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Logan, William


The New Criterion, Volume 20 (2002)


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Reviews of A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright; Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry by Alan Dugan; The Watercourse by Cynthia Zarin; Belonging by Dick Davis; Never by Jorie Graham & The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill.

A Short History of the Shadow is a pendant to Charles Wright’s Appalachian Book of the Dead, the three trilogies that took him a quarter-century to complete. The new poems are written in the sketchy, hither-thither manner, like the musings of a man waking from anaesthesia, into which Wright’s hard early style has gradually softened. He has enough irony left to realize how close that style has grown (except in ambition) to the junk pile of Pound’s Cantos. You could almost rewrite Wright’s diaries, if you’d been careless enough to use them for kindling, from the daybook entries here.

Wright’s specialty is romantic vision (you suspect he’d see himself as a visionary, if he weren’t so modest and afflicted with doubt) —he finds the sublime in the unlikeliest places, and at his best makes you think such places are exactly where to look. Much of the time he writes of his back yard or the room where he sits, which shows a telling humility as well as paralyzing laziness—a writer who can’t be bothered to stir from his chair is soon writing odes to his desk lamp. When Wright describes the “Orange Crush sunset over the Blue Ridge” or “Cold like a shot of Novocain/ under the week’s gums,” the images thrust pastoral into the modern world. You think of Homer’s wine-dark sea, or Dante comparing Geryon’s skin to Tartar cloth—the familiar objects tame the foreign, even in Hell, and the domestic is afterwards left a little unfamiliar. (When Wright spies a “handful of Alzheimered apple trees,” however, you’re sorry Dr. Alzheimer ever discovered a disease.)

Twilight twisting down like a slow screw Into the balsa wood of Saturday afternoon, Late Saturday afternoon, a solitary plane Eating its way like a moth across the bolt of dusk Hung like cheesecloth above us.

Wright has long been a poet of gorgeous description, so I feel churlish pointing out that twilight rises from the ground and that moth larvae, not moths, eat fabric. Homer or Dante would have bothered to get these things right. Too many of these poems sink into the portentous tone that passes for wisdom in contemporary poetry. Wright is quick to invoke the “abyss,” to summon the “other world”—he settles for a beachcomber’s philosophizing with a swig of metaphysical sentiment. There’s more poeticizing than poetry here, as in the trilogies that preceded it, which are no more a long poem than Wright’s dimestore metaphysics (when a poem’s going badly, a few angels get thrown in) is real metaphysics.

Our world is of little moment, of course, but it is our world. Thus it behooves us to contemplate, from time to time, The weight of glory we should wish reset in our hearts, About the things which are seen, and things which are not seen, That corresponds like to like, The stone to the dark of the earth, the flame to the star.

Behooves us! The weight of glory! Robert Lowell in his madness believed he was Milton. Wright in his sanity is willing to settle for Henry Ward Beecher.

These gentlemanly Southern poems lie drowsily on the page, as if the poet had handed you a mint julep and invited you into a hammock. When a poet admits he’s “getting too old and lazy to write poems,” the prognosis isn’t good. Any reader who wants to take Wright seriously, who wants to revel in the naked beauty of descriptions that rival even Pound’s (when people say they love parts of The Cantos, what they love are the landscapes), must put up with more eternities and immensities and everlastings than you could shake a stick at. Wright likes to drop the names of poets with imaginations morally more serious than his own (Vallejo, Machado, Mandelstam, Lorca, Alberti, Rimbaud)—this seems a quiet form of self-mortification. All he can offer in return are lines like “We yo-yo the Absolute big-time,” which may be the worst metaphysical line ever written.

Wright is one of our most talented poets; but he’s content to make bad jokes (“We come, we hang out, we disappear”—just what Caesar would have said, if he’d thought of it), to use poise and neon and glacier and Crayola as verbs (and insected as an adjective). Art is often in the flaws, in the sullen differences that allow a writer to evade the poetry of the age. (Sometimes what at first annoys us in a poet is just what we later appreciate.) But however much I want to believe that Wright’s carelessness and over-reaching might be crucial to his casual beauty, too many of these poems skim the surface of the poet’s impressions the way a cook skims fat.

