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:
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…
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.
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:
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”:
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
of the unnamed
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
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.
The best-known form of linkage is by those semantic alliances I have already mentioned—where “floss” calls up “spun” and “stuff.” But there are many other connecting strategies—the flutter of a single vowel repeated, with different sounds, like the “u” in churned, aureoles, buttermilk, mercury spun, aluminum, furred, velouté—a frequency of “u” far beyond its normal distribution in language. There are also linking patterns of length and shape (here, “buttermilk” and “herringbone” and “looking-glass”); patterns of syntax (of X, of Y, of Z); and “deceiving” syntactic patterns of the same sort, where “folded over” looks like “crawled underneath,” but the first is something one does to a blanket, while the second is something one does oneself with respect to the blanket; however identical the two phrases look, syntactically they derive from two different kernel sentences (“I folded over the blanket; I crawled underneath the blanket”), where the first verb is transitive, the second intransitive.
I mention all these details to show how, in Clampitt’s poems, words, like neurons, put out branches to other words; the synapses thus formed are commands to the reader’s processing apparatus to close the gap, to make the fleeting association. All of this linguistic patterning must accompany accurate visual rendition, or the poem will lack the fuel to make itself go. It is literally by such small electrical jumps that a poem refuels itself for the next inch of travel down the page. Clampitt has luxury to spare in this quarter, as she varies her fabric from sheer to thick, extending and diminishing her musical line, damasking her surface with pattern.
All this decorative change of pace is indispensable in poetry, in the sparest as well as in the most ornamented. But poems also, like essays, benefit from interesting thoughts; and like novels, they benefit from interesting incident. Clampitt’s intellectuality and her curiosity about life give her the virtues of the essayist and observer of event. The two long elegies in memory of her parents admit us to precincts of deep feeling, intermingled with intense thought. The poem about her mother’s death—a long journey-poem called “A Procession at Candlemas”—traces the daughter’s long drive back to the death-bed, a passage impelled not only by duty but by an atavistic instinct of mute ritual toward the shriveled mother, which Clampitt traces back to the Greek rites of Athena, the worship of the ancient wooden image on the Acropolis:
in olive wood or pear wood, dank
with the sweat of age, walled in the dark
at Brauron, Argos, Samos…
[the] wizened cult object, kept
out of sight like the incontinent whimperer
in the backstairs bedroom, where no child
ever goes—to whom, year after year,
the fair linen of the sacred peplos
was brought in ceremonial proces- sion—
Clampitt’s elegy for her father (“a farmer / hacking at sourdock”) is densely interwoven, in almost indescribable ways, with reflections on Beethoven. To enter a Clampitt poem is to enter a distinguished mind that then goes on an unpredictable journey of memory, association, musing, description, judgment, pining, correction, and imagining. Here, the reflections turn around the twin poles of the farmer’s engagement with nature and the composer’s engagement with art. What connects them is the revolutionary impulse (“Freiheit!“) to correct the malevolence of the wild, to overturn the prison walls of the conventional, to “disrupt / the givens of existence.” The father so rashly trusts his powers that on an ill-fated morning he sets out “to rid the fencerows of poison ivy.” He digs up the ivy and burns it, but
The well-meant holocaust became
a mist of venom, sowing itself along
the sculptured hollows of his overalls,
braceleting wrists and collarbone—
a mesh of blisters spreading to a shirt
worn like a curse. For weeks
he writhed inside it. Awful.
This shirt of Nessus is the retribution of the wild against the rebel. Earlier, the poem had rendered a pianist playing Beethoven’s Opus 111 (from which the poem takes its name), “a downward wandering / disrupting every formal symmetry,” “Beethoven ventilating, / with a sound he cannot hear, the cave-in / of recurring rage.” These are the polemics of the twin arts of the farmer and the composer, the negative effort against the given. Later the poem gives us, for each, the positive effort toward the creation of a new sort of beauty.
First, the composer; he makes
out of a humdrum squalor the levitations,
the shakes and triplets, the Adagio
molto semplice e cantabile, the Arietta
a disintegrating surf of blossom
opening along the keyboard, along the fencerows
the astonishment of sweetness….
Next the farmer: far from home, he
…stopped the car
to dig up by the roots a flower
he’d never seen before—a kind
of prickly poppy most likely, its luminousness
wounding the blank plains like desire.
