Saturday, May 7, 2011

Acquainted with Night

  In Randall Jarrell’s essay “The Other Frost,” he reminds us that Robert Frost, at his best, was not the Farmer-Poet, “full of dry wisdom and free, complacent Yankee enterprise.”  Rather there is another Frost that seemed to have escaped notice of both the common reader of poetry (yes, there seemed to be such a public, once), and the intellectual followers of Eliot and Auden.  This other Frost was dark and uncompromising:  “many of these poems are extraordinarily subtle and strange, poems which express an attitude that, at its most extreme, make pessimism seem a hopeful evasion.”

I read this essay thirty-six years ago, when I was first smitten with Jarrell and his work—starting with Hannah Arendt’s essay about Jarrell in her book Men in Dark Times, recommended to me by my political science professor, Leonard Jonathan Lamm.   As the kids say—shout out to Dr. Lamm.  Many of the poems that Jarrell highlights have been among my favorite poems, especially “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” and “Acquainted with the Night.” 

Obviously, I have been reminded of this essay and Frost’s poetry lately as I read Paul Christensen’s new volume of poems The Human Condition (Wings Press).  In “Night Town,” Christensen writes his own version of “Acquainted with the Night” and adds a gentle allusion to Edward Hopper while he is at it. 

I am out walking again, hands shoved
into empty pockets, The city
at four a.m. rests like a lion
with ears pinned back.
I give it room, and walk the bright
side of town.  Everyone’s in their
first dreams, picking flowers
in a field, falling in love, buying
a house in the country after
winning the lottery. (page 13)

The first thing I need to say—there are so many things trying to squeeze through the door jams all at once—is that I admire Christensen’s uncompromising clarity.  The language of this poem is free of post-modern clutter. The first strophe of this 28-line poem consists of four simple, declarative sentences, alternating between the actions of the persona and the actions of the city, the people in the city.  At first, this poem appears as if it might be about the man walking late at night and his sad life, and it is, but it becomes more.  It turns midway with the line, “My beautiful life. / I didn’t seem to care for much till now.”

By the end of the poem, we know the poem is really about the town, about us—just as its title tells us it is—and about the uneasy peace in which we all live:  “The night hawks / sleep at last, falling into night / without parachutes or wings.”  Christensen’s repetition of “falling” from the first strophe is telling—dreams of “falling in love” become “falling into night.”  And there is nothing to save us; we are neither soldiers nor angels.

Christensen is sixty eight years old this year, and it is tempting to reduce this book to being the vision of the world through the eyes of a man seeing himself age. 

“I’m the last living member of my family. / I carry its meager history on my back” (page 24)
“shelves bend under a load of names / once borrowed by the dead” (page 30)
“Sometimes the past puts on its clothes / and walks back into my life.”  (page 41)
“the hard look in the mirror, / as if age were finally catching up.” (page 54)
“One’s life is no longer a self-portrait / . . . . Your face vanishes / in the mirror and the world takes over.” (page 76)
“I dine on all my memories / of death; I eat my friends at night,” (page 93)

This is a book that could not be written by a young man.  While the physical landscapes of this book range from College Station to El Paso to Provence to Beirut to Cap d’Antibes and to Iraq, the emotional landscape of this book is a wearied but active acceptance of time and trouble.  As he writes, contemplating the horrors in Eritrea,

. . . . I am always
waiting for a sign from god, a blazing figure
in the sky part fire, part cry of indignation
that would roll for years across the heavens.
We could all quake and sink to our knees
to ask forgiveness, but that day will have to wait. 
(“What I Think about in Summer,” page 74.)

The young are brimming with outrage and praise, and they pour whatever language they have upon our streets, like hydrants, to clear themselves of it.  Christensen’s cup overflows, but I imagine him patiently conserving his “spontaneous emotion,” bottling it, and letting it age for the right moment. 

His poem “A Hero with a Thousand Faces,” is as powerful as Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” in forcing us to see the cost of war.

Out of nowhere, fire snaked from a muzzle
cutting his arms in two,
pulling his guts apart until his shirt
was a taut sack of blood.  His buddies
pulled him by his collar out of fire,
left him there, to hunt a ghost
with lead and thunder. (page 88)

The music of Christensen’s poetry in this volume seems to me to be like Chopin or Scriabin, solo piano.  Clean melodic lines, the resonance of vowels and consonants.  Notice the u’s and o’s in this strophe, modulating in the tension between the t’s and k’s, on one hand, and the l’s, on the other hand.  There is such overbearing rage in this passage conveyed with patience and calm.

And just to make sure that we know the real source of the horror, Christensen brings us back home to our living rooms.  He concludes this poem:

Back home, Oprah in interviewing
five successful dieters with their doctor,
a sad man with baggy eyes, a wistful
look at all the ignorance staring back at him.
He promises beauty and sex for
fifty bucks, and hears the phones ring
like sirens singing, while our hero
naps in his soiled chair, knees jerking
spasmodically to his unbearable dreams.  (88-89)

We have a nice light allusion to Odysseus returning home from war to balance the strong irony of the title’s reference to Joseph Campbell's study of heroes in myth.

There’s more to say, but this is enough.  Except to point out that Christensen includes in this book two poems remembering two important poets who resided in Texas for many years, Lorenzo Thomas and Jack Myers.  This book contains several ghosts enlivened by Christensen’s imagination. And that is why this book is not finally a book written by a poet in his later years.  Christensen ends one poem wishing to be “one who / tested the imagination and found / it working after all” (“Revolution at Ten O’clock,” page 18).  It’s this line that I think tells us what this book is really about.  We are all caught in the trap of the human condition.  What saves us is our imagination.  If ours in inaccessible to us, it is the imagination of a poet that saves us, a poet like Paul Christensen, gentle, wise in his pessimism, and unafraid of the dark. 

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