A Poem of Despondencies
We go whatever route to run un-
obstructed. A city without seasons
may bug a man who needs thunderstorms,
snow, frost-butten leaves, to drive away
Keres, dirty little things that fill the air,
Obscure a weather’s message.
What softness massage festering reason?
In Scotland fairies
coverd with hair scare girls and
prepare twisted paths into the mire,
false landscapes, blight light,
sour dawn, noon or near night,
to reflect heart’s discontent or
raise vapors from sexual treasure
as gold rots in the ground sprouts fever.
This green is obscene, seeded
where will moves not, no
stout stalk leaf of the grass
but the green keres, in fury, fly
up from the bog of—
insatiable under the hand urge?
It’s the fearful rising where the cock
that sickens the eyes, tricks
the domestic poseur to self-loathing.
Black bile not blood drops
from the enclosure.
This is the way the land lies.
As who from dreams as from marsh
They are mosquitoes biting wet flanks
of natural flesh.
Did you? Did you? Who? opend the damnd
I hate locks. I wish I could give you
filths, upswarms of fervor, to hold…
A man held so, up-
held we see in staind unmoving
sea moved, sustaind in
mannd against calm.
This is from Robert Duncan’s collection, The Opening of the Field; it opens with nonchalance that precludes the vatic or grandeur carried by “we.” “Whatever” is liberated and liberating; it exults but without self-exaltation, and instead has the air of cockiness. The line itself would seem to pursue its course in part by following the root sounds of the words (“run to “un”, and that pun on “route” (“root”) is relevant for a poet who seeks always to go beneath things, to find their primordial freshness. “Bug” is colloquial, petty, understated, but also grounds the poem in a quotidian modern life, so that we are allowed to imagine the humdrum of routine and not make this city into some mythic place; it could be Los Angeles (which is without seasons; Duncan lived in San Francisco). Though the city is not named and this poem, like many of Duncan’s refuses to place itself in geography, or even history, but instead inhabits now one and now another locale and traditions (the Pound inheritance), the poem is sensually anchored; Duncan is an erotic poet and his eroticism is always somatic as well as spiritual, and the feel of matter and stuff is not opposed in his poetry to a feel for the occult energy that generates and moves the world; he is materialist and worldly in his occultism, looking beneath and not beyond (one reason it is not unpalatable). There is a suggestion here that “A city without seasons” is only as good as a “stagnant August,” and behind this is Duncan’s urge for a world that is actively in motion, dying but also regenerating; that to live properly means discerning this flux. As is the case reading many Duncan poems, we are not sure where we are. But that disorientation is checked at least partly by the sense of a poetic form that lies behind Duncan’s stanza shape and lines; this is not formal verse but it is verse that has grown from an urge to order, which we are made to feel reflects an order of the world as the poet perceives it. “Stagnant August” is not arbitrarily set on its own line, but it brings the first stanza to a constricted close; it is an obstruction set against Duncan’s opening line, and we realize that the two first sentences are held in tension. “Route to run” is echoed in “drive away,” even as the sense of the latter operates on another plane, so that the poem begins with an affirmation that is revealed to be, by the later lines, a desire to escape from a place whose seasons cannot drive away the “stagnant August” that obstructs change. The poem begins in that stagnant place, in August.
Keres are death spirits in Greek mythology and not an archaic spelling of the Roman goddess. “Dirty little things that fill the air” are bugs and also the heavy air of August, and perhaps air pollution; the point is that the Greek myths are reduced to the mundane, treated with contempt, but also that we are asked to understand the mundane “dirty little things that fill the air” as having greater significance than we might realize. Ruskin is not far from this line. Though Duncan was invested in the occult, he sets himself against the obscure—which does not mean his poetry is lucid, but that obscurity is a false end; we should seek, his poetry says, the clarity of light, though that might mean traveling some darkened ways. These death spirits, these particulates of dirt and waste, “obscure” not “the” weather’s message, but “a” weather’s message, so that “weather” is wrenched from grammatical conventions, made itself particular, a this or that, rather than a generic condition. “Message” becomes “massage” but the last line is itself obscure, perhaps enacting the circumstance of writing amidst the Keres, or perhaps implying an elided verb “can”; or perhaps eliding an “s” from the verb “massage”; this is a poem of despondencies, not despondency and this stanza reflects the confusion of singular and plural, which in Duncan is perhaps related to a confusion of the one and the many, the part and the whole, the dancer and the dance; he is despondent not only because reason festers but because he cannot break loose of it, cannot return to see something whole. We gradually come to realize that this entire poem is ensnared in obstruction, though we do not know yet where Duncan is trying to go.
It’s not Scotland; that place feels, and is supposed to feel, not entirely arbitrary, but equivocal; it is an example that has come to Duncan, but in so far as he is receptive to the example, in so far as one came to him at all, he has the power (a receptive power) crucial for poetry, even if he remains open only to all that is not right, to what is in the way. In the stanza about Scotland, we are shown at least, a negative, warped version of the place that Duncan would reach: a sense, alive and real, of the life of the world, its light, love, eros, and buried potential. “As gold rots in the ground sprouts fever” might allude to Pound’s “in the gloom the gold gathers light about it,” overturning Pound’s hope; “sprouts” is a verb (the ground sprouts in fever; sprouts a fever) and a verb (sprouts of life are fevered; provoke fever).
