Irony

Charles Molesworth: On "The Pangolin"

Moore's artistry reaches a peak with "The Pangolin," in large part because it shows her ability to merge inner values and outer surfaces with playful ingenuity and yet serious intent. From the poem's opening phrase--"Another armoured animal"--we hear that tone of surety that results when an artist has come to know fully her material and to have seen that it fully serves her thematic aims. In some ways "The Pangolin" is the most positive, self-possessed poem of the book which shares its title. But its tensions and ironies are present, and they reverberate with the knowledge of the preceding four poems. By using animal grace as the ostensible subject in all five poems, Moore skillfully mediates between the concern with civic virtue and the complexities of the artistic vocation. Many modernist poems and poets are notable for their separation of the artistic and civil realms, and Moore herself has often been discussed as if she had little or no interest in public matters outside of manners and decorum. Her concern with decorum, however, as well as her concern with perceptual accuracy and artistic responsiveness, have a moral dimension that is fulfilled on a public scale. Too often, I think, Moore's concern with armoring and armored animals has been taken to suggest something like hermeticism, as if the armor were equivalent to the monk’s walls in his cell. But armor was designed to allow people to go into the world, not avoid it. And so, I think, Moore understood it. The pangolin is a nocturnal, isolated animal, stealthy and seldom seen, but its solitariness is in the service of genuine virtues: patience, skill, the wise use of strength. These virtues have social consequences in the human realm, and so what the pangolin emblematizes through its poetic representation is a didactically important awareness for existing in the human world.

The witty equation between pangolin and artist gets a playful introduction in the poem's opening stanza:

            This near artichoke

    with head and legs and grit-equipped giz-

zard, the night miniature artist-

    engineer, is     Leonardo's

        indubitable son? Im-

    pressive animal

and toiler, of whom we seldom hear.

The pedigree, as it were, is a conditioned one, for the pause after "is" indicates not only hesitation but an awareness of the implausible nature of the identification with Leonardo even if it's only through paternal lineage. (The "is" is also highlighted by the comic rhyme with the jutting "giz" of two lines previous.) Note, too, how Moore first locates her metaphoric frame in the world of nature, with the artichoke, before turning to the world of culture with Leonardo. The pangolin is not only a dreamy artist figure, but an "artist-engineer," a creature who masters its environment by purposive activity. This constitutes one connection with the explorer figure of "Virginia Britannia," and while we "seldom hear" of the pangolin, in contrast to John Smith's self-publicizing, the animal has some of the explorer's inconsistency, for it is later described as "Fearful yet to be feared."

Having begun the identification of animal and artist with her usual tentative touch, Moore is freed to explore the pangolin's habits in a way that can easily be read as an allegory of the moon-struck romantic artist, even down to his propensity to have his activity and character imaged forth as yet another art form while he explores the world on his own aesthetic terms. We enjoy several levels of identification when he:

                endures

exhausting solitary

    trips through unfamiliar ground at night 

returning before sunrise; stepping

 

    in the moonlight,     on the moonlight 

    peculiarly, that the out-

    side edges of his 

hands may bear the weight and save the claws 

        for digging. Serpentined about 

the tree, he draws 

    away from

    danger unpugnaciously,

    with no sound but a harmless hiss; keep-

ing the fragile grace of the Thomas-

    of Leighton-Buzzard Westminster

    Abbey wrought iron vine, or 

rolls himself into a ball that has 

    power to defy all effort

    to unroll it ....

Again, a pause after the first moonlight suggests Moore is about to lift the level of suspended disbelief needed to tease out the implications of the animal's grace. The economy of the animal/artist is what is perhaps most striking, how he saves his claws for digging, how he allows only a "harmless hiss" to express his fear and disregard, and how, like the durably wrought ironwork of the Abbey's tomb, his fragility is in part illusory. It is no wonder that Moore can end a stanza with a peroration in which the ability to live and even prosper in alternating states can be the distinctive mark of both man and animal. The lines recall one of Moore's favorite authors, Sir Thomas Browne, and his desire to live in "divided and distinguished worlds":

            Sun and moon & day and night &

        man and beast

each with a splen-

    dour which man

    in all his vileness cannot

    set aside; each with an excellence!

Here Moore echoes not only Hamlet's awareness of man's divided nature but also her own phrase from another poem: "life's faulty excellence." This stanza ending also anticipates the poem's closing lines, where the sun is addressed as an "alternating blaze." Again, Moore may have Stevens' "Sunday Morning" in mind, with its concern that humanness is inextricably tied up with alternation, and that any single unchanging state would be insipid. But it is also her sense of fallenness, the particular texture of human virtue--its excellencies and its limitations--that is richly conveyed in the poem's structure.

It is directly to man's character that Moore turns in the poem's last three stanzas, not altogether abandoning the allegorical framework of animal grace, but emboldened enough to speak directly in a way that is altogether rather unique in her poetry. Though she draws an industrious picture of where "Beneath sun and moon, man slave[s]/to make his life more sweet," Moore is wry enough to point out that he "leaves half the/flowers worth having." She goes on to emblematize various human traits through the agencies of animal graces, until she presents him as "capsizing in / / disheartenment." Drawing back from this near-tragic sense, Moore resorts to some grammatical complexity and mingles it with some Cummings-like typographical wit in order to leaven the theme's piecemeal presentation before the finale:

                    Bedizened or stark

    naked, man, the self, the being 

    so-called human, writing-

master to this world, griffons a dark 

    'Like does not like like that is

        obnoxious'; and writes errror [sic] with four 

    r's. Among animals, one has a

            sense of humor ....

