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Talking into the Ear of a Donkey
W. W. Norton ($24.95)
by Mark Gustafson
“Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!”
—Robert Bly, “Poem in Three Parts”
In the morning of his career, Robert Bly’s first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields (Wesleyan University Press, 1962), became the touchstone of a new generation. Forging a poetic link between inward and outward, Bly brought the unconscious into play in surrealistic, image-laden lines while shedding many of the day’s literary conventions. His broad and deep influence on American poetry of mid-century and later came through not only poems but also through ferocious, subjective criticism, provocative theorizing, and a new emphasis on translation (Trakl, Neruda, Lorca, Rilke, Tranströmer, Machado, Kabir, and others), not to mention political activities and incorporation of fairy tales and myth. The recent reprinting of Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), first published in 1972, is one measure of Bly’s continuing ripple effect.
“Ravens Hiding in a Shoe,” which opens his new book, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, ends with an intriguing appraisal:
Robert, you’ve wasted so much of your life
Sitting indoors to write poems. Would you
Do that again? I would, a thousand times.
Bly is now eighty-four years old; with more than half a century’s accumulation of experience, insight, and wisdom, he has reached the culminating stage. “Ripeness is all,” as this book brilliantly makes plain. He is still ecstatic, “wrapped in . . . joyful flesh,” filled with spiritual longing, making long, floating leaps, and celebrating his love of and gratitude for the world. His skill with image and metaphor is undiminished:
I have daughters and I have sons.
When one of them lays a hand
On my shoulder, shining fish
Turn suddenly in the deep sea.
There are poems here that—in form, content, technique, mood, tone—generate echoes of nearly every period of his career, though with some notable exceptions: gone are the furious, expressly political poems that identify our public grief and begin to process it (as in The Light Around the Body [Harper & Row, 1967]), the long, knotty spirals of surrealism (Sleepers Joining Hands [Harper & Row, 1973]), and prose poems (The Morning Glory [HarperCollins, 1975] and other books). The last, of course, are still part of Bly’s repertoire overall; witness Reaching Out to the World: New & Selected Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2009). Think, if you will, of a palimpsest.
Bly reassures himself (again with self-deprecation):
It’s all right if we keep forgetting the way home.
It’s all right if we don’t remember when we were born.
It’s all right if we write the same poem over and over.
Actually, the sameness lies not in the poems themselves, but rather in the very force of character that has produced them. As evident in his most recent books, Bly has been developing a “late style” of which he is now, indisputably, the possessor. Edward Said (leaning on Adorno) suggests that, while the bodily condition of senescence does not directly translate into an aesthetic style, the awareness of the proximity of death, in combination with scrupulous self-reflection, alters the quality of time. To put it another way, just as the quality of light changes, so that in the evening, before sunset, free of the haze of morning and the glare of mid-day, it becomes warmer, richer, and clearer, so also, late in an artistic career, something similar often happens, as death gets into the work. Lateness, Adorno says, both “elucidates and dramatizes,” and often brings with it an increased “power of subjectivity.” In Said’s words, the poet’s “mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, [is] unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained. . . .” These traits fit Bly to a T.
The very structure of Talking into the Ear of a Donkey suggests the poems’ “lateness.” Sections one and six neatly frame this collection, as they consist of ghazals (of which Bly’s last two books, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars [HarperCollins, 2001], and My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy [HarperCollins, 2005], were exclusively comprised). His drastic adaptation of this ancient form, also used by Rumi, Hafez, and Ghalib (all of whom Bly has translated), is, invariably, six self-contained, three-line stanzas. Within those confines, however, he has many options: sometimes the move between stanzas involves a leap, sometimes each stanza ends with, or includes, the same word or phrase; sometimes the poet addresses himself in the final stanza; usually, there he corrals the abundant, sometimes wild array of images and stanzas, bringing closure. Thus form and content happily commingle. Bly’s almost intuitive dexterity with these ghazals is such that they function as a series of meditations, managing to incorporate various themes, styles, and philosophical features of his lifetime of work.
Consider “Longing for the Acrobat”:
There is so much sweetness in children’s voices,
And so much discontent at the end of day,
And so much satisfaction when a train goes by.
I don’t know why the rooster keeps on crying,
Nor why the elephant lifts his knobby trunk,
Nor why Hawthorne kept hearing trains at night.
A handsome child is a gift from God,
And a friend is a vein in the back of the hand,
And a wound is an inheritance from the wind.
Some say we are living at the end of time,
But I believe a thousand pagan ministers
Will arrive tomorrow to baptize the wind.
There’s nothing we need to do about Saint John.
Whenever he laid his hands on earth
The well water was sweet for a hundred miles.
Everywhere people are longing for a deeper life.
Let’s hope some acrobat will come by
And give us a hint how to get into heaven.
