What, to a reader, is more thrilling than to discover a young, spirited, beautiful poet whose work brims with feeling and social commitment, poetry "both lyrical and engaged"? It may be a poet who is all of these, except young in years, who has 11 books of poetry--many of which are in print, thanks to New Directions--Denise Levertov. That is her phrase, "lyrical and engaged," which she has applied to Carolyn Forch,e, who is doing, Levertov says, "the kind of work I want to do." Here are remarkable books by Forch,e and Levertov, Josephine Jacobsen, Marge Piercy and Adrienne Rich, five distinguished women whom one would not care to rank. So I will discuss them alphabetically, with a little weaving back and forth.
Carolyn Forche's The Country Between Us (Harper & Row, $11.50; paperback, $5.95) has already won the Lamont Prize, and will win others. Forch,e lived for two years in El Salvador, and her courage has been unflinching, both in her role as endangered witness to horror, and in her commitment to write about it. Once again --and Forch,e is not alone here--the poet serves as our conscience. Some with a bad conscience will heap praise upon her, hoping that there is room for them under her umbrella; some of the rest will take up the stale cry that a true poet does not concern herself with "politics." These last will go on like this until they are choked by the first whiff of nerve gas or the first fire-storm. Meanwhile, let me quote Forche back to them: Your problem is not your life as it is in America, not that your hands, as you tell me, are tied to do something. It is that you were born to an island of greed and grace where you have this sense of yourself as apart from others . . . (from "Return") There is a cyclone fence between ourselves and the slaughter and behind it we hover in a calm protected world like netted fish, exactly like netted fish. It is either the beginning or the end of the world, and the choice is ourselves or nothing. (from "Ourselves or Nothing")
I flinch from quoting terrible and explicit details of blood, torture and mutilation--"There is nothing one man will not do to another"--because they are pornographic ripped from the context of Forch,e's love and concern for humankind, and of her desperate need to tell us what we desperately need to hear. But this is the ending of her prose poem, "The Colonel," which to any of us "with mud on our shoes"--to use a good phrase of William Atwood's--presents a deadly accurate portrait of the type of Latino military brute so beloved by a succession of American administrations to this day:
The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go f--- themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
Josephine Jacobsen's mind is exquisite and urbane, which is not to say that it has confined itself to salon conversation or academic discourse. In The Chinese Insomniacs (University of Pennsylvania Press, $9.95; paperback, $4.95) as with her hair-raising stories (A Walk With Raschid), there is a lively sense of the world's evil, told with a blandness and skill that makes the reader shudder, but never the author. One could say of all the poets under consideration today (including this reviewer) that, with the exception of Jacobsen, none of us is quite grown up. This means, among other things, that we are not shock- proof, that we will always react to fresh horrors as if for the first time. This is to the good, as it annuls world- weariness, leads us to rush at the old targets yet again. Still, how comforting is full maturity! The fado singer winged in black like The Lodger or a vertical bat, black in the green light sings of death and love of love and treachery, of lonely death and love. These are conferred on us, trivial and happy drinkers, unconsumptive, wed, having, all, return tickets to somewhere and convivial presumptions. Taller we rise as one to agree to his offer. The fado singer handling our bones and nerves, fingers our heart and finds it alive: so he tells us we will die, or love will, or the one come from the other; or we will kill each other, or lose each other . . . (from "Two Escudos")
Formal and fastidious, Jacobsen meditates on death--oh, not because she herself is aging, nothing even faintly vulgar like that--because of her apprehension of our fleshly frailty. In El Salvador, on her way to the airport, Forch,e's car rides over a man's intestines, "spread out like a garden hose and I couldn't stop." One feels that somehow Jacobsen has imagined even this: I was not there; but have known this slaughter, of old. I know quite well the night, cold; the knife, honed. (from "The Provider")
There is one further thing about Jacobsen I feel impelled to say, which will do neither her nor me any good with our formidable sisters: she is a lady. The dictionaries are not a lot of help here, because, male-written, they do not mean what I mean, obsessed as they are with rank and status. Piecing bits together from this source and that, I define it thus: she is gentle, tactful and incapable of cruelty, though she understands it well. She is the obverse of innocence, and more beautiful.
Denise Levertov, like the late Muriel Rukeyser, is a hero, and indomitable. I see her small, sturdy person, graying now, trudging from reading to meeting, giving her energies without stint to the cause of nuclear disarmament, to justice in Latin America, shrugging off the jeers of the disengaged; yet the hurt is in her eyes, because she is very feminine, vulnerable, human: longing, as we all do, to be cherished, to be cared for. So she is able to seek out and speak to these qualities in others, men as well as women. It is a joy to say that she has worked through the occasional rhetoric and strained proselytizing of some of her Vietnam poems (some, of course, are the best of the poems we have of that tortured period, rightfully acknowledged, duly anthologized) to the high plateau of this book, Candles in Babylon (New Directions, $12.95), where (to quote her again on the subject of Carolyn Forch,e's poems) "there is no seam between personal and political, lyrical and engaged": I send my messages ahead of me. You read them, they speak to you in siren tongues, ears of flame spring from your heads to take them. When I arrive, you love me, for I sing those messages you've learned by heart, and bring, as housegifts, new ones . . . But soon you love me less. I brought with me too much, too many laden coffers, the panoply of residence, improper to a visit. Silks and furs, my enormous wings, my crutches, and my spare crutches, my desire to please, and worse-- my desire to judge what is right . . . When I leave, I leave alone, as I came. (from "Poet and Person")
In Light Up the Cave (New Directions, $15; paperback, $6.95), her interesting new collection of essays, Levertov says, "The true heroes and heroines of political radicalism are those who maintain a rich inner life." I would add that a part of that rich life is a saving sense of humor, a delight in play, a self-directed irony--"my crutches, and my spare crutches"--which Josephine Jacobsen knows all about, and in which, I fear, Adrienne Rich is sadly deficient. And a life enriched by reading, myth and dream, as in this by Levertov: Yes, this year you feel at a loss, there is no Demeter, to whom to return if for a moment you saw yourself as Persephone. It is she, Demeter, has gone down to the dark. Or if it is Orpheus drawing you forth, Eurydice, he is inexorable, and does not look back to let you go . . . (from "Talking to Oneself")
The supreme triumph of this book is Levertov's "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus" (better known as Doubting Thomas), in which she ties together the various threads of her life, from its beginnings--her father was an Anglican clergyman--to the passionate concerns of the present. Here are some fragments from the "Agnus Dei": Given that lambs are infant sheep, that sheep are afraid and foolish, and lack the means of self-protection, having neither rage nor claws, venom nor cunning, what then is this 'Lamb of God'? . . . What terror lies concealed in strangest words, O lamb of God that taketh away the Sins of the World: an innocence %?%?%?smelling of ignorance, born in bloody snowdrifts, licked by forebearing dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together? God then, encompassing all things, is defenseless? Omnipotence has been tossed away, reduced to a wisp of damp wool? . . . . . . is it implied that we must protect this perversely weak animal whose muzzle's nudgings suppose there is milk to be found in us? Must hold to our icy hearts a shivering God? . . .
It is to be hoped that some gifted musician, reading these words, will be impelled to set them to music. Otherwise we may read them aloud to ourselves when we are alone, as my husband did this Easter past, or gather in groups to read them to each other.
From the above, it might seem that the reviewer lacks a certain detachment proper to this enterprise. Let me just clinch it by saying that the next time Denise goes to jail, I plan on going with her.
Marge Piercy is my idea of the very model of a modern major feminist. There is a deal of sheer, toe-curling pleasure to be gained from reading this robust, protean and hilarious woman's selected poems, Circles on the Water (Knopf, $17.50; paperback, $8.95): Athena Promachos, warrior goddess thirty feet tall, no longer exists. . . . A thousand years she stood over fire and mud, then hauled as booty to Constantinople, where the Crusaders, bouncy legionnaires on the town, melted her down for coins. These words are pebbles sucked from mouth to mouth since Chaucer. I don't believe the Etruscans or the Mayans lacked poets, only victories. Manuscripts under glass, women's quilts packed away lie in the attics of museums sealed from the streets where the tactical police are clubbing the welfare mothers. There are no cameras, so it is not real. . . . (from "Athena in the front lines")
That passage is characteristically funny and acute, but it doesn't display her earthiness, her wonderful physicalness. A poem called "Morning athletes," about two women, "in mid-lives jogging, awkward/ in our baggy improvisations," goes on: It is not the running I love, thump thump with my leaden feet that only infrequently are winged and prancing, but the light that glints off the cattails as the wind furrows them . . . the way the pines blacken the sunlight on their bristles . . . and your company as we trot, two friendly dogs leaving tracks in the sand . . .