But throughout these lines, and clearly in the first line of the following stanza, Duncan’s poetry adheres to the routes of sound, one vowel yielding the subsequent word, so that the poetry does seem to move of its own accord, directed but not propelled by Duncan. This stanza is itself “seeded where will moves not,” where it is the life of language that reflects the life of things, neither having a will of its own: the green is obscene because it is a natural instinct of sex and life that has been made unspeakable or denied or suppressed. But it is also possible, in lines as compressed as verse by Dylan Thomas, to read in another direction: that was has made the grass obscene is the presence of the Keres, who are everywhere that life is to be found, an alien and unnatural presence, making the green obscene. Whether it is the Keres that make the green obscene or not, their swarming presence overcomes what is salutary in the vision. In the interruption of that vision by the final line, the poem becomes its own subject matter: where Duncan writes of the Keres, he hinders the generation of his own verse; the life of the cosmos and the life of the poem are one for Duncan, and the Keres oppose both. The “hand urge” might then be the self-thwarting of Duncan’s own writerly hand; there is maybe also a suggestion of onanism. I think at any rate that the question mark is not so much a question as a registering of bafflement; what comes previous to a question.
“Fearful” is both an adjective (the rising is fearful) and a noun (‘the fearful’ as a class of beings, who rise); something rising that is fearful that sickens, but also the rising of the fearful that sickens, and “the cock” might be daybreak or also sexual, or both. The failure of the body to perform and the failure of the world to return to light and life are commensurate, and commensurate also with the failure of the poet as poet. “Black bile” is melancholy; the enclosure drips with it, rather than the sanguine blood. “Domestic poseur” and “enclosure” both situate the poem, but situate it inadequately, but that inadequacy is symptomatic and diagnostic at once: the enclosure cannot be, and need not be, specified because it is felt only as a limiting, and the poseur is domestic because he is presuming to make a home of what cannot be a home; “enclosure” is opposed to the “field” of the collection’s title, and it is one piece of evidence, among others, that the collection be read as dis-unified whole, rather than as a bundle of occasions—and this might extend to Duncan’s poetry more generally. He is akin to Whitman, in this; he is writing, as Stevens spoke of writing, a supreme poem.
“This is the way the land lies” is bald, bleak, resigned to its own hard-nosed despair. “This” does not point except to itself; “the way” is not established except by the form of the poem itself, and perhaps even the line, open, featureless, isolated; we are once again situated, but in a place and on a plane without mark of distinction or identity. “Lies” is a pun: it lies but also deceives, like the fairies in Scotland. Duncan knows he is taken in by where he stands; he knows that standing as he does in despondency is to be taken in, and to stand on what is not real. The subsequent line might, if not for the full-stop, be a continuation of the idea: it “lies as” one “who from dreams as from marsh wakes.” If so, the pun holds, since those who dream awake lying and also awake speaking the lies of dreams, especially if their dreams are like marshes; the marshes recall the Scottish landscape, the sense of being obstructed, stuck, and surrounded by irksome insects. “They are” is the insects, the Keres, and even those who wake from dreams, insects risen from the marsh; risen fearfully from where they bred, this breeding without love or desire. But “they are” also is immediate, a declarative statement that places us without coordination or context; it is the immediacy of the poet’s experience.
The crucial word in that line is “natural,” crucial because it is at first glance superfluous: “natural flesh.” “Wet” is perhaps more disquieting, but it also more easily explained: the marsh is wet, the landscape is wet, and the wet is also perspiration. “Natural flesh” matters because it is not “flesh” per se that is under siege, but the naturalness of flesh; Duncan is writing a nature poetry that, like the best nature poetry, does not take nature for granted, and that instead finds something precise and significant in the nebula of the concept.
The formal control and measure of the first stanzas disintegrates in the last two, as the poem revolves to the intimate, the accusatory, the beseeching: the “you” is pitched at an unknown person, establishes a relation without an identity. The box is Pandora’s, perhaps; or perhaps should not be specified any more than the addressee. “Damnd” is both colloquial and frustrated but also solemn and adjectival: the box is damned. The accusation turns to self-accusation (the lifeblood of Romanticism, says Geoffrey Hill), with “But I hate locks,” a dialogue of speaker with speaker that concedes that temptation to open it, and then the figure shifts, the ground between the speaker and addressee shifts, as they are attached by love and desire: “I wish I could give you | such openness.” “Openness” recalls the title of the collection; this openness is the goal and end of the poetry, but is not simply found or claimed; he wishes he could give the experience of such openness. Openness is also, and primarily, the acceptance and confession of the poet’s life internal life, which he seeks to share, which contains “filths” and “upswarms of fervor.” It contains, that is, the keres, the insects, the particulate pollution of life that swarms up and bites the natural flesh; and so his desire to share it is not simply to be closer to the person he addresses, but to be saved by that other; to yield for his own (Duncan’s own) sake.
The final stanza proffers something like wisdom, of the sort in the phrase “he who would…” It is a generalization about what a person needs: to be held up in the stained sea that moves without moving, and which is Hell (a demonic inversion of the unmoving mover that is God?), is sustained and mannd in calm. The act of being held makes possible the verbal transformation of “staind” to “sustaind,” and the final more dramatic transformation to “mannd.” “Mannd” means here to remain a man, or to be kept in place as a man, but also recalls the Latin “manere,” “to remain” or “endure,” and the line suggests also “remain in calm.”
This is a beautiful poem, I think, with a richness of suggestion that exceeds the occasion, and that knows enough not to make too much of the occasion as something other than a symptom of life and universe that must be reckoned and confronted anew from moment to moment and poem to poem, but that is, within its multitudinous expressions, nonetheless a whole.