The result showcases Bly’s expert handling of various poetic devices, combined with the ever-present images and an allusivity unmatched in his earlier work, imbued with both uncertainty and reassurance, and marked by spiritual depth.
Decades ago, from the bully pulpit of his little magazine The Fifties (later The Sixties and The Seventies), Bly railed against the hobbling effects of formalism, to the benefit of American poetry. But by the early 1980s he was occasionally submitting to form (to the dismay or delight of those who recalled his earlier intransigence), though strictly on his own terms, inventing an eight-line poem he calls a “ramage.” Section four comprises nineteen of these. Most have their origin in sound, which then helps to determine the content. Here is “Wanting Sumptuous Heavens”:
No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.
Bly has said: “Every poem, of course, has to have images and ideas and some sort of troubled speaker. But I began more and more to shift attention to the little mouths that cry out their own name.” The little mouth here is –um, and it is beautiful to hear how Bly—who acknowledges his early neglect of sound—attends to it and the accompanying subject matter.
The remaining sections consist of a variety of free verse, from a three-line haiku (reminiscent of Issa, another of Bly’s translated poets) to a twenty-eight-line poem in seven numbered sections. Here is “The Water Tank”:
It’s late fall, and the box-elder leaves are gone.
Snow falls on the horses among their hay bales
And on the water tank overturned for winter.
The horses bend their necks toward the white ground to eat.
This limpidly conveys a sense of solitude and inwardness. The setting is rural, the language simple, and the technique subtle—almost Chinese. It could be from Silence, except the approach of winter seems to have more heft.
The organization at this point is a bit perplexing; e.g., inexplicably, a couple of ramages have been included among this miscellany, including the one quoted above. In any case, the book as a whole does not move chronologically through Bly’s formal development, but shifts back and forth, with a slightly skewed symmetry, and feels simultaneously structured and loose—which, come to think of it, often describes Bly’s poems themselves. We may take pleasure in the arrangement, set in its gorgeous frame.
If the book or the reader needs more coherence and continuity, it finally does come—as do the contours of his late style—in the familiar themes and customary traits, now clarified in the differently refracted light of late in the day. First, Bly still decries the fear of the body and the prudishness introduced by some strains of early Christianity. As one alternative, “Morning Pajamas” begins with his earthy relish:
When you’ve slept all night in a warm bed, sometimes
You’ll find a punky fragrance in your pajamas.
It’s a bit lowlife, but satisfying.
It’s some sort of companionable warmth
That your balls created during the night.
(We may remember another poet of the body as well as the soul, Whitman, who wrote: “The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer.”)
His obvious delight in music—also present in the rhythms, internal rhymes, and repetitions (and in his preference for musical accompaniment when reading)—shows in its increased use as subject matter or referent. So begins “Paying Attention to the Melody”:
All right. I know that each of us will die alone.
It doesn’t matter how loud or soft the sitar plays.
Sooner or later the melody will say it all.
The prologue is so long! At last the theme comes.
It says the soul will rise above all these notes.
It says the dust will be swept up from the floor.
Both soothing and powerful, music, even as it tends toward silence, is “always reminding us whom we love.”
Several poems are late-in-the-day reflections about poetry and his life-long relationship with it. “Starting a Poem” humorously describes the process as it unfolds. You let a word in, then its relatives arrive, “Now the den is a mess, and the / Remote is gone.” Finally:
Now see what’s happened?
Where is your car? You won’t
Be able to find
The keys for a week.
In the title poem, a donkey delights in the spoken word, despite lamentation about the spring that has flown:
“Oh, never mind
About all that,” the donkey
Says. “Just take hold of my mane, so you
Can lift your lips closer to my hairy ears.”
This humble beast of burden—neither Pegasus nor Sleipnir, not even Rocinante—is the creative vehicle that has carried Bly all this time.
With The Man in the Black Coat Turns (Dial Press, 1981), Bly began writing more personal, confessional poems. Talking also takes up this thread, as he remembers his family of origin. “We were bumblers—nothing / Was ever clear.” His father’s alcoholism was the dominant system in their farm house (“It’s all right / To end up bringing your own / Father home. Just be quiet”). Yet Bly came to terms with his father, and, reconciling past and present, continues to find reasons to respect him: “The way I found / Of opening a poem I took / From the way he walked into a field.” These autobiographical poems have suffering, sorrow, and grief aplenty, but Bly refuses to be depressed or pessimistic under the weight. (It is this fracture between father and son that gave rise to Iron John [Addison-Wesley, 1990], which vaulted Bly into celebrity, vastly extending the reach of his and others’ poetry—while it also brought inevitable, persistent, and mostly unfair caricature.) At the same time, his happy appreciation of family and friends continues apace. Since Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (Doubleday, 1985), Bly has been writing love poems for his wife, Ruth, and he continues to do so here. This is “The Teapot”:
That morning I heard water being poured into a teapot.
The sound was an ordinary, daily, cluffy sound.
