Edward Brunner

Edward Brunner: On "Travels in North America"

… The California Quarterly consistently lent its support to verse that mounted a critique that was more or less surreptitious, depending on just who was reading it. A favorite disguise borrowed trappings from the thriller. This example had its own distinguished origin in W. H. Auden’s cryptic, flat descriptions of cityscapes in the 1930s that ominously conveyed something dangerous but out of sight. "Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string," Auden began "Brussels in Winter," one of the sonnets collected in Another Time (1940), "Coming on fountains rigid in the frost, / Its formula escapes you; it has lost / The certainty that constitutes a thing" (123). These hollowed-out European cities, with their shifting frontiers and double agents, went over with surprising ease into the American idiom of the roman noir with its long and vacant avenues more welcoming to automobiles than people, its blurry zones where officials and detectives sought a clue to a mystery whose exact dimensions kept shifting. The pages of the California Quarterly highlighted verse in which the format of the crime novel or detective story was not used for simple background detail but as a self-conscious heuristic device that could best articulate a crisis specific to this time. In this respect, too, the journal shows its regional roots: noir, as a politicized genre, was a product of postwar Hollywood. Noir films with their "contempt for a depraved business culture," as Mike Davis has reminded us, amounted to "a kind of Marxist cinema manqé, a shrewdly oblique strategy for an otherwise subversive realism" (41).

In earlier years, Weldon Kees had been first to reclaim Auden’s perspective by drawing upon noir material in "Crime Club" and "Xantha Street," both of which appeared in Poetry in 1943 and were collected in The Fall of the Magicians (1947). Relocating to the West Coast in 1950 only enhanced Kees’ drop-dead tone. In "Travels in North America," the travelogue-poem he completed soon after his cross-country drive (at 110 lines, the longest work in Poems 1947-1954), the Bomb appears without fanfare in a middle segment:

 

The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,

Pinon pines and ruined pueblos, where a line

Of tall young men in uniform keep watch upon

The University of California’s atom bomb.

The sky is soiled and charitable

Behind barbed wire and the peaks of mountains –

Sangre de Christo, Blood of Christ, this "fitting portent

For the Capital of the Atomic Age." We meant

To stop, but one can only see so much. A mist

Came over us outside Tryuonyi caves, and a shattered cliff.

 

Here as elsewhere Kees is incapable of being scandalized. Corruption is so integral a part of all he sees that mere description alone discloses truths so bitter they are best not pursued. Tagging the Bomb as the "University of California’s" is enough to suggest that someday every university will have its own, just as they now boast their own sports teams. Within that laconic exaggeration lurks a darker anatomizing of the arms-race as a competition between act-alike rivals. Characteristically, Kees stands as the witness who, having seen it all, has grown to expect nothing. To the noir sensibility, the other side of the tracks is everywhere. The plainest description discloses menacing portents. "An ancient gull," he writes in one signature passage, "Dropped down to shiver gravely in the steady rain." This ravishing blend of assonance and consonance produces an extravagantly sumptuous surface just heavy enough to arouse an immense distrust. What is being hidden? Why does that gull, so wise and ancient, knowingly shudder? About the "Sangre de Christo" mountains, then, there is little to add except to remark that nothing in these times can be shocking. After all, the irony of locating the site for the all-destructive bomb next to these mountains, named so long ago, has already been finessed in what Kees presents as the commercialized language of the travel brochure.

Edward Brunner: On "For the Anniversary of My Death"

Merwin's own act of mourning himself occurs in "For the Anniversary of My Death," a work that opens in the realm of immense abstractions, with Merwin positing that "every year without knowing it I have passed the day / When the last fires will wave to me." Like the enormity of the sun, this cosmic view is appalling in its undeniability and in its emptiness, but here it gives rise to its opposite, an urgent wish to embrace the earth, a longing to honor even the smallest of moments as though they were utterly significant: "As today writing after three days of rain / Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease / And bowing not knowing to what." The renewal as rainfall ends is magnified, transforming the wren's song into a celebration both modest and all-embracing. The rest of The Lice flowers out of this grief-stricken understanding that no reference to death can be allowed that does not in some way include one's own loss of all that is beloved. Moreover, what is truly beloved is yet to be discovered: what one honors, at this moment, is unknown--one bows "not knowing to what."

