Cary Nelson

Cary Nelson: On "Torso"

Duncan's stylistic and structural disruptions are designed to orient his poems around their own violated centers. Form is a clustering of dislocations: "The part in its fitting does not lock but unlocks; what was closed is opend" (BB, iv). In his introduction to TheYears as Catches, he announces that "These are poems of an irregularity"; the apparent thrust of a poem, its dominant metaphors, must contain its own "inner opposition or reproof" (Y, i). "I attempt the discontinuities of poetry," he writes, "to interrupt all sure course of my inspiration" (D, 91). Poetry centers itself only by establishing a discursive field and then shattering it. There must be, he writes, "no poem / without such a moment, broken, conquerd," but he continues with "only by what we did not know / of the design" (D, 123). Each betrayal projects a larger, more wounded coherence, a wider and less secure vision.

"The Torso" (BB, 63-65), number 18 in the "Passages" sequence, offers a good test of Duncan's aesthetic, for its chief disruption is one word. The title suggests some of the poem's potential for multiple and ambiguous connotation, since the image of a torso invokes the realms of both anatomy and sculpture. A torso's formal perfection can imply either its relative independence from the head and limbs or their actual absence. In either case, a torso invites a studied--potentially ecstatic or skeptical--distance from the human figure, a distance that is significant in what is essentially a love Poem.

The poem begins in a rush of natural images: "Most beautiful! the red-flowering eucalyptus, / the madrone, the yew." The syntax makes the trees analogues to the torso of the poem's title, but the next line, surrounded by white space, trails off in ellipses: "Is he. . ." The line is partly assertive, partly questioning; it makes the opening images hypothetical--castings of the verbal net for a proper central image. The speaker's reverie then incorporates a passage from Marlowe's Edward The Second. . . .

These lines from the play's opening speech are spoken by Edward's young friend Gaveston, who is recalled from banishment when the king ascends to the throne. Since Gaveston is eventually murdered, the quotation adds two connotations to the lover's image--regal and tragic. Those connotations will be foregrounded later in the poem; for the moment, however, the passage serves mainly to elevate and aggrandize the speaker's emotions, effects the next lines extend: "If he be Truth / I would dwell in the illusion of him." The archaic, slightly stilted construction prepares us for the self-conscious avowal of what is very nearly a romantic cliché. Yet the second clause also humanizes and thus comments on the Platonic reference to "Truth." A mixture of resistance and submission suddenly coalesces in the excited wish to be absorbed in the lover's person.

Then a particularly vital image surfaces: "His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body." We can visualize a withdrawal from an embrace, while also reading the line as a spiritual "unlocking," an opening outward of self. The outlines of the image, the meaning of "chambers," is ambiguous, recalling an earlier image of yearning so intense it feels "like the long trunk of another self / turning on his thighs to open life's arms" (RB, 90). Like the pronouns in "Sonnet 4," the pronouns in "The Torso" are almost interchangeable; a romantic fusion of self and other is caught in an image of a single pair of unfolding hands. This is the first of seven spaced lines, only one of them punctuated--at once scattered and provisional phrases, a faltering communication, and a verbal field vibrant with transformations. The next lines are ambivalent: "such an idea in man's image / rising tides that sweep me towards him." The tone is reverent, but also slightly compromised by Duncan's tendency to court a deliberately sentimental effusiveness. The mood brings the poem to its major disruption: ". . . homosexual?":

Duncan is aware that the sexual category can act as a restrictive label that deflates the mythic, transpersonal vision for which the poem is straining. Prefaced by ellipses, it closes the earlier "Is ..." and cancels the organic allusiveness of the opening listing. Italicized, the word challenges us to question whether his varied emotions and the poem's plural effects can be reduced to this single name. The impulse to include the word is at once political, aggressive, confessional, and purgative. The balance of the poem, he hopes, will demonstrate how inadequate the word homosexual is to describe his full experience. Yet we also need to read "Is he. . .homosexual?" as a single line, thereby traversing Duncan's romantic, philosophical meditation with the single essential question about availability. We must now read "The Torso" both as a fantasy about a stranger-- a fantasy constrained by the question of whether a relationship is possible--and as a meditation about an established relationship--one into which language and self-consciousness intrude with their effects of descriptive distancing. For each of these readings the category of homosexuality has the irreducibly double power Michel Foucault has analyzed in The History of Sexuality: it is both an exclusionary nomination and one that generates possibilities of action. By saying the name, Duncan wants to deprive it of its nominative power while retaining its subversive force, but it will always serve both as a political challenge and as an element of doubt in the poem. The decision to include it in the text moves beyond an aesthetic of honesty (whatever occurs in the field of the poem must be given its place) to become simultaneously assertive and self-defeating. Duncan breaks the intimate mood of the poem and probably undermines some readers' empathy in doing so. Like so much of the structural deflection essential in American open poetry, Duncan's decision reveals a sense of guilt and its attendant punishment; it establishes "the poet's own duality between doubt and conviction in writing." Moreover, for Duncan, as for Ginsberg, those emotions are given historical impetus by Whitman's comparable sexual anxiety. Personal and historical guilt finally become indistinguishable.

"The Torso" does very nearly surmount these difficulties, but it has been prevented from doing so entirely. The poem continues as if its syntax detours around the intrusive word. The next line, "and at the treasure of his mouth," proceeds from the line before; there he will "pour forth my soul / his soul commingling." Robert K. Martin uses these lines to argue that the single "occasion of the poem is, of course, an act of fellatio," a reading that is partly accurate but overstated, as any exclusive reading would be. Commingling souls also suggest both breath and a spiritual communion. We cannot choose between an actual physical act, a fantasy, and the verbal changes rung on both. Duncan's aesthetic point about referentiality is that poetry demonstrates the world's multiplicity. "I thought a Being more than vast," he writes, and the verb suggests that every lover is partly imaginary insofar as he becomes a kind of supreme being. The interaction of lovers creates in each a representative, universal body "leading / into Paradise." The erotic figure is also religious, the Christian reference reinforced by the figure of the "Orphic Xristos" in "Passages 17," who "lifts me up to him, / lifted me up to him, embracing every fear I had" (BB, 60). This Being is a communal figure who is also the apotheosis of selfhood. "His eyes," the poem continues, "quickening a fire in me," the body becomes "a trembling / hieroglyph," a signifying field or a sacred text constituted by an alternative, celebratory naming. The body is a joyous cathexis of names. . .from "the clavicle" to "the public hair". . . .

