Playing patience: John Hollander's reflections on espionage.
Spying, like writing, is a difficult discipline. It requires extreme critical alertness, both to the spy's own cover and to the inconsistencies in others' apparent innocence. Small wonder then that James Jesus Angleton, the legendary and notoriously paranoid director of counterintelligence for the CIA, required his subordinates to read William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, as a lesson in tortuously careful reading and interpretation.
But why would we want to think of Wordsworth as a spy? It would seem that the literary counterpart of intelligence activity would be narrative, not poetic form; that spy stories (as the term suggests) would be especially amenable to novels and not to poems. And yet, as Angleton's assignment of Empson shows, the subtle, local, formal, sometimes microscopic interests of poetry and its criticism are also essential to the activity of intelligence and counterintelligence, and the best spy stories are those whose heroes--Smiley and Karla, the fictionalized Alan Turing of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon or Robert Harris's Enigma--work with and on supersubtle phenomena that nevertheless are profoundly telling. We could say there's a genre of spy-story that is the story of form: the form a message takes and the information this form carries.
The abidingly fresh interest of this kind of story says something important about poetic form. Readers of these stories love scenarios in which subtle and exquisitely delineated forms yield unexpected pattern, coherence, and meaning, and so it is to the spy story as a genre, or at least to one of its most popular sub-genres, the intellectual spy story, that we can go for a surprisingly total perspective on literature. Form and plot coalesce in such stories, and such coalescence is illuminating. (It may also be found in jokes and in comic verse: the range that such coalescence covers is telling for any theory of literature.) Any story in which hyperalert attention to seemingly unimportant detail yields surprising knowledge is gratifying (cf. Sherlock Holmes), whether such attention is explicit or implicit, conscious or subliminal. Cryptanalysts are the most careful readers of all. In spy stories about cryptography, ciphers make for an analogue of poetic form, encipherment a parallel to an aspect of composition, and cryptanalysis an avatar of extreme new critical close-reading.
Such stories bring together aspects of literature that we have often regarded as separated by firm generic boundaries at the same time as they clarify the differences among them. Because encipherment and invention are not the same thing at all, because ciphers ought to be the least transparent of forms, and because (therefore) cryptanalysis seeks to discover meanings that the composer wishes to keep hidden, these intelligence activities provide a sort of control by way of contrast to the literary activities to which they can be juxtaposed. If spy stories address something central about the nature of literary satisfaction, they do so in two ways. They show that satisfaction at work as something that appeals to all "literary" registers of the reader's mind, whose overlap or even equivalency it demonstrates, from plot to form to the complex and vexed relation between hero and antagonist and deutero-antagonistic world. And by what they say, they appeal to our literary fantasies: the fantasy that there is a pure heroic self whose task is silence, exile, cunning, and that this heroism consists in the likewise pure and separable and expert activities of the invention of plot (the plan), the analysis of character (the questions whom to trust, who betrays), the deployment of form (encipherment, decipherment), and the practice of close-reading (traffic analysis, cryptanalysis). (Naturally, in the best spy-novels these activities will often be telescoped together, but they are nonetheless kept conceptually separate; Smiley's failures in his marriage indicate this.)
True, there are a lot more spy novels than spy poems, but this is partly because poems already have what novels need the conventions of the genre to supply: the drama of form. There is no reason that a poem shouldn't take up the theme, just no particular reason that a poem should prefer it to any other--unless indeed the poem wishes to thematize the conventions for an inverse reason: to consider form as what remains of literary interest when narrative loses its charm or its interest, or when the story of form is the only non-referential story, the only fiction, that can still delight. Spy stories are for kids: they appeal to the most willing and most narcissistic suspension of disbelief. Adult spy stories--Graham Greene's, James Buchan's--are about having to give up the long-past narcissistic satisfactions of adventure novels. The satisfaction persists in a muted form: the better fortitude of patience and heroic self-effacement. But in poetry (as we'll see Roman Jakobson says) the narrative of form may not designate anything outside the poem, only the drama of its own composition, and so by a strange and natural antithesis we may be led to consider the whole question of literature as a vocation apart by the way the poem eschews (and so makes one of its subjects) the satisfactions of one of its forms--those of the narcissistically gratifying narrative. This is a deep story and may be told in prose as well--it is the story, for example that Proust tells. It is also the story of John Hollander's Reflections on Espionage, a title whose plaintext might be Reflections on Literary Vocation--reflections in a wilderness of mirrors in which we can no longer see and love ourselves.
