Friday, August 12, 2011

Robert Duncan's "An African Elegy".


the blackness beyond black.
Robert Duncan’s An African Elegy is a key poem within the poet’s body of work, an unlocking of desire and language. Surprisingly, it is not easily available today: the Selected Poems (Bertholf) does not bother to include it among the “Early Poems.” The poem is also significant for biographical and cultural reasons, which are part of its mystery. An African Elegy was written at Berkeley, 1942. It was submitted to and accepted by the then fairly young Kenyon Review, but following Duncan’s courageous, public and political declaration of his homosexuality (in Politics, 1944) the editor, John Crowe Ransome, refused to publish it. Readings of the poem have been fascinated with the question: is the poem about homosexuality or not? Much more interesting is why Duncan wrote an “African” death-song as a formulation of desire…as an attempt to map out early, spiritual, hermetical questions.

In the opinion of Ransome, the darkness of the elegy referred to hidden homosexuality. Duncan’s riposte was that the poem was about what cannot be known in the human mind: as he knew about his homosexuality, the darkness was not a metaphor for that. So, what is the darkness?

An African Elegy opens with a somewhat innocent view of Africa’s groves. In their “natural wonder/the wildebeest, zebra., the okapi, the elephant,/have entered the marvellous.” It is a child’s, enchanted perception. (Duncan records in The Years as Catches how Rosario Jimenez read Lorca’s Oda da Rey de Harlem to him and her reading awoke “some realm of my childhood dreams of wild and splendid animals and negro kings”). From this point, An African Elegy crosses over into an adult world and that of Lorca. The exultant and rhetorical repetitions (“distil there their red”, “distil/from their leaves the terrible red”) are a trademark of Lorca’s ode, as is the central image of “red”, blood, wildness, which recalls “tus rojos oprimidos” and “tu sangre estremecida”. As Lorca’s Black Harlem frames Duncan's africa a gay context emerges. (An African Elegy and Oda da Rey de Harlem are powerful outpourings of desire in a world where love is a “great sadness… a heart’s famine”). Yet Duncan does not rest with this. He extends his animal imagery into wolf/Woolf and through a mythological re-telling of Virginia Woolf’s suicide connects the poetry to a Neo-Platonic, hermetical view of life whereby Amor contains mor(s osculi) and Love appears as the “consort” of Death. The blackness of Africa, “the negro armies in the eucalyptus”, herald “our solitude” in the world and how we look through love at “the more complete black-out”.

The whole of An African Elegy is a poem about tides of feeling. Images ebb, flow, and merge. Anticipating H.D.’s hermetical method in her later poetry, Duncan’s images break in the sub-conscious and merge with its suicidal flow. Virginia Woolf releases “wolf” and becomes the Virgin/Ophelia/Desdemona just as the male writer becomes identified (implicitly with Hamlet and explicitly) with the Black Moor, Othello: “in jungles of my body, there/Othello moves”. Of course, the poet is all of this, especially the homosexual poet who erects an exulted male self but allows the remarkable feminine principle within him. At the close of the poem, Duncan draws back from “the halls of Africa” and terms them as “barriers”. He appears to suggest a Freudian awareness in which imagery of black Africa belongs to the super-ego beyond which the blackness of the id opens like a sea. The poet stands in his “towering Moor of self”/ego overlooking what hermetical tradition terms the blackness beyond blackness, nigrium, nigrius nigro. Love embraces death and child-like eros loosens the chains of the body into more than sexual pleasure.

See new article February 2016.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Burnings, Ocean Vuong (update)

Like many (USA) poets, Ocean Vuong has published quite widely within internet journals. (His blog contains a comprehensive list of these places). Two points ought to be made in the light of this: 70% of his chapbook, Burnings, can be read via the net; Burnings has been well-edited, such that is contains a high quality selection of his electronically published work. And putting those two points together, internet publishing can easily dilute poetic achievement (because of the lack of attention to type-setting and weak critical standards by editors with insufficient literary experiences) and nothing can replace the pleasure of a well-structured volume of poetry enjoyed at length. And that is what Burnings offers. It is a chapbook with structural integrity (and judicious editing) which affords as much insight and intelligence as a first book.

