All Her Nomads

Helen Vendler

  • Collected Poems by Amy Clampitt
    Faber, 496 pp, £25.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 571 19349 8

Amy Clampitt died in 1994, at the age of 74; Knopf had published her first book of poems, The Kingfisher, in 1983. It was followed by What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), Westward (1990) and A Silence Opens (1994) – five books in 11 years. These are the books that make up this Collected (which does not include Clampitt’s chapbook, Multitudes, Multitudes, privately printed in 1973).

The Collected is preceded by an affectionate Foreword by the poet Mary Jo Salter, a close friend of Clampitt’s during the Eighties and Nineties; the biographical information below is drawn from this helpful introduction to both the person and the writing. Amy Clampitt was born on 15 June 1920, the first of five children, in New Providence, Iowa, on a three-hundred-acre farm belonging to her paternal grandfather; she lived on the farm until she was ten, when her parents, to Clampitt’s lasting regret, moved to a new house. Her life was outwardly uneventful. After 12 years in the local public schools, where she felt out of place, she moved on to Grinnell College, then – after entering graduate school at Columbia – she dropped out and became a secretary at Oxford University Press. ‘She wrote advertising copy and won a company-sponsored essay contest, whose prize was a trip to England,’ Salter tells us, and adds: ‘It, and a follow-up journey around Europe a few years later, when she quit the Oxford job, changed her life.’ There was an unhappy romance, and then a job as reference librarian for the Audubon Society. In the Fifties, Clampitt wrote three novels, which remain unpublished. She kept an apartment in Greenwich Village, but for the last 25 years of her life she also shared an apartment on the Upper East Side with Harold Korn, a professor at Columbia University Law School; they married shortly before Clampitt’s death in 1994, of ovarian cancer. In the summers, they spent weeks in Maine, the location of many of Clampitt’s poems of fog, sea and sundews. Salter, in recounting her first meeting with Clampitt in 1979, gives a physical description that is very accurate:

Tall, seemingly weighing nothing at all in her ballet slippers, she had a lightness of foot and manner that put one in mind, immediately, of a child. Her dark brown hair, greying only a little then, was put up behind with a hippie’s leather barrette, though she had also trained two wide chin-length locks to fall over her rather comically large ears. She was less able (though she tried, with long, elegant fingers that were always flying upward) to hide a beautiful gap-toothed smile.

(Thomas Victor’s photograph, reproduced on the dust-jacket of the Collected, catches the smile convincingly.)

Salter also fills in, for Clampitt’s new readers, the moral background to the poems. It was Quakers who had settled New Providence, but a more amalgamated Protestantism was what Clampitt had been raised in. She was drawn in the Sixties into political action, and had joined the 1971 demonstrations outside the White House protesting the bombing of North Vietnam. When Salter asked Clampitt if she had ever wanted children, she replied: ‘Oh no, when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima I knew that this wasn’t a world I wanted to bring children into.’ Salter, rightly, suspects that there were other reasons: it is clear from the poems that Clampitt was repelled by her mother’s life, drained of personal energy by childbearing and household duties. Clampitt, Salter later learned, ‘left the Episcopal Church (after years of commitment so fervent she had considered becoming a nun) because she felt its leaders had not been sufficiently outspoken against the war’. But Clampitt also rebelled against being incorporated into any movement. She said in an interview in the journal, Verse, the year before she died:

At least since the Sixties, I’ve had an urge to refer in some way to public issues – which is not the same as speaking for any identifiable group or point of view. There’s a lot of fractious poetry being written; I’ve written some of it myself. What I’m really concerned with ... [is] maintaining what I have to call a subversive attitude, the opposite of going along with anybody’s programme whatever. It amounts to wariness about being co-opted. Since part of being co-opted means having to accept somebody else’s language, I see this wariness as a particular function of poets.