Again, commentary might exfoliate endlessly here, starting with the slight echo from King Lear to the way that last wry sentence does and does not include man among the animals. But it is important to note that now man is the "writing-master," and so literature has a didactic function that links the aesthetic with the ethical. In this one instance, what is written is gnomic, since the verb "griffons" suggests that the sentiment expressed is both heraldic and hybrid. In either case, the note of dislike and the obnoxious reminds us of our fallenness, and the fact that the species, simply by being a set of "like" creatures, does not guarantee peace for itself. (Moore had earlier said, in her array of animal emblems of human traits, that man was "in fighting, mechanicked/like the pangolin." Perhaps she had Leonardo's many militaristic "inventions" in mind.)

The final stanza is a marvel of structural subtlety, as it refers equally to the pangolin and man, an equivocation made possible by the closing lines of the penultimate stanza. The equivocation perhaps turns wittiest with the lines "Consistent with the/formula--warm blood, no gills,/two pairs of hands and a few hairs--that/is a mammal; there he sits in his/own habitat." Part of the humor here is the way the Dickinson-like use of riddle is called on to question the "formula" about mammalian identity, a very touchy point in biology. The pangolin might easily be taken for a reptile, but his features fit the mammalian formula sufficiently, even though they also allow him to be described in a way that applies with almost equal accuracy to humans. (Luckily we have one pair of hands and one of feet.) George Plank's drawing at the start of the poem shows a pangolin in a tree under the moon; the drawing at the end of the poem shows a man, clasping his face in his hands under a blazing sun. Even more than the merging of the horse and the butterfly in "Half Deity," here the identification of the two main subjects of the poem is very much to the point of the poem's argument. As Moore says earlier in the poem, "To explain grace requires/a curious hand." We might even speculate that she was using "curious" here in both its seventeenth century sense of finely and intricately wrought as well as the modern sense of desiring knowledge. In either case, the identification of man and pangolin is indeed curious.

Moore concludes the poem with a description that continues the semantic balancing act of referring equally to man and animal and again heightens the irony by having the affirmative salutation be uttered from a very bleak context.

            The prey of fear; he, always 

        curtailed, extinguished, 

    thwarted by the dusk, work partly done,

            says to the alternating blaze, 

    'Again the sun!

        anew each

        day; and new and new and new,

        that comes into and steadies my soul."

The way Moore suspends the main verb "says" at some distance from the subject "he" allows the intervening four appositive clauses to wall in, as it were, the speaking subject. The clauses are semantically involved with forms of limitation and the air of failure, and the address is to a blaze that is far from steady. Yet the moral affirmation of the salutation itself leaps out at us from this set of fallen conditions in a way that speaks to the issues raised throughout the book. The sentiment, normally spoken with a cloying piety, is here saved from what might have been its own rhetorical excess by that special mixture of innocence and experience that has served to balance the speaker's authority and winsomeness, in large measure by the self-consciousness of her modes of representation.

We can hear this struggle between the tonal possibilities of affirmation--Moore being too much a modernist to indulge what Pound called the "emotional slither" of late Victorianism--as earlier in the poem we find a most complex sentence in a lyric poem that has more than one to offer.

                    If that which

    is at all were not for

ever, why would those who graced the spires 

    with animals and gathered

          there to rest, on cold luxurious

    low stone seats--a monk and monk and monk--

    between the thus ingenious roof-

        supports, have slaved to confuse 

    grace with a kindly 

manner, time in which to pay a debt, 

    the cure for sins, a graceful use 

of what are yet 

    approved stone 

    mullions branching out across 

    the perpendiculars?

The opening complex subjunctive clause here, if turned into a declarative sentence, would claim that all that which has existed is eternal, or at least that the human effort to make art in the service of glory and ideals will in its way last forever. One recalls Stevens' line from "Peter Quince At The Clavier," "The body dies; the body's beauty lives." Note, too, the gothic sculptors' penchant for intermingling animals and man, surely one feature that induced Moore to incorporate this part of the theme into the poem. But the sculptors "slaved to confuse grace" in two senses, the supernatural and the animal, for both forms of grace are evoked in what follows. A kindly manner, in strictest theological accounting, is normally not supposed to be confused with the cure for sins, but if this passage is, as I would claim it is, Moore's most direct religious statement, it is also direct in her uniquely indirect way. Modernism has often been defined as a thoroughly secular movement, one that eschews all traditionally transcendent affirmations, with the exception of the aesthetic. Moore here rather craftily enters a religious claim--at least to the extent that all claims about eternal existence are essentially religious--but of course does so in a context of human art, and in the act of describing perpendiculars and stone mullions.

