the annotated “Against this Death”

  • This reading is a paid commission and has brought me a little ways out of my funk. Commissions are open. That is, anyone is welcome to  commission a reading of their favorite poem or even just a poem.

So, since I’m on a short time line, let’s get right to the poem, written by the late Canadian poet Irving Layton. You can read some of Layton’s biography at irving laytonWikipedia. The poem itself can be found in the book Irving Layton: A Wild Peculiar Joy. The book can also be perused at Google Books. It’s from the latter site that I copied the poem, just to be sure I had it right. And here it is:

I have seen respectable
death
served up like bread and wine
in stores and offices,
in club and hostel,
and from the streetcorner
church
that faces
two ways
I have seen death
served up
like ice.

Against this death,
slow, certain:
the body,
this burly sun,
the exhalations
of your breath,
your cheeks
rose and lovely,
and the secret
life
of the imagination
scheming freedom
from labour
and stone.

When possible, I like to know a poet’s biography. Within limits, it can be helpful trying to get behind the poets neitzschewords. In the case of Irving, what caught my attention was his humanism, his interest in politics and social theory, his reading in Marx and especially Nietzsche. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League when young.  Marx considered religion to be the opiate of the masses and Nietzsche famously wrote that the last Christian died on the cross.  Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morals, a book that all but eviscerates the pretense of morality in Christianity. I certainly don’t know the degree to which Layton adopted the world views of these authors, but his reputation as a humanist argues that something brushed off.

I have seen respectable
death

Why respectable? It’s a strange way to refer to death. Respectable can mean “esteemed, deserving regard; of good repute”; but there’s also a more Holy-Eucharist-catholicism-133989_482_493socially loaded sense of the word. For instance, when one refers to a respectable woman, there’s also the unstated but implied condemnation of all the women who are not respectable. In this sense, a respectable death might be “characterized by socially or conventionally acceptable morals”. In other words, respectable death can be understood as referring to a certain kind of socially and conventionally accepted conception of death.

served up like bread and wine
in stores and offices,
in club and hostel,

When is death served up like bread and wine? At the Eucharist.

“The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; the solemn act of ceremony of commemorating the death of Christ, in the use of bread and wine, as the appointed emblems; the communion.” The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48

In most denominations, the bread is understood as being (or representing) the flesh of Christ and the wine is his blood.

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)”

final supper

But Layton first locates us in stores, offices, the club and the hostel. Since the Eucharist isn’t something that’s celebrated outside of church, the reader is forced to read “bread and wine” figuratively (and also with a sense of irony).

Note: Understanding “bread and wine” in its figurative sense means interpreting the phrase as applying to any activity in which our preoccupation is with death rather than life. In other words, when we sit in a club and colorlessly exchange our zest for life for a socially condoned fear of death, we embody the”respectable death” of the indoctrinated.

Catholics refer to the Eucharist as a sacrament (through which Christ bestows salvation), but protestants prefer the term ordinance, viewing the Eucharist “not as a specific channel of divine grace but as an expression of faith and of obedience to Christ”. If understood in this latter sense, then partaking in the poem’s “bread and wine” may more broadly be understood as professing obedience to death’s preeminence over life.

This is ‘respectable death’ or a proper and societally approved conception of death.

Respectable death, like the respectable woman, refutes anything like a celebration of the flesh — its pleasures, joys, inherent flaws and decadent habituations. Supremacy is given to mortality and God’s judgment. We are, by the “bread and wine” of tradition and fear, made respectable and conventionally moral. Even in the mercantile stores, the industrious offices, the raucous club and the youthful hostels, death is given preeminence.

and from the streetcorner
church

After figuratively secularizing “bread and wine”, the poem denies the sacred pretense of the Eucharist. That is, the “bread and wine” of the Eucharist is no different, in effect, than the moral indoctrination served up in stores and offices. This sacred and secular indoctrination are, in intent, one and the same.

that faces
two ways

In ancient Roman religion, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, gates, doors, passages, endings and time. He was the god of two faces who faced two ways. janusThese two lines can be interpreted as comparing the Church to Janus. The chuch, like Janus, looks to the future and the past. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it as of writing this:

“Janus frequently symbolized change and transitions such as the progress of future to past, from one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood. He represented time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other.Hence, Janus was worshipped at the beginnings of the harvest and planting times, as well as at marriages, deaths and other beginnings. He represented the middle ground between barbarism and civilization, rural and urban space, youth and adulthood. Having jurisdiction over beginnings Janus had an intrinsic association with omens and auspices.”

