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Alan Williamson: stories about the self.

There is a quotation from Willa Cather that, for all its old-fashioned ring, has haunted me ever since I first came upon it:

If the writer achieves anything noble, anything enduring, it must be giving

himself absolutely to his material. He fades away into the land and people of

his heart; he dies of love only to be born again. It reminds me of a passage Gary Snyder is fond of quoting, from the 13th-Century Zen master Dogen:

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. But

myriad things coming forth and experiencing themselves is awakening.

On the face of it, both quotations would seem to be utterly against the idea of personal art. Read carefully, I think both acknowledge that--as the object-relations theorist Christopher Bollas has suggested--the self exists hidden within the objects it has cherished, to be resurrected there, in Cather's terms, or awakened, in Dogen's, in a flexible plenitude sometimes lost when we try to examine the self as if it were a fixed object. Another translation of the Dogen passage reads: "Acting on and witnessing oneself in the advent of myriad things is enlightenment."

I think we all know intuitively what goes wrong in art when the self goes out to the myriad things like a conquering army, trying to make them express it (though we might differ enormously as to just which poets and fictionists most embody this failing). Recently, reading the New York Times Book Review, I saw someone praised as "the most talented American poet under the age of forty" for lines like the following:

Now in a gilded apse the celestial globe

Has rolled to the end of an invisible rope

And come to rest on a cliff in a blue-green garden.

I look up, as if nothing had killed my hope,

At a blue sphere, buoyant in the sixth-century tides

Still surging and dying away through San Vitale,

Where a spring has glinted in the numinous

Fresh-cut grass for more than a millenium. Now I have nothing against touristic poems about Europe, having written a number of them myself. But how nakedly this one seems to value the cultural objects simply for being cultural objects, able to make things "numinous"! And how it all serves as backdrop for the more than Victorian self-pity of "I look up, as if nothing had killed my hope"--which, one can't help feeling, the poet would have had a harder time bringing off stuck, as Whitman wished us, back among the kitchenware. To me it is a little example of how poetry can deaden the "myriad things," by forcing them into too willed and self-centered a design.

In the last few years I've been struck by a number of poems that, by contrast, simply open themselves, in a lovely, leisurely way, to the world of the poet's affections (usually, but not always, the world of childhood). Only slowly and by inference do we discover that they are also about the making of a poet's mind, or the survival of some crisis--stories about the self. It seems part of the same flowering-out, by experiment and variation, of the possibilities of the personal, that I discussed in my previous column.

"The Reservoir" is the longest poem in Debra Allbery's Walking Distance, the 1990 winner of the University of Pittsburgh Press's Starrett Prize, and a book that would certainly be on my mind if I were doing anything so rash as ranking poets under forty. It is an honest and original chapter in the long history of the love-hate relation between middle America and its artist children. The town Allbery calls "Enterprise, Ohio" was also the model for Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg. (When that book came out, it was burned in the public square; now the city limits signs say "(Winesburg)," just as, south of Chartres in the Ilede-France, one can visit a town called "Illiers-Combray.")

"The Reservoir" begins by confessing that the poet's return home, to two comically onerous summer jobs, is partly psychic retreat--"deep habit, no danger"--and partly a never-relinquished hope that "some of the endings she needed/ might be found, after all, in Enterprise, Ohio." The sights and sounds of the place are emblems of what Thoreau called "quiet desperation," and at the same time so deeply messages to the poet's own self-questioning that there is no escaping the human commonality:

Walking, she passes these signs

all summer--one is painted in red

on a ripped bed sheet and hangs

from an upstairs window:

"You've had it? You're the problem!"

And this hand-printed and taped

to someone's front door. "Day Sleeper."

In the Christian bookstore window,

a white-on-black placard: "Does mortality

limit your?"

The receptiveness of this poem to its world is easier to experience than to describe. It is stalled and beautiful at once, depressed and full of affection, like the small-town summer. The poem could easily seem too long, but somehow doesn't. The severely objectifying third-person alternates with first-person passages in italics, yielding to a dream0like, merged perspective the rest of the poem resists:

Trains passed through like they were still important

and I'd stand in their wind, reading the flaking names

on old boxcars, Erie Lackawanna. Chessie, Rock Island.