All the world loves a misanthrope. The grumpy codger is a stock dramatic figure, perfect for undercutting our romantic illusions—even if the lack of illusion is another illusion. A misanthrope expresses the ugly thoughts beneath our sweet natures: the chill of envy, the glaring rage, the Scroogelike meanness. He (misanthropes are usually male) allows us to gratify our worst instincts and then congratulate ourselves for despising them.

Alan Dugan’s poems are essentially Hobbesian—nasty, brutish, and short. (He even titles his books like an ascetic. I’m sure readers who bought Poems forty years ago had no idea it would be followed by Poems Two through Six, and now Poems Seven, which collects his previous work and adds new poems as well.) His first book was a selection in the Yale Series of Younger Poets and won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His taste for sour (and vituperative) complaint and bare-knuckled self-analysis became characteristic, though many poems were cast in a monstrous diction half Dylan Thomas, half Hart Crane:

Fallen in salt-sweat, piercing skin, the bones 

essay plantation in their dirt of home

and rest their aching portion in the heat’s
blood afternoon. O if the sun’s day-laborer
records inheritable yield, the script
is morning’s alpha to omega after dark:
the figured head to scrotum of the bull.

Such doughy, overwrought pentameter (with feet added here and there, like a home improvement project gone wrong) is in a different world from the plain style Dugan made his own: “The river brought down/ dead horses, dead men/ and military debris,/ indicative of war/ or official acts upstream,/ but it went by, it all/ goes by, that is the thing/ about the river.”

The classical references that larded those early poems might have seemed just period flotsam (classical gods propped up so much fifties verse the publishers of Bulfinch must have rivaled Croesus); but Dugan took the old gods seriously, as if the proper Cold War stance was that of a Roman in Caesar’s Rome—he wanted to be a Catullus with a chip on his shoulder. A generation ago, Roman poets were still bowdlerized in school texts (they may be bowdlerized now, in those small pockets of resistance where students learn Latin). Dugan invented himself as a foul-mouthed, evil-tempered loner, a man who had seen the horrors and longed to report them:

He turned his father’s small inheritance over and over on hemorrhoid ads between three-hour lunches at the Plaza every day and cocktails at five- thirty with different dressy women waiting in our front office. We joked that he fucked them up the ass to make more customers and were nauseated by him because he picked his ears with the lead end of his lead pencil.

Dugan is scathing about the pointlessness of work (“for wages, some shit’s profits, and his own/ payment on his dreamed family plan”), the degradations of love, the ghastly human condition (where the first imperative is Eat! and the second, Screw!); but this hard-boiled austerity, this isolation from the causes of joy (Catullus knew pleasures, but for Dugan pleasure is just the crass satisfaction of instinct), left him no room to develop. The poems have ground on, decade by decade, in cruel repetition, like a bread and water ration. They explore a realm that would make most poets flinch (there’s an elegy that mixes necrophilia and incest), but far too many are gloomy and glib affairs—it’s not enough to be naked in a poem if all you offer is your nakedness.

Very little lyric poetry, and almost all satire, is founded on a belief that men and women are weak, corrupted, foolish things (satire is a form of forgiveness, too). Nihilism is too rare in contemporary poetry, where sentiments are sold on the sidewalk. The shiver we feel in reading Dugan comes from knowing we’ve entertained such mordant thoughts and rejected them to think better of ourselves. A misanthrope no longer needs to think better of himself. In “Love Song: I and Thou,” “How We Heard the Name,” “Portrait from the Infantry,” “Barefoot for a Scorpion,” “Untitled Poem” (“I’ve promised that I will not care”), “The Decimation before Phraäta,” “Portrait of a Local Politician,” and half a dozen others, Dugan has seen the world with rueful despair and no prejudices but his own.

But is that enough? Without Larkin’s appreciation of foible or Hecht’s taste for darkly beautiful lines, Dugan’s poetry has been cruelly limited: his world reduces everyone to Freudian complex and Marxist statistic, where poetry is written for “love, publicity and money.” There’s a thrill hearing what we’re not supposed to say, but misery hearing it over and over again—Diogenes in his tub must have been a terrible old bore.