We also have in this passage yet another of the poem's pauses, in this case before the word "ingenious" and after the word "thus." In rhyming both words with "luxurious" two lines previous, Moore triangulates a sort of aesthetic argument: luxurious--thus--ingenious. Furthermore, the poet has indulged in an oxymoron by having the stone seats made luxurious; the gothic sculpture possesses a sort of baroque richness, at least in Moore's aesthetic probings of it. But I don't think there is any puritanical censure implied against the mediaeval style, but rather the opposite. Moore's isolation as an artist might be due to her over-ingenuity, her ability to indulge in a play with and among various aesthetic sensibilities. While she has a carefully worked out aesthetic of her own, her ability to appreciate other modes and styles in art is truly catholic, in the strict sense. She is capable of responding to the refinements of Oriental art and the American vernacular. However concerned she was with the problem of an indigenous American cultural style, she was, in the best modernist way, an internationalist. The "yet approved" mullions are aesthetically pleasing beyond their origin in scholasticism or religious piety, and we sense that Moore delighted in the mere grace of their "branching out." Such a refined and disinterested aesthetic delight is not likely to find mass approval in an industrial age generally stripped of historical consciousness and formal ingenuity. While Moore does not indulge in the anti-mechanistic jeremiads of such modernists as Lawrence, she must have known that in some sense the limit on the size of her audience was self-imposed.

From gothic sculpture and the animal grace of a rare mammal, Moore has stitched her Venetian tapestry out of peasant material. But from the start these poems have been busy implicating the worlds of culture and history as well as the realms of nature and art for not only do we have stone mullions and a "true ant-eater," we have Thomas-of-Leighton-Buzzard vines and John Smith's ostrich. Moore was a voracious reader, and an equally voracious watcher of natural history films. Throughout all her reading she struggled with the conflicts between her modernist aesthetic and her traditional morality, a morality grounded in a religious faith with which she was never simply at ease. In The Pangolin, and perhaps most impressively in the title poem, she achieved that rare sort of balance between inner conflicts and outer symmetries. In part the achievement came from a mastery of will, a self-discipline in working out the thematic consequences of her visions without abandoning didactic goals or stinting on artistic delights. In this she has made a masterpiece out of her struggles. We should let her animal language have the final word:

        Pangolins are

not aggressive animals; between 

        dusk and day, they have the not un-

chainlike, machine-

    like form and

    frictionless creep of a thing

    made graceful by adversities, con-

 

versities.

Excerpted from "Moore’s masterpiece: The Pangolin’s Alternating Blaze." In Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Please consult the original book for footnotes and sources for this essay.

Paula Bennett: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

Like many people in her period, Dickinson was fascinated by death-bed scenes. How, she asked various correspondents, did this or that person die? In particular, she wanted to know if their deaths revealed any information about the nature of the afterlife. In this poem, however, she imagines her own death-bed scene, and the answer she provides is grim, as grim (and, at the same time, as ironically mocking), as anything she ever wrote.

In the narrowing focus of death, the fly's insignificant buzz, magnified tenfold by the stillness in the room, is all that the speaker hears. This kind of distortion in scale is common. It is one of the 'illusions' of perception. But here it is horrifying because it defeats every expectation we have. Death is supposed to be an experience of awe. It is the moment when the soul, departing the body, is taken up by God. Hence the watchers at the bedside wait for the moment when the 'King' (whether God or death) 'be witnessed' in the room. And hence the speaker assigns away everything but that which she expects God (her soul) or death (her body) to take.

What arrives instead, however, is neither God nor death but a fly, '[w]ith Blue—uncertain--stumbling Buzz,' a fly, that is, no more secure, no more sure, than we are. Dickinson had associated flies with death once before in the exquisite lament, 'How many times these low feet/staggered.' In this poem, they buzz 'on the/ chamber window,' and speckle it with dirt (# 187, F, 152), reminding us that the housewife, who once protected us from such intrusions, will protect us no longer. Their presence is threatening but only in a minor way, 'dull' like themselves. They are a background noise we do not have to deal with yet.

In 'I heard a Fly buzz,' on the other hand, there is only one fly and its buzz is not only foregrounded. Before the poem is over, the buzz takes up the entire field of perception, coming between the speaker and the 'light' (of day, of life, of knowledge). It is then that the 'Windows' (the eyes that are the windows of the soul as well as, metonymically, the light that passes through the panes of glass) 'fail' and the speaker is left in darkness--in death, in ignorance. She cannot 'see' to 'see' (understand).

Given that the only sure thing we know about 'life after death' is that flies--in their adult form and more particularly, as maggots--devour us, the poem is at the very least a grim joke. In projecting her death-bed scene, Dickinson confronts her ignorance and gives back the only answer human knowledge can with any certainty give. While we may hope for an afterlife, no one, not even the dying, can prove it exists.

Like 'Four Trees--upon a solitary/Acre, ' 'I heard a Fly buzz' represents an extreme position. I believe that to Dickinson it was a position that reduced human life to too elementary and meaningless a level. Abdicating belief, cutting off God's hand, as in 'I heard a Fly buzz' (a poem that tests precisely this situation), leaves us with nothing. Not just God, but we ourselves are reduced--a fact that has become painfully evident in twentieth-century literature. . . .

From Emily Dickinson, Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paulk Bennett. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Phillip Ernstmeyer On "Dust World

Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Adrian C. Louis’s “Dust World” unfolds against a devastated background. In the poem, teenage mothers with dilated pupils and “rotten teeth” loiter on the street, cradling their children and holding beer, soliciting sex. High school drop-outs who work at the local video rental store—“products of Pine Ridge High”—clownishly dance “like two cats in mid-air, snarling, clawless / and spitting,” shadowing in their practice “karate kicks” a casual attitude toward violence that resonates throughout the whole absurd landscape. Nothing remains untouched by ruin. Tormented by virulent gusts “from the Badlands,” the poem depicts an environment gritty and grimy with “hot autumn dust,” evoking the imagery of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Forsaken, alienated, traumatized, it is a world bereft of hope, overwhelmed by feelings of irrevocable loss, permanent futility, and the impossibility of escape. All “lines to God” have been broken. The people are “dying people.”

