Maine Letter

The October edition of POETRY featured an annoying sequence of petulances entitled, collectively, “Antagonisms,” none more excruciating than earnest Eavan Boland’s cautious, provisional confession of failure to bond with Marianne Moore, who I’m sure she resents and detests. (The name Moore, of course, means Black, but the Moores were Orange, Baptist or Episcopal Irish; I don’t know about Boland, but Eavan smells like the rainy wind of the Gaelic revival). After throwing up her hands in decorous, humble-pie, obeisant lament, Boland knifes the titanic and iconic modernist for “a relentless ironization of the persona,” complains, Boland in propia peronae, “At a time when I was stumbling through my own worries about poetic voice and disclosure, I took no comfort from this. When I read a Moore poem I felt–which I never did with Bishop, that I was being kept a distance, warned away from feeling and expression.” How the world turns–around Boland. She means Elizabeth Bishop, Moore’s Nova Scotia-cum-Bostonian epigone, a blander, more North American version of Moore’s biting cheddar. Boland goes on to complain by faint praise that Moore’s “shimmer and cleverness” promoted an unpleasantly arctic transformation of “argument into epigram,” but then Boland offers an epigram of her own: “I still feel, as I felt then, that irony is the automatic pilot of modernism.”

Ouch, that hurt. But Moore retaliated preemptively, expressing her thinking about vulnerable, literalist women like Boland, anti-intellectual feeling mongerers, in an oft-anthologized poem called “The Fish,” though because of its opulent and stunning prettiness, the poem is as tirelessly and assiduously misunderstood as women themselves. The poem isn’t about the fish, nor the “turquoise sea of their bodies,” but the more (Moore!) awful marriage of water forcing a “wedge of iron through the iron edge of (a) cliff,” with the ensuant eruption of traditional, symbolic and celebratory wedding confetti: “stars, pink rice-grains, ink-bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green lilies, and submarine toadstools,” tokens and totems of fertility, all of which “slide each on the other.” The object, that which is unmoved by all this apocalyptic copulation, the iron-edged cliff and “defiant edifice,” which is Moore’s subject as well as her trope of subjectivity, survives littered with sunken breasts and moribund vaginas: “lack of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes; the chasm-side is dead.” And Moore concludes with a punishing locker-room truth, affirming snidely:

      evidence has proved that it can live
           on what can not revive
                its youth. The sea grows old in it.

Punitive and snide, but not negative. Cognescenti allow shrimp to cure for hours on a warm windowsill prior to consumption, or as Napoleon telegrammed Josephine after defeating the British navy all across the Caribbean, “Home in three days. Don’t wash!” Such irony as Moore’s and Bonaparte’s conveys the hideous joy which energizes the Truth’s dichotomies, and Being’s wrenching and rewarding dialectics. Literalists like Boland, who Moore derides throughout her work, seek safe harbor for “feeling and expression,” and imagine a dreamworld of bedrock values and honest simplicity. Hating nuance and irony, they invest their hopes in inchoate, insight resistant sincerity, echoing Shakespeare’s proto-Republican advising his college-bound son: “To thy own self be true,” and so forth. Or echoing the political columnist, George Will, who recently extolled some conservative British writers’ endorsement of Sir Lewis Namier: “What matters most about political ideas is the underlying emotions, the music to which ideas are a mere libretto, often of very inferior quality.” Or echoing William Safire’s malicious, cunning but pointless deconstruction of John Kerry’s foreign policy positions as Neo-Neo-Con, in the N.Y. Times following the initial Bush-Kerry debate, the one in which George W. stood behind the podium pointing his toe at the floor, not as if angry and determined to fight, but like Mercury preparing for flight, or as if exposed and embarrassed. Or echoing the President’s own word-games in which he portrays Kerry as supporting Saddam, reckless taxation and philosophic defeatism. Irony isn’t a word-game. It’s the fearful embrace of cognition’s contraries and ambiguities, an honest alternative to sincerity’s sentimental inner faith, a hoax and, indeed, paradoxical reliance on verbal casuistry to authenticate inner and higher, invisible values and feelings. Occult conservatism has comforted American academicians for several decades under the erudite, deliberately unintelligible auspices of Post-structuralism, Deconstruction, and Jacques Derrida, who was quoted in an obituary appraisal by Edward Rothstein, also in The N. Y. Times on the theme of the September 11 th deaths in Manhattan:

We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy–a name, a number–points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.

Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Jacques Derrida


This isn’t irony. This isn’t affirming the frightening truth that the wooden horse European civilization planted on the plains of Troy as a gift to Asia and celebrated in its founding poetic epics, had sprouted Pegassian wings and came home to roost. This is terrified, but sincere word-dodgery yearning to dismiss life and the world’s complexity, and for a rebturn to the four-square walls of classroom and conference adulation, or to the tedious four-line stanzas of Eavan Boland’s sincere and interminable poems, tidy as table settings.

Irony implies a coded and resistant sub-text–the Greek eiron a slave prohibited from speaking frankly of her ambition, resentment or desire–and sincerity presumes a miraculous spiritual and worldly freedom from these things, and the supple, eloquent, well-conditioned acknowledgment that one’s self is the transient, transparent fragment of a sub-text of an omniscient, immediately visible, cosmically invisible, mystery. Maintaining faith with one’s most vulnerable and tender experiences as a reader, must be an exercise of modesty and honesty, and it is faulty, insufficient, if not downright folly to detatch this spiritual work from the practice of poetry.

Where cedar leaf divides the sky, 
I heard the sea– 
In sapphire arenas of the hills 
I was promised an improved infancy.

–Hart Crane

Inevitably a meditation on emotional purity in poetry–what Pablo Neruda implored fellow poets to pursue in his sometimes rambling exhortation, “Sweetness, Always”–entangles us, less like Laocoon than the Virgin Mary, Mater Dolorosa, in the conceit of childhood, which long before Wordsworth began the relentless, sentimental process of poetically milking the inexhaustible well of it dry by wandering lonely as a cloud until his eyes got gratifyingly gilded by daffodils and so forth, that angelic madman John Clare constructed a temple for poetry upon a childhood’s Shiloh:

There is nothing but poetry about the existence of childhood, real, simple-soul moving poetry, the laughter and joy of poetry and not its philosophy and there is nothing of poetry about manhood but the reflection and the remembrance of what has been. Nothing more.

Yet even John Clare was wise enough to know that childhood innocence, as an emotional dynamic for generating and sustaining rhetorical sincerity, was not simple:

Nature like a bird in its shell came into the world with errors and propensitys to do wrong mantled round her as garments and tho not belonging to her substance are so fastned round her person by the intricate puzzles of temptation that wisdom has not the power or the skill to unloose her nott that fastens them.

Thus we fly on our winged horses, glistening with the amniotic mucous of a symbolic broken egg and the jeweled chunks of its shell, Cinderellas dressed for the ball:

                         —how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.

–Wallace Stevens


This is irony, all right, imprisoned in its own shell of bitterness, escaped when Stevens resorted to exhortation; e.g.:

Unreal, give back to us what once you gave, 
The imagination that we spurned and crave.

Stevens likewise entered the modality of resonant, magisterial sincerity in the apostrophe to the poetic imagination which precedes his otherwise entirely mischievous “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”–resonant and similar, but since implicitly dismissive, not wholly liberated from the puzzling torn rinds, knots amd broken shells that encapsulate our nature:

And for what, except for you, do I feel love? 
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man 
Close to me, hidden in me day and night? 
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth, 
Equal in living changingness to the light 
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest, 

For a moment in the central of our being, 
The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.

In the poem itself, irony and playful insolence take over, eventuating in rousing praise for poetry’s breathlessness, inspiration and execution, sarcastic if not tantamount to physical assault:

Fat girl, terrestrial, my summer, my nigh 
You are familiar yet an aberration. 
Civil, madam, I am, but underneath a tree, 
This unprovoked sensation requires 
That I should name you flatly, waste no words, 
Check your evasions, hold you to yourself.