This very republication shows up the theme of fidelity to a past self, addressing a long-altered world. Reflections on Espionage first appeared during the cold war, in Poetry in 1974 and then somewhat expanded between hard covers in 1976; this further augmented edition, like the real-world revelations about the Venona intercepts and other cold war spying and surveillance, discloses the actual people behind the whimsical code names that populate the book: not every one of them, but enough for even the novice to buttress or confute old rumours, and to piece some--but not all--of the story together.
The new edition is printed from the same plates as the first book version. Compare the spoiled letters on p. 42. If it seems bibliomaniacal pedantry to observe this, consider the real world one-time pads used by the Nazis during the Second World War. One-time pads are theoretically unbreakable, because they contain purely random superencipherments. That randomness is preserved because they are used only once. But Allied cryptographers, by a minute examination of the typographical features of some one-time pads they had captured--broken type, idiosyncracies of inking, and so on--were able to reconstruct the pseudo-randomizing printing machinery the Germans had used (a mechanical procedure to yield real randomness is an oxymoron), and so break the one-time pads these machines had printed. (The Venona decrypts, some not completed till the seventies, are also decryptions of one-time pads, but one-time pads the Soviets had used twice because of war-time paper shortages, and which made of them a kind of dispersed palimpsest, a palimpsest whose layers were separated from each other, but which U.S. cryptologists put back together.)
New in the 1999 edition is a wonderful contextualizing introduction (wonderful in part because of the obscure but lovely precursor works it alerts us to) and more extensive notes. These present some difficulty: fictional notes (a la Swift or Kinbote) had been part of the poem from the start, but now facts are interspersed with the fiction, and while in practice it's not hard to separate the layers of this palimpsest (and the palimpsest is one of the poem's themes), there are a few moments when reference to the 1976 version obviates confusion.
Reading the poem a quarter century later is itself an interesting experience. Its republication represents considerable artistic courage on Hollander's part, and I think the courage is justified. It seems courageous for several reasons: the real life code-breaking stories since disclosed are more interesting than any speculative reconstruction could be; Hollander's poet-spies thus risk seeming wistful figures shunted to the margins of history by the real transactions of the real agents, insisting that their work matters too. Hollander says he had been reading David Kahn's The Code Breakers; that book contained nothing about the breaking of the Nazi Enigma code by Alan Turing and the other cryptographers at Bletchley Park since this was still a secret (for interesting reasons: the British were monitering the Enigma-coded transmissions of former Commonwealth nations like India and Pakistan, Kahn suggests in his 1996 augmented version of The Code Breakers). As I've already indicated, some of the most interesting and inventive serious spy-fiction of the last decade or so has focussed on Bletchley Park: not only Enigma and Cryptonomicon, but also Hugh Lattimore's Breaking the Code, a play about Turing based on Alan Hodge's widely read biography; there is also Norman Mailer's novel about a fictionalized figure based on Angleton, Harlot's Ghost. Such works elaborate a cybernetic literary theme inaugurated by Thomas Pynchon, the cost of information. What seized the imagination of these writers were the various and endlessly subtle ways that any use of information would also be a source of information for the other side. John Le Carre, an author Hollander especially admires, makes this Jamesian theme central to his Smiley novels: Smiley is preternaturally alert to Karla's preternatural alertness to everything Smiley does, much as (say) Maggie Verver and Charlotte Stant are preternaturally alert to each other, or Maisie is to all the adults around her (one of the notional spies in Reflections is named Maisie, but perhaps Hollander is thinking of James Merrill's cat in The Book of Ephraim, to which we'll return; Merrill makes the connection between Henry James's Maisie and the one belonging to "this James," himself). James's one spy novel, The Princess Casamassima, is about one of Hollander's themes, the implacable silence of the secret agency putting Hyacinth Robinson to use; but The Golden Bowl is equally about deriving information in secrecy and silence, and about imparting disinformation or plausible covers, and like Reflections on Espionage takes as one of its motifs the game of bridge. Indeed, I think there is an unconscious verbal echo of The Golden Bowl in a beautifully understated moment: Cupcake has passed information to a stranger with a green handkerchief, and he comments, "Our eyes avoided our eyes" (p. 62); the strangely resonant discrepancy in the plural possessive might be a memory of the mutual seduction of Charlotte and the Prince: "Their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response their pressure"
