Essays in Critical Flame

New review essay floats Ben Mazer and John Beer on the sea of Ashbery and TS Eliot :
Jerusalem & Albion; or, Maze & Barleycorn

This is the 2nd essay of mine there. Also wrote one about Gabriel Gudding a while back :
Reading Gabriel Gudding


The epic drive

Knowledge, taken in the abstract - say, by the vulnerable ephebe just starting out in college - displays a frightening visage : abyssal, disorienting, nightmarish. Knowledge, in its authorized, authoritative forms, is demanding (all those martinet-professors, those requirements, those deadlines & examinations), impersonal... fundamentally inscrutable. Say our tenderfoot student is curious about History. The question is, where to begin? If all "facts"are equal... & if the historians, each with their particular perspective and expertise, number in the thousands upon thousands... Indeed, there is a specific demon of angst which persecutes the undergraduate - whose malicious intent is to induce a painful, extremely self-conscious (to the point of paranoia) sense of being lost . What do I know, in the midst of all this formidable universe of chilly and alienated learning? How can I know anything? How can I trust my own feeble capacity to find meaning, to understand?

It is just here (as has often been pointed out) that the arts attempt a rescue mission. Art is synthesis, not analysis; its aim is not to detach elements of experience by means of abstraction in order to re-align them into codes of information, hierarchies of data. Art does not truck with the supposed "objectivity" of formalized knowledge; rather, Art produces holistic representations of experience - images which we need not learn, because we already recognize them. We do not "acquire" these representations - we immediately identify with them. And in these identifications our inward sense of personal understanding is encouraged, fortified, strengthened, and above all, expanded. (Perhaps the paradigmatic expression of this commonality of experience is John Donne's famous passage from Meditation 17 : "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.")

Is this the happy end of story, then? Art comes to the rescue, trouncing adolescent despair? Well, yes, perhaps. But for the artist the picture may be more complex. How, say, in poetry, are these holistic representations - these charmed and charming narratives, capable of evoking sympathetic understanding and identification - to be successfully created? The endless debates within the various guilds of poets over issues of subjectivity/objectivity, personality/impersonality, individuality/commonality, point toward unresolved difficulties, internal contradictions. How does the poet achieve a balance between self-indulgent, anecdotal subjectivity on the one hand, and a bloodless, abstract objectivity on the other? How few are the poems which succeed in integrating these polarities - in presenting "concrete universals": those characteristic particulars which are nevertheless capable of global relevance.

Works of the past called "great" are just these poems which have achieved a kind of wholeness and universality. The Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare... these are some of the familiar benchmarks - narratives which fuse representative, characteristic individuals, with a shared history - Pound's "tale of the tribe" - the many and the one.

We could call this the "epic" drive in poetry : the struggle to present multiplicity in the form of holistic order. Northrop Frye described this totalizing impulse as the defining characteristic of the epic mode. The works which achieve such encyclopedic synthesis become foundational texts, paradigmatic narratives of peoples and cultures. They construct a kind of aegis or rooftop of mutual understanding - or, to use another image, a sort of network of vital pathways, which encourage individuals to emerge from isolation into the ethos of a shared tradition.

The path toward such epic achievements involves the most intense struggle : because no imagery of wholeness will be accepted as authentic unless it has been earned. It would be impossible for an audience to assent to epic pretensions, if the work itself did not display an indwelling awareness, a comprehension, of actual, lived experience in its heights and depths. The achievement of an epic narrative is thus a kind of celebratory moment - when individual artistic making is matched with the real existence of the whole society.

- to be continued, maybe... -


Lanthanum 9.13

for Chris Kraemer

That bridge in your old photo, Chris (beehive
of hexagonal girders, poised in a mirror-
agon of contrastive weight – taut Piranesi-
pattern)... a quick sliver of dove-

wings flits through those ribs. Flotsam
of memory asway below, sheathed
in snakeskin of crusted limestone (teeth,
bone, shells)... only the river seethes, I Am

& only Time will bind these liquidaceous scars
in one eddying canyon-volume : synthesis
or wave-continuum : the hand-or-eye’s
own natural rest note (a fulcrum-focus).

At Prospect Terrace, the statue of young Roger
steps a stilled foot into the bow of his canoe.
Silence marks his brow there too, at prow
of Providence (lips close upon their origin).

What might ye behold there, by glinting granite
glance – through whisper-facets of the river?
On rungs of welded iron, raindrops shiver
in jointed deltoids, whose spinal height

arcs up to Union (forged from a million
bolts of eyebright)... reaches their hands
(mirrored, multiplex) into those wounds
(ineluctable, irreducible – your own). &

shadows of a Piranesi-body (dove-borne,
Pentecostal) rise from the rails of
sunken Soo Line (sun-thorn, whale-
horn)... eyelash of Beatrice-Magdalen.



HG Books in pdf. format

Here's a new way to find a lot of my poetry - free pdf. versions, linked at the Brown University Library catalog. (On each page, just go to "click on the following"....)

Chapel Hill
Dove Street
Forth of July
Island Road
Rest Note
Stubborn Grew
Way Stations
The Well Is Always There


Lanthanum 9.12

for Karen Donovan (who noticed them)

Here’s a photo – a flock of ducks in the river
swathed in steam-shimmer, lithe silver & gold.
The day itself was overcast, crepuscular; an old
sepia print of Providence (unknown engraver).