Scott A. Campbell (MAPS) implies that the speaker in the poem saves “Dust World” from absolute cynicism. Without neglecting the speaker’s “impotence,” he argues that the Sioux man who ostensibly speaks “dust words / for my dying people” in section 1 and then recognizes his own interpellation in section 3 is the poem’s hero. He writes: “[the speaker] wants to act as a father to the community, to become an authority figure, but cannot because of his own subjugation by an addiction to alcohol and his isolation. [ . . . ] His trip to town could change the grown children he meets into adults, but his words have been rendered ‘dust’ by the effects of a colonizing American culture [ . . . ].” Later, he concludes: “throughout the poem [the speaker] maintains a commitment to [Pine Ridge citizens] and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own.” Campbell’s distinction is surgical. Though the speaker ultimately considers himself “like a stereotypical Indian,” he would transcend the imperialistic boundaries imposed upon him and other Pine Ridge Sioux by achieving a lucidity that acknowledges his words as “dust words” and his actions as swallowed by “the void.” In other words, for Campbell, though “Dust World” fails to induce a transformation, its speaker’s “dust words” still constitute “a real act of bravery” in their transparency.

However, while the speaker’s self-recognition in section 3 does introduce hope into a world where all else has withered up and blown away, Campbell’s reading oversimplifies how Louis’s poem diminishes that speaker’s “bravery.” It is true that the speaker fashions himself as a kind of hero. Yet, before his concluding self-recognition, his self-representations prove incongruous with the descriptions of a subject “aware” of himself and others. Focalizing his brawn and swaggering machismo, the speaker accentuates his “biceps as thick as [the video store clerks’] thighs,” which he suggests both intimidate and command respect, since the store clerks are “aware that I could dust / their wise asses individually or collectively.” Likewise, he draws attention to his sexual virility. Wherever he appears, whether in a parking lot or a video rental store, he perceives himself to be providing a tantalizing erotic spectacle for the “teenaged mothers,” “court[ing] frication” on the hoods of their ‘70 Chevy, who “wave at me like they know me,” as well as for the “two young attendants,” who are “almost courting me, / in a weird macho way almost flirting.” Though these images provide no specific information, such as the speaker’s age or actual physical appearance, and he calls himself “fatherly,” indicating an older man, these descriptions imply that he is muscular and handsome. Later, these implications are reinforced by his “new T-Bird.” Emblematizing masculinity par excellence, the speaker’s “hotrod” contrasts with the derelict Pine Ridge backdrop, signaling his superhuman status amidst a world of “dying people.” Supporting Campbell’s reading, these images demonstrate that the speaker is a parody of white American masculinity: a man comparable to Hollywood fictions such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan or Frank Bullitt, whose rugged appearances make them irresistible sexual icons as well as intimidating, intrepid, lion-hearted heroes.

Yet, throughout “Dust World,” excluding the conclusion, no signs indicate that the speaker recognizes his interpellation. Quite the contrary, in sections 2 and 3, he seems oblivious to his caricatured impersonations. While the speaker perceives himself to be the champion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Louis’s irony burlesques that self-aggrandizing posture. For example, when the speaker approaches the video store attendants, he claims that he could “dust their wise asses,” yet the narration of the encounter, albeit without focalizing the slight, reveals that the boys do not check him out; theyignore him. Claiming that “this is the whiskey talking now,” the speaker attempts to attract their attention, saying “Heyyyy . . . ever so softly,” only to be greeted by silence. These two details do not quite square. If the speaker genuinely posed a threat to or commanded the respect of the clerks, it seems that they would be more attentive, even if only out of fear. If he were a macho-man, he would not say “heyyyy”; he would snap his fingers, bang the counter with his fists, or deliver a witty wisecrack, if he needed to do anything at all. What these incongruities suggest is that the speaker is neither a macho nor commanding presence. He performs his masculinity according to the scripts of Hollywood cinema, but unbeknownst to himself he performs it unconvincingly. Though he attempts to portray himself favorably, every image of the speaker’s cartoonish masculinity obliquely refers to a powerlessness repressed by that portrayal.  

This irony permeates section 3. Narrating his departure from the video store parking lot, the speaker travels a circular detour that takes him “past [his] house” and then back to the parking lot, where he “re-enter[s] the store.” Campbell suggests that he has merely “forgotten [the videos] in his alcoholic stupor,” but the previous omissions of his narrative urge another perspective. There, where the clerks are still behaving like “clowns,” the speaker arrives at his concluding flash of self-recognition. He says:

I stare them down and place two cassettes, both rated X, on the counter. It’s Friday night and I’m forty years old and the wild-night redskin parade is beginning.

Palpable is his determination. Both his stare and the certainty with which he drops the cassettes on the counter—a gesture dramatized by the meticulously end-stopped lines—suggest a man resolved in his purpose. The implication is that the speaker returns to the video store not because he “forgot” the cassettes but because, embarrassed to be renting pornography, he lost his nerve and skulked away without them. In this sense, his softly uttered “heyyyy” betrays him; less than “the whiskey talking,”  “heyyyy” reveals the speaker abashed, choked with shame, and almost speechless with timidity. His “stare,” rather than confrontation, signals sheer fortitude to complete the task. He is not being ignored by the clerks out of fear; to them, he is just inconsequential.