The one thing, perhaps, that Janus does not perceive is the now. Now is where life occurs. Now concerns  itself with neither change nor transition. It is, in a sense, changeless. Now simply is. Living in the now, however, can easily be perceived as a kind of anarchic decadence. A life that cares nothing for the future or the past is going to subvert tradition (tradition being based on a respect for the past) and undermine morals (the latter being based on the fear of future judgment). It’s in this sense, perhaps, that the Church is being compared to Janus. The Church looks both ways too, insisting on reverence for the past while instilling a fear of the future; but cannot and will not perceive or celebrate the now that is life. The church, in this sense, intrinsically distrusts the now.

Note:  There are three lines in the poem composed of a single word: death/church/life. (The beauty of free verse is that it allows for this kind of typographical presentation.) Like Janus, the church is typographically centered between death, at the beginning of the poem, and life at the close of the poem. It’s possible and tempting, therefore, to interpret this as meaning that the church is the essential nexus in the transition between birth, life and death. However, this runs somewhat counter, I think, to the theme of the poem. A more likely interpretation, perhaps, is that Layton is emphasizing a choice presented by the two stanzas: death and church in the first stanza verses life in the second. Church can be understood as an institutional symbol of the lifeless preoccupation with death and conventional morality.

By the end of this first stanza, it’s easy to read an ironic and skeptical sneer in Layton’s use of the word respectable.

I have seen death
served up
like ice.

Ice is nothing if not joyless, humorless and lifeless. Additionally, there is also the implication of an icy and coldy calculating intent.

cold death

So, summing up the  first stanza, one interpretation might be as follows:

I have seen “respectable death” (a confining and conventional  fear of death)  served up like the “bread and wine” of the Eucharist (like a kind of societally approved and deadening indoctrination) in stores, clubs, offices, hostels and the church. I have seen death (the fear of death) served up like ice (coldly and calculatedly).

The next stanza will refute this preoccupation with the past, the future, death and respectability. It’s possible, if not easy, to read the first stanza as a Nietzschean indictment of the church, but I think that Layton’s indictment is more broad based than that. He is inditing a whole way of thought typified in the indoctrinating and ritualized symbolism of “bread and wine”. Instead, he offers a kind of Dionysian alternative, a full-blooded — not wine — and full fleshed — not bread — vision.

Against this death,
slow, certain:
the body,

rose cheekInstead of bread, he gives you the body. Live in the now. Live in the body. Celebrate the pleasures and joys of the body: sleep, sex, drink, debauchery and sheer physical exuberance. Celebrate the body’s nowness,

this burly sun,
the exhalations
of your breath,
your cheeks
rose and lovely,

Turn your mind away from numbing, souless burdens of the past and future. The stores, offices, clubs and hostels and church are all, even at their best, closed, limited and confining. Go into the burly sun. There is nothing more present and in the now than the awareness of ones exhalations — ones breath. To breathe is to live and the reference to breathe could be an allusion to ‘Atman’. In Hindu philosophy, “the word `Atman` is derived from ‘an’ which means ‘to breathe’, which is ‘the breath of life’. The meaning of the word changed with time and it covered life, soul, self or essential being of the individual.” To be aware of ones breath is to acknowledge the preeminence of life. There is also surely a deliberate pun on Rosé. The “rose” in our cheeks is the true wine — the living blood that courses through our veins.

Instead of bread, partake of the body.  Instead of wine, partake of the blood in the cheek. In short, instead of the respectable, cold confinement of idea and symbolism, choose (against this death) the life of the body.

and the secret
life
of the imagination

Think freely. Live the secret life of your imagination. Why is it secret? The implication is that it’s because it’s not respectable.  The secret life of your imagination will not be “characterized by socially or conventionally acceptable morals”. Live it anyway! — says the poem. (Knowing that Layton read Nietzsche, one can’t help but suspect Nietzsche’s presence.)

imaginations-sun-laurie-gibson

  • The drawing of the sun, above center, is by Laurie Gibson and can be purchased here.

scheming freedom
from labour
and stone.

The imagination must scheme because the imagination, by definition, will reject the imposition of conventional order and morality. The imagination seeks to create the new and the unconventional. The amoral and  unconventional spirit will reject the conventional morality and Sisyphus_by_von_Stuckorder implied by “labour and stone”. The stone can be understood as the inflexible and implacable order of the church. The mention of labour, in combination with the stone, is possibly an allusion to the myth of Sysiphus — a  rich and appropriate allusion. In other words, the poem is comparing the lifeless preoccupation of the respectable death to the labour of Sysiphus, who will always roll the same stone to the top of the mountain, but will never succeed in keeping it there.

