JANUARY 17, 2017
EVERY GENERATION probably feels a certain climactic fin de siècle sense of doom at the turn of the year — a mesh of culpability, worry, and uncertainty that, if we’re lucky, may be threaded through with a glint of guarded hope. In an essay for The American Poetry Review, “Lyric Impulse in a Time of Extinction,” Anne Marie Macari writes of the foreboding anxieties that vex our particular moment: environmental crises, a host of wars, political strife, racial turmoil, and the erosion of certain aspects of culture and even consciousness that imperil not only human survival, but the planet itself. “How do we write,” she asks, “when these questions threaten to swallow us?” The problem, of course, is not a new one. Poets have wrestled with it for ages.
For this installment in the Second Acts series, which pairs a second book of poems written many years ago with a recently published sophomore collection, I bring together two poets grappling, in their various ways and times, with what Macari calls the “ever-changing and ever-present” forces of extinction that are inevitably “made more horrific by human behavior.”
Robert Pinsky’s second book, An Explanation of America (1979), which followed a fairly personal collection of shorter lyrics titled Sadness and Happiness (1975), is an ambitiously long, Whitmanesque apologia addressed to his daughter. It offers a discourse on the complicated forces that have shaped Pinsky’s understanding of a troubled United States — the Vietnam War, the fight for civil rights, and the struggles of first-generation immigrants. Pinsky uses his extensive knowledge of the classical world to draw parallels between the United States and ancient Rome, in the process illuminating both civilizations as well as his own poetic project.
Tess Taylor’s second book, Work & Days, which takes its title from Hesiod’s long calendric poem from ancient Greece, Works and Days, is likewise concerned with moral, cultural, and environmental threats, though her turf is the early 21st century. Taylor’s first book, The Forage House (2013), concerned itself, among other things, with the complexities attendant to being a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson, exploring the legacy and reality of American racism, and her sense of personal and national culpability; in her second book, Taylor trains the same fierce and passionate attention on the earth and its sustainability.
Pinsky’s Explanation, which is, on one level, an exploration of what it means to try to explain anything to anyone (“I want to tell you something about our country, / Or my idea of it: explaining it / If not to you, to my idea of you”), is decidedly and deliberately occidental in its forms, allusions, and preoccupations. The book opens with a “lobby poem” called “Lair,” which describes the writer’s study, and ends with a coda, “Memorial,” an elegy in rhyming couplets; the body of the tripartite poem proper is in blank-verse strophes.
The long poem opens where Whitman’s great American poem leaves off, with “you” — in this case, the poet’s young daughter, who is herself a precocious writer, reader, and thinker (“the taste you have,” the poet writes, “for noble speeches, / For causes lost and glamorous and just”). The poem took years to write, and reads like a deep meditation on the notion that “a country is the things it wants to see”; it explores the often cruel paradoxes and fiction of national identity:
For place, itself, is always a kind of motion,
A part of it artificial and preserved,
And a part born in a blur of loss and change —
All places in motion from where we thought they were.
Pinsky considers what this might have meant for the Founding Fathers, enslaved peoples, displaced Native Americans, and a host of immigrants. He also speaks, as a father, to his hopes and fears for his daughter and for future generations (“One generation differing from the next / In what it needs, and knows”). “As for aspiration,” Pinsky ponders,
Maybe our aspiration for ourselves,
Ought to be different from the hopes we have
(Though there are warnings against too much hope)
When thinking of our children.
The book suggests that the key to fathoming any meaningful “explanation” of the “dark proof” of America, both for father and daughter, is a capacity for imagination and empathy. The country Pinsky describes for his daughter is:
[…] not in any place
More than another, on the map, but rather
Like a place, where you and I have never been
And need to try to imagine — place like a prairie
Where immigrants, in the obliterating strangeness,
Thirst for the wide contagion of the shadow
Or prairie — where you and I, with our other ways,
More like the cities or the hills or trees,
Less like the clear blank spaces with their potential,
Are like strangers in a place we must imagine.