Although this is a generalized, universal male body, this reading of the body as a text is still one of the relatively few successful descriptions of the male body in poetry. There are many unspecific images of bodily life in poetry, images that are essentially nonsexual or pansexual, but very few erotic representation the male body. The four italicized names, given in descending order as the eye travels down the body, are points of origin or nodes of force in a descriptive field, constituents of the body's textuality. Each name occasions an uplifting of substance, countering the eye's descending glance and paralleling the unfolding description: "the stem of the great artery upward," "the rise of pectoral muscles," "sleeping fountains ... waiting ... to be / awakened"; "the stem in which the man / flowers forth"; "his seed rises." The frankness of "nipples" and "pubic hair," the prosaic "navel" will displease some readers. Yet Duncan overcomes the graphic difficulties of the material; he manages to convey the instinctual attractions of his subject and place it in the verbal field of his overall vision. The sequence of vertical motions anticipates the reference to ejaculation in the last section, but the verticality is also overlaid with references to "root" and "stem" that simultaneously reinforce the organicism of the opening lines and recall the etymology of "torso" as the stem of a plant.

But Duncan is compelled again to risk his achievement. The line almost reduces the vision to infatuation: "a wave of need and desire over taking me." Yet we are not quite back again to the rhetoric of the earlier line about the "treasure of his mouth," for the space between "over" and "taking" requires us to read this line in two ways as well--as a description of consummated desire and of desire that overpowers. "Cried out my name" risks the same sentiment but survives because of the multiple dimensions of naming established in the poem. We are not only given a lover's cry; we understand naming as instinct vocalized and as a sound bound in a net of words. Naming is fateful, an imposition of verbal destiny. "(This was long ago, It was another life)," he writes, echoing "Sonnet 4," and we sense a wider eros at work--the attractions of a mythic form. A few lines later the mythic references are reinforced: "His look / pierces my side." The look, the sense of being seen, transforms the visionary lover into the wounded Christ; the speaker's erotic being is crucified. The lovers are caught in a net woven two millennia before. . . .

With delicate echoes of the Gospels, and with clear references to man's fall and to Christ's incarnation and resurrection, the lovers undergo a transformation built into the informing power of words like "falling," "rising," and "gathering." Election as lover, king, and sacrificial victim traverse one another in these ascending and descending displacements. "Gathering me, you gather / your Self," he writes, as the poem gathers its metaphors into an allusive field that moves outward and inward at the same time. As self and other are extinguished in an embrace, the lovers also enact a larger story. Adam, dispersed in all the members of the race, and Osiris, scattered afield, are gathered together in one figure: "For my Other is not a woman but a man / the King upon whose bosom let me lie."

If "The Torso" existed in isolation, we might say that it succeeds in surmounting most of the problems it raises. Its conflation of homosexuality and Christianity--its mixture of anger at conventional American stereotyping with its own romantic effusiveness--its sexual attraction and tension--all these are held together in the poem's verbal net. The formal gestalt Duncan achieves is not one of fully controlled and balanced ambiguity but one of radically fluid though counterpointed allusiveness. Nonetheless, a reader who puts sufficient work into the poem will be rewarded with an experience of a uniquely rich and open kind of textuality. Yet "The Torso" is not simply an isolated poem, and its relationship to the "Passages" sequence radically alters its force, placing it in a network of oppositions that is more disabling than constitutive. Thus the formal dissolution that Duncan courts in "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" and "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" is finally achieved when "The Torso" is read in the context of Bending The Bow as a whole. The associative field through which the vocabulary of "The Torso" resonates includes demonic echoes that are as strong as those the poem offers. The "rising tides that sweep" the lovers together in "The Torso" recur not only in the conviction that "youth will rise" like "new shoots / of the spring-tide" and in "the blood's natural / uprising against tyranny" but also in the "sea of toiling men" in the Vietnam poem "Up Rising," men who have "raised this secret entity of America's hatred of Europe, of Africa, of Asia" (BB, 94, 114, 81-82). One of the larger contexts of "The Torso," then, is satanic violence, a violence that moves through the poem and takes up its images to use them for darker purposes.

Cary Nelson: On "My Mother Would Be A Falconress"

Duncan's "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" is. . . introduced by a prose note that recounts its genesis in an aural compulsion: "I wakend in the night with the lines 'My mother would be a falconress--And I a falcon at her wrist' being repeated in my mind. Was the word falconress or falconess?--the troubled insistence of the lines would not let go of me, and I got up and took my notebook. . . in the poem there is another curious displacement upward, for the bell which is actually attacht to a falcon's leg by a bewt just above the jess, in the dream becomes a set of bells sewn round the hood, a ringing of sound in the childhood of the poet's head" (BB, 51). In effect, Duncan displaces his psychological motivation into a pre-eminently verbal process--the echoing of the poem's first line.

The poem begins by challenging the words "falcon" and "falconer." "Falconer" is not mentioned, but we recognze in "falconress" the failure of the established noun to cover both its male and female counterparts. The OED lists no feminine form for falconer; Duncan's coined term is an invasion by sound to deprive a word of its authority. The paternal command, signature for father and self, fails or falters. As Duncan writes in a more recent passage:


And I was immersed into the depths of the Water,


let down by that man who stood for my Father


into the Element before Intention



(or, in another version, cast into the Flood


drownd in the rage of the Mother of What Is)


In "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" the flood is a confusion of sound: "For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me, / sewn round with bells, jangling when I move." This passage is a narrative version of the poem's verbal situation. The poem's title recurs as the opening line of both the first and second stanzas. Both that line and the second ("And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist") are controlling aural resources, undergoing repetition and variation that builds to an incantatory rhythm.