The stone will always roll back to the bottom and Sysiphus will push it, again and again, back to the top. The task is insoluble. Likewise, the Janus-like preoccupation with a respectable death is insoluble. The mystery of death will never be solved. The only solution is to free oneself from any Sisyphean preoccupation with death and live freely in the now, in the rosy and lovely cheek, the exhaled breath, the burly sun, and the body. Leave behind the dessicated symbolism of bread and wine. Free your imagination.

The poem may be understood as contrasting (and preferring) the amoral, anarchic and joyful now of the body against the slow and certain death of a soulless conventionality  confined by tradition and fear — what he calls “this death” and a “respectable death”.

August 10 2013 • up in Vermont

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lawrence ferlinghetti & free verse done right

in my opinion


Here’s a poem I’ve been meaning to write about.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the gems, one of the masterpieces of the latter 20th century. There’s not a word out of place. I’m sure there are more but (because I spend more time writing than reading) I don’t know about them (unless other readers tell me).

First, to the poem itself, then I’ll take a closer look at it. The poem is number 20 in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book A Coney Island of the Mind, a book considered by many to be his finest.

rhyme in free verse

The expressive power of rhyme is something many free verse poets either don’t get, don’t want to get, or lack the talent to realize (in my opinion). But there are poets writing in this genre who do get it and Ferlinghetti is one of them. The poem above is rich in end-rhyme and internal rhyme, and the rhyming isn’t gratuitous.

It adds expressive power and underscores the meaning of the poem. It makes the poem more memorable. Here is the same poem. I’ve highlighted the end rhymes and internal rhymes that strike me as the most important. There’s no significance to the colors except that like rhymes are similarly colored.

The first thing to know about good rhyme is that it doesn’t have to end-rhyme – especially in free verse. Metrical poetry can use internal rhyme as well, but the advantage that free verse offers is the freedom of its line lengths. The freedom allows a poet like Ferlinghetti to place the rhyme exactly where he wants them.

The words among and gum are assonant rhymes, meaning that only the vowel sounds rhyme.

In a metrical poem, if Ferlinghetti had wanted to keep these rhymes as end rhymes, he probably would have had to drop some syllables. And that brings to mind another little secret (which I’ll let you in on). This “free verse” poem has a metrical poem hidden inside it.

If I move some lines around, watch what happens. Watch this:

20

1.) The pen|nycan|dystore| beyond |the El
is where | I first fell |in love |with un|real|ity

Jelly|beans glowed |in the se|mi-gloom
of that| septem|ber af|ternoon

5.) A cat |upon |the coun|ter moved |among
the li|corice sticks |and toot|sie rolls |and Oh |Boy Gum

Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling as |they died

A wind| had blown |away |the sun
A girl |ran in |Her hair |was rainy

10.) Her breasts |were breath|less in |the lit|tle room
Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling and |they cried

Too soon! |Too soon!

In terms of Iambic Rhythm, this poem is more regular than Keats!  I read lines 1,5,7,10 & 11 as Iambic Pentameter. And I read lines 3,4, 8 & 9 as Iambic Tetrameter. Lines 2 & 6 are alexandrines (6 foot lines rather than 5 foot lines). The red represents a trochaic foot. The blue represents an anapestic variant foot and the green would be a feminine ending (just as with all my scansions). I chose to scan the final line as Iambic Dimeter. (This isn’t the only way to scan these lines but reflects what makes sense – to me.)

All in all, this poem could easily be a regular stanza in a larger traditional poem. Many, though not all, of Ferlinghetti’s poems in A Coney Island of the Mind are “subversively” metrical. And many younger poets would do well to learn by it. The techniques of traditional poetry are still available to all poets, even those who write free verse. They’re not exclusionary – though one might quibble as to whether Ferlinghetti’s poem is truly “free verse”.

What’s truly sweet about Ferlinghetti’s rhymes is how he withholds the rhyme suggested by gloom and noon to the very end of the poem.The other rhymes find their companions either within two or three lines, El & fell, that & cat, among, gum & sun, glowed, oh & blown; or the rhymes occur within the same lines, outside & died, breasts and breathless.  The internal rhymes breasts and breathless are a masterful touch. (The alliteration underscores that moment when the boy sees something besides candy, better than candy, and like candy.)

Only gloom and noon remain unrhymed, but the ear has been primed.