After they passed, the quiet went deeper,

the land lay light green after green, almost seamless. Real dreams, by contrast, are reminders of crisis, psychic danger, the need for change, "the sky Enterprise filled/ with tornadoes, with colored balloons." Brief scenes with her mother, high school classmates, an old boyfriend about to get married--

the exclusiveness,

the strange gravity, of his "we,"

how it tops her halting "I's"

the way paper-covers-rock --edge her out of her sense of really belonging, but not out of the sense that,

like anyone,

it's belonging she wants, it's the idea

of settled or permanent address.

And all she's done has been only so much

rent paid toward that place.

Most of the high lyric moments in the poem are associated with the "reservoir" of the title, just outside of town, where "she" goes running. It becomes the vehicle of the wish to the inside and outside at once, the peculiar kind of distance (implicitly, the distance of art) that permits love and hate to be held in balance:

And alongside her, beer cans,

rubbers, torn cardboard, bleached crawdads,

and she runs it again and everyday, for it's only

from this height and pace she can lover her town. (And here I think we can see how Allbery, like Alan Shapiro, is quietly one of the most inventive of contemporary metrists. That last line counts as iambic pentameter; but it sings as a half-anapestic tetrameter, the very momentum that glides above the world of counted things: "from this height and pace she can love her town." Never rigidly bounds by meter, but tending to return to it at the high points, Allbery restores the relation to speech, to thinking-things-through, it had in Frost and Jarrell.)

The poem returns to the reservoir at the end, when the playing back and forth between the speaker's sense of superiority and inferiority to her given world, the wish for "distances . . . to try alone" and the wish for "belonging," have brought it to a point of crisis:

She's outside of Enterprise, running the reservoir,

singing to herself The water is wide,

looking past the south and east edges

of town, at the reach of August sky

and black clouds moving quickly

from the west, and she's thinking

Sometimes if I open my eyes very wide

there's this space which is like

room for error. And I see limits,

I see things that can change my mind. Rather wonderfully, the poem finds wisdom not on either side of its dichotomies, but rather in the psychic transaction that leaves both available as agencies of change. And the ending seems to me equally wonderful. The poem, which up to this point has found ingenious ways of subordinating narrative to catalogue, concludes with a baldly unmediated anecdote:

Long ago, a teacher had told her

about his genius friend, and how

he'd sit with his thoughts wherever

they came to him, thinking them through,

and how he found him once, drenched,

oblivious, sitting chin-in-hands

on a street corner. And this

was the first ambition she could remember,

to not have sense enough to come in out of the rain. It is a delicately humorous acknowledgement of how the poet has come to overvalue the outside perspective; the self-destructive potential of that; and at the same time the real value of inner distance, of activities that are their own reason for being, of all that goes outside the bounds of small-town common sense. It's one of the most brilliant and charming instances of seemingly suspended closure I know of in recent poetry.

"The Reservoir" makes sparing but skillful use of a musical organization by motif, so that we hear more of You've had it? You're the problem!, The water is wide, and other key phrases as the crisis approaches. Such organization may well be a necessity when divagatoriness, rather than plot, is the form the love of place cries out for. In Jeanne Foster's "The Pearl River" (published under her earlier writing name Jeanne Foster Hill, in The Hudson Review, Summer 1985), it is carried to a level more musical than traditionally poetic. The initial notes have to do with fear of the world, reassurance, and then discovering the limits of the knowableness, the reassurance, of anything outside the self:

This little finger, she reassured,

rolling the baseball-stunned knuckle

of the child's left little finger between her padded thumb

and forefinger, couldn't be broken.

It is so limber, it could be bent

like a sapling under weight of snow to earth

and not snap.

She is as doe to fawn,

that teacher, who only once

became enraged and broke

the scissors against the desk. The little girl sat

amazed.

But fingers . . .

I've said what I could say

about them.

Against the background of these issues the world of childhood exfoliates. On the one hand, the child's fear, as in Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," of all she is exposed to, made part of, simply by existing--

She in her blue pinafore, trimmed with tiny red and yellow

flowers and green leaves, was afraid

of the very cousins--the red-haired Jim

and the green-eyed Barbara and their hairy friend --and, even more, of the intimations of death, cruelty, the ultimate indifference of things, her uncle beheading a hen and the body "run[ning] headless under the calm, observant gaze/ of the loblolly pines." And on the other hand, the childhood sense of things being simultaneous with their meaning and that meaning, always, intimately related to herself:

And the house was watched over,

its silver-tin roof shooting light from the sun

into the very hearts of those pines.

