Auguries of Experience: The Poetry of Naomi Replansky
By Eric GudasSeptember 8, 2016
You walked a crooked mile
you smiled a crooked smile
you dropped a wandering tear
all in a crooked year.
When there was one kiss
against ten curses
and one loaf
against ten hungry
and one hello
against ten goodbyes
the odds stalked
your crooked steps.
And you turned no corner
and against ten cannon
you had one fist
and against ten winters
you had one fire.
Replansky makes a point of not alluding to the traditional “crooked man” poem’s final lines, “And they all lived together / In a crooked little house.” On the contrary, she emphasizes her addressee’s solitary, outcast status: he belongs so much to the four winds that even his tear-drop “wander[s].” He reminds me of the “dust bowl refugees” and itinerant outlaws in the songs of Woody Guthrie, another bard of the Great Depression. “You Walked a Crooked Mile” meditates on the vicissitudes of endurance and survival in a hostile environment, even as it relies on and renews verse techniques — here, anaphora and other modes of repetition — that have themselves endured for millennia. The repetition of “you,” “against,” “ten,” and “one” drives home how much “the odds” are stacked against this mythic, solitary survivor-figure, who only grows stronger — at least in this reader’s eyes — by facing down so many hardships, but nonetheless remains vulnerable to what King Lear (another “crooked man”) called “necessity’s sharp pinch.”
“You Walked a Crooked Mile” made a lifelong impact on the late Philip Levine, who once characterized Replansky as “an intensely political poet, appalled by the cruelty, greed, and corruption of the masters of nations and corporations, appalled and enraged.” Nevertheless, she mostly eschews the role of protest poet, opting instead to dramatize the intense vulnerability of individual human subjects in a verse style that is both delicate and tough-minded. When Levine first read her poems in the 1940s, the spirit of radicalism, in the broadest and most topical senses, was not yet incompatible with rhyme and meter. At the time, poets like Replansky, W. H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Thomas McGrath (Replansky’s friend from the late 1930s onward) — working from a common impulse rather than as a school per se — used vernacular verse forms to confront the Great Depression, race-hatred in the United States, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Holocaust. In 2016, however, Replansky’s decades-long commitment to a rigorous formalism that was forged in the crucible of Depression-era radical poetics and politics may seem anachronistic to some. “I loved to mark time / With a beat, with rhyme,” Replansky declares late in her Collected Poems, published by Black Sparrow/Godine in 2012; but some contemporary readers accustomed to free verse, and to formal verse that seeks to efface its connection to oral tradition, tend, alas, to find rhythm and rhyme hopelessly outré. For those willing to breach the divide, however, PennSound has posted a trove of recordings of the poet reciting her own work, along with an interview by Charles Bernstein and Alan Filreis, just in time for Replansky’s 98th birthday. Now, with her Collected Poems still widely available and her voice accessible to anyone with an internet connection, there is no better time to discover Replansky’s poems. I hope they serve a great many others as they have served me: aural talismans in the daily struggle.
As she revealed in recent interviews with Bridges and Huffington Post, Replansky arrived at her lifelong identification with the marginalized as a matter of necessity. Her Russian-Jewish grandparents fled the tsarist pogroms for the United States at the turn of the last century; her parents first met on the Lower East Side and eventually moved to the Bronx, where Replansky was born in 1918. Despite her parents’ difficulty in making ends meet — recalled in her poem “An Inheritance” (1973) — and her older brother’s death of mastoiditis when she was 12, Replansky’s childhood had some freewheeling moments. Around the ages of 10 and 11, she often visited her aunt’s Brooklyn apartment, where she learned firsthand about the then-recent struggle for women’s suffrage. There, she read back issues of the socialist magazine The Liberator, which featured the work of such poets as Louis Ginsberg (now better known as Allen’s father), Carl Sandburg, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay. She first encountered poems of socio-political outrage like Blake’s “London” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in Upton Sinclair’s The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest (1915). Replansky herself started writing before the age of 10, and by her mid-teens had even published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. (Ever the perfectionist, she has never reprinted that sequence, despite Monroe’s imprimatur.) Replansky not only wrote but published love poems to another woman in Contemporary American Women Poets (1936), although she did not see her work in print until decades later, when she found the anthology in the Lesbian Herstory Archives, then housed in Joan Nestle’s apartment. Her first book, Ring Song (1952), which was nominated for the National Book Award, shows a young writer passionately engaged with the aesthetic and social conflicts of the 1930s and ’40s, using, to quote Huffington Post’s Allan Jalon, “a plain-spoken, yet highly allusive, style from a stew of influences that included William Blake, black spirituals, Latin American Surrealism and Mother Goose.” This was a one-of-a-kind “stew” even at the time, as noted by the reviewer for Poetry, who praised the collection for being “secure in its […] personal intransigence” — in this case, a quality worthy of high esteem! — and lauded Replansky’s “gift of independence.”
