Reviewed by Art Beck (email)
A PALTRY THING, A TATTERED COAT:
TWO LATE LIFE POETRY COLLECTIONS
In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone
Life Watch by Willis Barnstone
Yeats wrote "Sailing to Byzantium" in 1926, when he was barely sixty. When I was young, I thought I was reading the poem of an aged sage. With lines such as--
That is no country for old men. The young
in one another's arms, birds in the trees
--Those dying generations--at their song
...An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
Sixty was ancient to me at twenty. Now, I should confess, I'm sixty six and "Sailing to Byzantium" no longer reads like the poem of an old man looking back on life. But like the poem of a late middle aged hopeful, looking for a way out of what's to come. Knowing there isn't any, but still wanting to make something of it. Fashioning a monument in verse the way the Renaissance popes planned the minutest details of their crypts.
There's a deep, common human bitterness in "Sailing to Byzantium." The sense of the heart--sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal. To paraphrase Mark Twain--Yeats, like all of us, knows he'll have to die, hopefully later rather than sooner, but possibly an eloquent exception might be made in his case? He's still negotiating.
Contrast "Sailing to Byzantium" with a poem from the last years of his life--the last poem in most Yeats collections, "Politics." A poem written on the twin eves of World War II and of Yeats' own death.
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics.
Yet here's a traveled man that knows
What he talks about.
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought.
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
For all the grandeur of Byzantium and its lines like Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing, the simplicity of the truly late life poem, "Politics"--a poem that seems to have finally abandoned all late middle aged hope--walks into your heart with sunlight. Forget the enameled birds and golden boughs of Byzantium, and the artifice of eternity. The poet of "Politics" tells us all we need to know about heaven on earth. We come to see the narrator of "Sailing to Byzantium" as, after all, a persona. The speaker in "Politics" as an intimate friend.
Yeats was only 74 when he died in 1939, but there are plenty of people who'll argue that 84, or maybe even 94, is now the new 74. My own, anecdotal, observation is that almost all poets, like most people, peak well before their 70s and 80s. After a certain age, self repetition, incuriousness, annoyed attitudes and varying degrees of dementia become more common than not. As we grow older, our faults and infirmities grow with us. Our prowess and virtues shrink. Artists are no more, nor less, immune than anyone.
Fresh and ambitious literary work in late life is rare. But when it happens, it's usually golden. And when it happens, I think one of its hallmarks is a lack of artifice, a directness, a sense of saying what can't help being said. Yeats' "Politics" is an example. As are Casanova's memoirs and I. B. Singer's Shosha. There's often a simplicity in late work that makes the complexities of earlier work seem simplistic.
For whatever reason--I wasn't looking for them--I happened upon two such late life poetry collections in the last month. One--Ruth Stone's, published in 2002. The other, Willis Barnstone's in 2003. Of course, I should have noticed them much earlier. Stone's collection won the National Book Award. And In the year it was released she also won the Wallace Stevens Award. Barnstone's volume was nominated for a Pulitzer.
IN THE NEXT GALAXY
by Ruth Stone
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA; ISBN 1-55659-178-0, 2002, $20.00
This is Ruth Stone's eighth collection of poems. Her first, In an Iridescent Time, was published in 1959. A previous volume, Ordinary Words, won a National Book Critics Circle award. Copper Canyon has since published a ninth collection, In the Dark, which has been well received.
Stone was born in 1915 and didn't began publishing until mid life. Almost all biographical sketches note that her life was marked by a singular tragedy. In 1959, while the family was on sabbatical in London, her husband, poet and professor Walter Stone, committed suicide.
They had two young daughters together and Ruth Stone also had a daughter from a previous marriage. None of the biographies I found on the internet indicate that she ever remarried or note any subsequent relationships. The only personal information included in the brief biographical notes for In the Next Galaxy is that "she raised three daughters alone while teaching creative writing at many universities." She now lives in Vermont--by one account, in what was once a summer home she purchased in the '50s with the proceeds of a Kenyon Review Fellowship award.
Her husband's suicide has been a recurrent leitmotif in her poetry over the years. Seemingly, a wound that would not heal. The similarities with Ted Hughes and The Birthday Letters--the thirty some year sequence of poems commemorating his wife, Sylvia Plath's London suicide--of course come immediately to mind.
Stone's continued emphasis--well into her eighties--on a life spent raising three daughters seems essential to her priorities. Stone is an academic literary professional, well aware of movements, aesthetic theory, artistic goals. But her bio seems to intentionally limit itself to the one most important thing--raising her, since long grown, children.
