Vital Signs

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     In a memorable volume of Parnassus, Annie Dillard writes about contemporary poetry that “it is the native tongue of nobody. As a language it is useless for important messages. It is arcane and luxurious. It amounts to a secret code. Only the people who speak it think it can save the world.” Part of her observation–the incomprehensibility of poetry– is by now a commonplace among critics and readers alike. But I’m interested in the discrepancy she indicates between this obscuring secrecy and the social power that poetry is expected to wield. There is a remarkable disparity between the modest aims of individual lyric poems–they capture the ineffable, the momentary illumination, the fragile beauty–and the grandiose ambitions of poetry and poets in general. Shelley claimed that poets were “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life.” Whitman maintained he was the voice of the people (who preferred Longfellow), and Pound was nearly shot for elevating poetry and the arts over the economic interests he thought were at the root of war and of the universal dissolution of culture. Of course, he was broadcasting his opinions over the Italian radio at the time. If he had been anything other than a poet, which is to say if his prosecutors had taken either him or his ideas seriously, he would certainly have been executed as an example to the nation. Instead, they locked him up in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital–the “bug house,” as he called it. So much for power.

     On the face of it you wouldn’t think poetry would be an attractive medium for those hoping to have a measurable social impact. It’s such an exclusive art, appropriate for small, personal revelations that require a highly trained audience to penetrate. Although the rewards are often worth the effort, the same could truthfully be said regarding those heroes who read medical texts on genetic pathologies. My comparison here is not that outlandish. Both poetry and medicine embed their subjects within professional vocabularies, distance them from common experience, and disregard the layman while insisting nevertheless it is his health, his well-being that we are addressing. In each case the patient is entitled to his skepticism. The inhumanities of medicine I take to be self-evident, beginning with its expense. The complacencies of contemporary poetry are likewise evident to anyone who has tried to teach it and discovered how hard it is to convince the non-major, the typical undergraduate that the ideas contained in poetry are important. Somewhere between the second and third nature poet on the syllabus we might ask ourselves whether the poet, in order to have a compelling and public voice, should not expect to address social issues of abiding concern. There are plenty of them. The play of self-consciousness might be on the list, but probably not near the top. Animal life is still popular, even though for most of us animals mean the pets we release into our backyards, and nature signifies the trees lining our urban sidewalks.

     Trees are historical objects as well as natural ones. People have been hanged from trees, and the causes of that event might be one of those “important messages” Annie Dillard mentions in her article. What I like about Kumin is her willingness to send important messages. She’s not much addicted to transcendental escapes, which I consider a major plus. She does forget sometimes that not everybody loves horses, and thematically her country stoicism often seems out of touch with or simply inadequate to the technocracy of contemporary life. But even in our hypertensive times there is something to be said for brave endurance, and Kumin says it persuasively. She grounds her poetry among the essentials of her life on her ranch in Warner, New Hampshire, where her loyalties are close at hand among her neighbors and friends, and where her daily work is circumscribed by the biological world of farming.

     The voice of the poems is that of a strong woman. In an unforgiving environment, Kumin neither flinches at the strenuous physical labors that comprise her usual responsibilities, nor quails before her emotional disappointments. She’s mentally tough. Her poetry records how she stands up to the disasters of weather, disease, difficult births and lamentable deaths, and how she’s confident she’ll remain standing until the very end. This is not a posture regarding despair that has many literary imitators. Americans traditionally have preferred their women poets to be depressed and victimized. It’s our Ophelia complex: professors of English fuss over the sweet innocents who have been driven to insane passions and flamboyant destructions. Think of H.D., Mina Loy, Sara Teasdale, Sylvia Plath and Kumin’s own close friend Anne Sexton. Think also how much more comfortable it is to romanticize a poet who takes her anger out on herself rather than on us. Adrienne Rich, for example, is not a comfortable poet because mixed in with her personal experience are explicit political and social themes that especially indight masculine romanticism and complacency.