Against this verbal imperative, the poem's story exerts only limited pressure. The speaker's wish to be a falcon is derivative; he would be falcon to her falconress. He would tread her wrist, then take flight to bring her a bleeding prize. But he must not damage his prey; he must bring it back with its neck broken but otherwise perfect. Then a strain of resentment enters. If she will not honor his instinct, instead limiting his flight and controlling his lust to hunt, he will turn on her and seek her blood. At the end of her will's tether, he spies a land beyond these hills where falcons nest. He would go free, but even when she is dead, he cannot break her hold on him:


My mother would be a falconress,

and even now, years after this,

when the wounds I left her had surely heald,


and the woman is dead,

her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart

were broken, it is stilld


I would be a falcon and go free.

I tread her wrist and wear the hood,

talking to myself, and would draw blood.


These are the last two stanzas. In them, the will to take flight returns to the first line, becoming itself a function of the line's enactment. The narrative developments are variations of the key words and phrases introduced in the opening stanza. . . .

In this first stanza, he treads on her wrist, wanting to bring back a bleeding prize. In the first line of the fourth stanza, the wish is condensed: "I tread my mother's wrist and would draw blood." Wrists themselves can bleed, but the suggestion that he might attack his mother is still constrained by the opening context, in which the only blood is that of his prey. Furthermore, the third stanza details the hunt's violence, thus also helping to block the suggestion that he will turn on the falconress.

The first three lines [in the thrid stanza] are almost identical. The changes read like a litany of prescribed variations, ritually embroidering an unchanging theme. The fifth stanza concludes with a comparable intonation, reasserting the insistence of the pattern: "I would bring down / the little birds to her / I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly." Then, in the first line of the next stanza, the anger reaches for its voice: "I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood." Yet the fury cannot take flight; it cannot become a separate vehicle of the falcon-son's will. Every word in the line, as well as the rhythm of the line as a whole, has prescribed connotations. Each sound echoes what has gone before. Even the falcon's eventual desire to break loose from the falconress springs from her own will for flight. It is "as if her mind / sought in me flight beyond the horizon."

The words for an isolate, individualized self cannot be found. Each verbal gesture incarnates the total order of the poem, as if every word branched out from a single trunk. Toward the end of the poem, Duncan gives explicit evidence that the maternal entanglement is verbal [1]. When the falcon flees, it is as if the falconress's own remorse at his violence sought relief:

I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight, sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist, striking out from the blood to be free of her.

The changing forms of the verb "to strike" almost encompass and obliterate the narrative dimensions of the act. If the main drama is clearly verbal, then the poem is not a parable intended to unveil a psychological truth. Indeed it is not a parable about language. From Duncan's perspective, the poem has no referential purpose, no allegorical message. It is an instance of the will speech has to break free of the mothering ground of language, a will itself a function of that ground.

This is a richly echolalic poem, using perhaps as much repetitive and self-referential language as a poem can without becoming pure content-free sound. Yet it exists at the edge of that void. It courts that Lady of "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" whose embrace is emptiness. Each elaboration, each unfolding phrase, renders the center progressively more vacant. The variations are cancellations. The exuberance of the language becomes a decorous melancholy:


The ever emptying cup,            the vital


source that solaces no thirst's throat


Poetry is of this natural vacancy:



[1] Duncan's own mother died shortly after his birth, and he was later put up for adoption. There is therefore a specific sense in which his relationship with his biological mother is exclusively verbal, For all of us, however, the language of family relationships is invested with substantial power.


Cary Nelson: On "Often I Am Permitted to a Meadow"

"Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" is the first poem in The Opening of the Field; the reader thus connects the meadow in the poem with the field in the book's title. Field is a broad term referring to various landscapes, to the notion of a perceptual gestalt, and to Olson's idea of composition by field. Does the shift to a meadow signal a more specific landscape? A meadow suggests a single harmonious climate, a space protected by its surroundings. "Opening" a field implies a liberating or pioneering gesture, an entrance or exposure. Returning to a meadow implies the recovery of past intimacy, the restoration of secure resources. The poem's title domesticates the revelatory title of the book. The meadow here is a memory to be inhabited; its emotional connotations are private and delicate. Yet we also wonder if this meadow is the field the book would open.

The poem's title is its first line, effecting a beginning in medias res that conflicts slightly with the line's strong assertion of composed renewal. The word "permitted" is a gesture of humility, undercutting any connotation of will or urgency. Almost without effort, the speaker finds himself in the presence of this meadow. . . .

These first three stanzas complete the sentence started in the title. The meadow now seems almost an imaginary hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden protected from the outside world. The setting is so "made-up," so constructed, fictional, that its otherness shows little congruence with the imagination that gave it life. Yet intimacy and otherness are inextricably part of the same texture; in the poem they echo within the same shell of sound. The partial rhyme of "mind" and "mine" reinforces the meadow's ambiguities. "Made-up" and "made place," the first implying artifice, the second solid construction, are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Similarly, "that is not mine" and "that is mine" appear to be opposite, yet visually and aurally they are mutual reverberations, alternatives reflecting one another. The very composure and perfection of this made place lend it a sense of difference, of exclusive containment. But this meadow is also the place where we always are, the mind's ground and the setting for its development. It is "so near to the heart," this otherness that constitutes the self."

The word "pasture" broadens the "meadow" of the first line. The pasture is eternal because it is so thoroughly "made-up" as to last forever and because it acquires an impersonality and universality linking it to every other "made place." It is a place, not just a thing, because its isolation is confirmed by our being there. Enfolding the pasture in the medium of thought makes it a place with "a hall therein," with an entrance and a means of passage. The pasture is the field where the mind feeds on its own substance--the human body, but the body both specific and general. Like Duncan's image of the body of primitive man, it is without preconceived outline and conscious in all of its parts. This makes the mind's energy visible, "as if it were the mind itself / which descends in the poem / and becomes manifest" (FD, 86), while also "encumbering in its concretion and weight the longing for ecstatic flight the soul knows" (C,62).

As we finish the opening stanzas, we sense an uneasiness that also hints of freedom. If forms are mere shadows, they have no special permanence. Yet Duncan will later write of "the ascendancy of the shadow / in the blossoming mass" (RB, 169), so even a transient form gives satisfaction in completed structure. Nonetheless, the structure here is also a dissolution:


Wherefrom fall all architectures I am

I say are likenesses of the First Beloved

whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady


She it is Queen Under the Hill

whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words

that is a field folded.