Edward Brunner: On "The Drunk in the Furnace"

Aggressively, self-consciously, defiantly, it reasserts themes in a new key chosen for its excruciating dissonance. The derelict who has "established / His bad castle' in an abandoned furnace never appears, but his residency can be deduced from "a twist of smoke" and "other tokens," and he becomes the subject of local sermons, though he draws the fascinated attention of the children who "flock like piped rats" as he bangs out a grotesque music of "Hammer-and-anvilling," "jugged bellowings," and "groaning clangs" bumping against the walls that confine him but that he will not leave. Mingling despair and anger, Merwin, like his derelict, refuses to go away, even as he realizes that he must go underground to survive--that the atmosphere is poison to him.

The poem actively subverts the pattern otherwise stamped on the family poems, that rigid division of interior and exterior. Being inside a furnace that has been discarded outside blurs any clear-cut distinction, and the poem poses two irreconcilable questions: Is the drunk's cloddishness all that the community deserves, his relegation to the edge of town revealing the narrowness of people who tidy up their environment by creating junkpiles at the edge of town for those they cannot comprehend? Or is the persistence of the drunk, minding his own business and making his harmless music as he wills, distilling his spirits into a clanking all his own, a lesson in individuality, in perseverance, through his recycling of what others would discard by reshaping it to an individual purpose that blithely ignores what others conventionally expect (as Merwin has managed to recycle the refuse of his family poems)? As these two irreconcilables clash, neither resolved, it is clear that Merwin has found a way, in anger and in anguish, to express his own reaction to being a poet in his own homeland. And yet who is the drunk in the furnace if not his grandfather, an invisible outsider, as Merwin the child knew him, consigned to his marginal role, innocent and oblivious of his stature as a rebel and iconoclast, an example for children to follow. The lesson they learn, quite different from the preacher's text on stoke-holes that are "sated never," is that one must leave this confined community, going further than the junkpile at the edge of town.

Often admired as a work that prophesied an impending change in Merwin's style, "The Drunk in the Furnace" establishes a complex vantage point from which Merwin can survey the wreckage of his family cycle. The poem is, like its central figure, both defiant and circumspect: it secretes stories, none of which are allowed to emerge. But in the context of the entire cycle, especially in the light of its reconstructed development, it is lucid enough. Merwin's homecoming revealed a ruined landscape inhabited by figures sullen, secretive, and withdrawn, and a cycle of poetry that had begun expansively hardened into an abrasive pattern. This unexpected turn ultimately led to a wider understanding of the America into which he had fallen. In the cycle as arranged for final publication, his homeland is the place in which the habit of forgetfulness has become thoroughly ingrained. What he understands is the fact of his own exclusion, and by the close he has found the only home available to him: the margins of the community, where he will dwell as an exile.

Edward Brunner: On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"

Marjorie Perloff’s recent description that heavily emphasizes its negative features brings forward its oddity. The poem begins as its third-person speaker wakens in a bright morning suddenly to believe that the air is "awash with angels." This is not a fleeting impression: it is pursued over two of the 5-line stanzas that make up the poem. But the notion, of course, cannot be sustained. When the wind suddenly dies, it is revealed that the angels are mere laundry lent temporary animation by the wind, and the illusion is broken. A sense of loss, regret and anger spills over into the fourth stanza in which the poet yearns for there to be "nothing on earth but laundry … clear dances done in the sight of heaven." But as the sun rises and the poet more fully awakens, "in a changed voice" he brings the poem to a close by distributing advice that is suffused with a sense of largesse. The idea of angel-laundry is no longer held tightly, as one clings to the last remnants of a lovely but fading dream: it is imaginatively distributed to all in a celebratory spirit in which Wilbur is nonetheless poking fun at himself or at the need to furnish a "climactic" ending to his poem. His seriocomic pronouncements mix wryness with pomposity:

"Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;

Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,

And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating

Of dark habits,

                        keeping their difficult balance."

The poem may be said to move "dialectically" with this final statement presenting itself as the earned resolution, the harmonious product of the process unfolding as the work moved from idealism to realism to this pragmatic compromise in which real bodies wear real clothes. But the poem’s charm lies in the half-smile Wilbur wears throughout the performance. As correct as the poem is, there is something slightly foolish and even trivial about it – laundry as angels? The rising sun solving all? Then the closing benediction and the zany distribution of the laundry – clothes for the backs of thieves who should be punished on their backs, sweet clothes for lovers who will just take them off right away, and dark habits for nuns who should not find their balance difficult to keep?