And it’s when the poem closes that gloom and noon are rhymed. The effect is one of framing and also of completion. The rhymes subliminally reinforce the poem’s closure, especially the repeated soon. In a sense, Ferlinghetti has created a pattern that seeks closure both in subject matter and form.

This is what rhyme can add to a poem.

And this is what is missing in so much free verse – the subtle parallelism of rhyme, meter and meaning.

imagery and meaning
or the other reasons the poem is a masterpiece

The pennycandystore beyond the El

From the very first line we’re reminded of innocence and simplicity. What could be more benign than the pennycandystore? And what is the El? It probably refers to one of the elevated subway lines of New York City’s transit, but it could also refer to the “L” of Chicago, also called the “El” (by some Chicagoans). If I were the betting kind, I would put my money on New York. Lawrence Ferlinghetti  was born in Yonkers (just north of New York City) and so (one would expect) would have been familiar with New York City subway system as a child, (although this assumes that the poem as autobiographical.)

On the other hand, though the title of the book would seem to locate the poetry in New York City, some of the opening poems locate the speaker in California. Additionally, Ferlinghetti tells us that the book’s title is taken from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life, making the title more an idea than a place. I’ve noticed that readers from Chicago assume that Ferlinghetti is describing the “L” in Chicago while readers from New York assume it’s New York.

To make matters worse, there has been more than one “El” in New York. There’s the Ninth  Avenue “El”, there’s the “El” station which was demolished in 1940 (but which Ferlinghetti must have known), and then there’s the “El” of Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. To me,  the demolished El station seems a likely candidate; but it doesn’t matter. If Ferlinghetti wanted us to know, he could tell us. As of writing this, he’s still around.

is where I first

fell in love

with unreality

What does the poem mean by unreality? The poem gives us some clues:

Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among

the licorice sticks

and tootsie rolls

and Oh Boy Gum

Was it the jellybeans glowing in the semi-gloom? But there’s little else “unreal” in the description. Here’s how I read it: The poet is a boy when he walks into the pennycandystore. Reality, to him, are the glowing jellybeans, the licorice sticks, the tootsie rolls and the Oh Boy Gum.  The jellybeans glow, like beacons. But another kind of reality (and unreality to the boy) begins to swirl around him. It’s in the semi-gloom of that septemeber afternoon. It’s the cat upon the counter, moving like a huntress through the boy’s “reality”, through the beckoning jellybeans, licorice sticks and “Oh Boy Gum”.  Oh Boy… Ferlinghetti’s choice of candy is no mistake. This is candy for a boy. This the stuff that makes a boy say, oh boy…

Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun

But unreality will not be delayed; and there is more dying than just the leaves. The boy’s reality, his pennycandystore, is also dying. The sun, and all that it has represented to the boy, is being blown away by a wind – and that wind is more than just a literal wind. Something else is about to dissolve the boy’s reality – and unreality:

A girl ran in

Her hair was rainy

Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Need I say more? Ferlinghetti says it best, and I can’t think of any boy who hasn’t had that same experience, that same breath-stopping, heart stopping, unreal instance when we see “a girl” for the first time. She has run in and she carries, into the little room, all of the unreality the boy had, until this moment, been unaware of. Her hair, the rain that sheds the leaves and has blown away the sun, and her breasts. And what is breathless in the little room? Her breasts? Him? The little room? Where are the jellybeans? – the licorice, tootsie rolls or “Oh Boy” gun? They are gone, like so much else. Gone.

Outside the leaves were falling

and they cried

Too soon! Too soon!

The poem moves us out of the pennycandystore. There’s no need to tell more. Where a lesser poet might have remained inside the store, telling us more than needs description, Ferlinghetti’s touch is masterful – genius. We know. The boy is gone, in love with an unreality, the sudden unfathomable and breathlessly indefinable beauty of a girl. The pennycandystore, with all its little childish realties, is gone. Outside, the falling leaves cry: Too soon! Too soon!

afterthought

Having written Let Poetry Die and posts like Hey, David Orr!, I can’t help but add this extract from Ferlinghetti’s poetry:

From Ferlinghetti’s Populist Manifesto Number 1

Where are Whitman’s wild children,
where the great voices speaking out
with a sense of sweetness and sublimity,
where the great new vision,
the great world-view,
the high prophetic song
of the immense earth
and all that sings in it
And our relations to it –
Poets, descend
to the street of the world once more
And open your minds & eyes
with the old visual delight…

Horsegod: Collected Poems by Robert Bagg

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  • In exchange for a complimentary copy, I expressed interest in reviewing poetry by poets “in exile” – the self-published. Specifically, I was looking for poets who trade in meter or rhyme, the disciplines of traditional poetry. This book, Horsegod, by Robert Bragg, was the first book I received. What a great way to start.