This is also irony, poetry vigorously disclosing its contamination by unbridled, adoring, disrespectful desire, teeth-gritting and impure. What’s remarkable, in this regard, is that our English’s mother-lode of exhortation, the psalms of David Hashmolean, were compiled by a murderous traitor, adulterous seducer, homosexual cattle-rustler, and onetime mercenary general in the Philistine army, able to express savage indifference to the magic of childhood without polluting, in my view, his wellspring of inventive sincerity; e.g:

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as though hath
served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
thy little ones against the stones.

Psalm #137, and Babylon, whose willows and rivers the psalm invokes, is Iraq, which in Arabic means land of water. Something has come full circle. To complete this reflective whirl and placate Lord Haw-Haw’s appetites and ilk, one can return to Pablo Neruda’s “Melancholy Inside Families”, Wright-Bly translation:

I keep a blue bottle. 
Inside it an ear and a portrait. 
When the night dominates 
the feathers of the owl, 
when the hoarse cherry tree 
rips out its lips and makes menacing gestures 
with rinds which the ocean wind often perforates– 

then I know that there are immense expanses hidden from us, 
quartz in slugs, 
blue waters for a battle, 
much silence, many ore-veins 
of withdrawals and camphor, 
fallen things, medallions, kindnesses, 
parachutes, kisses.

How opaque, how like cognition’s collision with a stained-glass window of the empirical. or a chick’s emergence into reality stained by the facts of its nutritious ooze and imprisoning rinds. Yet how wholly present in circumstance, how devoid of sub-text or ulterior agenda.

It is only the passage of one day to another, 
a single bottle moving over the seas, 
and a dining room where roses arrive, 
a dining room deserted 
as a fish-bone; I am speaking of 
a smashed cup, a curtain, at the end 
of a deserted room through which a river passes 
dragging along the stones. It is a house 
set on the foundations of the rain, 
a house of two floors with the required number of windows, 
and climbing vines faithful in every particular.

This is Neruda’s query, his implicit supplication: how is it that this voice, evidently all ears and identity (a child retentive of its dubious treasure, a blue bottle with an ear and portrait) is located in a household adrift on its own inexplicably wretched floods, though it has the right number of floors and windows, and clinging vegetation.

I walk through afternoons, I arrive 
full of mud and death, 
dragging along the earth and its roots, 
and its indistinct stomach in which corpses 
are sleeping with wheat, 
metals, and pushed-over elephants. 
But above all there is a terrifying, 
a terrifying deserted dining room, 
with its broken olive oil cruets, 
and vinegar running under its chairs, 
one ray of moonlight tied down, 

something dark, and I look 
for a comparison inside myself: 
perhaps it is a grocery store surrounded by the sea 
and torn clothing from which sea water is dripping.

How childishly prescient and touching, this confession of method, the spiritual practice of poetry, this looking inside oneself for metaphor, that assertion of the apposite, conjunctive identity of opposite things, and his explanation for life at home being such a incomprehensible mess: we live in a grocery store!

It is only a deserted dining room, 
and around it there are expanses, 
sunken factories, pieces of timber 
which I alone know, 
because I am sad, and because I travel, 
and I know the earth, and I am sad.

How gratifying, such stunning, un-ironical, imaginative fury and force unscathed by those soul-diminishing appetites, vices and resentments so often woven into the lyric’s fabric, this demonstration that spiritual work, poetic practice, not anger and desire, for which poetry is the antidote not the product, are the requisites for the achieved poem’s consummate splendor–what Stevens called poetry’s essential gaudiness, the pathos of its decoration of our impoverished cemetery. If we lived in the ruined grocery store of Iraq, our distributor would be the coalition of the willing, the U.S. Army, and the Halliburton Company.

These issues of irony, sincerity, and rhetorical intention strike me as more vexatious than I have so far made out. In the exemplary “I’m going to kill you,” (conveying surprised pleasure, modesty overwhelmed, not a homicidal threat, a distinction permitted by nothing semantic, hence the abundance of dead formalists), the irony is so limp it does not dilute the simple-minded expression of gratitude. Yesterday, I was attempting to counsel a friend in Turkey regarding her translation of Emily Dickinson into the manly language of a people equally comfortable on galloping horses, sofas and ottomans. Ayse Kirtunc, head of American Studies at Ege University in Izmir, was concerned with the opaque, verbally resonant resolution of #1138, but I found myself compelled to raise other issues, or to raise the element from which issues arise:

A Spider sewed at Night 
Without a Light 
Upon an Arc of White. 
If Ruff it was of Dame 
Or Shroud of Gnome 
Himself himself inform. 
Of Immortality 
His Strategy 
Was Physiognomy.