These next two stanzas present a conventional invocation to the muses, a gesture appropriate to the book's first poem." Again, however, the architectures "fall," and we can read this falling as a loss of variety and innocence, as well as a falling into place, as forms find their necessary order. The tone of these stanzas recalls medieval hymns to the lady and courtly love poems, but that decorous surface masks a more unsettling communication--that the poem's formal imperatives, its ordering structures, are really "likenesses" of a much wider set of verbalizations. This suggests that the poem's progress is determined by connections inscribed in the words themselves. A "disturbance of words within words," the poem is a ritual performed in the Lady's honor and in her service--"she," Duncan writes later, whose breast is in language, who "sends her own priestesses of the Boundless to these councils of our boundaries" (T, 19). A "disturbance" is any reorganization along fresh lines of association. The "field folded" is an archetype of poetic form: a field of associations doubling back on themselves to create a formal gestalt. Only within that limited frame can we glimpse "the Hosts of the Word that attend our words" (T, 19).

The result is a fiction, a dream momentarily resisting the larger pressures of the language. . . .

The dream works its changes among the grasses at the surface of the field of meanings. It troubles the depths briefly, sounding rhythms that set the poem's pace and establish its configuring image sequences. Despite its apparent originality, the poem is a variation on a codified ritual, like a children's game. The secret of this children's game is the belief (the historical truth of which is irrelevant to Duncan's purpose) that the rhyme dates back to the bubonic plague, when flowers were carried to ward off the odor of decay. Elsewhere Duncan describes poetry as an infection of meaning, a disease erupting in the body of language: "The ear / catches rime like pangs of disease from the air," he writes, "For poetry / is a contagion" (BB, 32).

With their decorous rhetoric, the last stanzas further the same notions:


Often I am permitted to return to a meadow

as if it were a given property of the mind

that certain bounds hold against chaos,


that is a place of first permission,

everlasting omen of what is.


The title is repeated and the poem brought round to its origin. But the formal resolution (like the end of the children's game) will also be a falling down. Returning to the beginning suggests that the several stanzas were only the circular unfolding of the first line, a disturbance within its words. The poem is like a first field on which we ventured forth, at once an origin and an initiation. Every return brings unexpected changes: "We must come back and back to the same place and find it subtly altered each time, like a traveler bewitched by lords of the fairy, until he is filled with a presence he would not otherwise have admitted." The poem's field is "where the disturbance is, where the words / awaken" (RB,51 ) unpredicted changes. It appears to hold a boundary "against chaos," yet "the sound of words waits-- / a barbarian host at the borderline of sense" (FD, 135). The poem is a "place of first permission" where a universe of words is given one of its voices. Poetic speech has the tension "of the ominous, for a world that would speak is itself a language of omens." So this meadow, giving illusory bounds to infinite speech, becomes an "everlasting omen of what is."

"What is," the governing ground of reality, is for Duncan essentially a reservoir of potential interchanges: "In a field of interacting melodies a single note may belong to both ascending and descending figures, and, yet again, to a sustaining chord or discord." The poem creates its own field within the larger field of words by establishing lines of force between specific harmonies and disharmonies. These "are rimes, Sounding in each other" and "the rimes or reoccurrences are knots in the web or tissue of reality." "That one image may recall another," Duncan writes, "finding depth in the resounding, is the secret of rime and measure. The time of a poem is felt as a recognition of return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in the sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings." "Rime" for Duncan covers interactions among both sounds and images, as well as interactions between them.

In "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," this net of sound and meaning keeps the meadow image coherent despite the associative digressions. The images of the Queen or Lady and the stanzas about the children's game would disrupt the poem if its verbal ground were not strong enough to support them. The poem's aural design is exactly sufficient, managing simultaneously to sustain and threaten. It includes the antiphonal phrasing of the second line and the first phrase of the third, the assonance of "made place," the consonance of "heart" and "thought" and later of "field folded," the visual rhyme of "near" and "heart," the repetition of "there" with "therein" in the fifth line, the internal rhyme of "all" and "hall" in the second stanza, echoed by "fall" in the third and "fall all" in the fourth. Throughout, there is considerable alliteration. Duncan does not establish a strict sound pattern but employs a variety of devices to make the aural field freely associative and unpredictable. Sound and meaning become mutually supportive, while seeming outside the poet's full control. Sound could, we fear, make the poetry nonsensical. Yet there is considerable attraction in the supreme and empty meaning lodged in the random architecture of sounds:


        rhymes that mimic much of loss,         ghost goings,


                        words lost in passing,         echoed


        where they fall,          againnesses of sound only


        This failure of sense is melody most

Cary Nelson: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

More than most Vietnam poems, Ginsberg’s long Witchita Vortex Sutra" is permeated with the managerial rhetoric and political slogans of the war. The poem is an immensely self-conscious but rather notational diary of a car ride toward the city of the title. Ginsberg records some of what he sees, in descriptive passages often sparse and underplayed though careful and appreciative, and includes fragments of radio and newspaper reports. As he has so many times before, he invokes Whitman and assumes his role: "Come lovers of Lincoln and Omaha, / hear my soft voice at last ... O Man of America, be born." Ginsberg is fully committed to the role, but more consistently mild and self-deprecating about its efficacy than his critics usually recognize. That reticence may help substantially to assist the poem in surviving. Ginsberg manages, in effect, to call on Whitman's prophetic posture, to invoke the role and its still powerful symbolism, while exhibiting no conviction that anyone will heed his voice. The language of the war is deplored, but with regret and fatalistic humor rather than with self-righteousness. Much more than most poets, he recognizes that the war for the majority of Americans was only language and photography. "Rusk says Toughness / Essential for Peace," Ginsberg notes, and describes "Vietcong losses leveling up three five zero zero" as "headline language poetry, nine decades after Democratic Vistas." "On the other side of the planet," Ginsberg reminds us, "flesh soft as a Kansas girl's / ripped open by metal explosion." There is "shrapnelled / throbbing meat / While this American nation argues war" with "conflicting language, language / proliferating in airwaves."