Because of Clampitt’s intense delight in nature – and her unlimited vocabulary for describing it (as befitted, and was natural to, a reference librarian) – the moral passion of her poems was slighted by some reviewers, who thought her a pedantic elaborator on natural scenery. By a few critics – whose vocabulary may have been less extensive than her own – she was resentfully branded an élitist poet, one whose poetry was not ‘accessible’ to the ordinary reader. Clampitt was aware of this criticism but put it gracefully by: ‘There are enough readers who get turned on by the same kind of things that I do, so I don’t terribly mind having people say, as they sometimes do: “Where do you get all those words from?” ’ On the other hand, Clampitt’s work was also greeted with high praise by readers who found her books ‘poetry for grown-ups’ – J.D. McClatchy’s phrase.

It is true that Clampitt’s is an allusive and literary body of work, and that it asks for a literary reader. The novelist in her was attracted to the lives of the poets and she even wrote, towards the end of her life, a play (Mad with Joy) about the cohabitation of William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge in Dove Cottage (her sympathies were with Dorothy). She also, more successfully, wrote a sequence on the life of Keats (‘Voyages’) and poems resuming the life of Dorothy Wordsworth (‘Grasmere’, ‘Coleorton’, ‘Rydal Mount’), George Eliot (‘George Eliot Country’, ‘Medusa at Broadstairs’, ‘High-gate Cemetery’), Margaret Fuller (‘Margaret Fuller, 1847’) and Pocahontas (‘Matoaka’). Oddly, there was nothing similar on Hopkins (‘the first poet she loved’, according to Salter). These biographical poems, though they all have moving moments, do not equal in passion or art the pieces about Clampitt’s own youth and the elegies for her parents; and they may, it is true, seem a little remote to readers who have no notion of the events in the writers’ lives. For example, the first of the Keats poems, ‘Margate’, begins:

Reading his own lines over, he’d been
(he wrote) in the diminished state of one
‘that gathers Samphire dreadful trade’.
Disabled Gloucester, so newly eyeless
all his scathed perceptions bled together,
and Odysseus, dredged up shipwrecked
through fathoms of Homeric sightlessness –

‘the sea had soaked his heart through’ –
were the guides his terror clutched at.

Yet even in her most allusive writing, Clampitt usually gives the reader enough human and lyric interest to propel him through the poem. ‘Margate’, for instance, continues with Clampitt’s ambivalent indictment of writing, an activity symbolised by the perilous trade of the seaweed-gatherer but also by the Whitmanian desolate collecting of ‘sea drift’ and the Stevensian exposure to the ‘ice and fire’ of the Northern Lights:

                    How clannish
the whole hand-to-hand, cliffhanging trade,

the gradual letdown, the hempen slither,
precarious basketloads of sea drift
gathered at Margate or at Barnegat ...
               The chaff, the scum
of the impalpable confined in stanzas,

a shut-in’s hunger for the bodiless
enkindlings of the aurora – all that
traffic in the perilous.

The biographical becomes a launching-pad for the autobiographical and thence to the general: the articulation of the impalpable, Clampitt implies, presents difficulties to everyone throughout daily life.

But Clampitt will be remembered, I think, not so much for the imaginative gesturing towards past lives as for the registering of her own. We are given the child’s perspective on her mother’s day:

apathy at the meridian, the noon
of absolute boredom: flies
crooning black lullabies in the kitchen,
milk-soured crocks, cream separator
still unwashed: what is there to life
but chores, and more chores, dishwater,
fatigue, unwanted children: nothing
to stir the longueur of afternoon

except possibly thunderheads:
climbing, livid, turreted ...

The rush of enumeration – nouns and noun-phrases for the endless repetitiveness of housework – is the way Clampitt chooses to sketch an environment: ‘During my early years in New York,’ she said, ‘I ... felt more at home with painters than with most literary people ... Not being able to draw, I found myself exploring what words could do as an equivalent to drawing and brush-work.’ When description turns to the mixture of indignation and regret with which Clampitt elegises her mother, in the pained poem ‘A Procession at Candlemas’, it is past participles that bear the burden of the parental life, generalised:

                   the squalor of the day
resumed, the orphaned litter taken up again

unloved, the spawn of botched intentions,
grief a mere hardening of the gut,
a set piece of what can’t be avoided:

parents by the tens of thousands living
unthanked, unpaid but in the sour coin
of resentment.