Cynthia Zarin’s delicate, whimsical poems are knowing in a disquieting way—as if she doesn’t quite want to know what she knows (the dust jacket claims The Watercourse was written after a divorce, though you can scarcely tell from the poems). She has learned much from Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop and Amy Clampitt, and when you read her poems you often think you’re reading Moore or Bishop or Clampitt.

The rationing, the slugs on the lawn, the spirit

lamp casting up the mute face of

the charwoman’s dead child, the elephantine car that made it through another winter, the hoarfrost dotting the lawn. An utter

frenzy of communication, of agendas

surprisingly fulfilled in the glossy umber evenings with—downstairs—the wireless going, each typed letter (for later, she typed

them) a stitch in the seam every so

often righted by an exclamation, a scrawled postscript.

Such stanzas are lovely, but you’d swear they were torn from Clampitt’s notebook (ventriloquism can be forgiven in a young poet—in an older it looks like ill-breeding). When a mop resembles “an octopus that sat on top of its pole/ like a fright wig,” you think, Oh, Marianne Moore!, and when a group of children, each smaller than the last, looks “like notes on a xylophone,” you think, Why, Elizabeth Bishop!

If Zarin were just the sum of her IOUs, she’d be no more interesting than a talking parrot; yet the longer you read the more her voice emerges from its influences. Some of the poems don’t come to much (that’s the risk of writing poems so modest and self-effacing—some efface themselves entirely), but the best have a bruised delicacy and wounded charm, touched by the graces, and disgrace, of minor things. She writes about a Spode plate:

I thought if you scrubbed, the stain would dissolve in the water used to douse it, and the scene—the burning tree with its too-heavy bright bloom, the black stars on the charred hill, the ragged maiden— would again be a place that had heard nothing, and seen less, a landscape of mild temperance, the smooth porcelain alive with the sheen of reflected moonlight, where Orion could shoot the bear along the river, and miss, and miss.

Very little reality muscles into these poems, but don’t we read poetry because it’s more intelligent or seductive than the real? We can always look up from a book; how rarely, when we look down from the window, do we see a poem. An imagined world, a truly imagined world, is something we could not have seen for ourselves, no matter how hard we looked.

Auden once suggested that poets were dominated by Ariel (beauty) or Prospero (truth), but a darker and more brutal division might be between Ariel (intelligence) and Caliban (emotion). Ariel has no emotions, The Tempest makes plain, but Caliban is in thrall to them. Zarin is an Ariel—like Auden and Merrill, Clampitt and Bishop and Moore, she has gauzy charms rather than grim passions, and loves to seem frivolous even when serious. Stevens was an Ariel poet, but Eliot was a Caliban (even in his light verse). Pound was a Caliban, and so was Frost, who in his snowbound Yankee December dreamed he was an Ariel and sometimes wrote Ariel poems, sappy as a Vermont maple in floodtime. Lowell was a Caliban, too—Calibans brood, while Ariels are incapable of brooding. They’d rather get on with seeing things (Calibans feel before they see, Ariels see before they feel). Calibans prefer the prison or the cave, keeping Plato company, while Ariels are happiest in gardens or mock Edens, writing about birds and moths, or on a bad day about angels. If Ariels live for transformation, Calibans sit staring at the sutures and scars of identity.

Some of Zarin’s poems are slight as nursery rhymes (though written by macaws or mandrills), and she even has a funny and touching ode to her typewriter. A reader tired of poems that noisily proclaim their importance (seemingly humble poets can be noisiest of all) may find solace—and gay, self-mocking intelligence—in the poems here. Sometimes a quiet voice, expecially one so confident in its lack of confidence, is more lasting than the loud voices trying to drown it out.

Dick Davis was part of a group of proper English formal poets, ardent admirers of Yvor Winters, that made almost no impact on British poetry in the seventies and eighties. Like many New Formalists in America, their verse was a little too careful, a little too ordinary, and a little too dull. Sometimes as formal poets age they unbend (all too often they become fossilized instead) and use their trained ears to write in classical simplicity.