Interspersed with this reportage are the vignettes of silent Kansas landscapes and Ginsberg's own comments. He mocks the rhetoric of politicians, pleads with, teases, and challenges his American audience--"Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?"--and calls on a pantheon of gods to come to his aid: "Come to my lone presence / into this Vortex named Kansas." Yet Ginsberg's voice never dominates. We no longer have the insistent personal lamentation that carries the listings of his earlier poems. His presence here is intermittent, as if he realizes that while "almost all our language" is being "taxed by war" a poet cannot shape it to his will. The poem, then, seems only partly to belong to Ginsberg. History writes much of the text, and Ginsberg can try to identify what history has written, but he cannot pretend to dominate it. The rhythm of alternating vantage points carries us through to the end; the poem is remarkably effective and even hopeful about the possibility for intimacy and joy despite the war's toll on all of us. Yet the poem is finally only elegiac about the vocation of poetry. There is little left for poets to do, and no convincing reason for them to do even that. Nonetheless, Ginsberg manages a gesture whose political significance is precisely its powerlessness. If the war for us is language, he will let it end on his tongue. It is, he writes, an "Act done by my own voice" and "published to my own senses": "I lift my voice aloud" and "pronounce the words beginning my own millenium, I here declare the end of the War." It is a poignant, extraordinary moment, utterly gratuitous though an exemplary lesson and grandly Whitmanesque in its way. Yet it gives back to the rude history written by politicians all but the speech of vision and witness.

Hearing Ginsberg read "Wichita Vortex Sutra" during the war was exhilarating. In a large audience the declaration of the war's end was collectively purgative. The text of the poem retains that fragile, deluded but dramatic effectiveness because it registers its unresolvable ambiguities with such clarity.

Cary Nelson: On "The Porcupine" and "The Bear"

"The Porcupine" and "The Bear" are the first full fruition of his new sophistication with its harsh realism, though they deal more with American archetypes than with specific historical events. Nonetheless, Kinnell's vision now must be achieved within the poem, and he can no longer write without cost. With these two poems Kinnell abandons the pose of Whitmanesque generosity toward what he describes and openly shapes external events into rites of self-discovery. The poems are sustained by conventions of narrative; they do not attempt new forms because Kinnell is not prepared to risk the privileged status of poetic language. Yet he no longer assumes that his diction of mystical emptiness will touch the reader through a power already invested in the words themselves. He begins to concentrate on the act of writing, rather than resting satisfied with the priestly function of poetic speech.

Though the two poems have many similarities, an important further change in Kinnell's poetic practice takes place between them. Roughly, it is a change from comparison to direct statement. "The Porcupine" is a carefully constructed series of parallels between the animal and the poem's speaker; it is a structurally more sophisticated version of the mythic allusiveness in his earlier poetry. The comparisons between the porcupine and the man depend on the poem's overt mechanics, but they do succeed. In "The Bear," however, Kinnell goes further; he achieves a visionary rhetoric that speaks simultaneously from animal and man. This poem plays a decisive role in his career, more decisive than Williams's early poem "The Wanderer," in which Williams plunges into the Passaic River to be merged with it, much as Kinnell's hunter climbs into the bear's carcass. Both "The Bear" and "The Wanderer" are rites of passage that generate a spiritual metamorphosis. For Kinnell the change is also deeply physical.

To follow this development we must begin with "The Porcupine." Its comparisons between man and porcupine are initially lighthearted. Like us, the porcupine "puts his mark on outhouses" and "chuckles softly to himself when scared." Like us, he hesitates at thresholds, and "his eyes have their own inner redness." Conveniently, our paths cross unawares. The porcupine is a lover of salt, so he gnaws wood-handled tools, all "crafted objects / steeped in the juice of fingertips." For him, as for us, "the true / portion of the sweetness of earth" is a human tear. The connection also works the other way. The scriptures of Zoroastrianism sentence porcupine killers to hell, where they will "gnaw out / each other's hearts" in pursuit of a less substantial sweat--the "salts of desire." The man of the poem is himself a human porcupine, with a "self-stabbing coil / of bristles reversing, blossoming outward." His quills, apparent in feeling and action, grow out of an inward flagellation. He tosses in bed, under a quilt that mimics the patchwork countryside of farms over which the porcupine roams, and his restlessness wakes the woman beside him. The speaker describes himself as a secular Saint Sebastian, tortured by invisible arrows; his incarnation is for a more ordinary martyrdom.

The poem's descriptions of suffering are handled with graceful wistfulness, leaving us just barely wary of what is to come. The casual, openly artificial, and even gratuitous parallels between man and porcupine put us at ease for a more radical comparison. Stuffed with his varied provender, willow flowers and choice young leaves, the porcupine in the first section drags himself through "roses and goldenrod, into the stubbly high fields." Then, midway through the poem, a porcupine sleeping in a tree is shot by a farmer. [In "Galway Kinnell: A Conversation," Kinnell reports that he had killed a porcupine a few days before starting the poem]. The porcupine that was "he" becomes "it." The shift from the personal pronoun signals a moment of violent, impersonal apotheosis. As it falls, it tears open its belly on a sharp branch, hooks its gut, and goes on falling:


On the ground

it sprang to its feet, and

paying out gut heaved

and spartled through a hundred feet of goldenrod


the abupt emptiness


The porcupine's death descends like a guillotine; there is its terror, then nothing. But our own emptiness may be anticipated; we can learn to recognize its power to sustain us. We may dream of death as an indecipherable message, but its real impact strikes us in that physical vulnerability we experience in the porcupine's fleshly death. We too have "fallen from high places," but we must fall again, even embrace our own mortality, before we can truly possess our loss. Like Hopkins, another of his spiritual mentors, Kinnell would render his ecclesiastical concerns in images of earthly incarnation.

I too, he writes, have fled "over fields of goldenrod" to discover the self's true home. In the midst of those flowers among whose blossoms the porcupine's guts are scattered


I have come to myself empty, the rope

strung out behind me

in the fall sun

suddenly glorified with all my blood.