Bridge is peculiarly appropriate to represent the kind of tradecraft that Hollander and his spy Cupcake are interested in because the bidding conventions seek the most economical exchange of secret information over an open channel. Every bid has to be evaluated in terms of the costs of its transmission: costs in secrecy, costs in difficulty of the contract proposed. Bidding must therefore converge on more and more open information, since the final bid determines trumps, and therefore the cost of the bidder's encodings is the contract he or she must finally attempt to make. (You can push the point and the parallel by noting that the acquiescing bidder becomes the dummy, watching her partner make use of the information she finally must broadcast. In The Golden Bowl, Maggie is wholly the watcher of the game, but when Charlotte is dummy she goes and seeks out Maggie.) In a sense the dummy is reduced to a kind of solitary existence; in another his partner is the one playing a kind of solitaire, and both of these versions of solitaire belong to Reflections on Espionage--which, finally, charts the trajectory towards a game that undoes the difference between bridge and solitaire as Cupcake comes to see himself as "playing with a silent partner there. / Playing patience is always playing patience / With death, opponent and partner both" (p. 62; 7/21).
Cupcake reports to his control, who in turn transmits the information to the director or case agent code-named Lyrebird, a conversation recorded between two other agents supposed to be on his side: Velvet and Hiccup ("two of Maisie's / People"). The conversation is based on pastoral dialogue, and it should be said as part of the context that Cupcake is a figure close to Hollander himself, his projects avatars of Hollander's other books of poems; Lyrebird notionally maintains his cover, even twenty-six years later, but is clearly Hollander's friend Harold Bloom, to whom Hollander says he sent all the Lyrebird transmissions as he wrote them; Velvet and Hiccup are supposedly notional. In a beautiful passage Velvet gives his vocational credo:
Do well by the project. Nothing lies beyond But madness, the incapacitating chill Of madness. Who are "We"? Who "They"?--Neatly Printed capitals at the heads of the ruled Columns on my grandmother's bridge-scoring pads. The names had for me as a child an order, A mystery, quite apart from the way those Curt pronouns were used in life. "We," then, and "They"
Old now as grandmothers, Velvet and his brethren play a different kind of game, far-flung from those evocative strange pronouns of youth: a game of one-time pads, not bridge pads. (Not bridge: "my grandmother's bridge-scoring pads" alerts us to a different kind of bridge's greatest poet, Hart Crane, via his beautiful poem "My grandmother's love letters.") "We" and "They" refer to the adult players, to belong among whom we children aspire. A little bit as in George Herbert, the world of the child for Velvet has about it an archaic strangeness that is the odd warrant of its own security: think as well of Elizabeth Bishop's child saying to herself: "you are one of them," of Ashbery's ("Ember" `s) saying about the world that "When one is young it seems like a very strange and safe place / But now that I have changed it feels merely odd, cold / And full of interest," or of Merrill's extraordinary allusion, in "Lost in Translation" (a poem Cupcake praises), to the "fearful incuriosity of childhood." "We" and "They" are the first names the child aspires to. Hollander's narrator will later marvel at the memory of the moment his codename is conferred upon him when he wrestles with the angel of his recruiter at the Jordan of his life: and is named not Israel but Cupcake. "We" and "They" represent the opposite of such deflation: they name our belonging to a serene, anonymous world of quietly self-confident adults. The child wishes to be embraced by "We," wishes to be seen as worthy "opponent and partner both" of "They." ("Opponent and partner both" because the struggle follows a chiasmatic scheme between "The Eastern They's, the Western We's" whose sounds articulate the criss-crossing scheme of the bridge-table but also remind us that East and West are partners against North and South.) Cupcake and his associates work for the "altogether inconvenient little republic" of literature (the editor is echoing Daniel Deronda's description of Isabel, "an altogether inconvenient child with an alarming memory"); their opponents are the forces of a generalizing usurping blankness that represents imaginative death and the real death it is a precursor for. Velvet's love of the mystery of words can make curt pronouns shine like names; but in the end even the names Velvet and Hiccup (its second syllable linking it with Cupcake) represent a decline from the strange and primal baptism. Like poets, the spies oft begin in gladness, but in the end comes despondency and the risk of the incapacitating chill of madness.