… It is notable, as Perloff observes so sharply, that that the laundry-experience is so blissfully intangible. Richard Eberhart, one of the poets commenting on the poem for Ostroff’s 1957 symposium, nearly undoes the whole poem with a single down-to-earth remark: "I ought to add that it is a man’s poem. Certainly not all women would like a laundry poem which pays no heed to hard work and coarsened hands. They might say, poet, have your ruddy dream, but give us better detergents" (5). Yet it seems essential for the opening vision to be as remote and unreal and other-worldly as possible. It opens with a fantasy that is rich with an unvoiced guiltiness – a longing to be free of the messy individuality of persons, to be the single subject in a world of things in which all the objects are graceful and dance in the light. The poem’s first half performs its freshening, illuminating false-dawn recovery of the world of the angelically unreal in order that we may turn out from it to accept the chastening discovery of the "truth" of the morning world in which clothes are worn by humans, not inspirited by angels. The essence of this poetic is to offer first refreshment, then reality. The artist’s world is here linked to the ephemeral, the marginal, to the world of women’s work and children’s games. When that world is withdrawn, the effect is shattering: there is a sense of emptiness that overwhelms, and there is rage in the heart. "Blessed rape" resembles a curse that the disgruntled figure hurls at the world. It is what happens next, however, that is the central point of the poem. The poet does not remain cast down, for the reality is that this is not just a dream or a daydream in which the loss of a moment of supernal loveliness is truly shattering, even embittering. It is, instead, a poem that is very much staged: Wilbur as (in Perloff’s words) "producer" now goes on to demonstrate the advantage of the poetic turn, which is that it is possible to take up that pure moment of origin with which the poem opened, even to lose it for a moment or to find that it has become utterly intangible, but then to invoke that opening instant, in a new way and on a new level, wherein what is lost is recovered and what had been overturned as empty is now understood as filled.

The ending, of course, is not supposed to be the least bit sober. Thieves, lovers, nuns are thrown together quirkily, as if they all might find things to say to each other – and from Augustine’s view (as a one-time libertine whose writings were foundational for the Catholic church) they surely do. If Perloff is in some way right, then, to accuse Wilbur of silliness, and even unreality, why then was the work so welcome in its time? While Perloff’s theory that the poem exemplifies an interest in "equipoise" and "universality" goes along with a dismissive narrative that paints Wilbur as a bland craftsman in an era committed to deliberate acts of forgetfulness, it is unlikely that so abstract a project would have the deep appeal of this poem. In its time, the poem accomplished a task more arduous and more pointed, nicely demonstrating the distinction between the world of dreams like daydreams (which is also the world of mass culture), and the world of dreams which is the world of poetry (if not also Augustinean idealism). When a daydream-like dream is over, the resulting plunge back into reality resembles the collapse in which angels are exposed as just a mistake: emptied out, the spirit is downcast, the absence of its once-glittering vision disorienting and dismaying. As daydream, the vision cannot be reconstituted. And were Wilbur not producing a poem, the experience would end in the darkness of this plea that also resembles a curse: "Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry …" But the turn that Wilbur makes transforms his experience into poetry – it is that displacement and repossession of the vision by conceiving its local application. Poetry’s real dreams down-size deep dreams and accommodate them to actuality. Of course the possibility that the turn cannot be taken is also explored in the poem, long enough for us to recognize those feelings of loss and disorientation that accompanies the recognition that something wonderful which we had thought to have made our own turned out to have been just as impossible as it had seemed. That moment of despair and loss is what the poem plays off and moves against. What is most "real," then, in the poem is just that sensation of having been cheated or left behind: not the wild belief that the air is filled with angels, which of course must be proven to be a fantasy, but rather that sharp pang of loss in which the fantastic turns out to be merely what it was – the fantastic. That is not a moment that is particularly limited to the 1950s, though the sense that abundance is not enough, that the combination of wealth and free time did not necessarily deliver happiness, was an important discovery that seems to have been made over and over in the course of the postwar years. When Wilbur demonstrates how to recoil from that keen disappointment, how to recover by inventively assuming the role of someone who drolly distributes feelings of largesse and pleasure, then he is not only modeling how to act but he is also acknowledging the negatives and positives of a world in which the abundant is continually presenting us with moments of intense pleasure that may just as abruptly turn fleeting.