The man's wounds are psychic; the rope of his past is metaphorically intestinal. But all his pain can be transfigured by the image of himself emptied. Beyond fear, in possession of a radiant emptiness, again like the porcupine, he finds himself "softly chuckling." He discovers an image of himself "broken / skulled," shattered and essential, "or vacant as a / sucked egg in the wintry meadow." He is resolved into the "blank / template" of himself, the hollow but potent original mold that shaped him. The template is an image of renewal through regression, reminiscent of Roethke's figures for a primary and almost anonymous selfhood. The goldenrod then is replaced by images of rebirth through disavowed substance, of burdock that "looses the arks of its seed," of thistle that "holds up its lost blooms." The roses of the first stanza become images of desolate yearning: They "scrape their dead limbs / for the forced-fire / of roses." But a wind is moving over the earth, and its force gives witness to a more ethereal or transitory flame.

Both "The Porcupine" and "The Bear" generate increasing emotional intensity as they proceed. Because "The Porcupine" develops in a series of parallel passages, its movement is somewhat uneven, but "The Bear" carries us in an unbroken arc to its destination. Each depends on a highly visual narrative, but "The Bear" in particular is impossible to separate from the images of the hunt it induces in the reader. Unlike many of the more abstract poems preceding The Book of Nightmares, these two will survive as integral, self-sufficient works precisely because of their narrative and visual singularity. The special power of "The Bear" is that its very specificity makes it remarkably universal. It is an experience we are unlikely to undergo, but it nevertheless applies to all of us. As Comito observes, "Kinnell's protagonists are sometimes prototypically American in their hunger to find images of themselves in the world."

The solitary hunt undertaken at great risk, a recurrent American motif, traditionally serves as a rite of initiation. The poem does not, however, simply describe a passage into manhood. It is also conventional for the successful hunter to acquire, at least symbolically, some of the powers of his prey. Yet the bear's characteristics are not merely adapted to become human attributes; the figure at the end combines the perspectives of both species with superb economy. The narrative prepares us for that visionary metamorphosis in the second half of the poem. The arctic hunter first discovers the bear when he fills his lungs with its scent. It is a "chilly, enduring odor"; its source can be occupied but not eliminated. The preparations are disciplined and reverential. The hunter coils a sharpened wolf's rib and freezes it in blubber. The bear will not be found unless it willingly takes into itself this human instrument; it is a totemic figure for the man and his intent. If the bear swallows the bait, the fat will melt and the bone will pierce his gut. When the bait has vanished, the hunter wanders in circles until he finds the bear's blood staining the snow.

Now the hunter must endure his trial; the dying bear will be teacher. Where the beast rests, he will rest. Where the beast stretches out to drag itself over unsteady ice with its claws, the man too lies down to pull himself forward with bear knives. He must not only follow the bear's trail, but must also duplicate its movements. In this silent ritual, the animal is the man's dance-master. Then the hunter begins to starve, and he must make a choice--to humiliate himself or to die. If he would live, he must eat the bear's excrement; it is soaked with nourishing blood. Many readers find this scene intolerable. They will not understand the poem unless they realize that the choice not to eat the bear's excrement--and some of us may be certain we would not despite starvation--is really the more extraordinary option. He hesitates, as perhaps the bear hesitated at the blubber set out for him, gnashes it down and goes on running.

Now each has swallowed something of the other. The circle will shortly be closed. On the seventh day the hunter will rest, and when he wakens a new world will fill his senses. He sees the bear's body ahead. Possibly, he muses, the bear caught his scent before it died. He eats the flesh raw, cuts the animal open and climbs into its warm carcass to sleep. Into this tomb, which is also the womb of the earth's substance, the hunter descends to dream of death and be reborn.

He dreams "of lumbering flatfooted / over the tundra," of being "stabbed twice from within." Whatever way he lurches, whatever "parabola of bear-transcendence" or "dance of solitude" he attempts, his blood splatters a trail behind him. This is a dream of the bear's ordeal, but with a human edge. It is as though the animal is startled and terrified by a sudden consciousness of its own physicality. Ordinarily the bear is threatened only by external aggressors. Now, like man self-tortured by every gesture, the bear is wounded internally. Like a man, the animal is driven to outleap its substance. It reaches for a solitude that only men can know--in which the whole material world appears to the mind as otherness at a distance. But the bear falls back to earth; the distance can only be bridged by assimilation.

"The Bear" is a poem about American consciousness in search of its true body. It succeeds in describing a bodily consciousness that is instinctive, communal, at one with the land, but it can only offer this vision at a fatalistic distance. The poet does identify with the hunter, presumably an Eskimo, but to preserve the myth of the hunt he has to choose an arctic setting popularly known as the last wilderness. So the poem is itself a final gesture toward an option most of us have lost. It commemorates a poetic ritual in which the body is finally given to utter its own mortal speech. The poem begins in late winter, in desolation and in need, but it ends when the hunter awakens to hear migratory geese returning in the spring. The dam-bear is waking; the man's sleep has been a gestatory hibernation. When he wakes, he measures time in seasonal and bodily rhythms, not with impossible human yearnings. He now walks, it seems, with the bear's feet with a "hairy-soled trudge." And he wonders what "was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that / poetry, by which I lived?" The mystery of the poem is this--that in America blood is the spirit's true poetry. No longer, therefore, is this Christ's blood; now it is the blood of a land shared by American creatures and the American people. Poetry is now the ritual that traverses the distance between them, the ideal landscape in which they interchange a communality. What Kinnell still must learn, however, is that this violent commingling has a history more immediate and intransigent than any archetype.