That independence shows its face in Replansky’s occasional forays into protest poetry as such, like this verse from 1943, which makes a meta-poetic argument for the urgency of its own refrain:
A brick not used in building
Can smash a window pane.
For anyone with ears to hear
Let it be said again.
A brick not used in building
Can smash a window pane.
The operative word here is “can.” Instead of advocating window-smashing, the poet calls attention to the destructiveness inherent in all kinds of untapped potential. “In Another Part of the City: A Vision Out of Television,” written 50 years later, confronts the aftermath of urban unrest and, in the process, affirms the relevance of “A Brick Not Used in Building.” I first read the following lines about a year after watching news reports of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, and have returned to them many times, most recently when the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore flared out from televisions and computer screens:
His burned-out childhood smoldered in the street.
In broken glass, he spoke as witness for
Each freezing kitchen and each gutted store.
Replansky juxtaposes pentameter and dimeter lines, in the manner of Thomas Hardy, to show just how vulnerable the young man’s body is to the “broken glass” at his feet; but this light touch only heightens her poem’s profound empathy for its subject. The poem’s final line powerfully and epigrammatically calls attention to the profundity of his grievances as well as to the inexorable gulf between him and the geographically — and socially — distant TV viewers: “He spoke so freely that they thought him free.”
Long before she wrote this poem, Replansky was drawn to social causes of the left — demonstrating against segregation, picketing, leafleting — though she never joined the Communist Party. In the 1940s, she became friendly with two well-known writers of the left, Richard Wright and Bertolt Brecht. The names of some of the journals that published her poems — Negro Quarterly, Masses & Mainstream, Art and Action — hint at the tumultuous times in which she wrote them. In 1949, for unspecified reasons, the State Department denied her the right to travel outside the United States, refusing to return her passport until about 10 years later. Between the 1930s and the mid-1960s, Replansky lived, peripatetically, between New York, Paris, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In L.A. during the 1950s, she and McGrath were part of a literary circle loosely associated with the left-wing literary journals Coastlines and The California Quarterly. (Estelle Gershgoren Novak’s 2002 anthology Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era provides an invaluable guide to this overlooked period.) Since 1964, she has lived in New York City, where I first crossed paths with her not long before The Dangerous World: New and Selected Poems, 1934-1994, her first full-length book since Ring Song, was published.
As poem titles like “A Good Day’s Work,” “Night Prayer for Various Trades,” and “Grievances Presented to the Boss, the Muse of Lyric Poetry, by the International Union of Lyric Poets” indicate, Replansky writes often about the lives of wage-laborers — including herself. She has held a wide range of jobs, mostly non-academic, including stints in offices and factories; beginning in the late 1960s, Replansky worked as a computer programmer. “Factory Poem” (1953) recalls her life as a lathe operator during World War II:
The tool-bit cut, the metal curled,
The oil soaked through her clothing.
She made six hundred parts a day
And timed herself by breathing.
Here Replansky makes use of another centuries-old form, the ballad stanza or “fourteener,” to evoke the experience — the clichéd term seems entirely appropriate here — of alienated labor. The factory-worker’s own “clothing” and “breathing” estrange her from herself and, in the process, make her into a mechanized human-machine that exists to serve the lathe. Even her mind loses its active inquisitiveness: “And what she made and where it went / She did not ask or wonder.” The lines’ strict metrical regularity grows almost excruciating, until the worker “wishe[s] away the newborn week / And wishe[s] the daylight over” — at which point the poem relinquishes rhyme and meter for a more urgent, syntax-based rhythm and, for the first time, shifts to a first-person speaker:
Evening bell, you I long for
With such restless longing,
Come, straighten my shoulders
And deliver my hands.
Replansky read “Factory Poem” in a recent video interview with her and her partner of many decades, the Austrian-born refugee writer Eva Kollisch, when they received the 2016 Clara Lemlich Award for Social Activists. One form of Replansky’s engagement — using the word broadly — is her enduring commitment to poetry as a communitarian endeavor. Watching the interview with Replansky and Kollisch, I recalled the times when, in my 20s — having had the courage to introduce myself to her after that first reading — I sat around that same table in her Upper West Side apartment, taking turns reciting poems while traffic hummed by stories below. From Replansky’s lips, I first heard any number of poems by Anonymous (author of “The Unquiet Grave” and “Dem Bones” among others), Stevie Smith, John Clare, César Vallejo, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Emily Dickinson — for a start. I still recall how time seemed to stop during her recital of John Betjeman’s “A Child Ill,” with its nakedly plaintive refrain, “Oh, little body, do not die.” Those now-distant afternoons taught me more about poetry as a social endeavor than years of writing workshops ever did.