He mentioned in a letter the disap- pointment
of his having hoped it might trans- plant—
The father dies in a torment like the ivy-poisoning prolonged—“that awful dying, months-long, hunkered, / irascible,” groaning “for someone / (because he didn’t want to look / at anything) to take away the flowers.” But a change occurs in the dying; and the last act of the poem speaks for a spirituality that aims at a total mastery of organic nature in the name of inner freedom:
Beethoven, shut up with the four walls
of his deafness, rehearsing the unhearable
semplice e cantabile, somehow reconstituting
the blister shirt of the intolerable
into these shakes and triplets, a hurrying
into flowering along the fencerows: dying,
for my father, came to be like that
finally—in its messages the levita- tion
of serenity, as though the spirit might
aspire, in its last act,
to walk on air.
This, then, is the twinned plot of the poem. But Clampitt’s own progress toward art makes a third plot line twined with her father’s and Beethoven’s lines of protest and creation. Clampitt grows up in a place where art seems both dead (in contrast to nature) and seductive (as the road away from the farm toward civilization and spirituality). Art comes from a place far from the plowshare’s virgin soil, “a region where the dolorous stars / are fixed in glassy cerements of Art”; worse yet, in Iowa high art is tamed down to the bourgeois parlor and its adornments, an upright piano and suitable reproductions:
…an upright Steinway
bought in Chicago; a chromo of a Hobbema
tree-avenue, or of Millet’s imag- ined peasant,
the lark she listens to invisible, perhaps
irrelevant: harpstrings and frip- peries of air
congealed into an object nailed against the wall,
its sole ironic function (if it has any)
to demonstrate that one, though he may
grunt and sweat at work, is not a clod.
Thinned out and domesticated in the poverty of Midwest “culture,” Beethoven, no longer a titanic force, is only a name attached to recital pieces:
his labor merely shimmers—a deracinated
album leaf, a bagatelle….
But what room had the hard-pressed prairie for the nostalgias of culture? Clampitt remembers grandparents’ and parents’ tales:
no dwelling on the sweet past here,
there being no past to speak of
other than the setbacks: typhoid
in the wells, half the first settlers
dead of it before a year was out;
diphtheria and scarlet fever
every winter; drought; the Depres- sion,
a mortgage on the mortgage….
These are twice-told tales, a child’s puzzling through the language of the past: what could it mean, “a mortgage on the mortgage,” and incomprehensible epics of unheard-of diseases? But the troubles were all instanced as a defense: “What time had we for culture; what use was it to us?” ask the ranks of farmers.
But the impressionable child, taken to hear the pianist on “the Lyceum circuit,” hears art as an irresistible counterforce to fatigue, depression, and sullied hands:
as a susurrus, the silk and perfume
of unsullied hands. Those hands!—
driving the impressionable wild with anguish
for another life entirely: the Lyceum circuit,
the doomed diving bell of Art.
We see this impressionable child again in the superb poem “Imago”: there she is “the shirker propped / above her book” reading about Andersen’s little mermaid, who pays for disliking her original home “by treading, at every step she takes, / on a parterre of tomahawks.” The child in the farmhouse feels “A thirst for something definite so dense / it feels like drowning.” It is the thirst for outline and form, though she does not yet know that aesthetic hunger by name. She tries to write, but her efforts are disapproved of. Finally, “either / fed up with or starved out of / her native sloughs” she “trundle[s] her / dismantled sensibility elsewhere.” We see her, too, in the poem called “Meridian,” appalled by her mother’s daily life: the child feels
apathy at the meridian, the noon
of absolute boredom: flies
crooning black lullabies in the kitchen,
milk-soured crocks, cream sepa- rator
still unwashed: what is there to life
but chores and more chores, dishwater,
fatigue, unwanted children….