Cary Nelson: On "Beginning"

One early source for this poem is Merwin's "The Frozen Sea," a poem Antarctic exploration and about the human experience of that landscape. The ices and snow are "the very flesh / No different only colder as was / The sea itself"; they reflect a "whiteness that we could not bear. It / Turned bloody in our carnal eyes." The wind there shrieks of a violent purification; it would "freeze out / The mortal flaw in us." Its "screaming silence" fills the explorers' minds with hollow animal voices that boast "their / Guts would feed on God." The absolute whiteness and sheer antagonism of the setting invoke comparable human extremes--transcendence and violence. The men are at the center of a vortex; they are so small, these figures "around whom the howling / world turned." Only a "soulless needle" can tell them where they are, though even the magnetic compass is useless near the poles, where the dipping needle stands vertical. They have come to a point of origin that inversely suggests closure. Merwin describes this journey to whiteness in lines he will later directly echo in "Beginning": we have come, he writes, "to the pure south, and whichever way we turned / Was north, the sides of the north everywhere." The choices of direction are infinite, but they are all the same. With the sides of the north surrounding them, they are not liberated but confined. Time seems to have stopped; it awaits only the imprint of the law. In a poem called "The Present" he writes: "The walls join hands and / It is tomorrow."

"Beginning" realizes the figural potential of the earlier poem. The ambiguous title, without the restricting definite article, is at once noun, verb, and adjective; it makes this creation-poem coextensive with all time. It is an eschatology of origins; it binds the course of history to a single core of emptiness. The landscape is again pure whiteness--a white plain under a white sky, possibly separated by the thin seam of the horizon, but perhaps not distinguishable at all. Yet this whiteness is not of substance but of essence; like the sun, it "hangs / in a cage of light." The poem begins "long before spring," which sets it not only before the first spring or the first birth, but also as a seed or source within every renewal. The poem's distance is one of inaccessible proximity; within us and outside time, its beginning is a true origin--an end.

Within these hemispheres of light, like the germ of the poem's movement, is a black needle's eye. The image of the needle's eye combines a sense of the compass, its needle now ascending directly out of its center, with an allusion to Christ's words, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The biblical reference occurs in three earlier poems about Merwin's grandparents, as in his grandmother's belief that you could get "through ... the needle's eye if / you made up your mind straight and narrow." The needle's eye is a nexus for these past connections and also an image of vision as a rite of passage. As he writes later in "The Way Ahead":


An eye is to come


to what was never seen


the beginning opening


and beholding the end


falling into it


Out of this eye, whose pupil is a doorway into the nothingness of all things, out of this eye which is his nest, rises the king of the black cranes. Metaphorically, kingship here suggests he is the foremost of his kind, selected to bear a destiny of dark flight. Merwin may be aware of the legend alluded to in Christian art that there is indeed a king of the cranes whom the other cranes, each standing on one foot to stay awake, encircle and guard as he sleeps at night. If the legend is relevant here, it can add another dimension to the nest image: the king of the cranes rises out of preexistent watchfulness. In both Western and Eastern art the crane is frequently a positive symbol of justice, vigilance, loyalty, and good works. In Egyptian iconography the crane is associated with the ibis-headed god Thoth, spokesman and arbiter for the gods, patron of wisdom and the arts, and inventor of writing. Yet the crane is also known in a wide range of myths as a sly and wily bird, whose enticements to humans are offered in duplicity. So the crane, dark lord over the bleached plain at the beginning and the end of time; here, at least, is an ambivalent figure.

His crown turns, and his indifferent gaze falls on us. His gaze is empty; it is only a hollow cylinder through which the white landscape is focused. The eye is "drilled clear through his head"; it is an image familiar to us from modern sculpture, a more ruthless version also of the drilled eyes in ancient Greek sculpture. The image is startlingly mechanical, like a periscope or a gun turret. As the eye turns, it progressively renders the crane's whole head empty. The image of the crane's eye is a verbal successor to the black needle's eye in the first stanza. This vacant stare, the eye through which white light fllls his black head, makes the opposite colors equivalent. It heralds the collapse of all alternatives, although it is proffered to us as a first moment when distinction is only a perceiving eye moving through uniform white light. "Come out," the crane encourages, "it is north everywhere." In Merwin's work, such enticements are double-edged. "Well they'd made up their minds to be everywhere because why not," he writes in "The Last One"; the line presages an empty possessiveness that will cover the earth. Come out, he reasons, and we are tempted, as with his power of flight, by an image of the end disguised as a new beginning. If the light is not yet divided, then we need not fear our own darkness; it will be transparent. If it is north everywhere, then every failure will be an ascent, every cruelty a transfiguration. Come out, the crane demands, we shall now make everything in our image; we no longer need know ourselves at all. Dream, the crane suggests, that no things are yet to be seen; thus everything can be undone. "Everything that does not need you," Merwin wrote earlier, "is real." But these things can be undone. It is a long way before anything will happen, and the crane's offhand "come even so" is the sardonic justification for the death we would want anyway. When "the first / anything" appears it will occur under the sign of everything. "Bring your nights with you," he commands, as though we had any intention of doing otherwise, as though we had any choice. These "nights" are composed of the darkness we have inside us even in the brightest light. From the black needle's eye, our shadow rises to fall over the earth. "Beginning" extends the American myth of a second chance to a dream of a decisive chance--an opportunity to eliminate all uncertainty. Moreover, we may feel uneasily that we have already made the choice, for the crane's invitation, past the midpoint of "Beginning," also reads like a belated invitation to encounter the poem, one we accepted in venturing forth to read.

The poem seems inexorable, yet its form is almost dismantled. Its achievement is to pursue its own deconstruction with sufficient discipline to triumph over it. Full of long pauses, particularly in the last stanza, it has been pushed to the point of faltering. Although a narrative line is maintained throughout, it is reduced virtually to a series of isolated images. Whiteness, blackness, emptiness--the poem pivots about a hollow center which is nonetheless human. It comes almost as close as a poem can to containing nothing; yet it is broadly prophetic, cohering through a coldly democratic generosity that summons all subjects. It attempts to be, and largely succeeds as, an allegory of all situations.