Glimpsing the speaker at this moment is shattering. In section 3, when the teenage mothers wave at him, he already intimated his true physical appearance, and the concluding revelation pulls that peripheral detail into the center: rather than the muscular and chiseled features of a Hollywood actor, he has a “gut” that he must self-consciously “suck in.” Then, in the last lines, it is revealed that the speaker is not youthful; he is “forty years old.” Though he does consider himself “fatherly,” the number “forty” connotes being “over-the-hill,” past one’s prime, and the speaker’s age symbolically inflects his fatherliness with infirmity and disintegration. Moreover, the image of a grown man renting X-rated videos undercuts his sexual virility. Rather than a mouthwatering sex-machine, desired by everybody, the speaker has no genuine romantic prospects subtract pornography and masturbation; he is an isolated, lonely, unloved man, confined to a world of narcissistic fantasy, and too impotent to forge meaningful interpersonal connections. He is not the figure performed by Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. He is a coward, not only too embarrassed to rent adult videos, but too pusillanimous to command the clerks’ attention beyond his effete “heyyyy.”

This is the detail that Campbell oversimplifies. While the speaker does recognize his interpellation and impotence in the poem’s concluding lines, that self-recognition simultaneously calls to mind the fact that he has not maintained “throughout the poem [ . . . ] awareness of [Pine Ridge citizens’] problems and his own.” Until the end, in the second and third sections, his problems are dissembled for him by his over-compensatory swashbucklery and braggadocio. Furthermore, after the concluding self-recognition, the reader may be inclined to reread “young attendants” and “teenaged mothers” not as “clowns” or “court[ing] frication” but as symbolic extensions of the speaker’s own misrecognized feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. In this sense, not only is he unaware of himself; the Sioux man’s own self-awareness forbids him from recognizing his “dying people” as well.

Perhaps his self-recognition is heroic, but “Dust World” insists that the poem’s speaker is a tragic effect of American colonialism. Campbell may be correct that his limits are imposed by “his own subjugation [ . . . ] to alcohol and his isolation,” but the ironic exposure of his immaturity renders the thwarted possibility that he “could change the grown children he meets into adults” a non sequitur. This is not to say that Campbell (whose biceps are as thick as my thighs) is wrong. There is bravery in “Dust World.” However, more than the courage of self-recognition and speech, it is Louis’s irony that asserts its prominence, and what that irony suggests about bravery is unforgiving. Juxtaposing the speaker’s avowal of his interpellation and racial self-hatred in the concluding lines with the return to the video store, Louis insinuates that the conditions of “Dust World” can only produce acts of bravery equal in their audacity to renting pornographic film. The action may be daunting, accompanied by anxiety and shame, but the intensity of that intimidation is darkly humorous and maladroit in comparison to the task of recovering from genocide.

If there is heroism in “Dust World,” it is located in Louis’s irony. While the poem does not dissimulate the traces of colonialism in the Pine Ridge Reservation, Louis’s irony tends to subordinate white American imperialism. As does the work of Sherman Alexie—to whom Louis dedicated “Dust World”—Louis’s poem primarily examines the difficulties of Native Americans’ hegemonic relations to themselves and one another. (Even the line “Here is the Hell the white God gave us,” while meriting serious consideration in isolation, cannot be regarded with the same gravity in a poem that labors to place its speaker so far into question.) Louis’s indictment is dark, but in the very least his irony extends to every Charles Bronson in the Pine Ridge Reservation the opportunity to see themselves ironically. Indeed, perhaps Louis’s sardonic words are “dust words”—almost nothing, but sufficient to provoke major transformation. In these words, every Pine Ridge Sioux would see both their interpellated identity and the shame disguised by that interpellation, but they would also see that shame and scripted subjectivity exposed to ridicule, critique, and change.

Michael Simeone: On "Bully"

Michael Simeone

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.”  In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists use to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very people’s Roosevelt sought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up the dominant narratives of the state.  He describes a statue of Roosevelt situated in the school auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez.  Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated war broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest.   Unable to reconcile the statue with some narrative of statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war not only voices a condemnation of the war but also contaminates the language and images of memorialization with the contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal.  

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber  or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses,  or a podium to clatter with speeches  glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating him in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at containment or submission.  The destruction that he unleashed against the brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish- singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.”  The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution. Roosevelt is surrounded

by all the faces  he ever shoved in eugenic spite  and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race,  hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors.”

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that the most aggressive, imperial nation on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually kicks the bully’s ass. That is, that a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses.  The installation of belletristic icons like Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of stormtrooping Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his portraiture.  As mongrels all, we spill over into each other.          

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone.

