The Voice
Of the Poet:
Wallace Stevens

J. D. McClatchy
(Random House Audio)
Wallace Stevens was one of those poets we English Majors always heard about but never got around to reading. In the moil of 20th Century American/English poetry, what with T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence and e. e. cummings and Ezra Pound there just didn't seem to be enough time. So it was with pleasure that I took this disk that Random House Audio sent and put it on the car stereo so I could drive home from work with the windows up and the air-conditioning going and Stevens and his quasi-neo-English-accented voice (poets and announcers and English teachers all talked like that sixty years ago) reading his works.

After a little bit I came to stop-light and as Stevens and I were dreaming along about happy people in an unhappy world and unhappy people in a happy world and, perhaps in bliss, my foot slipped off the brake and I did a little collateral damage to the truck in front of me. Leaving "the metaphysical treats of the physical" and the motor running, I met nervously with a burly fellow in the Black Darth Vadermobile in front and I must say he was quite good about it all, quite understanding when I told him about the happy people in a happy world, and thus, instead of one of those dreadful insurance company claims what with the police and everything he agreed to take a few loose twenty-dollar bills off my hands that I wasn't using anyway.

So I got back in the car and drove off and bless me --- it was a half-an-hour or so before I discovered that Wallace was still there muttering on about "Danes in Denmark" and "trumpets of the morning" and "the music summoned by birth."

§     §     §

I am reluctant to tell you, as you will think I am some kind of what we used to call a "prole," but I have to confess to you that in listening to Stevens perhaps I am listening to one of the great unsung masters of American verse --- but maybe I am listening to nonsense.

Am I dense or is he putting us on? --- this well-dressed man who spent all his life as head of the claims department for Hartford Accident and Indemnity. I can see him now, in his Brooks Brothers suit, striding up the streets of Hartford --- or was it New Haven? --- full up in his brown study, thinking, mouthing the words so when he gets to his neat office on the 19th Floor he can hitch up, sit down, and dictate his poems to his secretary (swearing her to secrecy, they don't care much for iambs there at Hartford A & I) --- and then after a few months, he has Miss Potts (that's her name) collect them together and he labels them and sends them out to his publisher. He did this patiently, regularly --- for twenty-five years.

    There may be always a time of innocence.
    There is never a place. Or if there is not time,
    If it is not a thing of time, nor of place,
    Existing in the idea of it, alone,
    In the sense against calamity, it is not
    Less real....

he writes, and I think, "What?" or, "Huh?" --- or maybe, "Say who?"

What is going on here? His voice is regular, a pleasing baritone --- but what in god's name is he trying to tell us? After the fifth or sixth "the grandiose gesture of her thoughts" or "the form gulping after formlessness," the words turn what's left of my brain into a regular peach cobbler.

                                            We seek
    The poem of pure reality, untouched
    By trope or deviation, straight to the word,
    Straight to the transfixing object, to the object
    At the exactest point at which it is itself,
    Transfixing by being purely what it is,
    A view of New Haven, say...

A view of New Haven, you say? How about Trenton? Or Dallas, or Burbank? Mama mia!

The best we can figure is that Stevens, up to his ears in Claims for the Hartford (and you know how warm-hearted those who work in Claims) would take a few moments away from the letters pouring in ("I-was-robbed" ... "I-was-beaten" ... "I-am-dying") a little respite from the rub-a-dub worries --- and while doing so, let these words gambol from his lips. Miss Potts would dutifully scribble them down and he would chop them into bite-sized lines and voila! --- there was another swatch he could stick titles on: "Fabliau of Florida," "Bantams in Pine-Woods," "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" --- and all the grobians out there would say, "Aha! Another book by Wallace Stevens," and they would snap it up so they could take it home and set it up there on the bookshelf and visitors would come and say, "Quite interesting collection of poetry books you have there," and you would say, "Oh yes --- look, there's Wallace Steven's new book, and I do love Stevens, don't you?"

§     §     §

In the excellent introduction to this volume (probably the best part), J. D. McClatchy tells us that once Stevens got into a drunken brawl with Ernest Hemingway in a bar, in Key West, breaking a few bones in his hand --- poets were so much more snippish, more fighterly back then --- and at another time there was this bit of sniping that went on between Stevens and Robert Frost:

    Stevens: The trouble with you is that you write about things.
    Frost: The trouble with you is that you write about bric-a-brac.


