within a large scheme, and an acceptance of both. While granting the poem’s fragmentary nature, it seems to me to possess a subtle, beautiful vulnerability, a triumph of tone, approximated elsewhere only in the most recent, and generally quite uncharacteristic, work of Lowell. Observe, for example, these two passages from the latter’s version of the Brunetto Latini episode (Canto XV) on which to some extent Duncan’s sonnet rests:
We met a company of spirits here, trooping below us on the sand. each one
stared closely at our faces—as men peer
at one another under the new moon,
or an old tailor squints into his needle,
these puckered up their brows and glowered…
“…I would say more to you, but stand,
forever talking, speech, must have an end.
I see fresh steam is stirring from the stand,
and men I would avoid are coming. Give
me no pity. Read my Tesoro in
my book, my treasure, I am still alive.”
Then he turned back, and he seemed one of those
who run for the green cloth through the green field
at Verona…and seemed more like the one
who wins the roll of cloth, than those who lose.
Of course, whether of Lord Weary’s Castle or of lmitations and For the Union Dead, Lowell is the greater poet. His dramatic scope, his eleventh-hour intensity (clotted in the early work, increasingly skeletonized in the present phase), his realization of his role, both historically and psychologically, as a witness to the times—these energizing preoccupations Duncan lacks. The same is true, on different terms, if we compare him with Cavafy. The homoerotic element in the Alexandrian’s poems pulses with a parabolic self-exposure, a dark, hard-earned balance of irony and forbearance. Duncan, though opening himself to an onrush of feeling the way a fish meets an upcoming wave, exhibits a profoundly passive personality, suggesting almost a world without hazards: “There is only/the one continent, the one sea—/moving in rifts, churning, enjambing,/drifting feature from feature.”
These movements “in rifts,” these largely indeterminable exchanges between nature and man, or between events and things, however frangible, continually interrelate, continually evolve: “tracing out of air,” as Duncan says in the titlepoem, “unseen roots and branches of sense…filaments woven and broken where the world might light/casual certainties of me.”
Throughout his poems, throughout the incessant references to the fabulous and the romantic, whether of the East or West, throughout the apostrophes to Pindar in a previous work or to that latter-day pagan, H.D., here, Duncan’s undulating images phantasmagorically surface, snatching at “bits of beauty,” “sexual strands,” “uncombed rainbows of hair,” the sun’s rays.
Not surprisingly (yet no less poignantly) the operative word in Duncan’s vocabulary is “thread”: that slimmest thing, thread of life, life-line, spun, shed, resewn. At least in Whitehead’s sense of the term (as he uses it in Science and the Modern World and from which the quotation that follows is taken), Duncan is a religious poet, holding to a thread-like “vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux…” And as the autobiographical data included in “A Sequence of Poems for H.D.’s Birthday” shows, that “flux” he experienced early. “The gist of the story I’ve known perhaps among the first stories I heard, that she died when I was born. Did they say it was in childbirth, because my head was too big, tearing my way through her agony to life?…And for six months my father…might have kept me…But my father was poor…He could not afford it. Then, there must have been a period in a hospital, awaiting adoption.”
The threat of “the void,” the trembling awareness of estrangement or mutilation, the half-submerged longings for the Father and the Mother (the transformation in his poems of the one into Queen, Goddess, Nurse, of the other into Apollo or Zeus), the recurring souvenir involontaire, the virginal fadeouts (“figures of women passing through the strings of the harp of the sun”), the symbolic identifications (“youths we have celebrated to play Eros”), the ambivalent renunciation (“an esthetic/ stronger than sex?”)—all of Duncan’s fugitive themes and counter-themes continually seek some refuge, some seraphic palace of ritual and magic. Poetry is, he tells us, what we expected it to be when we were children. “A world of our own marvels.” It is “the body’s discovery that it can dream. And perish into its own imagination.” (The statement may sound less bizarre if we note in Whitehead’s Process and Reality, in the concluding sentence, a somewhat similar ideal: that through the immanence of God in the world and the immanence of the world in God, the finite might then “be refreshed by the everpresent, unfading importance of our immediate actions, which perish and yet live for evermore.”)