Perhaps, I'm reading too much into this, but could this point to one answer for why a suicide that happened well over 40 years ago, still remains alive in her work? I use the term "one answer," because there's probably no single answer. But (and I seem to recall A. Alvarez saying this years ago in the Savage God)--suicide is often something like an insidious virus that parents can pass to children. On down through generations. Ernest Hemingway, whose father, brother and granddaughter were suicides is an obvious example, and there are many others.
By taking the virus into herself, by not "getting over it," not setting it free to possibly roam in the family, could Stone have been inoculating both herself and her daughters with the one thing she had that was strong enough to resist it--in her case, poetry.
But again that's only way of looking at it. Think also of an exile, remembering and writing about the alleyways, cafes, the minutiae of her home city as if she were still wandering those streets. Still enthralled with the city that expelled her. A city whose cruelty she knows all too well.
The long lost marriage and its awful end seem to live on in her poems as if it were yesterday or even today. In a poem titled "Reality," she's presumably talking about her husband's autopsy.
As a fish, gutted for trade,
So my darling as a cadaver
was slit, his viscera removed,
pulled out by a gloved hand
The description becomes clinical, then further in the poem:
He who was so lovely
with his dark brows and hawk like nose,
his teeth irregular from childhood poverty,
or those mobile and compassionate lips
through which he breathed
sweet deadly smoke and words.
The absurd corpse, its now useless testicles
hung below that flaccid thing,
that limp thumb of shriveled skin.
All that sprang up in him so mortal,
so beautiful; come to this.
This is not a piece you'd expect to find in the poems of an octogenarian. Although for me, it's impossible to imagine that she could have done this any better in her youth. And, in fact, isn't this poem--which you might first read as a young widow's pieta--written from a place that only distance, time and growth can access? ...so mortal, so beautiful; come to this. The same phrase applies to the writer now as well as the subject. Well over 40 years after the fact, they're now holding hands in the way no young widow could.
Stone's voice is not always so darkly obsessed. The title poem, "In the Next Galaxy," is a quiet and bittersweet riff on the idea of an afterlife. Infused, I think with the directness and simplicity of late life work.
Things will be different
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder.
It will be all Catskills with brand
new wraparound verandas.
The idea of Hitler will not
have vibrated yet.
While back here,
they are still cleaning out
pockets of wrinkled
Nazis hiding in Argentina.
But in the next galaxy
certain planets will have true
blue skies and drinking water.
The piece is of a genus not so different after all from "Sailing to Byzantium," but the late life poet's voice has no trace of a persona. There's no barrier between speaker and reader.
In an even airier mode, the volume opens with a delightful toss off piece, "The Professor Cries":
This is the end of March.
The tax collector
wants me to cut my wrists.
The roach inspector
drives up in a truck.
The snow sits like dough
turning sour. Every hour
love's bones grow lighter.
This is what comes
of having no pity.
Time used me.
Death used me.
I live in Johnson City.
There are also memories of childhood, of "Grade School," when I was nine and went to '82. Memories of living in Texas and "Napping on the Greyhound." But through the eighty-some poem volume, the widow's dialogue with her long gone husband and his shattering death insist on returning like an irregular heartbeat. There are some ten such poems by rough count. As if the green, pulsing world of her poetry revolves around a sun that suddenly imploded and became a black hole. Even in a poem like "The Illusion" which doesn't on surface seem to have anything to do with that tragedy, certain lines resonate:
My future is spelled out. Tool of the universe:
pricks, cunts, genuflections; the orgasm's curse...
Just what is "the orgasm's curse"? In this case, is it a love that refuses to fade?
But if so, it's a love that's inseparable from death. Something that imposes its own order inscrutable to our ideas of order. Midway through the volume is a wonderful, deceptively simple and quietly subtle piece entitled "Wanting." It ends:
How valueless is the orderly.
It cries out for disorder.
And life that thinks it fears death,
spends all of its time
To violate beauty
is the essence of sexual desire.
To procreate is the essence of decay.
Is there the softest echo of Yeats' in these lines, also?
by Willis Barnstone
BOA Editions, Rochester, NY; ISBN 1-929918-36-4, 2003, $13.95
Willis Barnstone, who published Life Watch in his mid 70s has been a poet most of his life, but, despite some thirteen previous poetry volumes, I think it's safe to say he's been more widely recognized as a translator and a writer who writes about translation. He's won a Guggenheim and had at least four Pulitzer nominations. An academic cosmopolitan, he's lived in Mexico, in Greece during the civil war, in Argentina during the "dirty war" and in China during the Cultural Revolution. He was later a Fulbright professor in China.
He's translated poets as diverse as Sappho and St. John of the Cross with many stops in between--Mao Tse Tung, Borges, and Lorca to name a few. Not to mention his translations of the Bible. He resists categories and resembles one of those luminaries of the Enlightenment--Voltaire, Casanova, a more literary, less political Thomas Paine?--as much as anyone in our century.