Finally, in the wake of the heaped-up inventories, comes the indictment of the anonymous biological life women have been destined to; and here at last Clampitt’s syntax ignites into a whole sentence, as she asks how women relinquished the notion that they had a right to a soul, a ‘thread of fire’, a personal identity:

Where is it? Where, in the shucked-off
bundle, the hampered obscurity that has been
for centuries the mumbling lot of women,

did the thread of fire, too frail
ever to discover what it meant, to risk
even the taking of a shape, relinquish

the seed of possibility?

Clampitt is not a poet of conclusive stanzaic form; her breaking of a poem into groups of seven lines (‘Margate’) or three (‘A Procession at Candlemas’) or irregular verse-paragraphs of seven to 18 lines (‘Imago’) seems not to matter much in the structure of the whole. The tercet-breaks are there to slow down the cascading syntax of a single multi-line sentence; the stanza-breaks often represent the end of a sentence. At most, they alert the reader to a pause in thought rather than to a change of voice or a new symbolic system. To that degree, she is a poet more of thought and metaphor than of architectonics or symbol creation.

She is also more a poet of reflection and sorrow than of erotic drive, as might be predicted of an older poet writing from a settled life; the mad drive to locate one’s sexual nature and one’s place in the world (Keats’s ‘love and fame’) is the property of the young. She may be a poet best appreciated by those – young or old – who have reached the stage of life embodied in the poetry, or by those who are as intensely aware of natural beauty (and natural savagery) as she is. Her first memory was of an orchard-field of violets under a canopy of maple trees: she speaks of sliding under barbed wire

              to an enclosure
whose ceiling’s silver-maple tops
stir overhead, uneasy, in the interminably
murmuring air ... Deep in it, under
appletrees like figures in a ritual, violets
are thick, a blue cellarhole
of pure astonishment.
                       It is
the earliest memory. Before it,
I/you, whatever that conundrum may yet
prove to be, amounts to nothing.

Immersion in landscape seemed to return Clampitt to that pre-subjective moment of joy before self and object become two things. Consequently, nothing made her happier as a writer than the challenge to make the physical world appear to others as it seemed to her. The tornados of her childhood, for instance:

                         Against
the involuted tantrums of spring and summer –
sackfuls of ire, the frightful udder
of the dropped mammocumulus
become all mouth, a lamprey
swigging up whole farmsteads, suction
dislodging treetrunks like a rotten tooth –
luck and a cellarhold were all
a prairie dweller had to count on.

Clampitt dwelt all her life on the nomadism that made her ancestors move westward, and that equally compelled her to move eastward. (‘I’m something of a nomad,’ she said in an interview published in 1991.) The Iowa prairie of her childhood is the fixed point from which all moves are measured, and the journeys represented in her poems range from the return to her mother’s deathbed (‘A Procession at Candlemas’) to the terrifying displacement, endlessly repeated, of all nomads and immigrants, represented in her late poem ‘Sed de Correr’. The poem is named from a phrase of César Vallejo, meaning literally ‘a thirst for running away’, but translated by Clampitt into

escape, the urge to disjoin, the hunger
to have gone, to be going: sed de correr:
Vallejo in Paris writing (me alejo todo)
of fleeing, of running away from what made one,
from everything.

The New York to which Clampitt once fled from the Great Plains now houses Puerto Ricans; and in coming to recognise that the journey is no escape, Clampitt is writing retrospectively about herself as much as about the new immigrants she sees on the elevated train or the subway:

escape that is no escape ...
                              elevated
or submerged, the serial unseeing faces
within, the windows travelling, a delirium of them,
of arrivals, escapes that are no escape:
                              ... these refugees
from the canefields’ corridored, murderous green,
caught up in the wingborne roar, the breaking
wave of displacement ...
                        translated here, to
the crass miracle of whatever it is that put up
the South Bronx, street number after street number,
the mailbox pried open, recipient unknown,
moved on, shot down – and has made of it
this byword, this burnt-out, roofless, windowless
testimonial to systems gone rotten.