To be a spy, then, as Reflections on Espionage conceives it, is to be reduced from a grand adventurous hope to a kind of residual existence--the spies "have been quite cured of hope," protected from madness only by the work of the encoding and deciphering. That work is explicitly figured in this book as the work of poetic form. Cupcake uses what his "Editor" calls "an eleven-phase transposition grid," which dictates the form his message must take: hendecasyllabics, which are Catullus's meter, as Cupcake knows, but his editor does not. Lyrebird--Bloom--is not interested in the questions of form that are saving for Cupcake, and Cupcake complains about this to Image, his confidant on the poignancies of form and craft as Bloom is on the matters of content, a complaint Hollander echoes in a delicately equivocal note added to the present edition: "I knew that the recipient of the messages to `Lyrebird' was neither receptive to nor interested in matters of poetic craft, of how the language of poetry forms, and is formed by, patterns."
Image is James Merrill (Image=Jimmy, Hollander tells us), and the Editor calls him a mystery. It is to Merrill, not Bloom, that Hollander sent the pieces that reflected on poetic form, and it is Merrill or Image who receives the documents of disappointment that oppose poetry to prophecy: Lyrebird/Bloom is the most inexhaustible contemporary partisan of visionary poetry; in his transmissions to Image Cupcake is skeptical of this conflation, the "European theories" of the "brotherhood of prophecy / And encipherment" (1/24 to Image), since the name of the spy ("the despicable / Monosyllable of our lot") is the name of "a seeker, not a seer" (5/1 to Image). In Operation Shylock Roth imagines himself (or his double "Philip Roth") as a prophetic spy, and falls back into a Walter Mitty--like archaic narrative of the writer's importance as secret agent. The spy-narrator is an adventurer; the spy-poet is something else. The brotherhood of encipherment and poetry is an obvious one, rendered more powerful by the knowledge that the great and paranoid counterspy Angleton (to whom Hollander sent a copy of Reflections on Espionnage) was already a fan of Empson as a Yale undergraduate and editor of a literary magazine: literature helped lead him to espionage.
Empson's theories of ambiguity and multiple meanings within single forms appeal to Cupcake and Image. By contrast, the European theories of the brotherhood of prophecy and encipherment would include the relatively friendly relations in the early seventies between Bloom and continental literary theory in the wake of Saussure. In some contrast to these theories stands the great linguist Roman Jakobson, whose seminal essay "Linguistics and Poetics" in Style and Language Hollander commented upon. Jakobson treats the poetic function of language as the function most attentive to the message that the sender transmits to the addressee, and contrasts this with five other functions of language among which he names the metalinguistic attention to what he calls the code. Jakobson observes that there is an apparent similarity between metalinguistic attention to code and poetic attention to the message itself, but says that they are "diametrically opposed," attention to the code paradoxically being attention to meanings ("the word gavagai means rabbit" someone will instruct her auditor), attention to the message being attention to its form, structure, and prosody. Therefore Hollander can paraphrase Jakobson misleadingly but accurately in language that reverses Jakobson's own nomenclature when he refers (in 1958) to "Mr. Jakobson's designation of a poem as a text in which the coding was of greater interest than the message." Such a paraphrase may serve as a gloss on the falling-off implied in Cupcake's fear "lest / Our care and hope vanish into the message" (4/3 to Image), as though the expressive content of the message were to evanesce. It is this attention to code and not to core content that organizes the content of Reflections on Espionnage, since it is a reflection on what makes code or encipherment itself so appealing, at least to Cupcake: the escape from danger that it offers, an escape that itself turns out to be part of the danger it attempts to evade.
