October 20, 2011

Review by A.P. MaddoxTalking into the Ear of a Donkey

TALKING INTO THE EAR OF A DONKEY
by Robert Bly

Norton
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10110
ISBN 978-0-939-08022-3
2011, 107 pp., $24.95
www.wwnorton.com

It is surprising to me, now I think of it, that there aren’t more Robert Blys walking around. All I mean is poets who throw themselves headlong into foreign poetry as a source for new ideas. Ezra Pound, of course, was one of these. But there really aren’t that many.

The juicy ideas are certainly out there for the grabbing. New forms, new openings on the chessboard. Also the poet can get permission to strike all kinds of attitudes he or she would ordinarily regard as illegal. (Take a look at Pound’s Cathay. The “illegal” attitude there was tenderness.)

The danger of taking Martian poetry (including English stuff from, like, the sixteenth century) as your model is that your poetry will end up sounding like a pastiche. You get all excited by Astrophil and Stella, for example, and then you write stuff that’s the poetic equivalent of going over to your friend’s house in an Elizabethan ruff. A certain kind of bright and promising undergraduate is compelled by the laws of physics to do this. Again: Pound was one of these.

The problem is it’s not easy to know precisely what you’re responding to, when you enjoy exotic poetry. Perhaps the poetry of the Mongolian yak herders is knocking you dead, not because it’s actually any good, but because you just like the idea of a little brown man making stuff up while milking a yak. So you wind up imitating the wrong thing.

Now, Bly is no fool, and definitely no beginner. He’s eighty-four, and he’s spent the last ten or twelve years steeped in Urdu and Persian ghazals. He’s been party to a couple of translations, one of Ghalib and one of Hafez. He’s also written three books of his own ghazal-like poems, each one worse than the last, but all three of ’em worth having and reading, at least for me.

I see these three books as a crazy mix of some of the most genuinely excellent stuff being done in American poetry, and some of the most affected and sickening. Let me explain.

The illegal attitude in these three books is that of the oracle. See, these old Muslim poets whom Bly is imitating were not at all shy about throwing down wisdom poetry. They thought the imparting of wisdom was at least half their job. And not just wisdom. Big, perverse, sexy wisdom. Cosmic wisdom.

This is not at all a common view among 21st-century American poets. Mostly what we do is dramatize more-or-less normal states of mind. Hafez and Ghalib do that too, of course, but they don’t like to carry on for more than, say, eight or ten lines without coining some bold paradox about the Universe . . . or Love . . . or God. They like large statements, and they like channeling superhuman authority.

Now, insofar as Bly really does have some genuinely nifty cosmic intuitions, he writes lines that are as bold and subversive and memorable as anything you’d find in an English translation of Hafez or Ghalib. But. He also insists on draping himself in gear out of National Geographic, and drawing up a stool so he can milk the yak. Very few of the poems are free from this oscillation between very good and very embarrassing. It is strange.

I keep going back to Pound. When you read the stuff from his first two or three books, you marvel at the relentless fakery, the Renaissance-Fair bric-a-brac—and then you marvel even more that, of all people, this guy was fated to snap out of it almost completely, and write all that good shit later. But at least that’s a linear narrative. With Bly, you don’t know what you’re looking at.

Send a helicopter over the following gallery of goodies. Every one of these passages is culled from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001).

EXTRACTS: 1

It is the nature of shame to have many children.

Too many well-lit necks calls for the axe.

He’s baptized in water soaked in onions;

He rode all day with fire coming out of his ears […]

EXTRACTS: 2

Centuries later, the Mesopotamian gods,
All curls and ears, showed up;

Understand this. The journey was a three-day trip,
But it took Pitzeem thirty years.

How many boulders had to be ground down
To produce one square inch of the Sahara!

When I see a book written two thousand years
Ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned […]

EXTRACTS: 3

Swimmers, when they dive down to the pool floor,
Turn sometimes and look up toward the sky;
They see sunlight killing its bulls in the water.

I hope you’ve stopped saying that people
Are bad and animals good. Bees have their hives.
Every old frog is a son of Robespierre.

Naked men crawl into tunnels to retrieve the giant
Snakes. They don’t resist if pulled out backwards.
Ah, friends, the world pulls us out backwards […]

Right? So, to my mind, all that stuff is A#1. It threatens to suck sometimes, but it just doesn’t. That thing about “every old frog is a son of Robespierre”? C’mon: that’s awesome. But now watch what Bly does. Watch him say (over and over) that it’s all right, that it doesn’t matter, nothing to worry about, everything’s gonna be OK. (These passages are all from the more recent book, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey. I’m ignoring line breaks.)

