Narrow Places

Brad Leithauser

  • Selected Poems by Molly Holden
    Carcanet, 126 pp, £6.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 85635 696 4
  • The Player Queen’s Wife by Oliver Reynolds
    Faber, 78 pp, £8.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 571 14998 7
  • The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill by Stephen Yenser
    Harvard, 367 pp, £21.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 674 16615 9

In ‘Barn Roof’, one of her earliest poems, Molly Holden speaks of ‘quarried colours’. The phrase says much about both her artistic ambitions, which strove endlessly after fresh visual detail, and her poetic methods, which often relied upon boldly proximate alliteration and what might be called off-off-rhyme. In the best of her poems, many of which were written at the outset of her career, a keen eye for the natural world conjoins with an ear subtly attuned to internal modulations; her most interesting aural effects often arise not in her end-rhymes but within the individual line. ‘Barn Roof’ also gives us the phrase, ‘runnels of rain-stains sustaining the decorative features ...’ That daring near-stammer of ‘stains sustaining’ strikes the sort of clangorous note one might expect to find in a poem that strives after grandeur; one of the pleasures of Holden’s work is the incongruous way in which she brings a dense, brazen music to poems that might well be described as miniatures.

Her poems tended toward the small in regard both to subject-manner (birds, bushes, mosses, babies) and duration. Of the 96 lyrics assembled in her new Selected Poems, only seven run to two pages; none extends to three or more. She seems by temperament to have been a direct soul. Her poems frequently take up an object at the precise moment when it captured her attention – the moment, say, when a sudden flock of goldfinches descends upon a garden – and drop it almost as soon as the moment has been recorded.

Like those of the American L. E. Sissman, whose life’s work Hello, Darkness was published in this country in 1980, Molly Holden’s poems cannot be separated from the discomforts and dolours of the sickroom. The two poets lived strikingly parallel lives. Holden was born in 1927 and Sissman in 1928; Holden died in 1981, after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis, and Sissman in 1976, after an extended fight against Hodgkin’s disease. Holden’s first book, published in 1968, was entitled To make me grieve; Sissman’s, also published in 1968, was called Dying: An Introduction. Of course, poets of every era and variety are likely to fix upon mortality as a theme – but in Holden and in Sissman one finds, not surprisingly, an unusual, heightened sensitivity to the horrors and cruelties of a death that is gradual, piecemeal and relentless.

Together, the two poets illustrate some of the range of strategies by which the peculiarities of modern illness – with its gleaming, sterilised surfaces, its mechanical wheelchairs and pain-killing drugs – may successfully serve as the subject-matter for poetry. Sissman’s great strength was his self-mocking sense of humour. The man who could see the cancer within him as a ‘tissue of fabrications’, or a row of surgical instruments as a ‘service for twelve’ that ‘awaits my flesh/to dine’, was someone from whom the reader would welcome even a hospital tale of ‘refined / White-sheeted torture’. Holden depended upon terseness. As she makes clear in the closing lines of ‘Hospital’, she sought to give her infirmity its due without letting it dominate her or her work:

And all the while I lay, under the words and attempted curing,
         seeking inside not out for human grace
that would give me a strength and a courage for enduring
           against great odds in a narrow place.

If Sissman often seems the more affecting poet, one reason may be that humour proves a surer guide than reticence when dealing with the horrific. Holden’s laconism – which tended to crystallise into declarations of self-defiance – rings at times of self-congratulation and its dour twin, self-pity.

To her credit, Holden manages to make something complex of that seemingly simple artistic vice of self-pity. The sympathetic reader can hardly face so many competent poems about the anguish of paralysis – a state to which Holden was effectively reduced in the last years of her life – without stopping to wonder what would be a sound or ‘healthy’ response to an enveloping illness of this sort. In the end, readers are forced to acknowledge that the uncomplaining ‘courage’ which we constantly look for, and commend, in any writer who deals with so harrowing a personal tragedy may be esteemed partly because it spares us the unpleasantness of a direct, intimate look at human misery. One cannot, in any case, begrudge Holden the bitterness of the last stanza of ‘Envoi’, one of the later poems:

Spring calls me to that country,
to wander in its dust.
But chance takes others westward
while I lie here, and rust.

Still, a reader might in fairness ask for a richer music. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the work of Holden’s last few years failed to uphold the standards she had set during her younger and more mobile days. The music became more predictable, the imagery less venturesome. And since the poems by and large are presented chronologically, the physical collapse of Holden’s last years is unwittingly mirrored by a progressive slumping in literary quality. Few if any poems in the last half of the book can compare with early pieces like ‘Photograph of Haymaker, 1890’ – which Philip Larkin included in his Oxford anthology of 20th-century verse – or ‘Chrysanthemums’.