“Everyone has felt it,” Pinsky writes, “foreign ground, / With its demand on the imagination,” and to make his points about the crucial necessity of empathy in the inhumane face of institutions, Empire, senseless acts of violence, and the obliterating forces of wars, he draws on parallel predicaments from the Odyssey, the Hebrew Bible, the letters of Horace, Shakespeare, the Siege of Saguntum, and the death of Brutus. In the face of “Time’s nightmare,” Pinsky admonishes, the United States must resist its “scant historic sense” and “frail / National gestures” of nostalgia and progress. He acknowledges and celebrates the fact that words he finds hard to name in the moment of his “explanation” (“Vietnam,” for instance, “that I can’t use in poems / Without the one word threatening to gape / And swallow and enclose the poem”), may, for his daughter and the generations to follow, “grow more finite; able to be touched” — and therefore not be forgotten, and perhaps even be understood.
The poem concludes with a recounting of how his daughter, by this time three years older, is allowed to join an all-female cast of college players in a production of The Winter’s Tale, called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” for its seemingly irrational mix of tragedy and comedy, despair and hope. “The Founders made,” as well, Pinsky writes, “A Union mystic yet rational, and sudden, / As if suckled by the very wolf of Rome.” And, if “a sad tale’s best for winter,” Pinsky goes on to point out that,
[…] the country
Sprawls over several zones of time and climate,
Never with any one season: the year itself
In no fixed place. Where nothing will stand still
Nothing can end — but recoils into the past,
or is improvised into the dream or nightmare
Romance of new beginnings.
Pushing further, Pinsky denies neither despair nor hope:
[…] And at the end,
As people applauded louder and louder, you
Stood with young girls who wore gray wigs and beards,
All smiling and holding hands — as if the Tale
Had not been sad at all, or was all a dream,
And winter was elsewhere, howling on the mountains
Unthinkably old and huge and far away —
At the far opposite edge of our whole country,
So large, and strangely broken, and unforeseen.
At poem’s end, he reassembles his “you” — a plural group of girls in inherited roles they can reinvent through a mix of memory and imagination, intelligence and instinct, vision and empathy. Art, education, action, and assays into “explanations” emerge as essential in the struggle against extinction.
Tess Taylor’s Work & Days begins with the season Pinsky evokes at his long poem’s end: winter. And though Taylor’s lyrics are richly spare and compressed as seed, taken together and organized calendrically by season, they too feel like a long poem.
While Pinsky’s subject is specifically America, and Taylor’s broader subject is the imperiled planet, the two poets share many concerns — the usurpation of territory (“From Wisconsin before it was Wisconsin / a glacier hauled these stones you stand on,” Taylor writes in “Stockbridge”); the stewardship of our natural inheritances, the extinction of places, cultures, and species (“It is not coming back, what has gone,” she writes in “In Late Summer”); the ubiquity of war (“Drone strikes & opium poppies. / Oil spills & poisoned wells. / Drought zone. Famine. War zone,” from “Apocalypto for a Small Planet”). And through it all, Taylor explores the role poetry can or cannot play in relation to these dire truths:
My inner cynic says
don’t bother this is navel gazing
& my friend at Yale says my hunger
to be near zucchinis
will not save the planet from real hunger
except I remember in the film on gleaning
when the priest in his compassion says:
those who glean now out of spiritual hunger
also should be fed.
The back cover of Work & Days tells the reader that:
In 2010, Tess Taylor was awarded the Amy Clampitt Fellowship. Her prize: A rent-free year in a cottage in the Berkshires, where she could finish a first book. But Taylor — outside the city for the first time in nearly a decade, and trying to conceive her first child — found herself alone. To break up her days, she began to intern on a farm, planting leeks, turning compost, and weeding kale.
