The poet in “dry sufficient middle age,” not exactly “ankle deep in money, thick as leaves,” yet rather more comfortable than as a youth he may really have expected to be, “need not, does not, strive to compose. He writes.” He now requires “nothing from poetry but true feeling, no pity, no fame, no healing.” Every day he sees something, it reminds him of something else, and he writes.
He is not first among poets but neither is he last, founder of no school, strict follower in none. He has his awards, has earned the praise of great men. He has seen his share of the world, and likes to remember Spain, Paris, London, New York, California, and he writes about that. He goes back to the scene of his childhood, and writes about it, fondly putting in the slang and the song of his neighborhood dialect; he remembers old girl friends, writes about them, about his children, his wife, his friends, about poets he admires, about great writing of the past, and on this as on most things (not all things) he is wry.
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.
He writes scornfully of the masters of this world, “Pasha, President,” “Brothers in Babylon, Doc! Uncle! Papa!” He writes scornfully about those he meets at parties, “the sweet affluence of conceit,” “lunch-drunk, scotch-drunk….” Sometimes he cannot resist writing little allegories or fables about the evolution of man. Being a poet, he loves the oddities of language and the fact that one word often suggests another that sounds much like the first but means something different. Most of his poems are about one page long.
His own particular people have suffered mightily on the earth. He is not obsessed with this but neither does he try to forget it. If he is Irving Feldman, a remark by a survivor rouses a reflection,
And has he,
he wonders, been accused, imperti- nent Jew
who did not die?
If he is Derek Walcott, in the bright loved ease of midsummer England he senses “the fear of darkness entering England’s vein…lynched crows.”
I cannot say with what clairvoyance my editors, regarding the jackets of these two volumes, divined inside them all these similitudes, even unto such unlikely details as twin busts of Beethoven and twin invocations of Osip Mandelstam. But pack them off together they did. The reviewer is spared his customary task of yoking his books by violence together. Perhaps he can even excuse himself a little for the inevitable perfidies of invidious comparison. Two gents much of an age, much of their own era, much the same sort of training, same tongue, two old campaigners knowing now just about what to expect, “so it has always been,” “we suffer, the years pass,” seeing and hearing simultaneously the same news; poets now by custom, by free choice—and writing to whom? To themselves, to the magazines, to friends, to readers! to reviewers, to the Muse, in 1976.
Derek Walcott writes now as a man who knows exactly what he is doing. His style is that of the best language of our period, his verbs act (when there is occasion for it, with Lowellian fierceness), his nouns call real things by their right names, his adjectives, when he employs them, are at once odd and evocative, with that microscopic visual accuracy our poets learned long ago, and from whom? We see it most in Elizabeth Bishop perhaps, from Marianne Moore. His metaphors serve both to sharpen sight and to deepen insight.
The goombay band or whatever
combination of Chicano charge
and black funk ignites the fish-fries
by the sizzling pierhead….
* * *
The moon is a blown bulb.
Were it not for his reserved territory of the Caribbean, which he knows through and through and loves and hates and can evoke in a phrase—if the beach, frangipani, St. Lucia, Frederikstad, Port of Spain, are not in a poem—then I am not so sure we would say immediately of some unsigned verses, Derek Walcott. We might say Robert Graves or somebody else that good. Walcott has no one particular favorite form, no favorite length of line. He writes in stanzas sometimes with fixed rhyme schemes, or he uses rhyme here and there, even slyly, or he does without it. Sometimes he writes iambics, a bit diffidently after the fashion of our time, or he lets short phrases decide for themselves the length of the line. All this has to be the product of much skill but he does not try to light up and dazzle us with his prosody. He makes a few references to poems in his poems, as poets do, and these are rather deprecating and offhand, as when he has something declining, and it declines “to some grey monochrome, much like this metre….”
Almost always his poems start from real things and stay pretty close to real things. Least interesting to me are his small fables from Genesis, although they are not without cleverness.
Then after Eden,
was there one surprise?
O yes, the awe of Adam
at the first bead of sweat.