Chrysanthemums – like courtiers
in a dying kingdom, still fantastic
in bronze or golden ruff, with hanging sleeves
of ragged green, still aping
fertility’s magnificence –

bold and brilliant in the last warmth
of the sun’s shorter journeys, are
either spurred to this last acrid excess
of beauty by decay’s imminent arrival
or are quite unaware of the frost’s fingers,
still light, still tentative, but soon
to grip the roots, to turn the leaves
sage-side-up, to wither the last bright blossom.

The lively alliteration – musically prominent, orthographically disguised – of ‘acrid excess’ is a characteristic touch, as is the gentle-handed way in which, tentative as the frost’s fingers, the poem poses but does not resolve a pair of alternatives. And one must commend that phrase ‘sage-side-up’, which offers simultaneously a visual felicity and a furtherance of the poem’s message. Given a lyric whose theme is nature’s spendthrift ignorance, any reference to ‘sage’ will automatically evoke wisdom – and does so all the more tellingly here because the ‘sage side’ emerges only in death. Knowledge carried a dear price in Holden’s precise and constricted world.

In The Player Queen’s Wife, his second collection, Oliver Reynolds does Hopkins and his ‘curtal sonnet’ one better. Hopkins trimmed the sonnet to ten and a half lines; Reynolds pares it to five. Here is ‘Map’, from ‘Seven Little Sonnets for Frederick the Great’:

Austria versus
Prussia:
the Seven Years’ War

left Europe
like a cracked tile floor.

On the face of it, the arguments for a limerick-sized sonnet may not appear compelling. But in Reynolds’s hands, there is a jocose pleasure in the form’s extreme concision. One delights, too, in the way that Reynolds’s triad and couplet roughly preserve the pleasing disproportion of the traditional octave and sestet.

As even this fragmentary poem should indicate, The Player Queen’s Wife has a good many virtues to recommend it – playfulness, invention, intelligence, and a dispassion capable of treating even catastrophic subjects with an objective coolness. What the book too often lacks is music. Reynolds adroitly teases and jokes with the reader, by turns instructs, animadverts and deplores: but he rarely sings. And where music is lacking, even the most basic of prosodic trappings (stanzaic configurations, enjambments, patterns of indentation) eventually come to seem adventitious; at times, Reynolds’s choices of poetic form look random and unpersuasive. In ‘The Doctor’ the reader searches in vain for any urgent reason why the lines should be arranged in triads:

His drinking became chronic.
He kept a bottle
in his visiting-bag.

The night he died,
he couldn’t sleep
and sat up drinking.

When his wife
suggested a Valium,
he shook his head.

At the moment, many poets on both sides of the Atlantic seem powerfully drawn to the spare allurements of a flat, prosy voice. As different as the American and the English poetry ‘scenes’ may be, they are allied in a common pursuit of a free verse stripped of ornament. To the American ear, there is nothing distancingly British about lines like the following from Reynolds’s ‘Thirteen Days in a Northern City’:

Like most people, the King
goes to the mountains to ski,
normally driving, but when cars
were banned during the Oil Crisis

he took a tram for the first time.
At the door, loaded with skis,
he asked the conductor:
‘Do I have to pay?’

Admittedly, Reynolds avoids the worst excesses of the flat voice, by which – as is so common in contemporary American verse – the simple begins to sound simple-minded. Reynolds not only keeps his wits about him but has them continually on display. His often complex diction and his ranging vocabulary (a ‘suppurated’ memory, a river’s ‘insinuative sigh’) are those of a grown-up mind.

If the flat voice that Reynolds favours is maladapted to euphony and elevation, it does prove amenable to vivid dissonances. His description of a cook preparing an institutional meal lingers in the mind with an admirable, enlivening ugliness:

Fat spatters counterpoint
to Cook’s rock-bottom hum.

She shovels the pan across flame
and sixty sausages bump and nuzzle.

These lines are taken from ‘Rorschach Writings’, the first, the longest and in some ways the most affecting poem in the collection. Reynolds’s anaesthetised tone seems just right for the poem’s depiction of a home for the mentally ill. His portrayal of electro-shock therapy is, in its spare way, as powerful as one might wish.

the temples are then dabbed with paste,
electrodes attached
(trailing wire back
to the small varnished wood box)
and the switch turned.

The body seizes;
mechanical, it overloads.
The scrunched face is centripetal
and the shot forehead
snaking with live-wire veins.

The book, happily, lightens a bit as it goes along. By the time one reaches the final, five-part ‘Tone Poem’ the mood seems open and lyrical – positively sunny. The lovely concluding lines leave the reader feeling that Reynolds, who is only 31, is a writer of genuine promise:

Here you had a house to yourself
hung between white dawn and sea:

endless day and midnight sun
as heaven worked overtime

as it does now
in the morning constellations

found by my fingers mapping
your back’s scatter of small moles.