     If Kumin hasn’t assumed the stature of either Sexton or Rich, it’s in part because she’s been a diffident model of literary behavior. On the one hand she lacks the charisma of Sexton’s brinksmanship in which she dared defeat, tempted destruction, and inevitably deteriorated. On the other hand she hasn’t spoken in the public voice, hasn’t tackled the breadth of social themes for which her strength of mind, her durability, and her skepticism of intellectual fashions would seem to qualify her. Until recently she’s adamantly separated the unlovely workshops of politics from the aesthetic world of poetry. She has made an exception to this rule, however, in her latest sequence of poems collected in Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief. Though I applaud the attempt in general to come off the farm and address the issues of the cultural marketplace, I cannot praise this particular product. In “Lines Written in the Library of Congress After the Cleanth Brooks Lecture,” the poet writes about the year she spent as the Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress, the primary consequence of which was to muddy her usual clarity of value. From her point of view, urban life insults the human condition, which is already notable for its hardships: illness old age, death. The “Angel Dust” she watches “dispensed/ casually in parking lots/from the front seats of old El Dorados” degrades our existential lot because it erodes both the therapeutic comforts of dignity and the delight in one’s resourcefulness in the face of inevitable privations. Neither personal dignity nor resourcefulness counts for much when “the bomb” is in the

furious grip
of the Libyans
the Iraquis Israelis Argentinians
the bomb written large
in the Domesday Book.

(“Lines Written in the Library of Congress After the Cleanth Brooks Lecture”)

     Personally, I don’t find much comfort knowing that “the bomb” is also in the aged hands of those Hoplites bivouacked in the White House and Pentagon. It seems like overkill here to pick on Middle Eastern countries that, with the exception of Israel, do not in point of fact possess nuclear armaments. It’s also too easy to target cities for their dirty politics and punishing economics if all she is willing to levy against the rural life is “The full-time penance of mosquitoes.” Her year in the Capital seems to have made her careless how she focused her indignation at the greedy forces of historical process. For one thing, who wouldn’t want a holiday–if only we could all afford it–from the nasty transfers she witnesses? For another, life in rural America is not as uncomplicated and tension-free as she represents it:

A house guest in this city
in two weeks I go back
to blackflies and caterpillars.
Morels under the apple trees.
Woodchucks. Porcupines.
The grace of mares in new pasture.
The full-time penance of mosquitoes.
Five miles of beans to hoe.
I pay fealty
to the tyranny of weather.

(“Lines Written in the Library of Congress After the Cleanth Brooks Lecture”)

     The American Heart Association has pointed out recently that farming is one of the least healthy occupations in the nation. The diet has never been that good (too much cholesterol), the rate of foreclosure on farm property is the highest it’s been since the Depression, and farm machinery has replaced much of the manual work–all of which is to say that the typical farmer these days sits on his tractor as his arteries harden, and stews over the high cost of pesticides, fertilizer, farm equipment, and the hundred-thousand-dollar mortgage on his acreage. Though Kumin has never been interested as a poet in the business end of country life, she has always been sensitive to the truth of hard work, both its satisfactions and its penalties. I’m pleased to read in her new collection that her eighty-two-year-old neighbor, Henry Manley, is still alive and, as in Retrieval System, still able to induce in the poet some of her most convincing meditations yet on the brevity of vitality and the concessions people must make to its gradual loss. There is nothing quite adequate to replace it.

     The lesson that Henry offers, or the poet offers in his behalf, is that courage sometimes will substitute for strength, and joy now and then is an acceptable compromise for youthful energy.

We toast
the holiday, the filly beating time
in his goat shed with her restive hooves.
That’s youth, says Henry when we go to set her loose,
Never mind. Next year, if I live that long, she’ll stand in the shafts…
Worth waiting for, that filly. Nobody says
the word aloud: Rejoice.

(“Rejoicing With Henry”)

No one says the word aloud, but presumably it’s in everyone’s mind or there would be no point in mentioning that it wasn’t spoken. As it’s written, the word can be read either as an exclamation conceived in exuberance, or a command aimed to coerce a pinched YEA for the perseverance of Henry’s vigor. Both readings are appropriate. The first adequately celebrates the old man’s spirit, and the second addresses our expectations of Henry’s impending death, which the poem reinforces at its conclusion:

We plod
home tipsily and all uphill to boot, the pale day fading as we go
leaving our odd imprints in the snow to mark a little while the road
ahead of night’s oncoming thick clubfoot.