Life Watch is something a bit more ambitious than a "selection" of poems. It's a poetic cycle that tells stories of Barnstone's childhood, his growing up, his young adulthood. With detours among books and writers he's loved, things he's seen along the way.
Like a set of musical variations, it begins and ends with the same poem, "Train to Paris," set in 1952 ( when Barnstone would have been around 25).
In the night boat train
From Le Havre to Paris
I sit by a young woman my age...
and we are heartsick
after our three hours. We know
we'll never meet again
except she will remember
me, our hands, and I her,
though I learn in 1956
four years after our night,
she died on a Paris street
when a car crushed her
from behind. In her grave
we are sitting cramped
but our conversations never
run out of gravity...
From the very beginning, sex and death.
The next poem, "Gas Lamp, 1893," moves the cycle backwards in time, but further into the theme.
...up two gray flights, near the gas lamp, the tailor
waits glumly for the midwife. August heat
has worn the woman out. Amid the squalor
she looks around the bed, clutching a cape
she brought from London as a child. It's dawn
and dirty. The dark tailor wants to escape
to his cramped shop. The woman's sheets are drawn
below her waist. She isn't hollering now.
Her eyes are dark and still, blood on her thumbs.
Her name is Sarah. No, I'm guessing. How,
untold, am I to know? Hot day has worn
into the room. The midwife finally comes.
Grandmother bleeds to death. My father's born.
This time--procreation and death. And skillfully set to music. I omitted the beginning line, but even if it's included, the rhyme scheme is so effectively smoothed that you don't notice the poem is a sonnet until the slight catch of the "turn" at below her waist in the ninth line. At that pause, it's as if the breath has gone out of the woman. We know before we're told.
It may be worth noting that Stone also shifts between fixed and open forms in her volume, and that both poets are adept at the craft of using rhyme but keeping it unobtrusive. Of casting their lines in natural sentences. with rhyme schemes usually as invisible as a fishing line slipping through the water. This may not, necessarily, be a mark of the "late life" poet, but I think it's a skill that usually becomes second nature only with long practice.
The third poem in Barnstone's sequence is "In Our Life Watch". A longish, narrative piece that begins with the young author and his father, peddling wrist watches in New York.
...Dad was twelve when he left home and school.
I'll soon be twelve and I've got my father
as my closest pal. We celebrate
each sale, each trade. One afternoon
with a twinkle he slaps down 300 bucks
for a diamond--most of what we have
to live on. Next day he sells it for a thousand.
He finds the way...
The piece quickly accelerates in time with the son and father parted but meeting via wartime trains....amid red mountain states and Mexico adventures. Barnstone follows his father's adventures.
In Mexico City he marries a child bride
and I'm living with Spanish children
from the civil war in a barred-in orphanage
where I share a room on the roof.
Then, too soon, dad and I talk all night
in our New York hotel. Lying on narrow beds
we conjure up Rembrandt's beggar in baggy
nobleman's dress, how the Swedish Angel
wrestler hugs a foe till he drops inert.
Then the hill of debts. Am I father tonight?
It's only in the next poem, "Room of the Orphans," that it becomes clear the orphanage referred to is in Mexico not Spain and the stint in the orphanage comes after his father's death--which we're told of at the end of "In Our Life Watch".
...He flies to Colorado, plays a last card
at a Denver bank. Loses. Van Gogh's face
against the wall, he climbs high to the roof
where he folds his coat, places it
on a stone bench near the ledge, his hat on top.
He steps over the low railing, leaps
and floats in blind sorrow out into the May sun.
Dad's fallen again, but we can't wake early
and look up a small jewelry shop
to peddle our wares and hearts,
our soft Swiss straps or cold diamond
since death at last has cleaned us out.
Those ongoing conversations with his father snake through the volume, like a patina of death, a haunting that slowly abrades and pigments a long and pensive life. In a reverie at the Denver airport, he interweaves a scene of Garcia Lorca visiting New York in 1929 and living not far from his parents, Bob and Blondie Barnstone. He transports his long dead father's ghost back in time. If my dad, buried near this airport ...can meet the poet in Morningside Heights, what will he say to the Spaniard as they share a cab?
The poem goes on as a paean to Lorca, spoken to Lorca but spoken, essentially from the grave of Barnstone's father to Lorca in his grave. Farther on in a piece entitled "Father," he opens with: Dad, you are the first to choose the underworld, so I spend most of my life chatting with you down in your airless condo... Note that Barnstone says "you are" the first, rather than "you were." His father, along with most of Barnstone's departed, continues to lead an almost palpable existence in dreams and insomniac conversations.
Similarly, in "Mother"--which opens: Mother, isn't it time we had a meal together? ...and you let me know what it's been like as bones locked in a Maine coffin.