Consequently, for Duncan, betrayal is always through the intellectual know-betters, those who deny the imagination. “As in the story/it’s always told, these false advisers/lead the soul astray.” That which is “false” keeps us from “myth/ that Freud says lies in our blood. Dragon-wise…” Or as in Adam’s Way, Duncan’s theatrical extravaganza, which mixes the Biblical with the astrological and which can sound like Gertrude Stein and Shelley rewriting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a character remarks: “They’ve lost their moon I’ve heard./It went dead on them they knew so much about it./What this knowing is must be a terrible thing.” In the mind, “coils of the snake.” In society, only “the deceitful coils of institutions,” or the iron “nets of the city’s merchants …” Thread as continuity, coils as contraction.
“The Law,” one of Duncan’s rare attempts at grappling with civilization and its codes, presents, after speculative improvisations concerning Justinian, Moses, and Macbeth, the following pastoral interlude:
Robin Hood in the greenwood outside
Foremost we admire, the outlaw
who has the strength of his own
lawfulness. How we loved him
in childhood and hoped to abide by his code
that took life as its law!
It is immediately interrupted by a reverse sentiment, suggesting in its way the Heideggerian possibility of an “ecstatic transcendence.”
No! took an Other way as its law.
For great life uses us like wood
and has no laws in burning we understand,
gives no alternatives. “Is”
we think of as intransitive,
who are exchanged in being,
given over from “I” into “I”,
law into law, no sooner breaking
from what we understood, than,
breaking forth, abiding,
Now though I’m not at all sure that the sense of the passage stands, seeming at once deceptively simple and complex, to the extent that it does, I take it to be the converse, or really the counterpart, of the previous passage, both passages presenting two approaches to the same problem (a problem occurring frequently and ambiguously throughout Duncan’s work), that of man’s severance from Being. In less fancy terms, it amounts to this: Robin Hood, “the outlaw/who has the strength of his own/lawfulness,” attempts through self-will or aggression to conquer Being, while the Other hopes through surrender to abide within it. I find in that hope the equivalent of Heidegger’s notion of “letting be,” the dictum that one must not preconceptualize the phenomenon of existence. As Heidegger notes. “phenomenon” in Greek means that which reveals itself. And fittingly. “The Law” concludes: “What is/hisses like a serpent/and writhes/to shed its skin.”
However, as distinct from Heidegger’s hermeneutical universe, for Duncan “letting be” assumes an almost totally romantic shape. For him, it is a hazy enchantment, a legendary interweaving of death and loss, beauty and love:
But moved by the beauty of Cyparissus
(Apollo) removed him into the beauty of a pure lament.
He bent grief, as he bends Love ever,
into an immortal fever without relief.
So too his experience of temporality:
I found the form of a man in his redundance,
sun-dancer, many-brancht in repeating,
many-rooted in one thing, actual only
in time so fleet the real trembled
So too of freedom: “The poet,” he tells us, “the adventurer, dreads achievement, eschews rest.” And “eschews rest” even, or most especially, from himself:
O let me be free now of my way, for all that I bind to me
—and I bind what I love to me, comforting chains and surround- ings—
let these loved things go and let me go with them.
For I stand in the way, my des- tination stands in the way!
Difficult, delicately contradictory, full of cloudy mutations, always shifting, that solitary, that seductive adventurer, Robert Duncan, in the end suggests what one might well call a space-poet, a supersensual vagrant. Certainly his idol, it seems to me, is innocence. Innocence transcending the psychological and the social, the past and the present, a dreamworld creating a dream-language:
Come, eyes, see more than you see!
For the world within and the outer world
rejoice as one. The seminal brain
contains the lineaments of eternity.
