In the Labyrinth
Poems 2004 - 2006
(Norton)She's one of those American poets that you sort of maybe have heard of, not among the anointed (Philip Levine, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, Charles Simic, Gary Snyder), nor the totally unknown. The Lannan people gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award, as if anyone else (my dentist, my podiatrist, my pedicurist) who made it past the half-century mark intact should deserve no less. Me, too.
America has never been very kind to its poets, thank god. Poe was rightly ridiculed by all for his sing-songery, although lionized by Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Whitman was more infamous than famous for his singular first person singular, and was the first of a slew (Edna St Vincent Millay being another example) who were defamed in public for their morals --- or lack of them ... as if a lurid life could demean great writing.
The true stars --- the likes of e. e. cummings, P. J. Mierly and Allen Ginsberg --- were ignored by those who then, as now, run the American poetry pot on the East Coast. Robert P. T. Coffin (who?) won the Pulitzer, as did that boor Richard Eberhart and the long-winded Archibald MacLeish. The ardent feminist Marlene Joyce Pearson, the unassuming Leslie Seamans or even Sylvia Plath would never be nor have been considered for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The last two died by their own hands. Suicide, apparently, now as then, tended to thin the crowds of American versifiers --- Plath, Weise, Johm Brennan, Anne Sexton and John Berryman being notable examples.
Of those who were given Pulitzers, we can count the late incompetent Robert Penn Warren, along with the still (barely) non-comatose Louise Glück, Maxine Kumin, and Jorie Graham. Those who can write, and who do so exquisitely, are sent off to teach English Lit at our Siberias: Spokane State U, Mississippi A&M, the University of Missoula, Mont., and Kansas City City College (is there a Kansas City City College?)
Let us suppose that William Blake came into his prime on the streets of New York in the mid-20th Century. Given the state of American versification, the most he could have expected would have been an adjunct professorship at Staten Island A & M. In print technology. (Is there even a Staten Island A & M? If not, why not?)
§ § §
Comes now Adrienne Rich, who, as we have said, is one of those you almost may not have heard of:
The body is light when
taken for what it is.
Formed of walls and
Ready to burn.
With little flags
fluttering in the center.
Rich is evidently of the T. S. Eliot School of Footnotery, or maybe Tomfoolery. If the peons don't get it, stick in some notes on the last few pages to confuse them even further. For example, the note on "Improvisation on Lines from Edwin Muir's 'Variations on a Time Theme'" tells us that we should see Edwin Muir's Collected Poems to understand lines like standing under /the bruised eye-socket of late-winter sun. In other words, if you want to take in what I am putting out, do your homework, even with that ancient, winsome, but sometimes cryptically mystical Edwin Muir.
This is not the room where tears have carven
cheeks track rivulets in the scars
left by the gouging tool
where wood itself is weeping ....
This is the room where truth scrubs around the pedestal of the toilet...
This has something to do, the notes inform us, with "U. S. Vice President Richard Cheney on NBC's Meet the Press, September 16, 2001." Ezra Pound, god knows, taught us that good poetry and politics --- no matter how bad or misguided --- should not and cannot mix, no more than apples, and oranges (or bad vice-Presidents).
Silent limousines meet jets descending over the Rockies.
Steam rooms, pure thick towels, vases of tuberose and jasmine, old vintages await the après-skiers.
Rooms of mahogany and leather, conversations open in international code. Thighs and buttocks to open later by arrangement.
Out of sight, out of mind, she solitary wrestles a huge duvet, resheathes heavy tasselled bolsters.
We are told in the notes to "See Carolyn Jones, 'Battle of the Beds,' San Francisco Chronicle, December 19, 2005." However, for some of us, a good poet should never rely on more than a reader's good sensibility, reasonable wit, and deep affection for the language in order to get the message. Who's going to pother through Google for an hour or so trying to find an article from a newspaper so many years back in order to figure out a patch of writing that has little charm and no life?
A few of these poems were previously published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Progressive, The Nation, and The New Review of Literature. To those who know, these four magazines represent nothing more or less than the original American Dead Poets' Society.
When we saw Rich's title Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, we found ourselves wondering why, each time we picked up the receiver, all we got was a loud buzzing noise. We thought for a moment that she might have been associated with that collection of poetry --- a wonderful collection --- from ten years back, A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset). No such luck.--- A. W. Allworthy