(“Rejoicing With Henry”)

     It’s a death that Henry avoids in this collection of poems, though narrowly. “Snapping kindling for the kitchen stove/ Henry breaks his hip,” we are told in “Henry Looks Back.” Such major breakages in eighty-two-year-old bones are frequently fatal and even more often crippling. Henry’s recovery and renewed independence are as heroic as the youthful exploits he swaps with the neighbors who take him in during his convalescence:

Henry loves
his new life as the sage of yesteryear,
its mythic blizzards, droughts and forest fires
when he yoked oxen, killed bears, swilled applejack
and in dense snow fog brought the milk cows back
by single lantern.

(“Henry Manley Looks Back”)

“You can’t look back,” Henry claims, though he is reported to have enjoyed doing so while on the mend. His conclusion is reminiscent of Satchel Paige’s famous dictum: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Paige’s wisdom specifies the threat that Henry leaves implicit: “something” might be in pursuit, might in fact be narrowing the distance between you and it, and the consequences will be unfavorable when it catches up.

     Kumin specifies for us what that “something” is in Henry’s instance:

Meanwhile,  porcupines
have entered 
Henry’s house and set up camp
Part of the caved-in roof now forms a ramp
for other creatures who’ve trooped in to raise
their young. Henry, having crutched there, says
You
can’t look back, and stands, bracing his spine
against the door jamb of his lost kingdom.

(“Henry Manley Looks Back”)

Henry loses his home, his native place in the world. His kingdom is usurped after his several-months convalescence, during which his particular “stay against confusion” collapses under the weight of a chaotic vitality that continues without him: creatures troop into his cabin to raise their young, and eventually the forest itself will reclaim his farm, reseeding fields and pasture with trees, shrubs, and underbrush. Here is Kumin’s persistent theme. Death is implicated in vitality itself since the blind force of biological animation overwhelms every individual product of it. Henry is displaced by creatures more vital than he has become, and they too will be displaced in turn by subsequent predators.

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     Such a vision of vitality is stunting since it always measures personal vigor against the huge universal schemes of natural power. The concluding image of the elderly and infirm Henry “bracing his spine/against the door jamb” is meant perhaps to stimulate our admiration of his sublime defiance, but more significantly it evokes the sorrow of his futility. This is what the sublime has come to. Man-Against-The-Cosmos no longer depicts the inner divinity of the individual as he rises Prometheus-like to confront his god-sized enemies. Henry doesn’t rise. His victory here is given a scale that emphasizes his frailty, not his strength. Triumph, the poet seems to believe, measures the proximity of defeat–how close one comes to losing–, and the exercise of vitality calls to mind the persistence of death:

As bubbles are baked
into the risen loaf
so the small hot apprehension of my death
is folded in me each time you enter my body.

Even while we hold each other
rising more surely than hornflies
to beat against the ceiling
Death tags along like a Saint Bernard
padding across his own night-alp.

(“Spending the Night”)

     So it’s no wonder Kumin usually sounds terse. Even her joys are marked by the red stains of death and emotional loss. She has found no occasion to forget she lives in a mortal world whose sensuous energies run down, whose vitalities decay, whose victories are marginal and temporary. It’s no place at all for superfluous passions—by which she means no place for unmitigated gaiety, for there’s little temptation in the poet to fly off into raptures. Rather, her struggle is with her sadder feelings, how to keep them from subduing her entirely, which they threaten to do. One of her strategies is to subject her emotions to the controls of formal versification. The poet’s frequent use of stanzaic patterns, her metrical rythms, and her pleasure in rhyme are methods of shaping her grimmer extremes. Another look at the Henry Manley poems, for instance, shows how her formal control of her material measures out her tragic meanings.

Snapping kindling for the kitchen stove
Henry breaks his hip. Once he’s pinned
and feeling wintry, neighbors take him in,
take in his daddy’s chair, his reading lamp
–gooseneck, circa 1910–take Scamp,
his skinny whippet, in as well. Henry loves
his new life….