--- Lolita Lark


<A Girl Who
Grew Up in Hell
And Emerged Whole

Gary Penley
Della Raye Rogers was sent off to the Alabama Asylum for the Insane when she was four years old. Her mother and two cousins were admitted at the same time. In those days --- the early part of the 20th Century --- it was not uncommon for whole families to be admitted to asylums if there was any trace of feeblemindedness or idiocy.

Della Raye ended up in the institute for twenty years despite conclusive evidence that she fit none of the three categories established at the time for the mentally incapable: moron, imbecile, or idiot. (A "moron" ranked highest, closest to "normal;" "imbecile" was in the middle; and "idiots" were the lowest.)

The Institute, known as Partlow after the founder W. W. Partlow, was just what you would expect --- a place that warehoused those in Alabama who didn't fit anywhere else. Deformed people, those subject to gran mal, those who could not care for themselves were all sent here --- the most disabled being sent to the poetically named "Untidy Ward:"

    Some idiots spend their days strapped in wheelchairs or fouled beds, while others shuffled about the room jabbering and shaking their heads continually. Still others sat on benches and drooled, babbled, or simply stared, tongues lolling sickly from their rolling heads. Horribly bent limbs, deformed craniums, and twisted faces were commonplace. Distorted spines and wrenched rib cages skewed their postures into hideous contortions. Constant tremors lashed their knotted bodies or jerked and shook their twisted limbs...Shrieks, screams and primal cries filled the air day and night. All this in a horrid space named by some master of understatement...the Untidy Ward.

Not only did Della Raye have to live in this foul world, her days and nights were dominated by various Nurse Ratcheds who delighted in torturing the patients. One would block the door to the only toilet. Others stripped recalcitrant girls, exposed them for all to see.

Because of a streak of cussedness in her, Della Raye took her beatings without crying, which seemed to infuriate the attendants. One solved the problem in a way that was not unlike those devised by the Nazis --- they brought in Della Raye's mother, Ruby, and made her part of the punishment:

    Ruby pointed a threatening finger and said, "Della Raye, these women tell me you ain't been bein' good. You gotta stop that. That ain't no way to get along around here..." Before Della could react, her mother grabbed her in a headlock and began beating her in the face with her fist.

    "Mama! Mama! What are you doing?" Della screamed, jumping around in a circle. Ruby spun with her, and slugged her again and again...

    "That's it, Ruby. Get her good!" the attendants shouted gleefully.

The Partlow Asylum was allocated $20,000 a year by the state for pay the attendants. There was no restriction on punishment. Those patients in the upper houses were often punished for minor infractions by being locked in tiny boxes in the Untidy Ward, sometimes forced in with the more violent patients as roommates. Food was bad, visitors were rare, and some patients --- themselves unbalanced and dangerous --- were used as attendants.

Partlow is, as described in this book, as vicious and brutal a place as one could find in the United States at the time. A section describing the way Alabama medical school students used the young girl patients for practice physical exams is more than appalling. The writing is straightforward; still, one often wants to just lay the book down and go for a walk because of the succession of hideous events that follow, one on top of another --- all because an uncle had decided that the four-year-old Della Raye would be better off incarcerated rather than out in the world.

§     §     §

Della survived, and --- because a few of the people who knew her there knew that she was not feebleminded --- was finally released. She even came to build a relatively normal life: marriage to a good man ... children ... home. The conclusion of her tale is an unusual one.

Della Raye grew to be profoundly religious. In her reading of the Bible, she realized that she must forgive. "Hatred was easy --- all one had to do was to leave it untended, let it seethe and boil and poison its own container."

    She realized what a terrible job the attendants had. Uneducated, untrained, and laboring under horribly overcrowded conditions, they had been charged with a near impossible task. Forced to work long hours with little pay at a dirty, thankless job with no recognition, the attendants had been unhappy people who were not even allowed control of their personal lives.

Even though, she thought, "no human, under any circumstance, had the right to degrade another," she chose to come to terms with these people who had ruled her for two decades. She began to visit all of them that she could find --- visiting many of them when they were on their death beds, or suffering from dementia, cancer, or the ravages of old age. Indeed, some of the most moving passages are those of this woman so charitably visiting those who had tortured her so many years before.

One is reminded of Bo Lozoff, who, for the past forty years, has worked with prisoners around the country, teaching them meditation techniques. Recently, in a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the master said that what he was doing was good, but that he should be prepared to offer the same opportunities for instruction in meditation to the prison guards. (There's an old jail-house mot that says that the guards "are doing time too.")