This girl reading in the parlor, watching in the kitchen, preparing for the writer’s immersion in the diving bell of art, becomes the woman who wonders, in “Imago,” what it would have been like to live a purely biological life, to have succumbed to those hormones that dictate emerging from one’s chrysalis, turning briefly to that sexually alit female to whom males helplessly advance, then copulating and dropping one’s litter before dying. In the most hypnotic piece of writing in this strenuously written book, Amy Clampitt looks with a frightening intensity at the sexual evolution of the biological female. Her symbol for this purpose is the imago of the luna moth emerging from its chrysalis with all its terrifying lurid sexual apparatus of specialized evolution. The moth in its timing obeys the inexorable water clock, the clepsydra, of the biological imperative:
the terrible clepsydra of becoming
distils its drop: a luna moth, the emblem
of the born-again, furred like an orchid
behind the ferned antennae, a totem-
garden of lascivious pheromones,
hangs, its glimmering streamers
pierced by the dripstone burin of the eons
with the predatory stare out of the burrow,
those same eyeholes. Imago
of unfathomable evolvings, living
only to copulate and drop its litter,
does it know what it is, what it has been,
what it may or must become?
There is a relentlessness in this passage that shows Clampitt going very deep in the diving bell, deeper than ornament, down to the riddle of biology and consciousness as they contend in human desire. The eyeholes that “stare out of the burrow” as man evolves out of the bestial lair are the two masks of consciousness, tragedy and comedy, that had appeared earlier in the poem:
…a pair of masks whose look, at even
this remove, could drill through bone:
the tragic howl, the comic rictus,
eyeholes that stare out of the crypt
Passages like the one on the luna moth, where every stroke counts, where a phrase like “the dripstone burin of the eons” pierces before it is understood, guarantee themselves by their rich suggestiveness (even without their echoing connections to other parts of the poem). The brain of the writer, in these moments, is being ransacked: storage places are thrown open, experiences rummaged through, to find the word or image that will suit—in meaning, in shape, in sound. The brain finds “clepsydra” from history, the moth-as-soul from Psyche’s myth; then the zoological and botanical gardens of the mind cast up rapidly “fur” and “fern,” “orchid” and “antennae”; anthropology throws in the totem, the laboratory contributes the pheromones, the studio the burin, architecture the dripstone, geology the eons; and the old vocabulary of sexual allure rises to burnish the lines with “lascivious,” “glimmering,” and “predatory.” Behind it all hangs the visual picture of the intricately colored patterning of the female luna moth seen in her moment of emergence.
As a poem about the adolescence of the female, “Imago,” with its look at the dreamy girl reading fairy tales leading to its violent stare at sexuality, marks a new stage—speculative, brooding, and powerful—in the poetic mirroring of female experience. Women’s training and reading has historically been very narrow, and the metaphors that came naturally to male writers—from physical activity, government, theology, the arts—were not so likely to spring to the mind of women who had never assumed an active role in the world and who had never been introduced to the varied disciplines of learning. One knew that in time women’s privation, at least in learning, would disappear (it has not yet disappeared in the active life). In Clampitt’s poetry we see a mind vigorously reaching for whatever it needs by way of illustrative detail, and finding it easily, in abundance. To join such unimpeded freedom of movement is exhilarating.
In one of her poems about Greece, Clampitt speaks of being “whelmed / into vertigo by gulfs spanned for a moment / by so mere a thread,” the gulfs in question being those of space and time, spanned by language and memory. Clampitt’s poems, especially those reaching backward in geological, historical, or personal time, and those reaching out in space to Greece, to England, to Italy, cause some of that same vertigo by their far-cast associations. A mere thread of language spanning the gulfs of the mind and the world—it is a definition of poetry that suits many of the fifty poems gathered here. There are of course slighter poems in the volume—occasional poems, minor descriptions, some poems where feeling is in uneasy balance. But for me Clampitt is the poet of the poems where her powers are at full stretch, exerting themselves to be adequate to “the transparent strata / of experience, the increment of years.”
Though Clampitt published two small books before The Kingfisher, * the advance in this collection over those preceding it is dumbfounding. When we read a book of American poems by a contemporary writer, we often forget that America will be remembered, when we are all dead, by the memorials of its culture; in them others will find out what we felt at what we saw (as Stevens puts it). Embodying their century, the minds that produce cultural objects are intellects “engaged in the hazardous / redefinition of structures / no one has yet looked at,” as Clampitt says in “Beach Glass.” A century from now, this volume will still offer a rare window into a rare mind, it will still offer beautiful objects of delectation; but it will have taken on as well the documentary value of what, in the twentieth century, made up the stuff of culture. And later yet, when (if man still exists) its cultural terminology is obsolescent, its social patterns extinct, it will, I think, still be read for its triumph over the resistance of language, the reason why poetry lasts.
March 3, 1983