Occasionally, Replansky would recite her own poems, and when she did, I always asked to hear “The Invisible Man” (1947), which depicts a pair of outcasts as isolated and eternally unfulfilled as Tantalus or the Cumaean Sibyl. Written before Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which was published in 1952, it too was inspired by H. G. Wells’s 1897 science-fiction novella. The poem, composed during Replansky’s Parisian sojourn in the late 1940s, seems set in Baudelaire’s hallucinatory “city full of dreams / Where ghosts by daylight tug the passer’s sleeve”:
I often see the invisible man,
That wandering man, and see him easily.
And still I know it is not I he seeks.
I am too close, I am like family.
Because I need no argument to see him,
Even my arms around him cannot prove him
More than a dream of dreaming, more than cloud.
A tense air of mystery and danger pervades the poem, as it does in Wells’s novella and its numerous film adaptations. The effect is due not only to the furtive “close[ness]” between the speaker and the invisible man, but also to the poem’s verbal texture. Words conceal themselves inside other words, as “see” quietly morphs into “seek.” Behind the regular iambic lines pulses a more incantatory and archaic rhythm, discernible in the anapests common to poetry written for children, and in the three-syllable word “wandering” — recall the “wandering tear” from “You Walked a Crooked Mile” — which hints at the two-syllable, elided version of the word common to early modern verse. At the conclusion of Paradise Lost, for instance, Adam and Eve skulk out of paradise “with wand’ring steps and slow.”
Metrics aside, “wandering” lends the poem an archetypal, mythic air that goes back at least as far as Genesis, in which God condemns Cain to become “a fugitive and wanderer” upon the earth. The word “wander,” which connotes both meandering and literal homelessness, is beloved by poets, especially the British Romantics who helped revive the ballad form that would later serve Replansky, Auden, and other 20th-century poets so well. Replansky’s wanderers have more in common with Blake’s, one of whom so famously “wander[s] thro’ each charter’d street” of London to confront “marks of weakness, marks of woe,” than with Wordsworth’s ethereal ramblers. Replansky’s subjects suffer “woe” because they are excluded from the communities they long to join or return to. In the opening stanzas’ insistent long-“e” sounds, I hear the speaker’s importunate longing: despite her erotic or comradely connection with the invisible man, she cannot give him what he craves — recognition by the “solid citizens” of the everyday world. Replansky puns on “solid” to depict the citizens as both corporeal and respectable. Coincidentally, in the same year that Replansky completed the poem, ground was broken on Levittown, which the Guardian recently described as “America’s prototypical postwar planned community,” where (exclusively white) “solid citizens” flocked to become part of the United States’s increasingly homogenous culture in the decades after World War II.
In the section devoted to the invisible man himself, Replansky deploys mostly monosyllabic words to underscore the iambic feet that move across the stanza as insistently as the “solid citizens” march past:
And they walk towards him and he smiles in pride.
And they walk through him and he droops in shame.
“You can’t do that!” he cries, “I am no highway!
“If only I had clothing you would see me!
“And must I shoot a gun for you to hear me?”
But they walk through him and their path lies open
And their five senses not for him are sharp.
Replansky uses figures of repetition (“and they walk” takes on an ominous ring) and pointed verbs as skillfully as a graphic artist deploys a charcoal pencil; indeed, I cannot help but imagine the desperate, drooping invisible man as a cartoon character for children, grotesquely pitiable as the man in the moon. “The Invisible Man” taps into some of the primal fears, anxieties, and desires felt so intensely by children: the dread of abandonment; a keen awareness of power dynamics resulting from one’s own relatively helpless state; a longing for inclusion in a social group; and a firsthand knowledge of inequity. As Dickens’s Pip reminds himself in Great Expectations, for a child “there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small.” Replansky’s speaker depicts the invisible man’s rage in words that a child could understand — “You can’t do that!”