Here as in other poems, Wilbur continues in his role as the postwar poet whose sense of audience encompasses those still new to poetry. He can recognize and address the experience of feeling aesthetically cheated by a vision too impossibly-alluring, but what is more, he can responsibly point a way beyond the moments of dislocation and anger. Perloff’s claim that "the actual ‘things of this world,’ in 1956, are studiously avoided" (86) is only true if those "things" are limited to "the real hands of laundresses, hands that Eliot," Perloff adds, "half a century earlier, had envisioned as ‘lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms.’" (86) But Wilbur has long advanced past that half century, and when Wilbur sighs over "Rosy hands in the rising steam" he is mocking himself and his longing for an unreal perfection. Remarkably suited to the limits of a culture of abundance, few poems dealt more smartly with worldly things circa 1956.

Anniversary of my Death

Edward Brunner

Merwin's own act of mourning himself occurs in "For the Anniversary of My Death," a work that opens in the realm of immense abstractions, with Merwin positing that "every year without knowing it I have passed the day / When the last fires will wave to me." Like the enormity of the sun, this cosmic view is appalling in its undeniability and in its emptiness, but here it gives rise to its opposite, an urgent wish to embrace the earth, a longing to honor even the smallest of moments as though they were utterly significant: "As today writing after three days of rain / Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease / And bowing not knowing to what." The renewal as rainfall ends is magnified, transforming the wren's song into a celebration both modest and all-embracing. The rest of The Lice flowers out of this grief-stricken understanding that no reference to death can be allowed that does not in some way include one's own loss of all that is beloved. Moreover, what is truly beloved is yet to be discovered: what one honors, at this moment, is unknown--one bows "not knowing to what."

By Edward Brunner. From Poetry and Labor as Privilege: The Writings opf W.S. Merwin. Copyright © 1991 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Edward Brunner: On "Sun and Rain"

At its most effective, the caesura allows a degree of movement simply unavailable in verse with only one kind of pause within it. It allows for levels of activity within the activity promised by the individual line. Moreover, the flexibility of the caesura allows for exchanges of position: midway through the line, when we anticipate a weak turn, we may experience a strong one, and the reverse can happen at the end of the line. The line can turn intense or grow slack, within itself, according to the poem as it is shaped.

The immense advantage of the variable caesura, then, is that it can orchestrate such a minor turn--not strong enough to deserve an entire line to itself yet indicating a distinct shift. Its inflection can be reserved for the turn that occurs within memory, the turn less active than the major turns unfolding as the poem develops. Although the caesura is exclusively associated with verse and related to the fundamental verse unit, the line break, it allows Merwin to borrow a feature from the spaciousness of prose: syntax can now be used adroitly, in the form of the prepositional phrase, to downplay turns, to render them less active.

One poem that draws on phrasings that might be considered weak, yet that serve to orchestrate the poet's feelings most precisely, is "Sun and Rain." In the first stanza, the last halves of the lines form around prepositional phrases, weak turns that present Merwin's movement back into the past "after five years." In general, active statements begin after the line break, honoring its greater authority ("I find that," "looking down," and "hearing the current") while the afterthoughts, the deepening downward pull towards the past, occur in prepositional phrases that follow the caesura. Merwin conveys the sudden downward spiral of being overtaken by a memory of sorrow; the softening into darkness is palpable as we move from "a bright window" to the image of his mother looking "at dusk into a river" and "hearing the current as hers."

Against this emerges the saving gesture of the second stanza-- hands held out for another and clinging to a long moment on the edge of death. The strength in the gesture is kept up in the forthright clauses that now begin to dominate and even spill over beyond the boundary of the caesura. This in turn leads back to the present, with the vivid movement of creatures that "turn uphill" in "a band of sunlight" and stand "as the dark rain touches them," as the hands of his mother and father once touched. It is a complex surrogate moment, in which Merwin's longing to reach out to his own mother is answered by this recollected moment in which his father had been able to overcome his own hesitancy to extend his hand to hers, and then comforted further by this encompassing vision of sun and rain mingling together. The vision is a gift much as his father's gesture was a gift to his mother: it keeps that gesture alive and recovers it for the present.