The most interesting, the most moving, the wittiest, the real virtuoso pieces are the five poems gathered under the title “Sainte Lucie,” the isle of his birth. These are about the villages, the island, the people, and the language, a Creole tongue:
Come back to me
* * *
O so you is Walcott?
you is Roddy brother?
Teacher Alix son?
and the small rivers
with important names.
The sequence is about many other things. The final section is about an old chapel and its altar. In a few lines near the end we can hear the finest kind of poetry of our time, the good natural English that sounds as easy as talking. The similes of these lines explain things so clearly and they sound so simple, although they are actually deep and complex, that as we read them we may think, “I know that too, but I didn’t know I knew it.”
…after all that,
your faith like a canoe at evening coming in,
like a relative who is tired of America,
like a woman coming back to your house….
The way all those voices join in “Sainte Lucie” could be nobody but Walcott. But in case you have been wondering if just a regular old-fashioned poem can be interesting any more, the sort of set-piece that might have been done by any of a half-dozen living poets on a good day, as one of those perfect small paintings of a bowl of apples on a tablecloth might have been made by any of a half-dozen painters in Paris in 1890, there is “Sunday Lemons.”
Desolate lemons, hold
tight, in your bowl of earth,
the light to your bitter flesh,
let a lemon glare
be all your armour
this naked Sunday….
And Walcott goes on for some seven or eight more of these little stanzas about the bitter lemons, which quietly metamorphose into helmeted conquistadores, and into “hexagonal cities where bees died purely for sweetness,” and lamps, and memories, all the while remaining real lemons. With dusk they hold “still life,” a pun that here is sober and in its place charming, and then, all very quietly, they become at last
the form of this woman lying,
a lemon, a flameless lamp.
This is not symbolism, not metaphor, but the kind of correspondence made real as much in the form itself as in any overt connection. It is the kind of thing that used to exist in painting. It looks as easy and is as hypnotically pleasant as one of those small oils that only a master could make.
In addition to his local color, Derek Walcott has the advantage of writing many love poems. These are to poetry what the female nude is to painting, a subject obvious enough, by no means foolproof, and yet quite beyond compare.
Suburban streets and rain in Buffalo” are not isles of Carib fire, nor is Brighton Beach, as Irving Feldman well knows.
…yes, elsewhere under the sun legs
are less bowed, bellies are less
potted, pates less bald or blanched,
backs less burned, less hairy.
So what! the sun does not snub,
does not overlook them, shines,
And the fair day flares….
So while we especially honor the poet who must deal with the naturally unpoetical, still, we do not so readily take vacation trips to Buffalo or to Brooklyn, either. Unfair.
Irving Feldman has a wide variety of subjects and styles. Often he uses that line of our time, determined not by any count of stresses or syllables or any of those things. His lines don’t seem to be determined much by phrases either. He end a line anywhere inside a phrase. Since I have never had the privilege of hearing him read, I don’t know if he intends us to pause where the line ends. This structure of the line adds to the effect he seems to want, of a kind of strong nervousness, of a mind darting and stinging at an extreme of restlessness.
Two other characteristics of his style add to this effect. He often piles up quick descriptive phrases and phrases of quickly stated action, as in this passage about some handball players:
who yawp, who quarrel, who shove,
who shout themselves hoarse, don’t
get out of the way, grab for odds….
Then he will summarize for us what these details have tried to convey: the players are “tumultuous, blaring.” Then he gives more detail. They are “grunting as they lunge.” This rapid shifting in and out of generalized qualification adds to the effect of a nervous and darting mind.
The other thing that reinforces this is Feldman’s special kind of wordplay, the sort of thing, as I have said, that all poets are sensitive about. What else is rhyme? In Feldman we have “booms and blooms,” “deferences and differences,” “excrescence, excrement,” “wanly he wanes,” “set down your suitcase here awhile (yes, let’s get down to cases),” “effed and offed.” There is even an entire poem made of what he calls “these puns,” which goes on like this:
this oaf of I’lls and ills….