These Blakean (or elsewhere Whitmanesque or Laurentian) overtones place Duncan within a tradition, yet link by link the tradition is continually vaporized, obsessively so, the result a sort of passionate dispersion:
Man so exclusively defined he is
a figure of light.
Then hunger be stem from what I am,
and the hero bloom as he will toward that end the poem imitates by admitting a form.
Nevertheless, esthetically and emotionally, the form is form-less, a series of private, intermittent events or hymns, prismatic impressions, inclusive yet inviolable, suggesting what someone once called Whitehead’s “divine relativity,” or the scientific supposition of space as a force field in which many fields of energy interract but do not interfere—a specialized theory Duncan startingly subverts (or assimilates) for his own ends: independent interraction, non-interference—and thus Innocence is preserved.
Taking Duncan’s work as a whole, acknowledging its considerable development from the rather swishy or eccentric beginnings to the present “purity,” delighting in the sotto voce lyricism, the seer-like splendors, in the deepest sense, I must say I still find it somehow unfulfilled and unfulfilling, tenuous as a thread, always potential. “To be nothing more than innocent!,” exclaimed Claggart of Billy Budd. In Duncan’s world, for the most part, “hell” is merely a literary metaphor among other metaphors. The duplicity inherent in human relations is passed over. The butterfly does not rest on a dunghill. Pertinently enough, in philosophic circles, similar objections are heard. There is, we are told, no interpersonal ethic in Heidegger, no true confrontation with “evil” in Whitehead.
For he who seeks God in particular forms no doubt grasps the form, but God, who is hidden in it, escapes him. Only he who seeks God in no form at all grasps Him as He is in Himself.
We exist, or very soon will exist, in a kind of technological concentration camp, in which what we call the “inner life” must more and more disappear. The “new life,” that faceless terror, always engenders an extreme response. Without wanting to put too fine a point on the matter, perhaps it is not to be wondered at that Duncan, as well as Heidegger and Whitehead, each in differing ways and to different degrees, each involved in a breakthrough, a revelation, should resemble Eckhart, the medieval mystic, author of the above quotation.
David Shapiro is a Columbia freshman, well read in most of the moderns, except possibly Cocteau. “Learn what you can do,” said Cocteau, “and then don’t do it.” Shapiro “can do,” among others, a Levertov (“Canticle 1”), a Ginsberg (“January”), a Williams (“Deal Winter Composition”), a Char and a Breton combined (“Night”), and the Faulknerian “Red Boats.” The themes of his first volume are the classic undergraduate ones: “grief, love, joy, nature, family, the mystery of the universe, time, and death.” His specialité, however, is the Instant Mix, alchemic spontaneity, mud into mosaics, a form as popular right now with the New York avant garde as Sara Teasdale’s posies must have been in her day. One example, “The Storm”:
Then who’ll starve in the gulf and
who’ll be in the skull? Who’ll starve??
When the formed flocks rock and cry
Joy! Joy! Who’ll be where the storm is
when the hills dissolve??
The moon is creeping, the moon is on
the river, the moon is in our crotch
in the loud car.
On the dust jacket John Ashbery, Kay Boyle, Dudley Fitts, Barbara Guest, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Koch, and Kenneth Rexroth exhale encomiums: “brilliant,” “remarkable,” “fresh.” “It is impossible to determine whether his language is replying to the exigencies of thought, or whether the activities of that language have resulted in new and exciting thoughts…” Impossible to determine is right, and not only his thought. Anyway, all seem to suggest there’s a Rimbaud in the Lion’s Den. “If this Shapiro is so exciting at eighteen, what will he be twenty years hence?” My guess is that he will be thirty-eight years old. I hope by then he will also be, poetically speaking, David Shapiro. For me, at least three of his poems, “The Will,” “Canticle as Grieving” (both written, apparently, when he was fourteen), and, especially, “From Travel”—all unfaked, ardent, subterraneously musical—augur very well indeed.
June 3, 1965