Or his "Brother," whose suicide he recounts in another ongoing conversation:
The last week you sent me your soul in a letter
of sorrow and confession. I failed to guess
the German poison pills
you would swallow to end torment...
...your low remote voice still usurps my fun companion,
leaving a razor in my heart...
Much further on in the volume, in the poem "My Family in Brightness," he sums it up:
My sister and I are the only ones
of the original five alive today
in our family of brightness.
Mother I took through Central Park
In 1955 to the operating room
in Beth Israel uptown in Manhattan...
.... Father is closer to me
because he left more violently,
jumping from a Colorado rooftop,
like Zero Mostel, and his sorrow
and our love stain my heart;
and my brother, consummate fabbro,
hurt and slipped almost silently
out of being with soporific tablets...
His sister may be still alive but she too has her problems--the sister who won't be okay after her electric shocks. And who's just sent a note asking if he has addresses for their parents so she might write to them. Barnstone's response:...they are powder underground.
Then though the dead, and especially Barnstone's father, keep re-appearing, they begin to fade into the background as he recounts his travels in the world and in literature. Young days in Paris, conversations and walks in Buenos Aires with Borges, days in China and Tibet, a chance meeting with the paroled 1930s murderer Nathan Leopold (of Leopold and Loeb infamy), atoning at a leprosy hospital in Puerto Rico.
A drunken, musical evening with Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac. Two heartfelt pieces on the joy of seeing his young daughter recover from a sudden frightening illness. ...She swallows now. Her hands are young gazelles leaping while she sleeps late. All the brightness seemingly denied the rest of his "family of brightness." But it's those ancestral sorrows that seem to root and nourish the joys.
There are also pieces no doubt inspired by Barnstone's life erudite life as a translator and man of letters. Poems on Baudelaire, Spinoza, Virgil, Aeneas, Ophelia and Adam. His translation of the New Testament (in a historic context) seems responsible for poems on the Last Supper, "Seder in One of the Odd Rooms" and The Crucifixion, "Yeshua ben Yosef At the Stake"--which begins When they spike him and raise the T-cross / he screams...
A longish political polemic, entitled "Waiting for the Barbarians, evoking Cavafy, and focusing on our current 'emperor' in Washington," seems prescient in a volume published in 2003. But, like most such efforts, can't seem to go past commentary into poetry.
But the next poem in the sequence, on the theme of the 9/11 victims, "Hanging From Spikes, Dropping to Earth," is a brilliant reworking of the earlier Yeshua ben Yosef crucifixion poem. Juxtaposing a Chagall like image of the crucifixion on the Tower jumpers., it begins:
'He must be thirsty", someone in the crowd
is saying. "You think he's not scared?"
another says. He whispers from his cloud
of agony. "I'm fading!" He too cares
to live. Who doesn't? The trapped jumpers soar,
some holding hands...
Unlike Stone's volume--which despite its lighter moments, attempts to maintain a crafted intensity throughout--Life Watch drifts at times into pieces that seem more conversation than poetry. This is not particularly a fault in a book that, midway through, makes you feel you've struck up a conversation in a civilized bar with a wise old guy who has a lot tell you and doesn't mind spinning some tales. Who says. I feel so young because I am still where I was / and looking for a supper with a secret reader.
The book is, after all, dedicated--for my father and the lonely reader.
Stone's volume seems to focus on creating pieces that become almost organic, discrete objects with a life of their own. Saying those things that couldn't be said in any other way. In her late eighties, she's still recording those little steps of irreversible growth that poems can be.
Barnstone, though younger, seems more of a memoirist. Looking back, playing things over. Playing with memory and dreams.
Both refuse to let go of the dead who, in fact, seem to become more alive as both poets age. There's plenty of sorrow here. Heart wounds that perhaps can't be allowed to heal--because healed, they'd leave impossibly deep, numb scars. Strangely, keeping those wounds alive seems to allow both poets to be sorrowful without being pessimistic. Not necessarily hopeful--but in undeniably good emotional health. And maybe, this too is an aspect of late life work?
The "watch" in Life Watch refers to both observing and a wristwatch and the volume becomes an exercise in circular time, ending with the same poem with which it begins--"Train to Paris." It may be worthwhile to revisit this piece that describes a young erotic encounter never repeated--and four years later the girl dead, run over by a car. The poem ends:
...In her grave.
we are sitting cramped
but our conversations never
run out of gravity.
Down from the train of time
(I piss on time), we endure as souls
and our scandals create us
on the platform kissing.
Again, the merest echo of Yeats, this time of "Politics"? Or just variations on an enduring theme that both predates and outlives him?
Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who's published two translation volumes. Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selected Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). He's currently trying to atone for some of his earlier Rilke versions by retranslating the Sonnets to Orpheus.