I suggested that the key word was “gnome” in the second stanza, dwarf-like, aphoristic, and pithy on the one hand, or secret and encoding knowledge of the inner arcanum other. Gnome is cognate with the Greek “know,” and ED invariably spins loose on a semantically explosive, literally semiotic pun, obliging us to take second and third looks at the initial “Arc of White,” alternatively the “Ruff” of a “Dame” or the “Shroud” of a “Gnome.” It is a spider’s web, an icky trap woven at night, artfully combining contraries of direction into what is invisible or iridescent, transcendent and suggestive: an “Arc of White” which resolves all shimmering stickiness into a demure opaque purity, yet remains at its dispersive core a mortal threshold, whether as damsel’s ruff or secretive little person’s death-dealing gossamer shroud, enveloping and concealing semantically equated in deadly instability. We would say woven, but Emily said “sewed,” the exultant, corroborating accent on the iamb expunging from the tables of memory and consideration anything so trochaic and mundane. To sew is to skillfully and insistently penetrate a cloth with an adroit silver needle firmly attached to a thread. Suddenly “Ruff” looms as a startling pun, elegant neck decoration as token of that civilly clothed efflorescence of the hirsute upon the convex, volcanic, feminine mount of privilege, source of life and death and so forth (cf.,, L’Origine du monde, Gustave Courbet).

This throws the triumphant and defiant assertions of the last stanza, evermore insistently gnomic, swift and pithy in achieving its climax, rendered nonetheless obliquely–this is a spider’s strategy, freighted with ED’s ecstatic affirmation–into a new darkness of light: Dickinson’s celebration of the superficial and two-dimensional, rather than the spiritual or merely judicious, accelerated by the Sapphic foot combination’s (anapest and trochee, fused), grave giggle-thrill embedded in ED’s conclusive (and concussive) “Physiognomy,” all mortal, planetary investment into the secret powers of love’s sovereign signature, the beloved’s face–not to mention heedless and remorseless abandonment of moral obedience as path to heavenly reward immortality. And besides affirming the mysterious power of cosmetic, superficial, facial identity in erotic delirium (one name for a five-syllable poetic foot, technically a cola or tail, is adonic–a fanciful coincidence, since the name Izmir, Turkish for Smyrna derives from the wife of Cinyras, King of Cyprus, foolishly claiming that her daughter, Smyrna, was more beautiful than Aphrodite, who made Smyrna become smitten with her own father, inducing her nurse to make the king drunk, the climbed into bed with him. When Cinyras awoke from the night’s drunken and encylopedic orgy, he drove his daughter from the palace by sword, and just as he was about to overtake and kill her, Aphrodite took pity and turned Smyrna into a myrrh tree, but as the king’s sword descended, it split the tree and Adonis tumbled out), or besides the beloved’s physiognomy as two-dimensional spider’s web, ED was undoubtedly enchanted, impishly, with that very sexy, sapphic, five-syllable poetic cola, with its unaccented prelude, a climactic accent on “og!” and gratifying anti-climactic decline in “gnomy.” (Know me.)

Does this reading depend on Dickinson’s deliberate deployment of “Ruff” to invoke the pubic bush? Yes and no. The lifetime so many women spend in exercising their instinct for sexual loveliness, attraction and interpersonal daring makes them artists in a Never-Never Land of blurred intention, and Wallace Stevens, as often as not the Fatty Arbuckle of American modernism and referenced uncritically by Frank Ham, is the epitome of male impatience and rude unloveliness when he commands the amorata poetica, obscure object of all desire and the “Supreme Fiction,” to hold still:

Civil, madam, I am, but underneath a tree, 
This unprovoked sensation requires 
That I should name you flatly, waste no words, 
Check your evasions, hold you to yourself.

