Joyce S. Brown
Robert Bly’s latest collection of poetry, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, is the work of an experienced poet, author of over 20 books: poetry, essays, translations. This new book, which has moments of real illumination, is generally darkened by disjointedness and the writer’s self-absorption.
The poems are more about love of Self than love of the Other. For example, Bly seems intent to justify his own infidelities: in “What Kept Horace Alive,” he says, “I know that I wanted more than two years with you. / If my wife had been able to absorb more cruelty.” (And from “The Eel in the Cave”):
That doesn’t mean I have done things well.
I have found so many ways to disgrace
Myself, and throw a dark cloth over my head.
Why is it our fault if we fall into desire?
Isn’t this question a bit fatuous? Let’s leave Confessional Poetry with Sexton and Plath; we’ve had enough of it. Furthermore, some of Bly’s statements seem pretentious coming from a National Book Award winner: “Because I’ve become accustomed to failure, / Some smoke of sadness blows off these poems” (from “The Wagon and the Cliff”).
Equally off-putting is the poet’s penchant for sweeping statements that seem profound at first glance: (from “Walking Backward”) “Sometimes milk makes us afraid.” It does? Or try this: “The crane’s foot in the mud is the map of our life” (“Giordano Bruno and the Muddy Footprint”). Is it really? And what are we to make of the final lines of “The Trap-Door”?: “It is because the lovers have been exiled / To the nonexistence of the onion fields / That the pauper wakes up playing the flute of gratitude.” The rest of the poem is no help. Bly is also given to asking rhetorical questions, such as “Tell me why the gazelle grazes so close to the lion?” (“Jerez at Easter”). Leave the rhetorical questions to Blake and Eliot, and the “Dear Friends” to Dickens’s “Dear Reader(s).”
Some of Bly’s would-be profundities are derivative and fall short of the originals: in “Walking Backward,” for example, his line “We live down here in the Abode of Smelly Bones” is an inferior version of Yeats’s great “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (from “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”), or this line, from “Pitzeem and the Mare”: ” You and I have been / Riding for years, but we’re still only a day from home,” which is a weak echo of T.S. Eliot’s famous words:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. (“Little Gidding”)
Even Bly’s quirky titles feel like copies of Wallace Stevens.
The publisher’s ads for Bly’s new book announce that the poet works within the strict guidelines of the Islamic ghazal, an Arabic word which means “love poem.” A more precise definition of ghazal, however, is a form that begins with a rhymed couplet, that rhyme being repeated in all even lines. Bly’s poems do not conform to this structure. Some of them, however, contain stunning lines and genuine insight into human nature: (from “Wanting to Steal Time” ) “Every noon as the clock hands arrive at twelve, / I want to tie the two arms together, / And walk out of the bank carrying time in bags.” Another from “The Cabbages of Chekhov” : “We planted fields of sorrow near the Tigris. / The Harvesters will come in at the end of time / And tell us that the crop of ruin has been great.” And from “The Battle of Ypres,1915”: “Some greedy part hankers for disaster, for things / To go wrong, for the war to start. Many people / Are disappointed when the bombing is canceled.” Bly, although annoyingly confessional, is also touchingly honest: “When I cry, I want everyone else to cry” (from “The Five Inns”). The specific is indeed the universal.
shows replete with stars, crows, footprints, mud, serpents, love and lovers, badgers, doves, greed and ruin.
Joyce S. Brown appeared in Smartish Pace, Issue 2. She selects poems for the City Paper in Baltimore. Her poems have appeared in The American Scholar, The Tennessee Quarterly, Commonweal, The Maryland Poetry Review, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.