#212: HUZZAH! MORE POETS! What you first notice in picking up Derek Walcott’s book-length poem Tiepolo’s Hound is that you are in the hands of a master: the double couplets, rhyme scheme abab, the loose meter, the sight rhymes, all flow with a kind of watchful, silken speed. The poem is in part a meditation on the life of Camille Pissarro, born in St. Thomas (then part of the Dutch West Indies), who became one of the influential stalwarts of the Impressionist painters in Paris. Walcott, born in Saint Lucia, himself a painter as well as a poet and playwright, takes to this with an ease born of experience and a skill born of long practice (Tiepolo’s Hound was his fourteenth book). Colonialism has been one of the important topics of recent literature, some of it Walcott’s own; but here he is more exploratory than exclaiming. He understands the urge to get the hell out of Dodge, to see the wide world, the great cities; he also understands how Dodge has a way of following you wherever you go, and the search for a way to live in and encompass the vastness of those various worlds, recapturing “an old innocence / of wonder.” Walcott’s search—his own Hound of Heaven—is figured in the image of a dog he remembers seeing once in a Renaissance painting, who ghosts behind the narrative rather as it tugs at Walcott’s memory. But the landscapes of the poem, gloriously evoked, bring their own fulfillment: cumulatively, alertly, Tiepolo’s Hound arrives at those ““landscapes with no tenses, views that know / that now, as always, light is all we have.”
There seems to be no end of our engagement with Homer—as recently as with the Coen brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (to name two of my favorites), artists of all media and gifts find him a source you can hold up to the light and always see something new. Alice Oswald’s Nobody follows her earlier Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad in not at all being a straight-up translation but a sea-struck evocation of the Odyssey in which more is suggested than said, identities are infinitely frangible, characters are misted over but vivid in our recall of their classical referents. “The poem lives in the murkiness between those stories…as if someone set out to sing the Odyssey, but was rowed to a stony island and never discovered the poem’s ending.” Mythic, hallucinatory, mesmeric mysterious; all these words have been used to describe Nobody, but Oswald trusts the ability to read by hint and instinct that Modernism taught us—she knows just how much light we need to keep our bearings. With this Nobody can be misted but never foggy, mysterious but not baffling:
And once a fisherman poking among the mackerel
pulled out a human head whose head
tell me muse about this floating nobody
the one who would have drowned but a river
coming looking for him with swerves
and trailing beard-hair how secretive it is
when water moves through the sea
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith’s third collection, draws not just on science fiction but on the science of astonomy: her father worked on the Hubble telescope, and Smith’s imagination is a distinctive mixture of the huge billowing spaces out there around us and the sharper-edged things a bit closer to home. The early pieces have some of that sense of how large spaces can spook us; there’s an awful lot out there that isn’t us. Or isn’t it? Is a nebula really more frightening than “How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another, / Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something / Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?” In one of the later poems, “The Dead Send Postcards to Their Assailants from America’s Most Celebrated Landmarks,” each one as devastating as the next, proving that no matter how closely grounded the characters are, there will be plenty of imaginative space around them. “When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me” is a beautiful poem about conception: “From what dream of world did you wriggle free? / What soared—and what grieved—when you aimed your will / At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?” All of Smith’s poems are marked by bravery, by imagination, by compassion. “Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,” she writes. Perhaps it is.
Adam Zagajewski, the Polish poet, passed away in 2021, at the age of seventy-five; True Life, translated by his longtime collaborator Clare Cavanagh, is his last collection. As a Pole, a European, a poet involved in the Generation of ’68 (the Polish movement protesting “the falsifications of reality and the appropriation of language by communist ideology and propaganda”) and many of whose works were banned, he achieved, with increasingly spare and simple poetic means, a genuine tragic sense and a feeling for the fragility and impermanence of life. The world is always there: in “The Old Painter on a Walk,” the narrator says, “I painted it all, tried to paint my thoughts / And caught so little / The world still grows it grows relentlessly / And yet there is always less of it.” From the poem “Sunday”: “God is elsewhere, elsewhere. / We know nothing. We live in darkness.” Yet there is always a tempering, of remembered and small present joys. “Try to praise the mutilated world,” he wrote after 9/11, and he did:
I see those boys once more, in the afternoon
sun, how they pinch their noses
and jump into Istanbul’s sea
from a low concrete embankment.
Then they came straight from the water,
shining like damp pebbles,
and jumped back in again—
as if there could really be perpetuum mobile.
I don’t know if they were happy, but I
was, for a moment, in the blaze
of a May day, watching.