Certain leitmotif phrases, repeated and varied throughout the poem, dramatize the tension of these antinomies. "Nothing would let go"--the sense of trauma, invasion, contamination--plays against the more problematic "Nothing was simply let go," which carries a certain painful promise for the speaker as artist, as therapeutic self-discoverer, as an adult frightened of the total loss of the past, the speaker who will eventually transmute the phrase into

Everything is kept, but nothing

is easily recovered.

Another leitmotif phrase is "The Pearl River, the dividing line." Its literal meaning is geographical--between Louisiana and Mississippi--but since the poem nowhere mentions this fact, the reader is left to imaging other borders, conscious and unconscious, childhood and adulthood, life and death. At first the river seems a kind of dream-river, something like the collective unconscious, which the child approaches through the back of a closet, like the magic land in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Images of mirroring, recognition, condensations and simultaneities reinforce this feeling. (The psychoanalyst Hans Loewald suggested that condensation is one of the qualities that distinguish unconscious imaginative thinking from rational thinking.) The river is both itself a sign and inscribed with signs, of threat, of dangerous vitality:

The Pearl River, the dividing line,

winds like a water moccasin through the red clay soil.

The moon turns its full face toward

the upward turned face, and the river shines

like pearl. Upon its surface

a water moccasin carves the shape

of a worker's scythe. The river is, perhaps most important, the place where "The song" is first heard, a song reconciling the opposed principles of nourishment and threat, value, trauma, and sexual muck:

Kept all these years,

a treasure watched over by the pirate's ghost,

the pearl in the oyster growing in a bed of mud,

the milk before it is milked from the fangs . . .

The scene, as it is repeated, is very delicately inscribed with the sexual and racial tensions common to Southern writing. The original singer of the song is a "black man"; it is his "upward turned face/ shining like black silver," and not just the river's, that the moon mirrors. And the hidden spectator of this otherness is at once furtive child and the idealized image of Southern womanhood, restrained by her protection:

A shadow

white as a madonna lily moves away

under the dark green cloaks of our forefathers,

the loblolly pines. In acknowledging these meanings, and in making the song her own, able "to recall itself/ from the labyrinth," the speaker becomes adult: "A slender woman walks out the other side/ into daylight."

In the second half of the poem, the adult half, nearly every incident, every phrase, is repeated from the first half--the ego being, in Freud's words, where the id has been. Some of the discoveries are hilarious--

Uncle Al laid down the hatchet.

The green-eyed Barbara, the red-haired Jim,

and Harry, their friend, stood around and watched --where we realize that the child has misheard the world in the image of the terror and animality already there in her unconscious: "their hairy friend." In the last section, a slightly hostile, challenging blackface voice keeps asking, "Is it you, girl?" and the question seems addressed to all the elements in the scene: the hiding shadow, the woman who "walks out the other side," the river itself, shining and reflecting--as if only when all of these larger and smaller selves are acknowledged, will selfhood be whole. Yet the poem never makes this too easy; the adult speaker who can offer the words of consolation to herself remains somehow melancholy in her protectiveness, and the poem ends on the last notes of its overture, the note of muteness, of reaching the limits of the comprehensible:

Young things are so fragile, she whispers

and remembers the teacher who stroked the knuckle of her left

little finger. Only once did she become enraged

and break the scissors against the desk.

But fingers . . .

I've said what I could say

about them.

Brenda Hillman's "Canyon," from her book Fortress, is also a story about a landscape. It's about a park, just outside a city, half wild, half tame, with its "Jewel Lake" and its ducks, but also the high bare slopes, drier, more ignitable as summer goes on, that seem an intimation that "the normal soul/ has an extra soul above it." it is a story about feeling, like the landscape, on the edge of ultimates; small and uncertain in that exposure, yet the vehicle of energies at once mystical and mischievous--

Two fawns in the sun: twin deaths: one

gazes with unbearable steadiness;

the other looks up as the id looks up,

his ears twitching the victory sign Perhaps it is about a relationship suffused with these qualities--but an impeded relationship, whose obstacles and separations may be the occasion for the solitary wanderings in the park ("I pretended/ you were living in another country, not far,/yet impossible to reach . . ./and I had rushed out here/to be your opposite").