Me? A reviewer?

And in addition to this book, I have two more books to review. I ask myself: What if it were my own poetry? No poet wants a comment that discourages readers from reading their work.

I favor criticism that analyzes poetry on its own terms rather than according to the tastes of the reviewer. For an idea of what I mean, check out my post on Marjorie Perloff’s criticism. (What poet wants to read that his or her rhymes are too simplistic when that is precisely the kind of rhymes they are pursuing.) Poets make aesthetic choices, and my own philosophy is not to criticize them for that – but to observe.

Let’s see how I do.

About Robert Bagg

Just a couple words, because there’s a perfectly good biography of Bagg at his own website. The thing worth noting (and to my profound envy) is that he met and studied with Robert Frost.

At Amherst he had the good fortune to study with Walker Gibson and James Merrill and to alarm Robert Frost, who chided him for writing about sex, noting that Yeats waited until old age to broach that aspect of experience.

I don’t know to what extent he studied with Frost or the others, but just to have met the great poet sends me into a tailspin of jealousy. Also worth noting is the experience Bagg brings to his poetry.

After a semester at Harvard he earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut, taught briefly at the University of Washington (1963-65), and then for the rest of his career at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he served as Department Chair from 1986 to 1992. His teaching specialties were English Romantic Poetry, Modern Poetry, and Great Books from Homer to Hemingway.

A Limber Lope

Horsegod by Robert BaggTo give you an idea of the kind of poetry you can expect to find, here are the final lines of a Sonnet called Caption for a Wire Photo:

(…)machine gun slugs
seek out his jacket and rip up her dress;

exposed while sprinting for a house safe
from this blood-starved cancerous regime—
enraged by a remission all too brief—
their drab lives shed like debris from a dream

they click a neutral camera and point-blank rifle,
feel a shrill heaviness, and are forever still.

The rhyme scheme is that of a Shakespearean Sonnet but Bagg dispenses with an accentual/syllabic meter – normally Iambic Pentameter. He opts for a syllabic line (counting the number of syllables per line). His rhymes combine true rhymes, slant rhymes and wrenched rhymes – reminding one of Emily Dickinson’s approach.

For this reason, his verse will read as rough, muscular, and knotted. But there is maturity in his choices – he’s  an experienced poet whose stylistic choices are controlled and deliberate. He avoids an overly end-stopped verse, doubtlessly made easier by the use of a syllabic line and a variety of half-rhymes. The overall effect is of a poet who blends free verse and traditional poetry. A visit Bagg’s homepage confirms as much:

Bagg also often takes advantage of the freer practice of the twentieth-century, since the “freedom” it encourages allows for plunging ahead when necessary with little heed for decorum.

It does grant the poet greater latitude, but also surrenders some of the effects unique to meter (accentual syllabic) and true rhyme. Nevertheless, Bagg is a model for the younger poet. There is a middle ground between the traditional and free verse aesthetic.

I suspect Bagg is commenting on his own poetics in this seemingly whimsical poem Girl with Her Pigtails Crooked.

Her left leg lagged behind the right,
a firm step followed by a limp.
Her pigtails haggled down her neck
like lines of tangled hemp.

I watched the shameless way she lamed,
She needn’t limp so lumpily,
I thought, so I called down to her,
“Hey, you don’t need to limp!”

She let her hair have its head —
it went its separate ways—like rope
let out to trim a coming storm
She stepped into a limber lope.

Think of the pigtailed girl as this little poem and Bagg as the boy who calls down to her: “Hey, you don’t need to limp!”  He lets his rhyme and meter, like the girl’s hair, go its separate ways, like “rope let out to trim a coming storm”. His little poem steps into a limber lope, a characterization that could apply to all of his poems.

Some Brief Narration

One of the showpieces in Bagg’s book is a narrative poem called The Tandem Ride. You can read the poem in its entirety by visiting Bagg’s webpage: Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir. The narrative poem is a genre almost altogether forgotten and, though I may be wrong, I suspect that poetry journals are largely to blame. While the great variety of journals provide a venue to an equally great variety of poets, their interest in poetry is a very limited kind: short; something that will fit politely fit the page.

Some journals limit poems to as little as 25 lines, at most, two pages, but reluctantly. Many of my own poems are eliminated simply by virtue of their length.