Charles Altieri: On "For A Coming Extinction"

"For a Coming Extinction" follows the series of war poems in The Lice and ties their despair to Merwin's more metaphysical speculations on the void. The rationalist speaker asks the whale he is making extinct to remind, "The End / That great god" "that it is we who are important." In asserting man's special place, he also reminds us of man's guilt as destroyer of his planet. More important than this basic irony, though, is the religious setting and the other poems in the volume that context calls up. For the consciousness here in his destructiveness is actually altering the gods we must pray to--from gods of life to gods of darkness and death. Making animals extinct is our "sacrifice" to that god we now invoke. And the irony ultimately doubles back on itself and the reader. For our immediate reaction is to want to destroy people who think like this speaker. Even on this practical level, then, apocalyptic destruction--psychically if not physically--comes to seem our one hope for salvation. Yet even in the midst of the despondent social poems near the end of The Lice Merwin finds in his fears a moral note that qualifies and redirects any ultimate surrender to the void. "If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything" seems just one more statement of a consciousness desiring to erase itself into nonbeing. But it returns us and Merwin to a mode of necessity evident in other despairing moments. We are human, and being human condemns us not just to shameful deeds but to a desire to criticize and correct those deeds. A void sought in despair is an impossible paradox, for the very conditions generating despair keep alive also a sense of moral possibilities and a dream of fuller being. Not only does Merwin resist unjust war and the destruction of Nature, but he makes poems of that resistance. The poems, of course, may only attach one to a dying planet and actually increase the number and beauty of things that must die, but they also suggest the possibility of an abiding permanence capable of providing an alternative to the void.

By Charles Altieri. From M.S. Merwin: Essay on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Edward Brunner on "The Asians Dying"

In the closing group, death is an occurence that links us with others. This realistic acknowledgment of death can appear with the old abstract concept in the same poem; it is one reason why the ending of "The Asians Dying" is so powerful. In the middle of the poem, Merwin uses "the dead" to speak of persons who were once alive: "Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead / Again again with its pointless sound / When the moon finds them they are the color of everything." Their "open eyes" also proclaim their status as individuals, not generic categories. Like the animals who would "look carefully" and return the glance of the poet in "The Animals," perhaps even speaking back to him, these too would look back accusingly if they could. But at the end of the poem, the old abstract, categorical idea of death emerges again, as "the possessors moved everywhere under Death their star." For the possessors, death is as remote as a star, an emblem calling them forward in their rapacious progress; it is a concept, having nothing to do with individuals. The two versions of death radically distinguish Asians from Americans, a distinction underscored with irony: the death the Asians experience leaves them with their eyes open; the death star under which the possessors march leaves them as blind as ever.

Jerald Ramsey: On "For A Coming Extinction"

"For a Coming Extinction," the latest in Merwin's pod of whale poems, all owing something to Jonah and job, and having to do with the terrible human implications of animal extinctions. But the tone of the poem is not so simple: as in other poems of its kind in the book, Merwin's spokesman employs a complex kind of sarcasm rather than the consistently self-incriminating irony of a conventional persona. The speaker's monumentally arrogant statement on behalf of the heedless despoilers of life shifts intermittently to direct evocation of the pity, outrage, and guilt that the prospect of the whale's extinction demands, and in this mood he defines the terrible burden under which the poetic imagination must labor in The Lice:

I write as though you could understand And I could say it One must always pretend something Among the dying

By Jerold Ramsey. From M.S. Merwin: Essay on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

David Lehman on "Why I Am Not a Painter"

"Why I Am Not a Painter" made poetry seem as natural as breathing, as casual as the American idiom, and so imbued with metropolitan irony and bohemian glamour as to be irresistible. As a freshman in college I hadn't yet developed the critical vocabulary to describe the effects of O'Hara's line breaks, but it was impossible to miss the surprises enacted in the space between lines: "how terrible orange is / and life. "

Only after many rereadings did I understand that the poem proposes, in its off-the-cuff way, a serious parable about the relations between poetry and painting. "Why I Am Not a Painter" begins by communicating the painter-envy to which poets in New York were susceptible during the reign of Abstract Expressionism: "I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not." In a turnaround characteristic of O'Hara's poetry, however, wry resignation is transformed into nervy self-celebration. The seemingly inconsequential anecdote in the poem is actually a restatement of another, more celebrated anecdote illustrating that the medium is the difference between the painter and the poet. A century ago in Paris, the painter Degas had lamented that his poems weren't any good though his ideas were wonderful, and the poet Mallarme responded, "But my dear Degas, poems are made of words, not ideas." The parable of Sardines and "Oranges" makes this point deftly but insistently. The rhetorical figure of the chiasmus—a crossing over, as in the shape of the X—is enacted in the inversions of the poet (who begins with a color and ends in "pages of words, not lines ") and the painter (who begins with a word and ends with an abstract painting in which random letters remain as a purely visual element without verbal signification). The original inspiration for the painting ultimately called Sardines is preserved only in the title of Mike Goldberg's work, because paintings are made of paint, not words, and the process of painting may erase any of the artist's preconceptions. And since poems are made of words, not ideas or colors, the orange that incited O'Hara exists only as the title of his work. The symmetry is complete. "It is even in prose, I am a real poet," O'Hara wrote in his patented tone of jubilant wonderment, and in the reader's mind the French tradition of the prose poem—from Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris and Rimbaud's Illuminations to Max Jacob's Le Cornet a des and Henri Michaux's Plume—established itself as a form invested in modernity. For Barbara Guest, "Why I Am Not a Painter" was also an exact statement of an Abstract Expressionist principle. "'Why I Am Not a Painter' is about the importance of not having a subject. The subject doesn't matter. That's straight out of Abstract Expressionism."

With its use of the present tense and its offhanded delivery, "Why I Am Not a Painter" seems, at first glance, to tell a "true" story. One thinks, reading it, that O'Hara wrote a prose poem called "Oranges" at the same time that Goldberg painted Sardines, and that the conjunction is an accident. It turns out, however, that "Oranges" was written in 1949, when O'Hara was still a Harvard undergraduate, many years before he met Goldberg. And this is another lesson that "Why I Am Not a Painter" teaches: What looks spontaneous may really be the product of a calculation, a fabrication, in the same way that Franz Kline's calligraphic black-and-white compositions, which seem like homages to an improvisatory ideal, were preceded by careful studies and sketches. Like a crime, true innovation in art requires premeditation, means, motive, and opportunity.