In some ways, the poem talks most powerfully about love by talking about perception. Both have the power to give access to that realm of the "extra soul," where "you are known completely/by seeing, known as if by a secret companion." Both, too, are problematic. In the structure of the poem, the merged immediacy of this particular relationship--

Thinking I'd feel nothing

without your hands, their girlish strength (as you

could feel nothing without my boyish ones) --is to the work of doubt, tyrannical expectation, finding out who the other person really, is how much meshing is possible (how can it be avoided, one protests, when two people think of making a life together?) as the spider that

is neither subject nor object, it has no separate

motions in its realm but lets itself gently down

into the notch and crack of the inexpressible is to the birdwatcher who hasn't really seen the bird until he can name it ("oriole"); is to the breakdowns we can make, like Zeno's paradox of the arrow, out of our own "flash" of seeing:

I recall the illustration in the text, how the solitary

impulse, like a hiker, hurried down,

disturbed the obstinate whiteness

of the membrane, climbed

into blockish boats ("receptors"),

was ferried across the synapse, the little

Lethe between two cells. . . .

No less than doubt, the desire to control the outcome is an almost overwhelming force that landscape must absorb, and eventually alter, in this poem. The fear of loss--loss of the dream, and of the immediate experience, of oneness, no less than loss of each other--almost breaks the psyche, and the bare hills, with the "clarity" of their "lacunae," have their own way of embodying the absoluteness of this claim. Yet the lesson of nature--the hills drying out, the season moving toward autumn--is that things must change, and with change there is always some degree of loss: "the light was changing, and would not change back." Against this, the very divagatoriness of the poem is a kind of defenseless defense. An enactment of the immense creativity, and the stasis, of obsessive love, it prepares for the poem's eventual assent to valuing experience over certainty:

I can't look too closely at the faces

of runners; they wear their deaths,

working out for the long, local races,

or when they descend the haunted road

after the natural morphine makes of the body

a stem of soothing light

I think about the woman in the cap

who needed water, who staggered like a drunk

for whom the cheering didn't matter, she said

she didn't know the difference

between the men in lab coats and the finish line,

but with great yearning,

she spoke of the race as of a beloved tormentor.

Yet it is one of the great strengths of the poem that it never chooses between the "reality" of love and a more disillusioned, or more resignedly experiential, perspective. Instead, after a troubled, inconclusive encounter--the "you," always represented as the more rational, and the more anxious, of the two, sinks into "gloom," and "this mild calm is not the happiness we envisioned"--the poem returns to the image of the fawns:

We shall know without judgment

in the fullness of time--it says that

in some religion. The brave fawn waits

for its companion, and its spots shine

like spilled quarters in the sun.

The scared one steps into the road at last,

becomes the other one;

then the spotted earth becomes the fawn's back. It's a wonderful summary of all the tensions and hopes, braveries and hesitations, in the poem (the "spilled quarters" refer to a pay phone call, earlier). The last lines--the protective coloration--are at once an affirmation of twinship, both between the lovers and between perception and the world, and a way of leaving open the question whether it can be lived out, short of apocalypse, death, becoming the earth.

What I like best, almost, in these three very lovely, structurally inventive poems, is the happy absence of competition between the "myriad things" and introspection. Enterprise, Ohio, the Pearl River, Tilden Park "com[e] forth and experienc[e] themselves" in these poems; they remain permanent imaginative landscapes for the reader. Yet they also cause, and/or become equivalents for, very subtly delineated states of feeling and being, states "known completely/by seeing," in Hillman's phrase. Given Dogen's concern with "awakening," perhaps it's no accident that these are poems of self-education as well as self-expression. Landscape, in them, seems to have the power to alter every easy, or anxious, or one-sided assessment of reality simply by standing in the face of it. And the selves that emerge at the ends of these poems seem more flexible, more tolerant of contradiction, less anxious about outcomes; surrounded, even, with the aura of a larger, more impersonal creative selfhood, like Foster's river and upturned face.

These poems also interest me intensely as a moment in the history of genres. There are precedents, of course, certainly among the Romantics--"Frost at Midnight" comes to mind--and among Modernist long poems like Four Quartets. But in our own time the "confessional" poem has been so distinct, and embattled, a genre that landscape meditation has tended to hold off, in distant sectors of the map of styles. The interpenetration of their methods is a subtilizing process for both; and one more reason to be glad of the ways American poets have stuck with the personal, the last twenty years.

Alan Williamson has been on a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, completing a third collection of poems tentatively entitled Love and the Soul. He teaches at the University of California, Davis.
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Title Annotation:part 2
Author:Williamson, Alan
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:3588
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