Dickinson, needless to say, refuses to hold still. #613 operates similarly to #1138, insofar as it pirouettes and opens its wings on a pun, though a less lewd one than “Ruff:”

They shut me up in Prose– 
As when a little Girl 
They put me in the Closet 

Because they liked me “still”– 
Still! Could themself have peeped– 
And seen my Brain–go round– 
They might as well have lodged a Bird 
For Treason–in the Pound– 
Himself has but to will 
And easy as a Star 
Abolish his Captivity 
And laugh–No more have I–

Here ED’s punctuation, quotation marks, signal a initially less discomforting explosive pun, on “still”–parental love is enduring, yet prefers a silent and less distracting Emily: ED’s father had lots to worry about, two unwed daughters, the red-headed one wall-eyed and exhibiting the deranged infatuations and sexual recklessness of someone prematurely and improperly introduced to its thrills and powers, himself married to a gorgeous woman with the coal-black hair and cheekbones of a Turk, founding Amherst College, the town’s volunteer fire department, taking teen-age Emily (his adored, rebellious carrot-top already expelled from Mount Holyoke) off to Springfield with him as secretary and housekeeper to when elected to serve in the Massachusetts state legislature. Her mind, even confined in a disciplinary closet, literal or figurative, is loose as a bird locked in a pound, those large, roofless stone enclosures for strayed animals, no place to cage a bird, nor her treasonous impulses, presumably unsanctioned love. Suggestively and no doubt intuitively, Dickinson sets off and underscores her description of her willful freedom, having the token of her being go round and thereby escape decent managment. More portentously tragic anxieties are invoked when unstillness, love, being and and the captive bird are represented as a star, free in the sky, figure of female genitalia, but whose escape from the visible heaven into an invisible cosmic stratum, is matter for rueful laughter. In love one is terribly free and tragically unfree. The eternal diminuendo into stillness of this ambiguous state is expressed like a shooting star in the last line’s metrical fall into sorrowful knowledge.

But in the midst of these readings, I stumbled on #566, which I suspect is notorious:

A Dying Tiger–moaned for Drink– 
I hunted all the Sand– 
I caught the Dripping of a Rock 
And bore it in my Hand– 

His Mighty Balls–in death were thick– 
But searching–I could see 
A Vison on the Retina 
Of Water–and of me– 
’Twas not my blame–who sped too slow– 
’Twas not his blame–who died 
While I was watching him– 
But ’twas–the fact that He was dead–

O what fun, but what to do about those balls? Probably nothing, or at most, delicately repress our salacious imaginings in order to locate Emily. Because she’s not to be disconnected and dispossessed of the fun. This fable is certainly satirizing the premature bankruptcy of a Tiger’s desire–he’s just dying for it–the slaking of his thirst for water and for her, as indicated by what she reports discerning in the mirror of his retina, and she brings him what he craves, caught from the dripping of a rock. But it’s not her fault, she who sped so slowly, nor his, who died while her eyes were still open, yet the fact remains, “He was dead.”

In Turkey this is the sort of joke that belongs in a women’s hamam, or Turkish Bath (Cf. Adnan Adam Onart’s recently published, TURKISH: A Dictionary of Delights, distributed in this country by the MIT University Press, ISBN 3-928201-33-6), where women celebrate irreverent boldness by referring explicitly to a lover’s “Mighty Balls,” especially if he’s to be belittled as a “dead tiger.” And though its likely that ED’s mocking intuitions, right after she “caught the Dripping of a Rock / And bore it in my hand,” led her to “His Mighty Balls,” it is inconceivable that she consciously intended those balls to be testicles, or even noticed, consciously, where her intuitions had led her. The chief function of poetry is to strengthen our tolerance for reality, whose essence is uncertainty, and needs to be patiently wooed, gently coaxed, interminably courted and pursued into the Never-Never Land of permission. Sexual intentions are by definition slippery, though no one but our present Republican administration would wish to deliberately deprive the world, including the poetic world, of life and its furtive, complex, indeed nuanced designs.


Kenneth Rosen (2004)


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.