Work & Days is, then, a record of that year: “You read field guides, welcome few visitors. / Prepare to work one farm for a season. / Your economy is your life as a watcher.” As this native Californian works the New England landscape in all seasons, she mourns a miscarriage, copes with the vicissitudes of weather, and traipses through new terrain (“Novitiate to the winter’s glaze”) with Amy Clampitt’s field guides, learning new names for flora, fauna, and constellations, relishing new work, new days. Like Pinsky, she evokes other writers and thinkers with a passion for the almanac, the pastoral: John Clare, Hesiod, Virgil. She “bows” into personal and global absence and loss as she “bows” into the furrows she harrows, plants, and harvests. All the while, she contemplates the big as well as the small, as in this stanza from “Apocalypto for a Small Planet”:
Ecosystem of yard or field or mind:
these cucumbers are more art than science,
than global action (if we separate the two).
But digging now I feel an otherness —
life, a great inhuman freedom —
here I work a plot that also grounds —
Finally, just as The Winter’s Tale introduces a glimmer of ambiguous hope into Pinsky’s poem, Taylor ends her journey through all four seasons on the brink of an ambiguously hopeful winter solstice. In “Solstice (Eclipse),” the speaker recounts how she and her partner slept through a “once in a generation” full lunar eclipse:
That miracle swam above our faces
Possibly the moment that I dreamed
Again of the new planet we had seen.
Once-in-a-lifetime glimmer, the first gleam:
O the froggy kick of bright new legs —
O fresh swim in my dark ultrasound.
And so, like a Shakespearean tragedy-turned-comedy, Work & Days ends, even as winter commences and extinction advances (in 2050, she asks, “will we get syrup / from the boreal forest, peaches from Massachusetts?”), with a new life, a birth-to-come. The “froggy kick of bright new legs” is akin to our primal need to write, to (re)make and renew the world by living in it as fully as possible — to make fresh marks, as Taylor says so eloquently at the end of “Peck Small Tracks”:
Outside: the tree’s dark alphabet.
After rain, the field, a pockmarked carpet.
Beneath the ice some seed
Holds code, waiting warmth to speak it.
Now the night is ink, the field is wide:
You look to peck small tracks across it.
“I [feel] as if I have lived,” Pinsky writes, “In a time when the country aged itself.” The 1970s and early 1980s certainly saw a spate of “political” poetry collections, ambitious in their attempts to explain or define “America.” Amiri Baraka (then still LeRoi Jones) published It’s Nation Time in 1970, and the decade that followed saw Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares (1971), Richard Hugo’s What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), Denise Levertov’s The Freeing of the Dust (1975), and Robert Hayden’s American Journal (1978). Most of the poems in these collections — with their fierce indictments of war, racism, prejudice, gender bias, the travesty of the federal government’s treatment of Native Americans, and ecological disaster — still “looked,” for the most part, like lyric poetry. It’s interesting that much of the political poetry to come out in the past decade — C. D. Wright’s One Big Self (2007), Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon (2009), Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), or Solmaz Sharif’s Look (2016), to name but a few — is “hybrid” in its lyricism, mixing fragments, passages of fully justified prose, lists, borrowed text, erasure, epistle, and so forth, as though the United States has become too fractured and manifold to be contained in any traditional lyric.
“There are perils in living always in vision,” Pinsky reminds us. Nonetheless, Pinsky’s and Taylor’s second books remind us, in their respective ways, of the important role poetry can play in sharpening our attention — not only enabling us to see the things we may not want to see, but also to imagine what we can’t see in our past, in our future, and even in the present moment, as in these final lines from Taylor’s “Apocalypto w/ Radio”:
[…] This ice
is present tense; any warming story
grows distant, a story
instruments of barometry tell.
I am brittle, small inside a storm.
Within a tide of growing storms
I know that what I want to know is slippery
as slippery as this road is slippery.
I am driving headlong in the dark.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, will be published in 2017.