All right. I know that each of us will die alone. It doesn’t matter how loud or soft the sitar plays.

It doesn’t matter if we say our prayers or not.

It’s all right if we do nothing tonight.

It’s all right if we’re troubled by the night. It’s all right if we can’t recall our own name. It’s all right if this rough music keeps on playing.

I’ve given up worrying about men living alone.

New people have taken over the motel. It’s all right.

The renegade minister—the one they all gossip about—would see those waves too, after throwing his Sunday hat out the window. He’ll be all right.

It’s all right if you walk down to the shore.

“Oh, never mind about all that,” the donkey says.

It’s all right if I go to college; most people don’t. It’s all right to end up bringing your own father home. Just be quiet.

Let’s not try to cheer each other up. It’s all right.

Go on, be cheerful in autumn, be stoic, yes, be tranquil, calm […]

Don’t be afraid. The great lettuce of the world is all around us.

My mother was afraid—oh not of the things you imagine—just tuberculosis, death, and my father. She did all right.

It’s all right if we keep forgetting the way home. It’s all right if we don’t remember when we were born. It’s all right if we write the same poem over and over.

It means our old teacher is still all right.

It’s all right if this suffering goes on for years. It’s all right if the hawk never finds its own nest. It’s all right if we never receive the love we want.

It’s all right if we listen to the sitar for hours.

It doesn’t matter if we regret our crimes or not.

It’s all right if we can’t remain cheerful all day.

It’s all right if people think we are idiots. It’s all right if we lie face down on the earth. It’s all right if we open the coffin and climb in.

It’s all right if I forget my own brother […]

There is still time for the old days when the musician stayed inside his bubble of joy […]

No one minds if we are scruffy and badly dressed.

I mean, obviously he knows he’s doing this. My point is only that his satisfaction with his formula here seems radically out of proportion to its value. I just keep thinking: Two or three times, OK, but Jesus. . .

Speaking of formulae, watch how Bly handles the words “hundreds” and “thousands.” He knows these words have a yak-herder ring to ’em. So watch him milk the yak ’til it looks like a deflated soccer ball:

HUNDRED(S)

We lost hundreds during the forgetfulness of birth […]

[…] behind our house you’ll find a forest going on for hundreds of miles.

You’ve put yourself ahead of others for years, a hundred years.

Wherever he put his hands on earth the well water was sweet for a hundred miles.

The water of a hundred bowls is poured out on the ground.

A hundred boats are still looking for the shore.

It must be that we’ve already been grieving for a hundred years.

We can stay in grieving another hundred years.

It would be good to go back a hundred years, and recite some of Wordsworth’s sonnets to him.

And a hundred sufferings dissolve in a single chord.

He kept a hundred sorrows alive in him.

THOUSAND(S)

A thousand gifts were given to us in the womb.

[…] we are admired in a thousand galaxies for our grief.

[…] the cows will graze on a thousand acres of thought.

[…] but I believe a thousand pagan ministers will arrive tomorrow to baptize the wind.

A thousand acres are underwater.

This has been going on for thousands of years!

Perhaps monks a thousand years ago thought there.

You and I have tried in a thousand ingenious ways to keep up with the suffering expected of us.

Each day he fed a thousand Astrakhan lambs.

Do you see what I’m saying? I mean, it’s obvious Bly would look at these lists and say, “Yes, and?” He thinks it’s all pretty terrific. But to me it looks automatic, formulaic, uninspired, lazy as hell.

I’m going to go ahead and let all those empty hundreds and thousands stand for a lot. There are many, many moves in these books that are the same kind of thing. Poetry as conceived by a screenwriter for a Biblical blockbuster of the 1950s. Robe. Shepherd staff. Beard down to here.

Meanwhile, I just read in the latest American Poetry Review a longish interview with Bly. The level of self-approval was approximately infinite. I wondered what that conversation must look like to the dinosaurs who’ve been following Bly’s career ever since Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962). That book’ll be fifty years old any minute. Today, the snowy fields are on the heads of Bly’s original readers . . .

I wonder if you’ve ever taken a look at that first book? It’s interesting. Written by this whole other centaur. I don’t know. Bly fascinates me. There’s not a single poem of his I want to type out and email to a friend, and yet he is a mighty deviser of lines and stanzas…

The case is complex, engaging.