Yet even as she attempts to write the poem of today’s New York, Clampitt knows that she can see the new immigrants only en masse, cannot possibly speak from within their experience:

                 The leaves of dispersal,
The runaway pages, surround us. Who
will hear? Who will gather
them in? Who will read them?

Her wrath at ‘systems gone rotten’ extends far and wide. In a single poem, ‘The Prairie’ (in part a history of her family), her topics range from the homeless in New York (‘the houseless squinny at us, mumbling’) to the expulsion (or corralling) of the Plains Indians and the imposition of mechanised large-scale agriculture on the Midwest:

Demagoguery. Boundaries. Forced marches.

Monoculture on the heels of slash and burn.
Land reform. Drought. Insects. Drainage.
Long-term notes. Collectives. Tractor lugs.

The undertow of all such passages is a despair known perhaps only to those who have, like Clampitt, participated buoyantly and hopefully in social protest (‘that freshet of anarchy’) and have seen its ultimate powerlessness against the larger evils of the world. Years after the Vietnam War, she is still aghast at the slaughter. She writes an 18-line poem which is – of the many poems facing that mirror-black granite Plutonian cleft in the earth, the Vietnam War Memorial – the most embattled against the historical gods of carnage. I quote it in full:

The War Memorial

The rain-god Tlaloc, hungering for blood,
the war-god, hummingbird-gartered
Huitzilopochtli, the drugged booty

of a huger, cleverer hunger, stir
in a museum hall of nightmare, where
Asshur the bellicose and Marduk, who

rode forth to set the world in order,
are neighbours, where the drifts and dunes
of long-immobilised cuneiform begin

to move again, a bas-relief of dread
like the long scar, the black cicatrice
of memory not yet embalmed but raw,

those drifts of origami at its foot:
to trace whose length is to reopen
what George Fox, compelled at Lichfield

to take off his shoes, walked barefoot
in – the channel of the blood of those
who fell. For what? Can someone tell us?

The Vietnam War Memorial occasioned protest because it lacked the heroic postures of most war memorials: designed by the young Maya Lin, it is, as Clampitt says, a scar in the earth, commemorating name by name the 58,000 war dead, ghostly throngs that surround the tourist passing deeper and deeper into the wall of countless names. (Clampitt alludes to the incident when George Fox, thinking of his ancestors burned at Lichfield during the reign of Mary Tudor, felt commanded by God to walk barefoot through the streets of the town, which seemed to him channels of blood. After astounding the citizens by shouting, ‘Woe unto the bloody city of Lichfield,’ he bathed his feet, put on his shoes, and resumed ordinary equanimity.)

It is a Quaker anger against war that Clampitt here expresses, but it is also tinged with her feminism, which indicts male violence without averting its eyes from its female counterpart, the masochism of hysteria and mourning. In a remarkable poem called ‘Good Friday’, she writes scornfully of female complicity in ‘the evolving ordonnance of murder’. The celebration of the Passion of Jesus offers, she says, to its women devotees

an ampoule of gore, a mithridatic
ounce of horror – sops for the maudlin
tendency of women toward extremes
of stance, from virgin blank to harlot
to sanctimonious official mourner –
myrrh and smelling salts, baroque
placebos, erotic tableaux vivants
dedicated to the household martyr,
underwriting with her own ex votos
the evolving ordonnance of murder.

To read Clampitt is to enter into the mind of a woman too intelligent not to see both sides of the gender question, too indignant not to want to change a hard-hearted social system, too capable of exaltation to refrain from announcing joy. Feelings swarmed in her heart, words swam to her pen, and the flood of poems that she produced late in life delineate a self – silent for 53 years – that suddenly found a public voice. If she had died at 50, we should never have known about her.