What is that appeal? What is the nature of the escape? It is an escape from the narcissistic hopes that made one choose to be a spy in the first place, the supplies of strength and youth and eros that made one think one could sustain and thrive on the endless demands of an interminable vocation. We begin in a gladness that runs to meet despondency as supplying more expressive material, and do not yet know what despondency will do to and with this eagerness. In another beautiful passage, Cupcake writes to Image:
O, how all the bright schoolboys Darken, their earnest games chilling into life! Our grammars mapped the inexorable; we Knew then what sequence of moods showed the future More vivid; we splashed, callow, over the deep Pool of language in which only swimmers drown. (4/3 to Image)
Narcissus will be survived by Echo in the poem, and Echo means the loss of the body, of youth and narcissistic fictions of sufficiency. (In his dream Cupcake hears the phrase "Broken artifacts" re-echoed as "Broken echoes"--2/1 to Image.) Instead the spy wastes away in the wilderness of reflections. Reflections, in the vocabulary of the other poet-spies Cupcake writes about, are opposed to action: Bishop ("the chilly Lake"; 9/12 to Image) rebukes the cloud who imagines himself a permanent thing in the hermetic isolation of his reflection:
"I am founded on marble pillars," said a cloud. "I never move. See the pillars there in the sea?" Secure in introspection he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.
Probably more central still is a poem by Pound ("Kilo," whom Hollander visited and spoke to about the actual Puritan, i.e., Norman Holmes Pearson, Hollander's senior colleague at Yale and the recruiter to the oss of Angleton among many many others) from Ripostes, reprinted in 1926 in the appositely entitled Personae. Hollander writes in the new introduction, with a sly glance at the German code-machine, that "Pound's poetry and its enigmas meant a great deal to me when I began to write," and adds "but I was never an idolizer." I think one of the enigmas to continue to haunt Hollander's imagination was "An Object," which I quote in full:
This thing, that hath a code and not a core, Hath set acquaintance where might be affections, And nothing now Disturbeth his reflections.
One message in Reflections on Espionage goes unexplained, ostentatiously so since Hollander lets stand the 1976 note about the 6/15 transmission to Bun: "`Bun.' (?) This isolated transmission seems quite inexplicable. It is not even known whether `Bun' is actually an agent." I won't speculate on Bun's identity, but note that the deeply moving transmission to Bun does seem to be about lost affection, and not about acquaintance:
I waited for a moment, Amid the windiness that hid not even Whispers, amid the insistences of chill: I remembered it all.... I knew, remembering, That what I had forgotten you would have--as Always--remembered. Now in the long darkness Marked not by shiftings of the light nor changes Of cloud, but by unseen, general stars, I glance up at the clocked hour remembering All the things. I need not try to list them yet.
Cupcake's reflections seek an escape in form. His contacts with the other spies all set acquaintance where might be affections. Encipherment is the escape from the unholiness of the heart's affections. For this reason the temptation to see Reflections on Espionage as the revelation of a Mittyesque secret life is misguided. The spies, or at least Cupcake, have no life, have eschewed the narratives that make up a life with all its grim matter and teleology, and have escaped instead to the high surface of the code. Only two poets are mentioned by name in the 1976 version of Reflections, Catullus (as we have seen) and Browning through a joke about the "notional sculptor" Claus of Innsbruck, from "My Last Duchess." "My Last Duchess" is Hollander's Browning, whereas Lyrebird/Bloom's is Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, a prophetic allegory in which poets-in-alias are knights in a quest romance. No such fantasy of adventure attaches to Cupcake, although his story ends more disastrously than Roland's since he does not have the last word: Lyrebird does.
I've said that with Cupcake Hollander eschews the narrative adventure shared by the wounded narcissists Walter Mitty and Childe Roland. For Cupcake, fiction represents the maddening possibility of another life: a dispiriting rebuke to what we have made of our own. The possibility of another life: this means that therefore our life is a kind of death, one which we choose out of fear of the other danger and other, more pressing death attending on that other life. "Our lives," Cupcake says, "fulfilled / As they are by the work (so we must believe) / Are uniquely free of terror" (3/1). Cupcake warns Image to ignore the mirage messages that are being sent--but by whom?