"Why I Am Not a Painter," so full of reversals and sly surprises, was, I came to see, a characteristic example of the New York School's aesthetic of irony. Irony was either "the citadel of intelligence," as Ezra Pound called it, or "the test of a first-rate mind," as Scott Fitzgerald maintained: the mind's ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time and continue to function. In any case, it was the supreme expression of modernity, the trope of ambivalence and hedged bets. It involved a reflexive uncertainty, as in the poignant conclusion of Ashbery's "Decoy":

There was never any excuse for this and perhaps there need      be none,  For kicking out into the morning, on the wide bed,  Waking far apart on the bed, the two of them:  Husband and wife  Man and wife

Deadpan wit was required. Irony could take a self-lacerating form, as when O'Hara announces that he is "waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern." Irony also meant arched eyebrows, an effect that the poets obtained by the strategic use of quotation marks. Thus Schuyler delights in "the tonic resonance of / pill when used as in / ‘she is a pill’" and O'Hara confides that "sometimes I think I'm ‘in love’ with painting." The quotation marks allow the speaker to use the language without necessarily subscribing to it. It was one way of redeeming the idioms of the day and achieving what Ashbery in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" calls "pure / Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything."

Fred M. Fetrow On "A Letter from Phyllis Wheatley

Here the poet uses an epistolary technique in the creation of what he called a "psychogram," a psychological profile of this first recognized American black poet within her historical-cultural context. Ostensibly written from England to her friend Orbour Tanner in 1773, the letter derives its verisimilitude from Hayden's imitation of Wheatley's "voice" through his deft creation of vocal cadence, latinate diction, and a plausible "style."

The resultant poem abounds in irony. Its drama grows out of disparities between those ironies Wheatley notes and those that are lost on her, but not the reader. For example, she mentions the ironic contrast between her recent uneventful ocean crossing and the earlier westward crossing as a slave, but it is the reader who senses the irony in her assumption that her enslavement ("my Destined/ Voyage") was God-willed. She also sees no disparity in being received by the nobility, yet excluded from joining her hosts at supper ("I dined apart / like captive Royalty"). As a true "Patriot," she seems more concerned about the loyalty of being presented at the English court, but such a prospect is not without ironies she does perceive ("I thought of Pocahontas"). Even in "Idyllic England," she realizes, "there is / no Eden without its Serpent," yet in expectable neoclassical manner she resists "Sombreness," even in intimate correspondence. Hayden further humanizes his subject with her closing anecdote about an incident she considers "Droll." Hayden's fully dimensioned version of the "Sable Muse" displays her appreciation of life's lighter ironies also, as shown by her amusement at being asked by a blackened young BritishCHIMNEY SWEEP, "Does you, M'lady, sweep chimneys too?"