Burnings is an effective title for this volume. (More gutsy and descriptive than the original Arrival by Fire). The whole consists of a thoughtful Ars Poetica followed by two sections that show a sensitive and sensual poet at work. Each section contains 12 poems that react like macrocosm and microcosm. Section (i) seeks to relate the poet to a historical, geographical, cultural context. Literally, a matrix, for the wider world is experienced through the Mother—mother, grandmother, the subconscious Anima. Section (ii) shows the Anima at work, the poet reaching from the motherland within to confront love. Significant Modernists have worked with the Mars-Venus concordia discors much valued by the Renaissance. For Pound, AMOR-ROMA, symbolised how ROMA (patriarchy) could be reversed to AMOR (matriarchy). The power of light issuing as divine love within the female destroys darkness to construct civilisation in The Cantos. In Trilogy, the female angelic spectrum is conjured by H.D.to rejuvenate a post-war Europe destroyed by men. Duncan’s Passages rise out of Pound and H.D. to depict the eternal battle between Love and War. Burnings works within this grand field, but at a highly personal level as it refers back to The Vietnam War. As the poet hides in a deathly dark “Where…the sins/promised by out fathers/could not find us” (“Revelation”, ll 3-5), he also awakes to the living light of the grandmother who “kisses as if to breathe/you inside her” (“Kissing in Vietnamese”, ll 12-13). Section (i) contains memorable, grand poems such as “Song of my Mothers”; also, poems that quiver with memory, like “Time-Maker”, which longs to turn back time and heal a violent parental conflict. There are occasional moments when grandure succumbs to bare philosophising: Like all photographs/this one fails/to reveal the picture (“The Photograph” ll12-14); moments when the poetry is strained. Mainly, though, the poetry sings with finely cadenced lines and perfectly timed imagery:

On the balcony—a woman hanging rags,
her voice delicate, almost fractured

as it weaves through the gray sheet
framing her silhouette.

(“Sai Gon, again”, ll3-6).

That is finely done. A plain image. One that comes alive as the voice begins. The brittle voice is caught in the material of language, heard in the bony “ate” and “act”. The verb “weave” carries the sound into the cloth, as it absorbs. And finally, the blurred voice becomes a faint image, “her silhouette”. Constantly, against the executions of war, Ocean Vuong creates breath-giving linguistic execution. He understands the quiet power of language. Like the voice entering the cloth which receives the woman’s projected image, he has a gift for projecting the matrix of the Mother into language:

I did not think how the wind stopped hissing
through the cracked window, or how

she softly exhaled as I pulled closer knowing
this was not right: a boy reaching out

and into the shell of a husband…

(“The Touch”, ll 11-15).

What a re-creation of the Oedipal myth.

Section (ii) of Burnings is “a boy reaching out”. It is an account of a young man coming to terms with his different sexuality, one that must balance the burning world of the Father with the watery world of the Mother. This section could have easily become an anti-climax after section (i), just another collection of coming out poems. Mercifully, this is not the case. The quality of writing is sustained and the sense of individuality isn’t lost.

What is most admirable about Burnings is how the poems have been arranged so as they inter-relate and the attention to details. So, in section (i), an originally underweight “If you are a Refugee” has 2 stanzas added to it—it is important that this biographical poem resonates. And in section (ii), in the wonderful “Song on the Subway” (where music carries the poet on an alchemical, regressive journey back into infanthood and a violin’s womb) telling revisions are made. A clich├ęd “It kills me” is removed. A rhetorical “iron jaws” is replaced by more realistic “steel jaws” (doors on a train). And a redundant “something like” is removed. These changes suggest a poet who cares about his craft (and a Press that cares about its work).

The cover-work for Burnings portrays a Munch-like mouth and is based on part of Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize photo.


It is a dramatic image that fits with the re-occurring mouth image within the volume. For Ocean Vuong, the mouth is the source of a scream, the opening for sexual pleasure, the origin of kisses that bind memory and the symbol of starvation. The mouth is also an indicator for what Ocean Vuong has found in this volume: a poetic voice that leaves the page and speaks to the reader. And yes, his finely told narratives, with their revealed psychological content, often have the quality of myth, which derives from "a mouthing".