Into its resolving emptiness "Beginning" draws all the political and social poems from The Moving Target to The Carrier of Ladders. There are no overt references to American history here, but the anguished mixture of loss and hope at the core of poems like "The Trail into Kansas," "Western Country," "Other Travellers to the River," and "The Gardens of Zuni," the last two addressed respectively to William Bartram and John Wesley Powell, culminates in this poem of ultimate beginnings and endings. In effect, "the black heart of Andrew Jackson" is traced here to its abstract origin outside any ordinary sequence of events. But the poem is also radically anticipatory, bringing America's first and last dreams together. Thus "Beginning" also generalizes Merwin's merciless vision of American history as the representative eschatology of our times. Through the tunnel of the crane's eye pass our celebrations, our songs, our pronouncements of victory and glory, and our incessant violence. A few years earlier, Merwin had written two bitterly sardonic lines indicting and connecting everything that is best and worst in us: "The beating on the bars of the cages / Is caught and parcelled out to the bells." By the time we get to "Beginning," however, the reciprocal halves of this social contract have coalesced into a single wave of sound. Our complicity with our leaders, or our enthusiasm for them (and there are no other choices), is a convulsive "applause like the heels of the hanged." In a poem like "Beginning" the cultural accusation is implicit in the metaphors of sight and light and darkness, worked into that vocabulary in such a way that it cannot be extricated. Thus we hear echoes of his earlier political judgments ("You born with the faces of presidents on your eyelids," he wrote, "and your lies elected") even in this language, which is reduced to its bare essentials.

Cary Nelson: On "The Gardens of Zuni"

"The Gardens of Zuñi," is about John Wesley Powell (1832-1902), an American geologist and ethnologist who lost his right arm at the battle of Shiloh. Powell later led a number of expeditions into the American West, worked on a scheme to classify Indian languages, and argued for careful agriculture in the dry high plains and irrigation programs in arid portions of the West. At the core of Powell's mixture of pessimism and ambition Merwin sees an exemplary American fatefulness:

Acting for all of us, Powell pursues a vision that compels us despite its temporal and spatial distance. Only his right hand, severed in the nation's fratricidal war, can still reach for the invisible virgin land we cannot forget. Our own body, lost to us and insensible, touches in an irretrievable past the virgin country that cannot be possessed.

Cary Nelson: On "December Among the Vanished"

"December among the Vanished" is one of the major poems addressed to the texture of absence.

The atmosphere of this poem offers snow, but no reviving moisture. Change is only loss; the snow "gets up"--it drifts or evaporates with the insistence of inanimate force, the winter birds (or their tracks) following its course. The beasts hiding in knitted walls anticipate the unprotected sheep of the last stanza, since we may take "knitted walls" as an image of sheep's coats, but the phrase also suggests predators in a forest, or even an animal furtiveness inhering in all matter, as when he wrote of "the night green with beasts as April with grass." In any case, the sense of threat and tension is clear. The winter is a "lipless man," sere and skeletal. The next line, "Hinges echo but nothing opens," is intended to be a complete sentence; the rattling door frames, or even the hinge of potential seasonal change, are the empty vestiges of possibilities now extinct. Yet Merwin's unpunctuated poems often create syntactical ambiguities, so we may also read that "lipless man Hinges" echo the winter. But this human presence, perhaps the hinged jaws of a skull, can neither speak, nor alter the landscape. The second stanza begins with an image of broken huts, belonging by virtue of their common origin to a silence receding into the past. We cannot remember if this silence once followed Armageddon; we suspect that it has a historical cause, but we can no longer isolate one. The lines also imply, more metaphorically, that even silence is now unhoused, even nothingness is exposed and unprotected. The pastures are no vista of openness but an encroaching distance. There are no barriers against fortune; with insensible willfulness, the snow and darkness "walk" down through shattered roofs. Everything is penetrated by loss.

The poem to this point is directed toward the last lines, where the tension becomes intolerable. They are among the most anguished lines in contemporary poetry, and their pain has no outlet. In one of those vacant huts, he writes, "I sit with a dead shepherd / And watch his lambs." The ceremony of shepherding, whether that of gods or of men, is gone out of the world; the lambs are born too late to understand their danger. The poem's tone makes the speaker seem a powerless witness, brought forward to watch in paralysis. Yet the resonances of the final verb are very complicated. "Watch" suggests not only mere observation but also protective vigilance, as in "watch over." We are not, however, convinced that the speaker could intervene if the lambs were threatened. The verb also implies the watch kept over the dead, an association which makes the lambs appear even more helpless. What is definitely missing here, what will never return, is the particular, secure relationship between the shepherd and his flock, a relationship Christianity ordinarily renews each December. The act of writing the poem is perhaps an act of witness, though the poet cannot quite become the new shepherd. Inevitably, too, our own loyalties are torn. We yearn to reach out and care for the lambs, but we are also part of that flock whose shepherd is dead.

In a larger sense, the poem itself is very nearly paralyzed. As the poem proceeds, its imagery is filled out, its emotional resonance intensified and newly dramatized, but the poem is also nothing more than another fragment of the world The Lice has evoked for forty pages. From that perspective, its broad tonal consistency suggests stasis rather than creative variation. Like so many of Merwin's recent poems, or like Rich's "Shooting Script," it is a sequence of equivalences impinging on one another; if there is a definitive key to their similarities, the poem both desires and evades it. Even the title, "December among the Vanished," straddles redundancy and contradiction--suggesting at once a double extinction and the inconceivable winter of those no longer present.

Cary Nelson: On "The Room"

In "The Room" he writes of a frail survivor whose apparently approaching death is really the imprint of inexhaustible renewal. Of course one version of poetic renewal is reading. Thus "The Room" is also about our reading the poem. "I," therefore, is not only a poet speaking--the pronoun belongs equally to the reader, so "all this" is the text we contemplate. . . .Finality, for Merwin, is endlessly repeatable.

Cary Nelson: On "The Drunk in the Furnace"

The final poem in the book, which is also the title poem, is an irrevocable perspective on his work to that point. An empty iron furnace rusts in a trash-ridden gully by a poisonous creek, until a derelict decides to make it his "bad castle." He brings his bottle, bolts the door behind him, and carouses in drunken solitude until he passes out. Written in careful septets, the poem's formal concern for a frivolous occasion mocks all the sonorities of Merwin's previous books. The poem ends with a description of the local adults listening to warnings from their preacher, while their children crowd to the irresistible furnace:


Their witless offspring flock like piped rats to its siren

Crescendo, and agape on the crumbling ridge

Stand in a row and learn.


With this burlesque of all his own overwrought rhetoric, Merwin, can never return to his earlier style. It is a deliberate aggression.