Stephen Yenser’s study arrives here laden with ironies and poignancies which have little to do with its merit as a piece of extended criticism. At the moment, almost none of Merrill’s books (which include a dozen volumes of poetry, two novels and a collection of literary essays) is in print in this country. The ranking of poets may be a fatuous business in the main, as well as a needlessly contentious one, but it seems both useful and prudent to point out that in America he is widely regarded as one of the finest of contemporary English-language poets. Among American critics, his dexterity is so widely acknowledged that even those who would cavil at his work usually feel compelled first to concede his technical accomplishment. His is the sort of light-stepping wit which is apt to elicit a criticism of being ‘too clever by half’, and which, in its very lightness, leaves that cliché lumbering far behind him. That a hefty, handsome and expensively produced volume of Merrill exegesis should manage to cross the Atlantic, while the poems themselves often do not, would appear to be one more illustration of that pervasive and sad upending of priorities in our time by which the creator has become secondary to the explicator.

This is an irony which would probably not be lost on Stephen Yenser, who is himself a poet. He is also a sensitive, intelligent and hard-working guide to Merrill’s work. He shows a keen eye for both the large and the small, and seems equally at home in reading the overarching themes and hungers which have shaped Merrill’s career over the years, and in pointing out the subtle metrical variations and ingenuities of rhyme, the little puns, jokes and playful ambiguities which give life to an individual stanza. Nonetheless his book seems at times more vexatious than helpful. Too insightful to be dismissed, too prolix to be embraced, The Consuming Myth sits uneasily on one’s shelf. Although Yenser writes lucidly on a sentence-by-sentence basis, with little of the jargon or the proliferation of useless distinctions which clog so much literary criticism, his book proves somewhat stultifying in the end. There are simply too many references and cross-references, too many epigraphs (often three per chapter), and too many digressions. And for all the loving dedication to its subject which the book suggests on every page, there is not enough self-effacement. One voices such reservations gingerly, and with reluctance, since any serious admirer of Merrill’s poetry must be grateful for Yenser’s labours. If The Consuming Myth seems a little overwhelming when read straight through, it proves a matchless resource when approached as a guidebook to individual poems or volumes. Even those readers who think they know Merrill’s work intimately are apt to come away from it feeling simultaneously enlightened and chastened.

At his best, Yenser inspires the reader to return to Merrill’s books with a sense of reawakened eagerness. And what marvellous effects one finds with each return! To select one representative poem from so many that are first-rate might seem an almost impossible task, but a good case could be made that ‘A Carpet Not Bought’, which was written in the Sixties, reveals in miniature most of the strengths that have characterised Merrill’s career throughout: fluidity, concision, prosodic invention, a mastery of tone which permits abrupt shifts from levity to gravity, lush sumptuosity, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly (in the light of his upbringing as the son of the magnate who gave his name to the Merrill Lynch financial empire), a strain of self-abnegation and renunciation. In the second and third stanzas of ‘A Carpet Not Bought’ an unnamed man congratulates himself on having foregone the purchase of a beautiful but very expensive Asian carpet:

Leaving the dealer’s,
It was as if he had
Escaped quicksand. He
Climbed his front steps, head
High, full of dollars.
He poured the wife a brandy –

And that night not a blessed
Wink slept. The back yard
Lay senseless, bleak,
Profoundly scarred
By the moon’s acid.

One notes with delight how felicitously the inversion of ‘not a blessed wink slept’ draws out the insomniac’s vigil and how easily those pararhymes (had/head, dealers/dollars) drop into place. That rhyming of ‘quicksand. He’ with ‘brandy’ would seem to belong to the domain of light verse, but only two stanzas later, as a waking dream visits the would-be sleeper, we drift into the floating zones of the visionary:

Kingdom reborn
In colors seen
By the hashish-eater –
Ice-pink, alizarin,
Pearl; maze shorn
Of depth; geometer

To whom all desires
Down to the last silken
Wisp o’ the will
Are known ...

And two stanzas further on, with the advent of the rational light of dawn, the reader enters again a world of lucid good humour (one in which ‘admired’ is to be rhymed with ‘Merde’), which in turn quickly yields to a place of myth and mystery:

Thus the admired
Artifact, like clock
Or snake, struck till its poison
Was gone. Day broke,
The fever with it. Merde!
Who wanted things? He’d won.

Flushed on the bed’s
White, lay a figure whose
Richness he sensed
Dimly. It reached him as
A cave of crimson threads
Spun by her mother against

That morning in their life
When sons with shears
Should set the pattern free
To ripple air’s long floors
And bear him safe
Over a small waved sea.

For those readers who find that their ear goes unrewarded in most contemporary poetry, Merrill arrives singing not only like a bird, but like a cat, a dog, a bell, a river. He tweets, screeches, bays, clangs and purls. He is a virtuoso, whose music should be known wherever English is spoken and read.