The startling line “‘And must I shoot a gun for you to hear me?’” — as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1947 — jolts the poem out of childhood and into the world of adult injustices, or at least into a world where adults use deadly means to redress perceived unfairness. Griffin, Wells’s monomaniacal scientist, becomes the agent of his own invisibility, which he hopes to use as a tool to commit violence against those who defy him (“It is killing we must do,” Griffin tells his horrified compatriot). Replansky reverses the metaphor by granting the “solid citizens” the power to confer visibility — literal and metaphoric — and rendering her invisible man defenseless in the process. The line “And their five senses not for him are sharp” slightly inverts syntax to put “not for him” right in the middle, implying that the “solid citizens” actively deprive the man of their recognition and fuel his potentially lethal rage. As Ellison’s narrator famously states, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Although they worked in ignorance of each other, Replansky and Ellison each intuited that the struggle for visibility in the postwar United States would take increasingly deadly forms.
In other poems of the 1940s, Replansky hints at the kind of political violence that erupts at the end of Ellison’s novel. In “Restless Dialogue” (1945), for instance, a pair of interracial lovers who conceal themselves from “a crowd mobbing a delicate secret, / The race-law shouted and the lynch-cross hammered,” decide daringly — and perhaps suicidally — to face that mob down: “Anything but lie here, anything but listen. / Swordpoint, knife-edge, at last turn outward.” “The Invisible Man,” on the other hand, turns inward to train our attention on the pair it began with. Replansky might easily have entitled her poem “The Invisible Woman,” so strongly does its speaker’s voice now begin to assert itself:
He turns again to me. I can do nothing.
Still, if you could see us, us two locked
In our occasional fantastic embrace,
See, it is friendly, because profitless,
But always restless, and away we lean,
The head turned sideways and the glance averted,
Seeking the others solider than us
Whose five senses always served them well
But whose five senses not for us are sharp.
These final stanzas recall the torch songs of Billie Holiday and others who, according to Stacy Holman Jones’s Torch Singing (2007), specialize in “ballad[s] of unrequited love, victimhood, and the pleasure of pain.” “I can do nothing” has the heartsick brevity of a blues lyric. “Again” chimes with the first line’s “often” to remind us that the poem has, all along, depicted a recurring cycle of disappointment. Ultimately, “The Invisible Man” concerns not an individual outsider’s relation to a world determined to exclude him, but the relationship between two outsiders in the face of that exclusion. This uneasy dyad remains “locked” between two competing gestures: reaching out to each other for fellowship and, perhaps, erotic succor — and forsaking each other for the greater, unattainable prize of recognition by the “solid citizens.” That free-floating, in-between quality extends to the poem's generic indeterminacy; part nursery rhyme, horror story, blank verse dramatic monologue, augury of experience, and torch song, “The Invisible Man” is none and all of these. It is, in the deepest sense, uncanny — as hard to shake as one’s own dream.
Despite my gladness at the publication of Replansky’s Collected Poems, I often reread “The Invisible Man” and other favorites in my copy of Twenty-One Poems Old and New (1988). Back in the early ’90s, it was the only book of hers available, and to find it one had to attend one of her readings. It has remained with me through many relocations across and between continents. Every time I pick up that staple-bound book I feel — as I did when I first read it — as if its contents had been ripped surreptitiously from every single copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and I had discovered the only surviving intact edition. Naomi Replansky (b. 1918) belongs in that anthology, right there between her fellow major American poets Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) and Robert Duncan (1919–1988). I’d represent Replansky’s oeuvre with the poems I’ve discussed here, as well as others I wish I had time to touch on, especially — to choose just a handful — “The Song that Went on During Tragedy,” “Foreigner,” “Housing Shortage,” “Changes of Climate,” “Memory of a Party,” “I Met My Solitude,” “An Inheritance,” “Four Epitaphs,” and “Catalogue.” One lives with Replansky’s poems instead of simply reading or hearing them, because they speak, with intensity and concision, to essential human concerns: the longing to belong and the concomitant ache of exclusion; rage against injustice; awareness of one’s own vulnerabilities, particularly those that come with aging; and the profound joy at experiencing true fellowship with others or communion with oneself. That joy comes seldom in Replansky’s poems, which makes its occurrences, in poems like “The Oasis” (1987), all the more welcome. One such moment occurs at the end of “The Journey Here,” which Replansky composed around the age of 27, in 1945. She must have experienced a moment of profound, unexpected quiescence to have written these lines, which have always spoken to me in my own dark hours — as I hope they will now speak to you:
I was, I did, but I will let it be.
Tonight I must hold dear
Whatever brought me here.
These days of mine that ran in anarchy
From this rare midnight seem
Single with purpose, seem
The slow unfolding of a single theme
Most gently to this midnight and this bed.
Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems (Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry Flash, Raritan, and elsewhere. He currently teaches in UCLA’s Writing Programs division and at Occidental College. For more information, visit ericgudas.com.
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