Stealing Sugar from the Castle
Selected and New Poems
1950 - 2013
Robert Bly is famous for many things, one of the most important, I guess, for being a man among men. He wrote a book about them called Iron John, not, presumably, to be confused with Iron Man. A New York Times review observed that
The success of Mr. Bly's book of Wild Man writings (62 weeks on the New York Times hard-cover best-seller list) virtually guaranteed that bass and tenor voices would soon appear on the gender studies stage. Oblivious males generally become alert when there is a chance to profit from a crisis.
Iron John was sent out to the world to counter the bad press men were getting for inventing, perhaps, machine guns, cluster bombs, WMDs, Dick Cheney, penis envy, and, we would hope, Porky's.
It came to be part of the men's movement, devised to offset all those badmouths on the feminist side. Bly's was one of dozens of books that appeared to boost men's drooping if not flaccid egos ... as if they needed anything at all to prop them up. Richard A. Shweder wrote,
The cacophony of voices in the male identity crisis literature is merely a symptom of our times. For some men, especially those in their 40's who came of age in the era of the women's liberation movement, the last 25 years has been experienced as an extended initiation ceremony into manhood, carried out on a grand cultural scale. They have been hazed and teased by their women and roughed up in debate. The many boundaries and clear resonances of a gendered world built around the opposition of work and family -- production versus reproduction, salaried work versus unsalaried, outdoors versus indoors, competitive versus cooperative, hard versus soft -- have been blurred, and men have been told that the time has come for them to choose to be someone else.
At this point in the initiation ceremony, some respected elders of the tribe are supposed to show up and let you in on some deep secrets about what it means to really be a man. Unfortunately, in our post-modern society we have no respected tribal elders or deep secrets, only a male identity crisis literature, written largely by men in their 40's who are groping around in the dark for their dignity.
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Stealing Sugar from the Castle comes loaded with mystics and mystery, and is seen by reviewer Ray Olsen as like "the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass." Other writers compare Bly to the transcendentalists and point out that he has received "the Poetry Society of America's Frost medal," not named that, presumably, for the frostiness of his verse but for an obscure prize named after Robert Frost.
There are a passel of poems in this new volume, running all the way from 1950 to the present. The earliest, presumably written when Bly was of a more child-like nature, has us "drifting like a radish," and speaks of "chestnut blossoms in the mind." Later poems turn more pointed, and often ignore if not demean the better half of the world's population. The title poem speaks of a widow with an "ant-like head," whose "child is her only joy." She also finds pleasure in being "a laggard, a loafer, an idiot."
Fathers and poetry and indian myths appear with some regularity here, as do asses: "I have been talking into the ear of a donkey," the poet exclaims.
"What has happened to the spring,"
I cry, "and our legs that were so joyful
In the bobblings of April?"
Outside donkey bobblings, we find cows, and their eyeballs, "brown / And prickly;" likewise, these orbs are to be found about a man's head, one that has been "Broken by a cannonball, / One eye dangles out." The poem, "Kennedy's Inauguration," carries a powerful, violent edge to it, concluding with the picture of a Marine whose "brain is missing," while the President,
In the cold, the back of his head
Still intact, lays
One hand on the Bible.
It is this mix of the moral and the perverse with all the mystical trappings that sets Bly apart from his peers Hall, Koch, and Ashbery.
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There is a certain distancing here. An "Elegy for My Mother" brings in New Zealand, tires in the river, the structure of the kneecap, and Plotinus who "nursed / Until he was eleven." We also have curtains that "stretch / Out before the window like girls on a picnic." The first and the last lines of the poem are the same, "The father sits in a chair and looks at the ground." Pain becomes a virtue, "A pain that we have earned" because it "gives more nourishment." This brings us around to Julian Barnes take on Nietzche's "what doesn't kill makes us stronger:"
I have long considered this epigram particularly specious. There are many things that fail to kill us but weaken us for ever. Ask anyone who deals with victims of torture. Ask rape counsellors and those who handle domestic violence. Look around at those emotionally damaged by mere ordinary life.
Bly is filled with a robust affection for the country, possibly as galling if not as tendentious as Wordsworth's. Unlike Wordsworth, he offers a series of love poems to the body,"This body of herbs and gopherwood, this blessing, this is a lone ridge patrolled by water..."
We love this body as we love the day we first met the person who led us away from this world...more full of joy than a wagonload of hay.
Bly's images can be strangely off-center:
I am a northern goat
Of winter light ...
Glad as the clams
At high tide, eerily
Content as the amorous
Or, "The bear between my legs / Has one eye only..."
Or, "Your life is a dog. He's been hungry for miles..."
Or, "At dusk my ignorance / Slips away and hide its eggs in the woods."
Bly has won many honors, but by my lights, what he is putting out is not only obtuse, but reeks of haste and circularity. Look at the ultimate selections in this volume, eight poems published for the first time, filled with vagaries ("Women in log cabins playing Haydn"), praise of his own species for its sensitivities ("Some men glance / At the world but then back to the blue flower"), negligible paradoxes ("What can it mean that Jesus had no sister?"), plain nonsense ("Let the crickets go on hiding their parents"), and not-so-poetic repetitions ("sitting at Moses' side" and "The joy of being naked on the roads.")
§ § §
Bly, like Herbert Hoover, has bested his critics by outliving them --- he's eighty-six now --- but when we survey the more than 300 poems collected here, spanning well over a half-a-century, we are hard-pressed to find more than a couple that we would be willing to hang on the refrigerator door. Even when Bly deigns to refer to God as a woman, she is certainly not out in hyperspace building universes but "lives at night in her sewing room / Doing stitchery."
Bly and his chums can crow all they want, but when I hear husky voices baying in the ear of a donkey, I also hear a febrile chest-thumping ... the noxious cry of a Tarzan reared in the ice-ridden Middle West. It is at times like this that I see women through Bly's eyes: barefoot, heavy with child ... most probably filled up to here with another loud-mouth poetic manchild.--- Mary Leslie Rule, MA