(“Henry Manley Looks Back”)

     The complicated verbal intelligence in these opening lines distances the emotional pressure. The voice is calmly informative, regular and regulated by the iambic meter, and by the stylized repitition of the verb “take in.” The end-rhymes pattern the action in the same way that the lead forms in a stained glass window, for example, both structure the colored fragments into a coherent whole, and call attention to the act of structuring. Further, once the poet arranges her verbal frame, she then introduces a sophisticated word-play. We are told the kindling is snapped, the description of which applies as well to the sound of cracking bones in Henry’s hip. And when he’s “pinned”–that is, when the metal pin is surgically implanted in his reconstructed pelvis–, we are also given to understand that Henry is “penned” up by his subsequent loss of mobility.

     The self-consciousness of these lines is elaborate, the point of which is to demonstrate there is a therapeutic meaning to be gleaned from the mute pain of the event itself. The poet hopes to prove that suffering is worth it by indicating it’s not random but in fact purposive and legible. In “Rejoicing With Henry,” the metrical forms similarly order an experience that threatens to escape the confines of human reason, but this time what is contained is the untrained exuberance of the poet’s young filly, Babe.

This gladdens Henry, who stumps out to see
Babe battle the wooden bridge. Will she
or won’t she? Vexed with a stick she leaps across
and I’m airborne as well. An upstate chorus
on Henry’s radio renders loud
successive verses of “Joy to the World.”

(“Rejoicing With Henry“)

The battle ensuing between the poet, who’s evidently riding the horse, and Babe’s skittish defiance is imitated in the qualities of the verse. The break ending the second line mimics the alternate questions the words actually ask: Will she?…Or won’t she? When the filly is spurred with a stick to leap across the bridge, she appropriately lands in another place: the next line. The rhymes terminating each line act as a brake to these flights and uncertainties by reinforcing the continuities of place. The poet is airborne, but not for long, and not in a direction she doesn’t control. She never loses her grip.

     Her primary hold on vitality, her most likely strategy for securing liveliness centers on her family and her labors to insure its cohesion. She maintains connections, hosting reunions (“Family Reunion”) and visiting in turn her daughter’s distant home (“Leaving My Daughter’s House”). In both instances her child’s independence signifies the mother’s success (her offspring will survive capably) and her obsolescence (her offspring will survive capably without her). Her capacity to nourish, however comforting, is no longer essential–and is in fact diminishing. Soon she and her husband will themselves require their daughter’s strength to nourish them:

Wearing our gestures, how wise you grow,
ballooning to overfill our space,
the almost-parents of your parents now.
So briefly having you back to measure us
is harder than having let you go.

(“Family Reunion“)

One’s place in the world is not threatened merely by the unknown predators that invade Henry’s cabin. One’s own children return to efface their parents: they balloon to overfill their space, edging them toward the rented rooms of nursing homes, perhaps, and toward their final exposure to oblivion. Presumably there is some satisfaction in knowing you have raised by hand the persons who will eventually put you out.

     If such satisfaction is to be had, it is likely to originate in family loyalties. Some years ago David Elkind, a clinical psychologist, specified three general types of implicit parent-child contracts that defined mutual obligations. One of these agreements “has to do with loyalty  and commitment,” he writes,

Generally, parents take it for granted that their children will be loyal to them, in the sense of preferring them to other adults. In return, parents show commitment to their children in the time they spend with them and their concern for their children’s present and future well-being.

The particular texts of these contracts are revised as the children mature, the parents age, and shifts occur in responsibilities, allegiances, and levels of emotional and financial independence. Kumin admits that these changes are difficult (“Having you back to measure us/is harder than having let you go.”), but she typically is either stoical about them, or confident they can be negotiated satisfactorily, or both. She can bargain with the kids; it’s the existential obligation of mortality that she can’t compromise and so must endure on its own terms. Her poetry is a record of her endurance.

Author: Brad Crenshaw

I am a poet and literary critic. I have written two books of poetry: 'Genealogies' was published in April 2016. My first book of poetry is titled 'My Gargantuan Desire'. I also have two chapbooks: 'Propagandas', and 'Limits of Resurrection'. I am working on a manuscript titled 'Medical Life’, which is book of creative non-fiction. I have worked as a neuropsychologist for many years in a New England tertiary care medical center, and in the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services. 'Medical Life' reflects my encounters with people who have had neurological insults of various sorts, and the problems that result. When I am not writing, or working, I'll be out in my ocean kayak in either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The unconstructed world.

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