Memories of West Street

That moral and intellectual relativism is itself an issue in the poem is indicated, I think, by the dominant imagery of clothing. Of course, Lowell has used this imagery throughout, to denote human absorption in roles; but its exaggerated employment here underlines the fact that Lowell must now perceive people and situations through these roles and appearances, without the prophet's confident penetration to spiritual conditions. A further complicating factor is that the characters in the poem are all extreme, contradictory, sui generis - all Dickensian solipsists. Their relation to social processes is obscure and mystified, most of all to themselves; and taken collectively, they mirror the author's own confusion about the possibility of interpretive or moral judgments on society. Indeed, not the least solipsistic among them is the author. The opening stanza reveals Lowell's subtle discomfort at his accommodated position, at the growing distance between his concept of himself and any of the roles he must or can play. He sees himself as an underground eccentric, wearing his pajamas most of the day; but this eccentricity - and the daily load of laundry - is made possible by a respectable job, though one so luxurious it hardly seems such: "Only teaching on Tuesdays." He "hog[s] a whole house" - a residential arrangement quite appropriate to his class and background, but clearly unnatural in terms of his own feelings. Lowell proceeds to invent a bizarre but appropriate analogue to his own paradoxical status: even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is a "young Republican." (Perhaps this figure deserves to be interpreted more seriously, as Marcuse's vision of the superficially unexploited proletarian who pays for his comforts by a subtle regimentation extending not only to his politics but to his play - "a beach wagon" - and his sexuality - "a helpmate." But the archness of tone suggests that Lowell intends him - for the present, at least - mainly as metaphor.) Within bourgeois community and responsibility, Lowell has found at least one vital center for his life, his baby daughter: "Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear." Yet even the daughter's importance is cheapened when it must be expressed through the irrelevant poetry of departure of advertising. This rhetoric bears out a dominant pattern of excess, especially of over-size - in Lowell's house, his teaching arrangements, the age-discrepancy between him and his daughter - a pattern that has some of the terror, if not the moral implication, of Macbeth's "giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief." At the very least, Lowell's exaggeration of his contentment is a subtle way of questioning it - of admitting that he is "selling" himself. One reason, presumably, for Lowell's delayed parenthood is the very different kind of commitment that engaged his youth: Ought I to regret my seedtime? I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., and made my manic statements . . . "Ought I to regret my seedtime?" is the essential question of the poem: has Lowell's present ironic vision transcended, and so gained the right to reject, his earlier committed one? The question, for me, recalls one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell: "In seedtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." The proverb is relevant to more than Lowell's occupation, for the Devil is satirizing the conventional life-cycle, claiming that it is merely a mind-forged manacle designed to prevent man from ever enjoying his instincts, ever distinguishing his true self from his society's rationalizations. Lowell's mature irony does indeed reveal disturbing, incontrovertible truths about his earlier self. His revolt was itself solipsistic, ineffective, merely bizarre, or at least society could make it seem so: the apolitical, Dionysiac Negro he was paired with was no better an objective correlative of his commitments than his fellow professors and Marlborough Street neighbors would be now. The phrase "telling off" makes his argument seem a sloppy emotional catharsis; just as, later, the comparison of the prison roof to "my school soccer court" would reduce his martyrdom to a compulsive repetition of childhood experiences involving authority, violence, and exhibitionistic attention-seeking (assuming that the reader makes the obvious connection with "91 Revere Street"). Of course, this too could be seen as part of society's mystification: prison makes the dissenter doubt his own manhood and judgment, since it reduces him to the dependence of a child. At times, however, Lowell's irony backfires: the use of a technical psychoanalytic term like "manic" in a subtle descriptive context, however accurate it may be, suggests a complacent patness attained at some cost to richness of feeling and recollection. In the prison scenes Lowell's vision of anomalies and disconnections becomes still more intense and maddening. The pervasive costume imagery absorbs - though with a grimmer irony than usual - so palpable a reality as the New York slums: "bleaching khaki tenements." The prisoners, defined by garments ranging from "rope shoes" to "chocolate double-breasted suits," are worlds unto themselves, and worlds full of self-contradiction. One, Abramowitz, carries pacifism to a cosmic extreme, yet clearly has his own problems about aggression and masculinity (he is called a "flyweight" and urgently wishes to be "tan"). Lowell can finally dismiss his point of view with a rather sneaky reference to Eden and the Fall. Nor can Lowell feel much common cause with the other war protesters, one of whom belongs to a sect the Catholic C.O. has never even heard of Still less, of course, is there a feeling of unity among the prisoners in general. Indeed, the prisoners' interactions reveal to Lowell another, equally important kind of disunity; the ethical contradictoriness of our society, which punishes the aggressive conformist for his acquisitiveness while bearing down on the eccentric for his dislike of force, but allows the persecution of the eccentric by the conformist to go on in prison just as it does elsewhere. Something unanticipated happens in the poem, however, when Lowell focuses on the last prisoner: "Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke." . . . One difference is technical. Where, before, hesitancy and the sense of disconnectedness expressed themselves in abstention from eloquence, halting metrics, submerged or doggerel rhyming, now the lines become emphatically iambic, the rhymes prominent, regular, stately; there is a touch of the surging periodicity of Lord Weary's Castle. We are led to look for a reflection of this increased intensity in the moral content of the lines. One insight that becomes very clear is the real power of money and violence cutting across all claims of value and principle in American life. Morally repudiated and condemned to die, Lepke is still czar, still "segregated" into privilege like a Southern white, still given "things forbidden the common man." Further, these things are exactly what the conventionally respectable desire: the American Way of Life, an unexamined jumble of consumer goods, piety, patriotism. As the scavenger earlier identified with these things against his own class interests, Lepke identifies with them against the whole legal and moral tenor of his life; unless, of course, one cynically concludes that the law and public life are themselves so pervaded by this doublethink that their ostensible values are meaningless. For Lepke, as the citation from John Foster Dulles would suggest, is a symbol of at least one aspect of American public life. He has organized, bureaucratized, depersonalized individual murder; America, in the "tranquillized Fifties," has done the same thing with its power to annihilate mankind. Lepke is "lobotomized," has had certain electrical connections in his brain severed (whether literally or metaphorically is not to the point here). America, too, has "lost connections," between its values and its acts, the fiction and the reality of its motives, the news and the appropriate emotional reaction; it too "drifts" toward its fate, unable and unwilling to change. (Rightly considered, the phrase "agonizing reappraisal" was as grotesque when spoken by Dulles as when applied to Lepke.) America, too, is "calm," "tranquillized" as Lepke is "lobotomized"; but in both cases the calm may be merely the psychological effect of an overwhelming, inescapable fear of execution or nuclear annihilation. And here Lowell's analogy carries an especially frightening implication; for in Lepke's single-minded concentration on death, his attitude seems to change from terror to fascination to love. Death becomes an "oasis," the only escape from fear. A number of radical writers have seen such a Dr. Strangelove psychology in the attitude of Americans toward the bomb; and we remember that both Freud and Marcuse predicted a resurgence of the death instinct in very advanced civilizations. The concluding phrase, "lost connections," seems to reflect not only on Lepke and official America, but on the poet himself. For he too, at the beginning, suffers from an inability to connect his inner identity with his social roles; and an inability to go beyond an inclusive, defensive irony to the patterned vision of social processes that might allow him to locate himself, and reopen the possibility of political engagement. This vision arrives with the symbol of Lepke; and it is important that Lepke is a symbol, while the other characters, because of their obscure or mystified relation to society, remain unbudging, fruitless particulars. The return from observation to symbolism, like the more intense metrics, and like the vision itself, suggests a kind of breakthrough or change of heart in Lowell - one that, I believe, is mirrored in the structure of Life Studies as a whole.

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