But all at once, I knew you loved me.
An unheard-of thing, love audible in water falling.
Certainly Bly, who has admitted his early grandiosity, has a relatively newfound humility, an unabashed awareness of his shortcomings (something the ghazal, by allowing self-address, has enabled). For example: “You’ve put yourself / Ahead of others for years, a hundred years. / It will take a long time for you to hear the melody.” He frequently highlights his (feigned) cluelessness, as in “What Did We See Today?”:
Robert, I don’t know why you talk so confidently
About yourself in this way. There are a lot of shady
Characters in this town, and you are one of them.
While Bly’s verse has occasionally been abstruse, resistant to rational interpretation, such is less often the case now. But his eccentricity, with its regular quirks, is still in evidence. One is the growing fondness for repetition. The phrases “I don’t know why” and “it’s all right” pile up. While many readers will undoubtedly find this tiresome, irritating, cloying even, others will find his unashamed, self-assured, humble admissions and gentle reminders to be a great comfort. His seemingly incessant use of “hundreds” and “thousands,” delighting in abundance and uncertainty, belongs in the same boat. Bly’s more frequent expressions of whimsy are also means of saying “it’s all right” and “I don’t know why.” They too serve to remind us of the danger of arrogance and presumption.
Interspersed with these and other customary features, Bly writes about his own lateness. “Eighty years old, and still placing my feet / So hopefully each night on the ground.” Yes, there are limitations, increased forgetfulness among them. In “The Sense of Getting Older” he writes: “There’s no doubt winter is coming. /… / But my pen still moves freely / On this paper.” Bly has never shied away from the subject of death. In his essay “Wild Association,” he highlighted Lorca’s thoughts on duende, that sense of the presence of death: “when a poet has duende inside him, he brushes past death with each step, and in that presence associates fast. . . .” But now, in these later poems, the “merge,” the great mystery, truly is near. While Bly is a visionary, he has negative capability, is quite willing and able to live in the cloud of unknowing without fear, regret, or resignation. In “The Lost Trapper,” the ultimate concern arises from attention to minute particulars:
I don’t know why the grasshopper
Doesn’t try to wiggle
Out from the bird’s claw,
But he doesn’t move.
Just forget the idea that
Someone will come and save
You . . .
Furthermore, like D. H. Lawrence and Whitman, Bly is religious but undogmatic. He has always faithfully hewn to spiritual themes, secularized or not: the spirit of nature, religious energy wherever it manifests, his longing for union with the divine. One poem in The Kabir Book (Beacon Press, 1977) ends:
Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
It is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.
If anything, Bly’s longing seems only to have increased.
In this context of old age and spirituality, then, “heaven” seems to be the key image in this book. Bly has written about it many times, such as in “Tasting Heaven” (from Morning Poems [HarperCollins, 1997]): “…our gusty emotions say to me that we have / Tasted heaven many times: these delicacies / Are left over from some larger party.” Far from being a reward—a place in the promised land—limited to the righteous, heaven, in a Blakean or Buddhist way, is always a present possibility. But old age changes things, even if that change is almost imperceptible. “The old man lying in bed writing poems / Feels his brain light up, and he knows / That in some odd way he is approaching heaven.” (This is clearly the “new brain,” the neo-cortex, à la Bly’s essay “The Three Brains.”) And here is “The Roof Nail”:
A hundred boats are still looking for shore.
There is more in my hopes than I imagined.
The tiny roof nail lies on the ground, aching for the roof.
Some little bone in our foot is longing for heaven.
In four end-stopped lines, Bly sums up his longing for return. The acute awareness that this life is near its end—is there a “larger party” in store?—informs almost all of the poems in this book; thus they have an unprecedented poignancy and power.
As an artist, cultural figure, and personality, Bly achieved larger-than-life status a long time ago. His approach—both timely and untimely, worldly and otherworldly—is utterly distinctive, and resistant to most other contemporary strains of poetry. His style has not been static, exactly, but most of its persistent characteristics and patterns were established early. Even as he recapitulates old themes, his growth, his self-renewal, is clear in both form and content, as well as in his attention to sound. With a lately acquired tone of serenity, he is now almost an ascetic figure with, as Yeats put it, “an old man’s eagle mind” that “can pierce the clouds.”
The book closes, fittingly, with “What the Old Poets Failed to Say.” “Even though we know God lays our head / On the block, we thank him for it all . . .” It ends:
Night after night goes by in the old man’s head.
We try to ask new questions. But whatever
The old poets failed to say will never be said.
True enough. But in this book, Bly—fully conscious, alive to past, present, and the immeasurable future—has given us a testament, a portrait of the artist as an old man. Though entering his “winter world,” his “sweet fire” of inspiration is still burning brightly in this, a crowning achievement. From the vantage point of late evening, this poet may not live forever, but, inshallah, he has a thousand things more to say.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011