Those ducks for certain make a joyful noise
though for us it’s only a tacit Jubilee. &
snow was just a sketch, a promissory
morning sprinkle : 7 wavy scimitars

of moon-flakes, traipsing their descent
to elemental winter ground. It was a sign
for manna from the summer sun – the Son
of Man (intuitive angel of untold ascent,

centripetal within each ice-bound tear)
flutes in the market as predicted – yet
that handish cloud overhead is implicate
with wing-tip folds; yon leafy paramour

Jessie O’Balm’s forming up up there
a demonstration (maybe very gentle rain
later today
). Sleep on it, Berryman; let
splay of almond palm undo the nightmare

(this is my prayer). You had an answer in
your own, when rondure of an unkempt heart
spun back upon her yearning path (O startling
Ind). The sprite who knelt beside you there

came dropping slow (like Chesley by shoreline,
shielding struts with ingrained, unaccountable
care). Benign, compounded with the fallible...
infallible & secret element (a sign, cosine).



Lanthanum 9.11

for Allen Grossman

Once, on a planet where earth & sky are partners
(emerald & sapphire) emerged an unknown pharaoh
cleft in a dreary mountain... quiet shadow
swimming into sun. He was met with sneers

row upon row, with hosts of angry errors. Then
he began to sing : sweetly mortal, this one,
humble & low as a dusty pigeon : crossgrain
against the chilly currency of that thieve’s den

(for lo, it was a land of bilk & money).
Against Memphis silt his melody set sail
upstream – steel compass shepherding a frail
canoe, whose prow & wake bear one bright V

toward heartfelt matrix (ruby, diamond).
His chant was not unheard-of in that land,
not strange : just passionate echo of grand-
ma’s hymn, & preacher’s reprimand :

a sense of rightness, stubbornly evoked
(tempered to the time at hand). His weapons
two arms crossed upon his breast – someone’s
stern angel, binding warmongers (Wovoka-

avatar). Just shadow of a gray shadow,
or slip of pebbles in a tidal wash : inkling
of forgotten plenitude, laughter’s foundling.
Lost land where river shallows press the bow

toward shore... among warbling lips of
silenced wings – that rosy treasure
chest, where blue & green, & black &
white, I & Thou, & earth & sky are one.



poem published in Providence Journal on 1.13.12

I started reading Tomas Tranströmer's poetry after he won the Nobel Prize - & liked it a lot. The Providence paper printed a slightly garbled version of it on the op-ed page yesterday. Here's the corrected version :


homage to Tomas Tranströmer

The quiet Swede goes for an evening walk.
It’s growing dark already, cold.
Far off, a silent bivouac of trees, asleep
beneath snow-blankets. The gray sea, whimpering.

Overhead, tiny train-lights of stars
skim past the dark station, toward unmapped regions.
His feet slush through old shelves of ice. He feels
the planet sleepwalk – muttering, dreaming, sailing on.

On a gray-green brow, a lonely farm opens one eye.
A star has made its nest on earth. And now
more lights... a constellation swims into the forest.
He’ll christen it “the Hearth” when he gets home.


Lanthanum 9.10


The earth, a flaking Roman ampitheatre,
doddering old ham... waiting (by that river
in Vienne) to cradle One who comes, deliver
Him - Emanu-el, the One-with-us (now, here) –

while amid Mayan ruins of Piedras Negras
students pencilling their scribble-diaries
mimic the very pliant sediment they prize
from plaza, limestone crypt, acropolis –

intent on disinterment : one petrified root
of the Archaic One. That buried king, or
child – lurker in the villages, oppressed
oppressor – fatherless, beneath the boot

of evil-doing thugs. Tacit one, who waits &
waits there, in the dump... that groundsman-
gardener (asleep or dead) upon whom Magdalen
trains her indomitable emerald eye (understand

what Iris lurks beneath such blurred-out Violet).
O mudpie innocents, ephebe-gravediggers, I
would join you in your soggy trenches – misery
of the world is quenched in labor so inviolate –

& in the spousal sarabande of Mayan time
inch toward an ur-outcrop of waterfalls :
grave yet lightweight pumice-composite (all’s
figures, Horatio
) streaked with lanthanum-

streams of limestone. Where a bass-chorus
swims in droning schools : a fluent solidarity
of Wills (Roger, Blackstone)... & nostra pace
e’en la sua voluntade. IN RI
, chanted... for us.



Lanthanum 9.9


It was the faintest whisper of the lightest breeze
you felt not heard, the most ineffable lightness
breathing across the river’s curve, at night;
near St. Louis, under the wingèd shroud of trees.

Stillness; quiet; only a creak of cottonwoods
as the bow slips downstream. & you lie back
along ribs & spine... & trace another track
remote, milky (buffalo, or thunderbirds).

A pair of spare steel calipers lean into sky.
A lightweight tripod, anchored from above,
almost; made of open air, its alcove
seems to shepherd weightlessness (a mile-

high smile). You lean against the gunwale,
press your ear into Karelian birch; the veins
thread tiny rivers, seamless as woven spans
of Inca stone; you enter the black-hole tunnel.

& it is so arranged, we never leave
the tender circle of those tight-swathed hills

A light wind-vortex lifts her glittering vessel
(diamond now) on a sigh of joy (heave-

ho!) – a choir of humming fingertips
in unison (their pregnant sails seamless as
woven Incan shroud). Hiawatha-longhouse
of loving fellowship – red-willow slips

of smoke & singing ghosts... the pure air
of diamond-heart, at center of the six
directions. All bound in Magdalen’s hex-
agon : reunion or reconnaissance (ours

be her beatific ninefold choir).