The results are obvious. The birth of the poetry journal, of which there are hundreds, coincides with the POETRY Anthologyubiquity of the short lyric. The long, sturdy narratives of the romantics and Victorians gave way to short lyrics and confessionals that neatly fit the pages of the poetry journal. Poetry Magazine recently issued a collection of poems been published in their pages since their founding in the early 20th Century – The POETRY Anthology, 1912-2002. All but a handful of the poems fit neatly on the page.

Nearly all the poems hum along in the first person or first person plural.

Reading POETRY’s anthology reminds me of the dusty old anthologies from the Victorian Era, proudly full of competent period pieces and timely poets – all of which and all of whom are forgotten by the next generation. They’re easy to find. Just look in any used bookstore. You can almost smell them.

Although I haven’t searched exhaustively, I’ve only found one or two stories in nearly five hundred pages of poetry (all among the very first poems published by the periodical) and they are also among the few not written in the first person. These are the better known poems. One is by Robert Frost – his The Code – Heroics. The other is by T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. As the 20th Century progressed, poetic ambition seems to have grown smaller and ever more forgettable.

Bagg’s effort is a welcome departure. His Keatsian or Spencerian stanzas (depending on how they’re appraised) nicely carry the narration forward. They’re enjambment, made easier through the use of off-rhymes, helps the poem succeed where others fail.

She pushes a glass door open a crack,
emerges from a tropical greenhouse,
shoes squishing, then pauses – almost goes back-
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally.
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
— but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree.

This is  a stanza of almost perfect rhyme (greenhouse and blouse is a wrenched rhyme), but the content and language are thoroughly modern. So many modern poets who write with meter and rhyme seem unable to combine the disciplines with a modern vernacular. Once again, the lack of meter (I don’t normally consider syllabics a meter) and off-rhymes give the poem an almost free verse feel. In some cases, the combined effects buries the rhymes. It’s a deliberate effect. Robert Bagg Some will like it, some won’t. Don’t come to his poetry looking for soaring melody. His voice is modern and rigorous.

In this book, at least, it’s not until the very last pages that this narrative impulse reappears and then on a much smaller scale. That’s somewhat of a disappointment to me, but may not be to other readers. Another disappointment is that the subsequent poems are primarily first person. Some address a “you”, but they all have the feel of a poet discussing himself. I wouldn’t call them confessional, though that term can be broad. There’s an element of confessionalism in all of his poems – but never self-pity.

The Heart of Bagg’s Poetry: His Imagery

And now we really get into the meat of Bagg’s poetry.

Bagg’s imagery is  full of physicality and motion, is full of the body. As in his imagery, so too in his poems. He his not a poet, like Keats, at ease with ease, contemplation or sensuality (all qualities that later poets during the Victorian era considered effeminate). Bagg’s physicality won’t be restrained.

In Be Good, the child “hugs the intolerable boulder/has muscled uphill since birth”.

The world he prefers to observe is also full of kinetic energy.

My iron is wide; you use your blessed driver
and hit it with your fullest strength,
skimming the club heads so close to the earth
I hardly hear your shot, but see it fly
over everything toward the green… (My Father Plays The 17th)

In describing a couple’s decision to marriage, his analogy is full of athleticism:

Ashley and Melissa, you have circled
marriage like a distant challenge–
a mountain ripe for climbing–plotting,
perhaps, a night approach across
a secret valley… (A Toast for Ashley and Melissa)

Bagg’s eye is drawn to sport and action (as in this translation from Sophocles Elektra):

Reacting quickly, the skittish
Athenian pulled his horses off
to one side and slowed, allowing
the surge of chariots tot pass him.

Orestes too had laid off the pace,
in last place, trusting his stretch run.
But when he saw the Athenian,
his only rival, still upright, he whistled
shrilly in the ears of his quick fillies
to give chase. The teams drew even,
first one man’s head edging in front,
then the others, as they raced on. (Chariot Race at Delphi)

In the powerful and substantial lines of his poem An Ancient Quarrel, Bagg turns an appraisal of Yeats into a titanic wrestling match:

You might be stirring forces hard to quell–
that thrill exploding in your abdomen
when a trapped quarry turns his fear on you.
You go in flailing hand to hand, frenzied

because your own survival’s now at risk.
His barbarous thrusting voice impales you
deep in the place from which your war-cry soars.
Now its the pure joy of battle driving…

Notice words like exploding, trapped, flailing, thrusting, impaling. One might object that words like these are only to be expected given the subject matter. I don’t argue the point, except to say that Bagg is also in control of the subject matter, and gravitates toward the physical, the muscular, the strain of motion. He has an eye for it.