This is different from, say, what Walcott does with wordplay. In the “Sainte Lucie,”
the black night bending
cups in its hard palms
cool thin water
this is important water,
water is important….
This is different first because it is funny, based on a misunderstanding maybe of dialects, and then because the joke is based on the social reality he is presenting. The islands have “died for tourism.” Native things are valueless and all that counts is the duty-free bazaar. Whether or not in the West Indies water actually is imported, as in the Greek isles, I do not know. Anyway, “important water” makes me smile. “Effed and offed” sets my teeth on edge.
The poem in this fifth collection of Irving Feldman’s that takes pride of place by giving its title to the book is “Leaping Clear.” It has three sections, the first eighteen lines long; the middle, forty-seven lines; the last, nineteen. It has a motto, the famous sentences from Moby Dick that begin “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon,” and go on to say how you will find thousands upon thousands gazing at the sea. So the poet does this, in the first section he sees the sordid filth of buildings and streets; in the second he finds a view of the sea, then goes walking in Coney Island and bicycling under the Verrazano Bridge, and then drives around and up to Washington Heights.
I recovered one summer in New York
the magical leisure of the lost sea- space.
Then he sees something shine high over the bay; and the bridge, or the light on it, says, “I leap clear.” The final section appears to be a view of Brooklyn from the Verrazano Bridge, and in the sabbath afternoon we “behold, that it is good, it is good….” The sordid city is transmuted by this vision.
Such a summary of course tells nothing, but I cannot quote eighty-four lines, and so far as possible I should like to get the lines I can quote into context. The poem puzzles me in two main ways. First, surely it is proper, with such a time-honored and excellent subject as this sabbath tour, to work in some of the literary precedents, just as the Melville motto announces that intention. But the echoes seem strangely weak and diluted. Crane is certainly here: “the first Atlantis of light,” Feldman says. But in fairness, because my comments are not favorable, I must quote twenty lines at the end of the middle section, which I take to be the climactic moment of vision.
Windy sun below the Narrows,
Gravesend scud and whitecaps,
coal garbage gravel
scows bucking off Bensonhurst,
westward, and high
into the blue
it gleams aloft, alert
at the zenith
of leaping, speed
all blown to the wind
—what, standing in air,
what does it say
looking out out out?
And the light
off ridge, rock, window, deep,
I leap clear.
This is of course a remembrance of Hart Crane, as how could there not be one with this subject?
O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits
The agile precincts of the lark’s return….
But Crane is fast company to keep. Is this not a lame remembrance? Feldman says,
The demiurge of an age of bronze
sees his handiwork and says it is good….
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge….
And again, an earlier section of “Leaping Clear” goes like this:
suddenly, the sea stuns
moving into itself, gray over
green over gray, with salt smell
and harbor smells, tar, flotsam….
These lines, together with the lines quoted above about the scows, seem to be a dilution of other lines about a great city and its waters. What a poor connective is that weak word “with” compared to what happens in the original.
The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide….
So I wonder first why these echoes are recorded here with such enfeebled distortion. And then I wonder why they are played back, just the same, as if this reproduction were to be taken quite straightforwardly in the same manner that we take the originals. I cannot detect either real emulation, or a modern kind of “imitation,” or an homage. There seems to be no irony or wryness in the references to the forebears, no sign that the poet feels he is either walking in somebody’s footsteps or outpacing them. I don’t know what to call this poem.
The second thing that puzzles me about this work, and I cannot help it, is that I feel it is inherently ridiculous to take Hart Crane’s wild apotheosis of engineering, written in the days when it was still barely possible, with extravagant will, to try to believe in such things—“unfractured idiom, immaculate sigh of stars”—to take all this about the pioneer wonder of Brooklyn Bridge and make a small print of it featuring Robert Moses’s span to Staten Island.
So you see, I have made some effort to figure out what Irving Feldman is up to here, and I fail. Everyone cannot appreciate everything. As I said, this is Feldman’s fifth book, he knows what he is doing, and surely he does not require that every reviewer know too.
October 14, 1976