Although the title is a little heavy-handed --- the story is worth it --- especially the fairly concise picture it gives of "eugenics" as practiced before 1950 in the United States. Eugenics was a concept of racial "purity" that helped formed the thinking of the Germans in the 1930s. The Southern Medical Journal declared, "The new science of Eugenics is pregnant with great possibilities for the human race." Zealots convinced legislators of "the Menace of the Feebleminded," and by 1935, thirty-five states had enacted sterilization laws, using castration, ovariotomy, vasectomy and salpingectomy. More than 20,000 sterilizations took place in California alone. It was mere good luck that Della Raye escaped enforced sterilization, for the practice did not die out in the deep south until the mid-1960s.

--- F. W. J. Watters


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
(City Lights)
Halfway through this book I began to be afraid I was going to meet myself when I turned the page, and I didn't think it was going to be a pretty sight. The author and I had unknowingly circled each other for years as she moved toward the pointy end of the new political consciousness, and I dawdled around the fashionable edge. Not exactly a proud admission, but one that allows me to vouch for the accuracy of this excellent history of America's most recent revolution.

Dunbar-Ortiz and I did not meet in life or on the printed page, but both of us followed a path that led from an Oklahoma childhood to San Francisco in the ebullient early sixties. She came from the rural poverty she described in her first book, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie while I grew up in middle class comfort. The relative levels of our commitment probably reflect these different backgrounds.

The author's latest book is a continuation of her biography as well as a history of the Movement, the New Left, or whatever you call the militant political left during the turbulent period of the 60s and early 70s. Just as she revealed the shadow history of Oklahoma in Red Dirt, she has written a shadow history of America during those chaotic years in Outlaw Woman. "Write what you know," teachers have exhorted us, and Dunbar-Ortiz has masterfully folded the story of her life into this account of the turmoil and change that now seems so long ago.

Outlaw Woman begins as the author has escaped her stifling and occasionally violent childhood on an Oklahoma tenant farm. Head full of radical socialism imparted by her father, tough and strong-willed, shy and insecure, she found herself in San Francisco, the very seedbed of the coming political changes.

What follows is the history of the New Left, written by one of its leaders. She worked for civil rights and female liberation, with the anti-war and anti-apartheid movements, and consistent with her own heritage, the American Indian Movement. Her vignettes of New Left luminaries are some of the book's treasures, and not always flattering.

Though she fought free of her stifling background by the power of her intellect, it was no protection for her emotions. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and as she said, "...would cloud personal relationships for the rest of my life." Dunbar-Ortiz' personal life was as erratic as the times. This deep personal history moves her narrative along with the power of a good novel.

The new sexual freedom of the 60s did not bring concurrent improvement in the status of women. Female revolutionaries were supposed to man the phones, not the barricades, and wait until the battle was won before addressing their own concerns. Dunbar-Ortiz refused to accept this paradigm. She organized an early radical feminist group, Cell 16, always pushing the envelope, stalwart leftist, unwilling to compromise.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this book is its depiction of the Movement's descent into paranoia (or whatever it's called when they're really after you.) The Nixon White House, like the present administration, equated dissent with treason; government spies, deliberate disinformation and outright assassinations led radicals to arm themselves. "[W]e were joining a trend in the movement across the country, and once armed, our mindsets changed to match." It was a war that could have only one outcome, and she was lucky to survive it.

As I was writing this review in the big restaurant across from the University of New Mexico, a young man, seeing Outlaw Woman on my table, stopped and introduced himself. A native of Acoma Pueblo, he had worked with Dunbar-Ortiz in non-governmental organizations promoting the rights of indigenous people. He said that she had recently taken a lot of abuse for publicly criticizing the policies that led to Sept. 11, 2001. It cheered me to hear that she is still in the vanguard of dissent, still out there steadfastly refusing to allow us to ignore the consequences of a foreign policy based on fear and greed.

In our modern binary consciousness, revolutions seem to be lost if they are not won. Those who dismiss the radical politics of the sixties ignore the changes that were wrought in civil rights, gender equality and the power of the government to wage an unpopular war. Dunbar-Ortiz contributed to each of these victories. Now that the economy, government policy and the national psyche are firmly in the hands of the same corporate swine, revolution is harder to achieve. But Dunbar-Ortiz and her crowd can still cause them to shift around uneasily at the trough, and sniff the air for the smell of bacon.

--- Cese McGowan

Go Up     Subscribe     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH