WHILE PAINTING seems more the business of stockbrokers than of artists, while orchestras endlessly replay old symphonies letting living composers go unheard, poetry flourishes: Living way below the bottom line, unexploitable, it remains as threatened and ubiquitous as the trees and the wild grass. Our very lack of a "great" poet may be a sign of the luxuriant vitality of the art. It's grand that the Brits had the sense to crown Ted Hughes' hard head with laurel, but in this wide country too much is going on for anybody to dominate the scene; and anyhow the mood, I think, isn't favorable to canons, cults, or hierarchies.
Of the five poets here reviewed the youngest is (as yet) the most self-limited, self- domesticated, unwild. A verbal confidence dazzling in itself, wit, control, precision mark Mary Jo Salter's work. In a Buddhist graveyard, Reading down, I felt as though the ashes of someone Whose name ran vertically might lie differently, somehow, in the earth. Such a small note seemed everything . . .
The oldest of these five poets was born in 1902. Her early poems in this retrospective volume are often similarly crisp and controlled, but by the end Eve Triem is passionate and incautious. Early on, she makes a lovely Taoist print -- moon-rim, a falling wave, a lifted cloud. but grown old she is a prophetess, a shaman, incantating: the lake-sunk stars were ringing: "Nine times the nine white heavens call the things that creep, run, fly. Come to the fish-meal, eat from the tympani, drink from the clashing cymbals." I looked with all my faces. The houses rose, shine-drenched, the wolf ran at my side, through the Easter light of every morning.
Winner of the 1984 Western States Book Award, New As a Wave is a very readable book, various and lively; there are poems of homage to Morris Graves and to Jimi Hendrix, elegies, carols, songs, regional pieces. Through the deft lines moves a candid, elusive, rich personality, still growing strong at 80. Her own woman, she shares life with us, (not as the dead know -- meek, learning by rote The riddling truths, myts, legends of the grave) Breathing and choosing in the jeweled world. Forsaking kingdoms. Becoming kings for love.
May Sarton is a mere septuagenarian, but count her title list with awe. This is a writer, this is what writers do: 14 volumes of poetry, 17 of fiction, two books for kids and seven collections of essays. The newest of the lot, Letters From Maine, is mostly easy going. The lines flow with facility and the grace of long usage, the rhymes are undemanding, one may be soothed by the conventionality . . . but look out. Sudden authority rings like sword-steel, and the clear old voice says with awful honesty, The fact is I am whole and very well, Joyful, centered, not to be turned aside, Full of healing and self-healing. Only the muse does not bid me cease, Who does not listen and who cannot care, Has never said "be quiet," uttered harm. She, the dark angel and the silent charm, Is all of hope and nothing of despair, And in her long withholding is my peace.
In those lines is the power that is earned by a lifetime of using power mindfully.
DENISE LEVERTOV's mastery -- more than mastery, because she is one of the originators -- of contemporary poetic form, informed with a fierce generous intelligence, can be frightening. This is the charged, overloaded poetry of the age, demanding more of the reader than most of us are mostly willing to give, so we don't read poetry, we read a thriller or something and oh, what dolts we are, what wasters of our own brief time -- missing this tenderness, this kind companion in hard times, not trying to sell us anything or scare us or fool us, but going along with us -- All the long road in chains, even if, after all, we come to death's ordinary door, with time smiling its ordinary long-ago smile.
Levertov is never "above the battle," never talks down, never shows off. A poet's obscurity may be the inability of pain to speak clear, but Levertov, fierce disciplinarian of her own mind and soul, forces pain to speak itself, and I take her words literally. The poem "Thinking About El Salvador" begins this way, and this is the truth: Because every day they chop heads off I'm silent. In each person's head they chopped off was a tongue, for each tongue they silence a word in my mouth
Courage is perhaps the keynote of Levertov's mind and art, but never heroics; no standing tall in Oblique Prayers. This courage permits simplicity, and -- though she says "oblique" -- a prayer so direct that it must say Thou, the old word of the soul, the poets' word. To the Morton Bay Figtree, Australia, a Tree-God Soul-brother of the majestic beechtree, thy sculpted buttresses only more sharp-angled, leaves darker, like the leaves of ilex -- vast tree, named by fools who noticed only thy small hard fruit, the figlike shape of it, nothing else -- not thy great girth and pallid sturdy bark, thy alert and faithful retinue of roots, the benign shade under the rule of thy crown: Arbor-Emperor, to perceive thy solemn lustre and not withhold due reverence -- may it not be for this, one might discover, a lifetime led, after all? -- not for those guilts and expiations the mind's clock ticks over, but to have sunk before thee in deep obeisance, spirits rising in weightless joy?
Women as Mythmakers, Estella Lauter writes of "that emerging world-view of relation between self and world which does not accept the categories that have enclosed our lives" -- the category of "Man" versus "Nature" chief among them. Here that non-acceptance which is acceptance states itself gently, the movement which both bows and rises being timelessly that of a woman dancing.
Susan Griffin, in The Roaring Inside Her, writes of woman and nature, woman as animal, and warns rationalists of the danger of dissecting live lions. Carolyn Kizer doesn't keep the roaring inside her. She roars it. Her poetry is intensely, splendidly oral, wanting to be read aloud, best of all to be read or roared by the lion herself, golden at the waterhole over the remains of a disembowled prig. Adherents of the button-down school may confuse Kizer's flamboyance with carelessness, but lions have that casual look, too. The room is sparsely furnished: A chair, a table, and a father. Kizer is a marvelous poet of anger and laughter; also, increasingly, of measure and of grief. From "Afterthoughts of Donna Elvira": True to your human kind You seemed to me too cruel. Now I am not a fool, Now that I fear no scorn, Now that I see, I see What you have known within: Whenever we love, we win, Or else we have never been born.
Mermaids in the Basement gives a full view of the state of this poet's dark, brilliant, and sardonic art. "The wolf ran at my side," Eve Triem writes, and the wolf runs here too. The last poem in Mermaids, "A Muse of Water," states the rejection of a division between Man and Nature as women now perhaps must state it, not by speaking against Man "for Nature" but as nature, naturally, as flesh, as grass, as water, as woman. It is a deep, desolate, and beautiful poem. Let the theorists beware of reductionism; this matter of the woman-animal was never a simple one. The dissecter's knife twists in his hand, and, as Kizer says in "Pro Femina," . . . the role of pastoral heroine Is not permanent, Jack. We want to get back to the meeting.
But the meeting is a larger one than any held by corporations or governments. And if Jack kills the last wolf, Jill must become her.