The sun comes up, and soon 

The night’s thin fall of snow 

Fades from the grass as if 

It could not wait to go.

But look, a lank line lingers
Beyond the lawn’s one tree,
Safe in its shadow still,
Held momentarily.

The first stanza might have been written by Frost, it’s so cleanly expressive; but the second must have been by Frost’s deaf yardman, with its clogged alliteration and the awkward rhyme on a secondary accent. It’s amusing to find an exponent of the classical virtues guilty, elsewhere, of a dangling participle as bad as some freshman’s (“Lifting her arms to soap her hair/ Her pretty breasts respond”).

The poems in Belonging have the soulless and manufactured air of kitchen appliances (they’re like a refrigerator talking to a microwave). They don’t have room for the personality of craft and their meter comes from a handbook, the righteous handbook of Winters. (In a good poet the meter is rarely confining—it seems liberating instead.) The poems are so professional and suburban, they don’t allow anything to ruffle their complacencies—if they were married they’d be monogamous, and dues-paying members of the Kiwanis Club. You long for a little rowdiness to trouble their surfaces, but all you get is a watered-down cocktail of Frost and Richard Wilbur.

Wilbur is a hero to young formal poets and has been generous praising them, but he was a more baroque and metaphysical and intellectual poet than poets now dare to be—too many laws (the kind poets unconsciously observe, the laws of taste) have been passed against such elaboration and decoration. Wilbur was a Bernini once, who could say things in meter that free verse would never allow (Davis is stuck saying the things free verse rejects). It would be stimulating to have a few Berninis again.

At times you suspect Davis is a closet skeptic, but you’d have to threaten his family to get him to admit it. He pursues his craft in a dogged way, writing monotonous monorhymes, or lines regular as a metronome and twice as determined (“A child let loose on Nelson’s Victory/ I fantasized his last quixotic quest,/ Trafalgar’s carnage—where he coolly dressed/ As gaudily as if he wished to be … ”), or passages like Kipling in a malarial fit:

And the sudden breeze of sunrise, like a nervous lover’s hands Hardly touching, but still touching, as my body understands, Like a whisper that insists on life’s importunate demands Tugging me to love and pleasure, to what passes as we sleep, To the roses’ quick unfolding, to the moments that won’t keep, To the ruin of a childhood, and the tears that parents weep.

Such sentiments are best left to the experts, the greeting-card writers.

Amid the humdrum and predictable verse, however, are a few epigrams as astringent as anything by J. V. Cunningham.

The pretty young bring to the coarsely old 

Réchauffé dishes, but the sauce is cold.

That has a pleasantly bitter taste; but the next, on teaching poetry workshops, is even better:

A house was rented for the visitor

Who came to lecture here for one spring quarter: In house and class his only duties were

To feed the hummingbirds with sugared water.

Those lines have a delayed sting and you have to be patient enough to wait for it. A poet who can write epigrams shimmering with such wit, ragged with such despair, has no business writing anything else. Cunningham, a Wintersian himself, gave most of his last forty years to epigrams and wrote half a dozen that are among the delights of the last century. Davis could do worse with his next few decades.

Reading Jorie Graham’s poems in Never is like watching a slow-motion nature documentary where an anaconda ever so lazily disarticulates its jaw and inch by inch, millimeter by millimeter, swallows a goat. Such microscopic infatuation with detail is entrancing, the world slowed to the creeping choreography of muscle; but it can be blindingly tedious.

The under-shadowed paisleys scripting wave- edge down- slope on the barest inclination, sun making of each milelong wave-retreat a golden translucent forward downgoing, golden sentences writ on clearest moving waters, moving their meaninglessness on (not in) the moving of the waters (which feels tugged)(the rows of scripting

[even though it’s a trick] adamant with self-unfolding)

If Graham were a god, in her Eden every sand grain would be a preposition and every leaf a verb: her later poetry has tried to map the world in as many words as it takes (“What do you think I’ve been about all this/ long time,/ half-crazed, pen-in-hand, … taking it down,/ taking it all down”). There’s a mania in such passion, the experience dwarfed by the infinity of words needed to describe it. As her means have become all-too-frenzied ends, this Sunday phenomenology has made her poems seem coercive and bizarre.

