Transparence of the World
translated by W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 1967 / Copper Canyon, 2003
(contained within Spacecraft Voyager 1: New and Selected Poems)
The Best of It: New and Selected Poems
Occasionally I leave the 19th century for the 20th (right now it's The Magic Mountain and Babbitt) and sometimes even make it to the 21st. Alice Oswald's Dart is the kind of thing the English do, but we Americans almost never. It's a long poem (48 pages) "about" the River Dart, from its source in Cranmere Pool to its debouchment (is that the right word?) at Dartmouth. Oswald's poem partakes of characteristics of high Modernism--the voices of characters other than the poet; a collage-like structuring; the mixture of free verse, formal verse and prose--but without the compacted, aloof difficulty of many Modernist works. Its beginning recalls a more welcoming David Jones, perhaps, set loose in the present:
Who's this moving alive over the moor?
An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the
military track from Okehampton?
The old man is only the first of many characters, based on real people, who inhabit the poem and speak in it. He has taken to walking the moors because his heart won't let him climb mountains anymore. "[I]t's like walking on the bottom of a lake," he says. "What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can't get out[.]" The specific names which dot the poem, sometimes in list-like inventory, echo a tradition that goes all the way back to Homer while also reminding contemporary readers of the concrete poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay with its love for reciting the names of boats. The poem is full of proper nouns--places, boats, mythological or historical personae.
The poem also suggests the American writer Paul Metcalf (a comparison which might not be obvious to English readers), not because Oswald has constructed her text with pieces of other texts as Metcalf so often does, but rather because the interweaving of her voice--the voice of the poem or the river, as you prefer--with those of the other characters has something of that feel, almost as though the poet is conducting a symposium. The thing itself, the real thing, is in these voices: Dart is not simply another entry into the human psyche, as a collage like The Waste Land is. Dart tangles us in the real world outside our own skulls, a man panning for gold, a woollen (sic) mill, a water purification plant, the animals we share the land and water with ("Unfortunately sheep don't use loopaper.") But as prosaic as the subject matter might become, Oswald's language almost always remembers that it is poetry and not prose that she is writing:
why is this jostling procession of waters,
its many strands overclambering one another,
so many word-marks, momentary traces
in wind-script of the world's voices,
why is it so bragging and surrendering,
love-making, spending, working and wandering,
so stooping to look, so unstopping,
so scraping and sharpening and smoothing and wrapping,
why is it so sedulously clattering,
so like a man mechanically muttering
so sighing, so endlessly seeking
to hinge his fantasies to his speaking,
all these scrambled and screw-like currents
and knotty altercations of torrents[. . . .]
Jean Follain's language, as rendered into English by W.S. Merwin, is much more restrained, much quieter, both less forthcoming and more down-to-earth than Oswald's. Transparence of the World, some 60 poems selected from books published in France from the '30s through the '60s, hews even more closely than does Oswald to "direct treatment of the thing". Follain plays his cards so close to his vest that the reader either has to enter actively into the vignettes, often clearly rural, to decide upon their significance, or shrug them off as nothing more than postcards, which would be a mistake. "The Students' Dog," in its entirety, runs:
The students play at breaking the ice
on a path
near the railroad
they have been wrapped up warm
in old dark woolens
and belted in with bossed leather
the dog that follows them no longer has a bowl for his late meals
he is old
The very simple "data" here actually provides a wealth of atmosphere: the clear communication of the wintry weather; the rather aimless pastimes of children; the hint of poverty in the woolens' age and, especially, in the treatment of the dog who outlived his usefulness--and then the disorientingly sharp focus of those final five words, an invitation to see the world in a frightening new way.
The same kind of delicacy works in "Death", in which a button made from bone pops off the bodice of a beautiful young woman when she falls. Rain washes it down to a garden with a crumbling statue of the nature goddess Pomona, "naked and laughing." Why did the young woman fall? Did she fall only literarily or also metaphorically? The rainwater lays the button down in the garden--is this only death, or also love-making? And why would the goddess of plenty laugh in the face of death? Because she knows what we disparage, that the earth, unlike us, always returns from death?
goes a long
Where Follain's procedure can be quite sophisticated in its simplicity, in what it refuses to say, Kay Ryan's poems are often just the opposite: equally brief, equally constructed out of images drawn from the external world, but almost always using the kernel of externality to fashion an explicit response, almost like the moral of a fable, often accentuated by true or slant rhyme. There is a sharp sense of humor in many of her poems, but too strong a tendency to signal that humor with titles which baldly label the poem's subject or are immediately reflected in the poem's first sentence: "Crown," "Test," "Her Politeness," "Emptiness," "Failure 2." Wit is a large component in Ryan's verse, but whether one responds to it positively is probably not a feature of the verse itself, but of the reader's personality. One doesn't have to "like" sprung rhythm per se to admire the way Hopkins' sense of music animates his poems. But I suspect that readers will divide fairly sharply over Ryan's work from the get-go, because her process varies little from poem to poem or book to book (which is one reason why a hefty collection like The Best of It is not the best way to approach her work.) I couldn't help thinking of Ogden Nash--cleverly manipulated language leading up to an almost inevitable punchline. Ryan's aims are more serious than Nash's and, while that may not be a good thing overall, it does mean that a poem sometimes works just a little better than its fellows and allows a basically unsympathetic reader such as myself to catch a glimpse of what her promoters so promote. The title poem of Say Uncle, for example:
day slips by.
This poem absolutely follows the patented Ryan format--tight obvious connection of title and text; prominent (sometimes internal or slant) rhyme; obvious "message". But here the text is, nicely, even leaner than most, and the introduction of ankle and knuckle--while perfectly to be expected for their near-rhymes--are not obvious choices in terms of sense, thus introducing a feeling of whimsy and absurdity instead of the more usual hyper-intellectualism of wit. "Niagara River," another title poem, is arguably even better, the black humor of its conclusion being underplayed for a change.
Ryan clearly has her own voice, and she is to be congratulated for having bucked the often tedious quasi-autobiographical impulse that has moved so much of the poetry of her generation. Even so, there is too much uniformity to her work and too much intellectual tidiness for me, certainly, and perhaps for other readers as well.
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Cooper Renner co-edits with Kim Chinquee the online magazine elimae. Chinese
Checkers: Three Fictions, his translation from the work of Mexican
author Mario Bellatin, is now available from Ravenna Press.