In addition to being as fine on the subject of friendship as any T'ang Dynasty Chinese poet, Piercy, who so richly bodies forth the five senses, is wonderful about sex: Now I look for men whose easy bellies show a love for the flesh and the table, men who will come in the kitchen and sit, who don't think peeling potatoes makes their penis shrink; men with broad fingers and purple figgy balls . . . (from "Cats like angels")
It is good to have the work of seven volumes bound together in one book, along with seven new poems. I miss some old ones, but delight in the discoveries which this kind of gathering reveals. It should be made clear, however, that the passages quoted above do not dngs, isplay Piercy's full range. They could not. This is a woman who can write breathtaking poetry about making love to a man, and then move into a brilliant diatribe about their inequality ("Doing it differently"): We will be equal, we say, new man and new woman. But what man am I equal to before the law of court or custom? The state owns my womb and hangs a man's name on me like the tags hung on dogs . . .
Make no mistake. This is a woman totally committed to the freedom of her sex, by any means she can devise, from the blackest and bitterest wit to the sweeping opulence of her very latest work, in which the persona is a woman's version of Mother Courage, as black as Brecht, but as luminous and loving as Marge Piercy: Send me your worn hacks of tired themes, your dying horses of liberation, your poor bony mules of freedom now, I am the woman sitting by the river. I mend old rebellions and patch them new . . . I am the old woman sitting by the river scolding corpses. I want to stare into the river and see the bottom glinting like clean hair. I want to outlive my usefulness and sing water songs, songs in praise of the green brown river flowing clean through the blue green world. (from "Let us gather at the river")
Perhaps one reason why so many critics like to concentrate on dead women poets--aside from our growing national necrophilia--is that there will be no surprises. The critic won't have to eat his or her words when the next book comes out. Adrienne Rich is a particularly dangerous proposition in this regard. In recent years, each new book has been a surprise; and a shock to some. Like Levertov, she has a way of working out her preoccupations in public, so that we get the raw as well as the cooked. Sometimes the respectful reader, knowing their track records, makes an unusual effort to empathize, to understand. I confess, then, with some temerity, to having reservations about A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978- 1981) (Norton, $12.95; paperback, $4.95). Her wild patience feels more like a cold impatience to me. In her poem, "Rift," Rich says: "Yes, I find you/ overweening, obsessed, and even in your genius/ narrow-minded," which seems like an apt portrait of the poet herself. When she writes, in "The Images": . . . when did we ever choose to see our bodies strung in bondage and crucifixion across the exhausted air when did we choose (Note: for Goth) to be lynched on the queasy electric signs of midtown when did we choose (Note: for Goth) to become the masturbator's fix . . .
I feel that the barricades are up in the war between men and women; the demands are non-negotiable; there will be no compromise, no retreat. And I know that she wants it that way. But to what purpose? It is my hope that one half of the human race is negotiating with the other half, in an attempt to save it. All else is futile crooning over one's wounds as one backs further and further into the cave.
Later in the same poem, Rich goes on: I can never romanticize language again never deny its power for disguise or mystification but the same could be said for music or any form created painted ceilings beaten gold worm-worn pietas reorganizing victimization frescoes translating violence into patterns so powerful and pure we continually fail to ask are they true for us . . .
There is a whiff of Calvin or Cromwell in these glittering lines, a whiff of burning tapestry, a thud of statues dashed to the ground, that stirs in me painful echoes of the past, where one set of bigots told the rest of us what we might or might not be permitted to love.
And yet, and yet . . . The other day, a woman I know who has just undergone a traumatic divorce, told me of her feelings of uncertainty about her son, who seemed to have withdrawn from her during these painful last months. Then, for her birthday, he gave her a copy of A Wild Patience, inscribed with these lines from Rich's poem, "Heroines": How can I fail to love your clarity and fury how can I give you all your due take courage from your courage . . .
And so the unreconciled Adrienne Rich is used as an instrument of reconciliation, an affirmation of empathy, and by a man too! And so, in Denise Levertov's words, there is milk to be found in us. Over all, the message of these splendid women is that we must keep on trying to "hold to our icy hearts a shivering God."