So then it’s sun in surf-breaking water: incircling, smearing: mind not

knowing if it’s still “wave,” breaking on

itself, small glider, or if it’s “amidst” (red turning feathery)

or rather “over” (the laciness of foambreak) or just what—(among

the line of also smearingly reddening terns floating out now

on the feathery backedge of foambroken

looking)—it is.

Punctuation can barely keep up with the Heraclitean flux (you try to step into this river twice and you drown)—the point of seeing gets lost in the attempt to catch its least mental nuance, its tiniest sensory quaver. Graham’s poems are increasingly like the incessant doodles of a patient in a mad ward, all that energy and meticulous observation grinding toward nothing.

Graham’s most devoted critic, Helen Vendler (who has dragged the whole Graham bandwagon at times), believes that poetry is a “structural and rhythmic enactment,” that mimetic accuracy is “the virtue, the fundamental ethics, of art.” Graham’s poetry shows how crippling that notion can be—pursued as the highest value, it creates an art that cannot escape its dreary miming gestures. When poetry records only the trivial blizzard of experience, it offers the chaos of act without the order of interpretation.

Never is immersed in a natural world under threat of extinction; but the second-by-second observation (and the endless observation of her own observation) makes the subject not nature but that part of nature named Jorie Graham. As the nagging minutiae pile up, the reader may dimly remember that Graham began as a poet very different. A few poems here, written on public commission, revert to the style that made Erosion (1983) and The End of Beauty (1987) such bewitching performances. There are lines of natural description more sensuous than pages of her nervous pulse-taking, with its now familiar arsenal of brackets and parentheses—Graham is armed to the teeth with colons and italics and academe’s weapon of mass terror, scare quotes.

Even these commissions lapse into manic running commentary (as if Narcissus had been hired by the Nature Channel); but they drive toward the quasi-religious awe her poems were once imbued with, instead of the paper-shuffling bureaucracy they have become. Graham has worked so hard to question the authority of the poetic voice she has lost her own authority—poems about writing a poem seem meant for readers too dumb to realize that poems have an author and the author has a pen:

this voice which is called “I” will say to you: now: now: [can you do that?]: now: [do you feel it] [there in your face, in your palms]: now: [doesn’t it still you][put birdchatter in][put dusk-wind in olive groves “below”]: now: we are done we are alone we are a dialect but it can still be spoken: there is a literal edge: now: there are facts, too, yes: now: where were we.

Graham’s poems are often a tour de force; but their blowsy logorrhea, their hydraulic overuse of words, explains why a poetry of such grand (and even seductive) ambition can seem so fragile and incoherent. Like a Laocoön coiled not in snakes but in his own intestines, she shows how stultified, how barren, a poet can become when she high-mindedly makes an art with all the false starts and second thoughts (and third thoughts) left in.

Guttural howls and curdled shouts echo through Geoffrey Hill’s The Orchards of Syon, the latest in the crabbed monologues that began with The Triumph of Love (1998) and continued in Speech! Speech! (2000). Hill is a cryptic, sphinxlike poet (his admirers sometimes seem like members of a cult), whose gloomy grandeur and soiled understandings are half-forgotten here—we are offered instead the frustrated thumping of a Prospero abandoning his magics, a man sentenced to death (looking toward the full stop at the end of his sentences) and composing his valediction.

The Orchards of Syon takes comfort in childhood memory and the reeking intensities of British landscape. The orchards may be those of the promised land, but they live too in those of Syon House on the Thames, where Henry VIII’s casket burst open on its progress from London, leaving his corpse to be gnawed by household terriers. In the double realm of Hill’s poetry, past rises into present like an unbidden ghost and present sinks into the mire of the past—in Mercian Hymns (1971), King Offa still ruled the modern Midlands. Here, Donne is said to have “heard voices he preserved on wax/ cylinders” and the three magi appear in a chain store (as, indeed, they do in Christmas crèches—the literal is often miraculous). It is a matter of belief, for a boy born in Bromsgrove: “I/ wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove/ was, and is, Goldengrove: that the Orchards/ of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them./ But there we are: the heartland remains/ heartless—that’s the strange beauty of it.”