No, these are fictions, Some madman is introducing fictions where There can be only truths or the lies with which We gather our sheaves of truth, leaving gleanings Of dead straw for Their side. These reports are too Interesting to be mine--all I have sent You has been dull. I am a dull fellow.... Please advise on the matter of the fictions. (2/27 to Image)
Beyond the project lies madness, and the madmen are promulgators of fiction. Beyond the obvious irony at Cupcake's expense--he is unable to dwell among the bountiful opacities of fiction that he lists: "butterflies near a general's / Tomb," "Bee-keeping in the south"--is the further wager of the book itself. It offers or desires to offer something that does not reduce to fiction-as-wish-fulfillment, the narcissistic wish for a more central life as James Bond or as Roland. The question of Cupcake is a version of the literary question we addressed in starting: what does literature offer besides plot? The most beautiful passages in Reflections are the ones where Cupcake reflects on the pure formalism of encipherment, as in this continuation of the passage in a message to Image I have already quoted from:
have You encountered European theories Revealing the brotherhood of prophecy And encipherment? I should have thought, rather, That even the meanest cipher-clerk in an Untroubled Embassy by some clear lake would Be more of a voyeur, catching out his plain Text unenveloped in her rough and outer Layers of cloth--first peeled of these to lighter Closenesses of veil, then still standing in her Last rags of character, vanish behind the Window-frame for a moment, suddenly to Re-emerge, flesh-colored, in a nudity Of inverted and erected digits mixed-- And glimpsing Truth when she looks so much like Love. Then surely, stripped of ordinariness and Openness to any eye, the enciphered Text is lovelier and more mysterious Than when obscured by layers of opaque sense. (1/24 to Image)
Fredson Bowers talked of stripping the veil of print from the Shakespearean text; Wallace Stevens wrote in his "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" of Nanzia Nunzio's claim to be the bride and spouse stripped more nakedly than nakedness, to which Ozymandias replies that "the spouse, the bride / Is never naked. A fictive covering / Weaves always glistening from the heart and mind;" Jakobson asserts the paradoxical centrality of ornament to all poetry by quoting Peirce: "This clothing never can be completely stripped off, it is only changed for something more diaphanous." The essence of poetry is in its surfaces, not in its depths: in an experience of writing and reading, and not in some reference, fictional or real, some plot or story to which it would point and which would be external to literature. Its story is that the time of such stories is gone with our grandmothers. We and They are only bridge-players. Our story is the story of regret that there are no stories, nor angels to wrestle with, nor transcendent sponsorship. The messages are ordinary, but the cipher strips them of ordinariness, makes them lovely and mysterious, and thereby into a glimpse of Truth, in what is for me the book's most haunting line: the truth that we love what is elusive, and therefore what we cannot have, and therefore we love poetry, that elusive thing that we cannot have.
That elusiveness is at the center as well of Merrill's "Book of Ephraim," "Project Alphabet" in Cupcake's parlance. For the heart of Reflections on Espionage is a ten-page section added to the 1976 book version of the work, pp. 59-69. Hollander is somewhat reticent about noting the continuity of this section in the introduction, listing each message by date but omitting to state that they form a continuous sequence. The sequence seems in large part provoked by Image's ouija-board "Project Alphabet," as well as by Merrill's jig-saw puzzle poem "Lost in Translation," which first appeared with The Book of Ephraim in Merrill's Divine Comedies (also 1976). The Book of Ephraim shares many features with Reflections on Espionage, not least in being partly prompted by the death of Auden, conceived of as the poet of the machine age; in displaying a consistent interest in the language and methods of spying and coding (though in Merrill the range of reference in the notion of the code is somewhat wider, embracing as we'll see the genetic code as well); in thematizing mirrors and reflections and the apparent order that we find in their random scratches (a kind of visual noise); in attending to strange frequencies and channels of communication; and even in moving towards self-reflective hendecasyllabics at its most critical moments--as when JM describes:
a matter hitherto Overpainted--the absence from these pages Of my own mother. Because of course she's here Throughout, the breath drawn after every line.... What I think I feel now, by its own nature Remains beyond my power to say outright, Short of grasping the naked current where it Flows through field and book, dog howling, the firelit Glances, the caresses, whatever draws us To, and insulates us from, the absolute-- The absolute which wonderfully, this slow December noon of clear blue time zones flown through Toward relatives and friends, more and more sounds like The kind of pear-bellied early instrument Skills all but lost are wanted, or the phoenix Quill of passion, to pluck a minor scale from And to let the silence after each note sing.