It’s no wonder, as with the very first poem cited in this review, that Bagg, more than once, is drawn to the topic of war. He doesn’t valorize or glorify war (very much the opposite) but his sensibility is drawn to the physicality of war, and its horrors.

And it’s also no wonder that Bagg shocked Frost with the sheer physicality of his poetry’s sexual content. The poem Cello Suite , the closest Bagg comes to pure lyricism, is nothing if not a celebration of the sensual physicality of sex and procreation:

Cheek to her cello’s gnarled scroll,
impulsive
irretrievable love,
once wildly made, crests,
then calmly overflows
the cello rosewood curves.

As she lifts her bow to the skies
her lover’s hand slides
under her shoulder,
her breasts lift
to his passing forearm.

(Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to reproduce the layout of the poem.)

In the lovely lines of his poem Twelfth Night:

If music be love’s food, disguise
must be love’s speech, each wanton thrust
engendering a gentle parry–
a playfulness that implicates
interested parties wearing tights.

At the start of this poem Bagg praises Viola’s masculine pluck, and one gets the feeling that this is no idle praise – that this is precisely the thing that has drawn the poet’s eye to this character – her masculinity, her insinuated physicality. There is nothing Keatsian or feminine about her (though there is and he knows it). In this poem, at least, there is an unmistakable homeroticism that Bagg clearly enjoys and with which he is beguiled.

But Bagg’s eye for physicality carries a price. In the entirety of Twelfth Night and Cello Suite, for example, the reader never once smells. There’s no taste and, oddly enough, there’s no sensation (touch).  Bagg prefers motion, sometimes repetitively, where he might have evoked a different sense:

“her sliding tears/reflect her mother’s”
“her lover’s hand slides/under her shoulder”

This isn’t to say that Bagg never evokes the more effeminate senses (as Victorians called them) but never with the same eye for the physicality of the body and the world.

Now he’ll go.
His body hardens with still-clenching muscle.
I edge my right heel back along his side,
tuck my head to his neck, feel his ears poke
out straight, and out of rotting earth we churn-
reanimated halves of the one beast
both off us want mightily to be: the Horegod.

We pound through reeking sludge and angry bush
that claws at our face, snags our thrusting legs.
We are joy pulsing through a line of verse!

Even in these lines, the word reeking has more the feel of a physical assault than an appeal to our sense of smell. In what way does it  reek? What does it reek of? Bagg doesn’t tell us.

As with Bagg’s revelry in sexuality, it should come as no surprise that the physical decline of age is an experience that Bagg feels keenly – it’s slowing and diminishing vigor.

…age so
intensifies what’s left
of our skills and passions,
we linger over them
with apprehensive
appreciation–
as over a single malt’s
evanescent bouquet.

We fear the softening
of our golf swing
will put even the easy
carries beyond our reach;
that lovemaking’s
strife will become
affectionate peace… (Bittersweetness)

Bagg is not at ease with an affectionate peace, her fears it. Lovemaking, to Bagg, is strife, of both body and mind. His poetry, a lovemaking of its own order, is full of strife and motion. These are qualities the reader can expect in Bagg’s work. There is more than a touch of Hemingway in Bagg’s vigorous verse and he draws out the comparison himself:

Now that your honed survival skills assert
themselves, ask fellow Hemingwayfarers
this: When the powers in your loins and mind

wane, should you punish both with a twelve gauge?
Or keep on brining dark bulletins back
from our last war zone–as Phillip Roth does
(who holds the title Hemingway renounced),
determined to die ringside to himself
matched with an unbeaten serial killer. (Heavyweights)

Younger poets and readers looking for a model – for a poet who makes vigorous and muscular use of rhyme and sometimes meter – couldn’t do better than read Bagg’s verse. His language and poetry is modern, forceful, and uncompromising.

Bagg on the Internet

Robert Bagg Homepage

  • Visit Bagg’s Homepage for links to other books, opinions and more poems.

Gently Read Literature

  • Bagg takes exception to David Orr’s opinions on Political Poetry.