In these monologues, meditation turns obsession into motif: the Orchards returns again and again to the ideal past of Goldengrove (from Hopkins’ “To a Young Child”); to Dante’s Wood of the Suicides (Inferno XIII); to the word Atemwende (a coinage of Paul Celan’s—breath-hitch, catch-breath); to Calderon’s play La vida es sueño (“Life is a dream”); to the deathscapes of World War I, the war that still troubles Hill, though settled before he was born.

Hill is aware of his belated status—the allusion and obscurity of high modernism have long been derogated and suspect. There is no excuse for the blind alleys into which these poems lead, their difficulties making even the sympathetic reader tear his hair.

Achilles from Ajax: power-loss imminent, the split voice-tube welts blood. Dead Tragedy threatening, death of Comedy is perhaps a worse dereliction. Strophe after strophe ever more catastrophic. Did I say strophe? I meant salvo, sorry.

On first reading (and second, and third), this seems like babble; but in modern warfare notions of tragedy that honored the dead in the Iliad, honored the individual battles of Achilles and Ajax, are impossible. The modern poem, strophe by strophe, can catalogue the dead only in their thousands or millions. Even this is a misspeaking, and to say strophes instead of salvos merely congealed tact. (The wordplay is learned—in Greek a strophe is a turning, a catastrophe an overturning.) There is no excuse for such difficulties, except Hill’s forlorn hope that his poetry might escape the travesties of an age where all public speech is suspect.

Hill rails at his critics (“I’m/ ordered to speak plainly, let what ís/ speak for itself, not to redeem the time/ but to get even with it”), making direct appeal to readers (“Don’t look it up this time; the sub-/ conscious does well by us”), as if he were Luther translating the Bible into the vernacular. But Hill would be delusional not to realize his poetry is beyond the reach of the common reader, or even most uncommon ones. Beyond the tags from half-a-dozen languages, The Orchards of Syon assumes a knowledge of the cleric Thomas Bradwardine, of a scrap of Job that appears as a chapter title in Moby-Dick, of the influence of Richard Jefferies on Henry Williamson, of the bridges and canals of James Brindley and the coin presses of Matthew Boulton, and much other arcana. The diction reaches from the fixed past to the fluid and temporary present of cell phones, refuseniks, and rap cassettes. A reader must know that Silvertown was the set, on a ranch outside Los Angeles, where hundreds of westerns were born.

Amid the disordered lines of rant and reprisal, there are scattered passages of physical beauty (a beauty Hill sometimes resents and winces at):

Distant flocks merge into limestone’s half-light. The full moon, now, rears with unhastening speed, sketches the black ridge-end, slides thin lustre downward aslant its gouged and watered scree.

The Orchards of Syon is the testament of a poet nearing the end of life, a poet who has earned the reader’s trust by long careful mistrust of his own words. If there is no consolation in this contemplation of the grave, there is no self-pity, either. These monologues have been a preposterous, irritating, and baffling addition to the work of the major poet of our laggard age. Their fraught understandings of guilt, and grace, have been rivalled in the last century only by Eliot’s Four Quartets. I was not kind to Speech! Speech! when I reviewed it, and I must now eat my words, or a few of them. Such poems are proud of their disfigured guise, their diseased violence in language. (Middle-class matrons and shipping clerks won’t be setting up Geoffrey Hill societies any time soon.) If there are critics to labor over these poems as they have over Eliot and Pound, the deep shafts of footnotes will gradually mine their subliminal hurts and sublime graces.



  1. A Short History of the Shadow, by Charles Wright; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 81 pages, $20.
  2. Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry, by Alan Dugan; Seven Stories Press, 422 pages, $35. 
  3. The Watercourse, by Cynthia Zarin; Alfred A. Knopf, 79 pages, $23.
  4. Belonging, by Dick Davis; Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 54 pages, $24.95; $14.95 (paper).
  5. Never, by Jorie Graham; Ecco, 113 pages, $22.95.
  6. The Orchards of Syon, by Geoffrey Hill; Counterpoint, 77 pages, $24