In these hendecasyllabics the breath drawn after the pentamter line becomes part of the line, the silence (to use the language of encipherment) is a place-holding null that makes the length. Merrill and Hollander are both good at adding the null syllable where it will most unsettle the iambic meter that is second nature to them, but in both a large percentage of lines could easily be recast as iambic: "December noon of blue time zones flown through;" "And glimpsing Truth who looks so much like Love."
And then there's Merrill's insistent punning and thematizing of cups, from the blue-and-white willoware cup he and David Jackson use as their pointer on the board, to the glacier knocking in the cupboard that he cites from Auden. How marvelous for Cupcake to have found Image so intent on these redoubled coupling and "coupleted" cups. JM and DJ have a control in Ephraim, as well as their own patrons; they receive urgent messages from Auden over the ouija board asking them to burn a box of incriminating papers (as Cupcake assures his control after the death of Steampump--Auden--"What had to / Be burned was burned," 1/15); Ephraim himself tells them that they are being too flippant about their communication:
DO YOU WANT TO LOSE ME WELL U COULD AGENTS CAN BREAK OUR CODE TO SMITHEREENS How Kafka! PLEASE O PLEASE Whereupon the cup went dead....
The agents that can break their code to smithereens are the representatives of an implacable power variously appearing as the agents of paternity in place in the psyche, as the agency of poetry that Hollander concerns himself with as well, and as physical agents and reagents, in particular the soul-dissolving, (genetic) code-destroying radioactive isotopes most concentrated in nuclear weaponry. (Strangely enough, this brings us back to Los Alamos and therefore to the Venona decrypts declassified only a decade after Reflections on Espionage.) Indeed Cupcake complains that that other paternal control, Lyrebird, "will try to take some of the credit, / I know" (9/12 to Image). I cite the central provocation of Merrill here (a provocation Hollander returns to in his powerful, moving elegy for Merrill and his own parents in "M and M's") because Merrill too charts in The Book of Ephraim the failure of his own novel in favor of forms of verse that cannot possibly do the work of the "baldest prose / Reportage" that his subject called for. (Indeed in Merrill's 1965 fragmentary non-novel in the form of a dated journal, The (Diblos) Notebook, re-issued in 1975, bridge also features as a mode of crypto-communication, this time in an erotic game of "Love & Betrayal;" "I would play a diamond instead of a heart," one character warns.) For Merrill as for Hollander, poetry becomes a matter not of story-telling or fiction but of something else, something that has to do with the image of the idiosyncratic light we hold up to the scratched mirror of language and make a halo of. It replaces the lost joy of narrative with the representation of loss through the residue of form.
I have been saying that Reflections on Espionage treats poetic form as the intense and concentrated literary residue left behind by the abandonment of the narcissistic delights of narrative. Attention to form gives up on the possibility of another youth, another adventure, another example, as Ashbery calls it in a beautiful poem, and leaves behind the apprehension of another life in its very elusiveness, what Merrill describes in the death's head sequence of Ephraim as the meaning of Ephraim's reduction to his own expressiveness:
But that's life too. A death's-head to be faced. No, no! Set in our ways As in a garden's, glittered A whole small globe-our life, our life, our life: Rinsed with mercury Throughout to this bespattered Fruit of reflection, rife With Art Nouveau distortion (each other, clouds and trees). What made a mirror flout its flat convention? Surfacing as a solid Among our crudities, To toss them like a salad? And what was the sensation When stars alone like bees Crawled numbly over it? And why did all the birds eye it with caution? It did no harm, just brightly Kept up appearances. Not always. On occasion Fatigue or disbelief Mottled the silver lining. Then, as it were, our life saw through that craze Of its own creation Into another life.
The melancholy fidelity to form is the poet's version of Swann's devotion to Vinteuil's musical phrase: loyalty to a haunting elusiveness, to something that can appear only in code, that can never be naked because its cover is always fictive, notional--neither true nor false nor indeed fictional--fictive instead and formal and in love with form. Lyrebird's termination of Cupcake--the coded X's with which the book ends and which decipher to "Terminate Cupcake"--are also kisses, the approval even of the prophetic director for that love of forms, acutest at their vanishing.
WILLIAM FLESCH is professor of English at Brandeis University and the author of Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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