Bagg at Brockton

  • Three of Bagg’s Poems brought to you by the Brockton Public Library

Oedipus Plays

  • The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone – Translated by Robert Bagg

The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Sixth Day

Told on the sixth day, after Lon Po’s Tale of the Fifth Day

Tsi Tung’s Story

Once again winter has not caught us in the mountains. Let us admire the moon. She keeps the skies clear. Is it not true that our poet Li Po drowned when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in water? My father used to recite a poem (I can only recall the beginning);  it was in autumn, on a night like this, when the moon is brightest. We shook laurel blossoms down. We made dumplings. We powdered rice and peanuts and rolled them with sesame. Then we drank wine, as we do tonight, and peered at the moon. This is how my father’s poem began:

It must have been beautiful
As the first of those evenings when frost
Gives way to petals;
When their fall is mingled
With the meeting of moths rising toward the light.

Or was it “the melting of moths”? But this is what my story is about — the moon and moths.

The Crescent Wing

Su Shir had seen the princess. It had been a mistake. He told no one. It was forbidden to look on the royal family. Blockprint ChairThe great palace itself was walled and hidden to the view of any man or woman. Su Shir made paper. His skill throughout Beijing was unmatched. Yet now, when he was not fashioning the paper for which he was commissioned, he used it to craft tiny animals. One day when he knew the princess would be passing he left a paper crane in the street. It was forbidden to remain in the streets when the royal family passed.

The princess saw the paper crane. She asked that it be picked up and given to her. When she peered at it closely she was delighted by it. Yet none among those who accompanied her knew by whom it had been created. She put the paper crane into a pocket of her robe. Many days passed before she noticed it again. She laughed for now for it seemed to her a trifle. When evening came she held it to the flame of a candle. “Ah,” she said, “do you see the beautiful green flame it makes?”

As Su Shir slept that night a nightingale came to his window. She sang to him as he dreamed. “The princess is an idle girl who has burned your paper crane.” When Su Shir awoke the next morning he recalled the nightingale’s words as though he had dreamt them. “I am a idle craftsman,” he said, “who shall remember me whether or not I make paper crane’s for an idle girl?” And each day after he had finished his chores he crafted tiny cranes and such was his skill and artistry that they were imbued with life. “Seek light my little ones,” he said to them.

When he lay down to sleep the tiny cranes flew through the windows of Su Shir’s home and into the starlit night. They flew above the city and over the palace walls. And when they came into the princess’s palace room they flew into the flames of her tiny candle. One by one they vanished in a burst of green flame. The princess marveled at these tiny creatures and stayed awake long into the night to watch them fly into the flames.

When one night the princess’s father discovered the paper cranes he grew furious. “Find the  maker,” he cried, “and bring him to me!” After the passing of a week the Emperor’s guards returned with Su Shir. They brought him before the Emperor and the little man trembled. He fell to his knees and bowed daring not to look. “Tell me why you send these paper cranes to my daughter?” he demanded. “For I have looked on your daughter,” he answered fearfully, “and I loved her.”

“Do you not know it is death to do so?” demanded the Emperor. “I do,” answered Su Shir. “Yet my daughter asks that I do not take your life,” said the Emperor. “I will take your sight instead.” Then Su Shir was blinded. The guards carried him outside the palace and threw him into the street. He might have wandered through the streets and never found his way if it were not for the nightingale. The bird sang to him and as he followed her song  she led him back to his house.

He lay down then and did not rise again the next day nor in the week following. He might have remained so had not a visitor come to him in the night. The sound of small feet and a young girl’s voice woke him. “Do not cease to make your moths,” she said, “for though you must not send them to me, it was not for me you made them, poor man, but for love.” Then Su Shir felt a tear strike his cheek. The princess wept. He felt her kiss his closed eyes and then his lips. Then she left and Su Shir rose from his bed.

He worked all night. He knew by finger’s touch which papers were the finest. He crafted a thousand of the tiny moths and before he slept he opened the doors and shutters of his house. “Go,” he said. “Go out.” Then they flew into the night. The princess did not see them. They did not fly over the palace walls. They saw the moon and they flew after the moon until their paper wings became like crystalline tear drops. In autumn, when they finally reached the moon, they were countless in number and their wings made the moonlight seem almost as bright as day. And the princess, in her father’s garden, could see the white blossoms on the laurel tree at night. Then the moths shed their wings and the wings fell like flakes of snow and fell each year thereafter, as each year more moths flew to the moon and shed their wings.

Here Ends Tsi Tung’s Tale

Ah, now I recall how my father’s poem ended.

Li Po  leaned into the water
Drunk with drink and fellowship,
To scoop the moon into his hands;
To bring it to his lips
And finally sip the liquid of its light….

Let us look at the moon tonight, my friends, and think on who will remember us when we are gone.

Followed on the Seventh Day by Lao Chi’s Story.

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