Of all the inherited classical forms, the ode seems to be the one we have the least connection to, perhaps because of the problem we have with civic poetry; of the classical poets, Pindar is one most resistant to effective translation. The ode (with the noble exception of Keats, mind you) for the most part conjures up local-poet doggerel read from podiums on the Fourth of July, or those sagging invitations to uplift read at the inauguration of something or somebody. Sharon Olds’s collection Odes, on the other hand, tosses the podium and goes straight for the intensely personal. Personal, not to say physical: sexuality has been insistently present in her work, and we get Odes to the Hymen, the Clitoris, the Penis, the Condom, the Tampon, Menstrual Blood, Balls, the Blow Job, etc. etc. Many poems involve specifically sexual aggression; you can imagine what she makes of buttermilk. (Maybe you can’t.) Olds is intense but, thank God, she’s never humorless, and if you begin occasionally to back up from her, she anticipates this in her “Second Ode to the Hymen,” where her partner twits her, “’You’re sixty / something years old, he exclaims, and still / writing about the first time you got laid!’” (This insistent physicality, almost carnality, is something that shadows my feeling for Neruda as well—he gets in my space.) But all this may skirt the issue that Olds is just one ballsy poet—or whatever female-equivalent word you could come up with. (Titsy?)
She’s fearless. Her vocabulary is all over the place, scientific words, biological terms, medical terms—and if it kicks the tone of the poems around somewhat, I think it’s a conscious choice, and I think she’s right. She’s fearless, and she’s fierce, and she drags you all sorts of places (especially if you’re a male) you’ve never been. Getting into a book of Olds’s poems can be like Alice wandering into the kitchen in the “Pig and Pepper” chapter of Wonderland: a shock of sneezing and howling and commotion and what-all. The difference is that not once, or twice, or occasionally, but on page after page we are moved and brightened and lifted, as if by a soprano voice that hooks you under the chest-bone and pulls you into the sky, or a friend’s voice telling us a secret. There are the poems of physical and emotional violence; tough as they are, I feel Olds never puts a foot wrong in all this dangerous ground. There are beautiful odes for poet-friends Stanley Kunitz and Galway Kinnell, poems to her beloved sister, and, in the “Double Ode for Hazel,” as saddening and delighting a poem to a dog as I’ve ever read. There have never been many poets who could manage this mix of breadth of feeling and almost intimidating intimacy; she dead-eyes you and then, once in a while (as in “Ode to a Composting Toilet”) can make you break up laughing. In “Ode to My Sister,” she reminisces:
I understood almost nothing, and I
loved pertinding, and I loved to go into the
garden and dance with the flowers, which danced
with me without hardly moving their green
legs, I was like a music box
dropped on my head.
There’s a good deal of that child left in the sixty-something Olds, still dancing. Only, reading her work, we feel as if it’s us being dropped on our heads, and you just want to send her a note of thanks.
And I don’t know how many poets there are alive who can match Jane Hirshfield in her ability to combine a Dickinsonian compression, a natural and imaginative bent for metaphor, a terse and reined-in rhythm and a world-shouldering courage, all with an obedience to Keats’s injunction to “load every rift with ore.” Her language looks almost epigrammatic, especially in the poems she calls (after Milosz) Pebbles, but they never settle with the defining snap of aphorism or maxim: the words remain aureoled, resonant, entirely in the way of poetry. “Like the moonlight seen in a well. / The one who sees it / blocks it.” “Transparent as glass, / the face of the child telling her story. / But how else to learn the real / if not by inventing what might lie outside it?” Hirshfield is known to frown a bit when you mention (or confine her to) her training in Soto Zen Buddhism, but perhaps only that training’s insistence on the importance of compassion is the background for us to set the poetry into; what else in our contemporary culture speaks in that manner? She is not, she’s said, a Buddhist poet but a human poet and if that’s so the comparison must finally be with the great T’ang master Wang Wei, whose humanity is similarly free from the language of sect and ritual, embodied (that’s the word) rather in the felt and visible world. In the final poem of Come, Thief, she writes of a deer who has just passed through an impossibly narrow space: “I don’t know how a stag turns / into a stream, an arc of water. / I have never felt such accurate envy. / Not of the deer: / To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.” And here, if you were wondering, is the title poem:
The mandarin silence of windows before their view,
like guards who nod to every visitor,
the path to the doorway agrees.
A fire require its own conflagration.
As birth does. As love does.
Saying to time to the end, “Dear one, enter.”
Tiepolo’s Hound, by Derek Walcott. Faber, 2000.
Nobody, by Alice Oswald. W.W. Norton, 2020.
Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 2011.
True Life, by Adam Zagajewski. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2023.
Odes, by Sharon Olds. Cape, 2016.
Come, Thief, by Jane Hirshfield. Knopf, 2011.