Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Thom Gunn as Hermeticist in "The Differences"/Hermetical Poetry (3).

Cavalcanti's canzone "Because a lady asks me" was prized by Pound as one of the masterpieces of love poetry, valued for the quality of its technique and its precision on matters of love. For Pound, this canzone was the shift from murky medievalism into a more modern, scientific frame of mind. Pound himself offered translations in his Cavalcanti and in Canto XXXVI. In The Cantos, the poem stands as a key text on light and love, the radiant energies under the auspices of Hermes that shine from the darkness of Eleusis and the Greek Mysteries. In writing about "The Differences", "Kinaesthetic Aesthetics: On Thom Gunn's poems", Stephen Burt notes that "The Differences" gets wacky in the middle, declaring, "love is formed by a dark ray's invasion / From Mars," which turns out to be translated Cavalcanti." Actually, the poem is a continual variation on Cavalcanti's complex song, transmuting its Hermeticism into a modern setting. In Gunn's hands, the poem becomes one of substantiation, making the intellect physical. 

The Differences.

Reciting Adrienne Rich on Cole and Haight,
Your blond hair bouncing like a corner boy’s,
You walked with sturdy almost swaggering gait,
The short man’s, looking upward with such poise,
Such bold yet friendly curiosity
I was convinced that clear defiant blue
Would have abashed a storm-trooper. To me
Conscience and courage stood fleshed out in you.

So when you gnawed my armpits, I gnawed yours
And learned to associate you with that smell
As if your exuberance sprang from your pores.
I tried to lose my self in you as well.
To lose my self . . . I did the opposite,
I turned into the boy with iron teeth
Who planned to eat the whole world bit by bit,
My love not flesh but in the mind beneath.

Love takes its shape within that part of me
(A poet says) where memories reside.
And just as light marks out the boundary
Of some glass outline men can see inside,
So love is formed by a dark ray’s invasion
From Mars, its dwelling in the mind to make.
Is a created thing, and has sensation,
A soul, and strength of will.
It is opaque.

Opaque, yet once I slept with you all night
Dreaming about you — though not quite embraced
Always in contact felt however slight.
We lay at ease, an arm loose round a waist,
Or side by side and touching at the hips,
As if we were two trees, bough grazing bough,
The twigs being the toes or fingertips.
I have not crossed your mind for three weeks now,

But think back on that night in January,
When casually distinct we shared the most
And lay upon a bed of clarity
In luminous half-sleep where the will was lost.
We woke at times and as the night got colder
Exchanged a word, or pulled the clothes again
To cover up the other’s exposed shoulder,
Falling asleep to the small talk of the rain.

With gentle irony, Gunn opens his poem with two gay men walking, discussing their locality and Adrienne Rich. Her poetic appreciation of the common language and relationships between women becomes a clever re-statement of the courtly tradition: Gunn and his friend become troubadours in praise of their Lady in whom Amor shines. Gradually, the poem begins to map out the differences between two very different localities, poetic spaces: Cavalcanti’s obscure and brilliant Donna me prega and Gunn’s own canzone. The first word fixes the comparison. “Reciting” refers to an act of memory and that evokes Love which is an action whose “region is memory”: “In quella parte/dova sta memora/prende suo stato”. Gunn pays tribute to Cavalcanti’s poetic line (of 11 syllables, to break up the pentameter elsewhere) and starts to unravel his song so that a visceral poetry emerges. As Cavalcanti’s poem explores Love through the “Law of Physics”, so Gunn’s poem explores sex, friendship, male-to-male bonding through physical acts. The five stanzas of Gunn’s poem do not translate Cavalcanti’s five sections (though the central, pivotal stanza does) but rather pick up echoes from within poetic time. For Cavalcanti, Love’s light is identified by “a shadow from Mars”, a psychological statement of a traditional, astrological Venus-Mars, Love-War conjuction. For Gunn, this becomes a “defiant” gaze of love sufficient to calm a “storm-trooper” and an erotic drama to be played out as warfare, as a passionate and violent gnawing of armpits. In the final two stanzas of “The Differences”, Gunn (like a modern day follower of De Homero and De Amore) remembers that Venus and Mars gave birth to harmony. Through a concordia discors, the poet and his lover settle down to balanced restful order which is a “clarity/ In luminous half-sleep.” Looking beyond Cavalcanti, Gunn experiences a tenderness within the wildness of love and sex, a point of still communion within male kinship. His delicate image of lovers touching like trees echoes the myth of Philemon and Baucis whom Hermes transformed into trees so as they would become eternal within the world’s divine and natural order. Though here, the conjoined trees celebrates transience and the intensity of a moment come and gone. A sensitive, ironical contemplation runs throughout “The Differences”, one that gives Gunn a glimpse of a divine communion felt within flesh and bone. It is poetic hermet(r)icism. And all of it done, lightly, using simple “memorable speech”…” the small talk of the rain”.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Equivocator by Stevie Davies

Equivocator is the first novella by the Welsh author Stevie Davies. Her previous fictional work includes novels (such as the prize-winning Boy Blue) and short stories (that include "Mr Duda", runner-up for the prestigious Rhys Davies prize). Equivocator, 92 pages in length, combines the characteristics of both previous forms: it possesses thematic levels and poignant vignettes; it blends the poetic style of her detailed novels with brief and sharp satirical insights. The result is a short, but nonethless intense reading experience.

The Porter, here, is a gatekeeper, a liminal character at the doors of Hell. Life swings both ways and is hinged on double-speak. This is a truly Hermetic characteristic, for Hermes, god of tricky communication, stands also at the entrance to the Underworld. Equivocator is a novella  that absorbs these mythological levels and studies how people deceive and present truths that are half-truths. The great equivocator alluded to by Shakespeare's porter is Father Henry Garnet who lied in God's name and therefore committed no lie (in his mind). The equivocators in Stevie Davies' novella are Jack Messenger and his son, Sebastian. Jack, the Hermetic messenger, is a writer whose life is a fiction. His son quests throughout the novel to come to terms with his past: what is fiction and what is real? How does the present equivocally write the past?

Gay male characters have occurred before in Stevie Davies' work. In Primavera (1990) there exists the relationship of the 70 year old Jacques and his much younger lover Ralph. (They are a vital part of a novel about how spring rejuvenates winter). Another tender relationship is portrayed in "Ballooning with Habibi" from The Lonely Crowd (2015). In Equivocator, the gay relationship of Sebastian and Jess takes centre-stage. It is a relationship built on deception but one that works towards honesty. As a committed Miltonist and Feminist, Stevie Davies will know that curious section in Milton's divorce tracts where he resorts to a self-made myth of male-to-male love (a prime example of Miltonic equivocation) to justify the true basis of heterosexual marriage-- and how to get rid of a wife you no longer require! Sebastian, like Milton's Eros, must cross beyond sexual desire and cheating into a realm of Anteros and shared, homogeneal love based on equality and the truths created by two people (not one: the doubleness of equivocation is surrendered to a shared twinning). 

The style of Equivocator is forever changing and this captures the Protean nature of Sebastian's nemesis, the mysterious Professor Salvatore, master of salvation (for academia). He is a mirrored Hermes, a Spencerian Archimago, another dubious messenger, like Sebastian's father. Salvatore entrances Sebastian at the opening of the narrative "like a door ajar"-- a true liminal description of a borderline character who is a threshold between what is without and what is within. The novella's changing styles--like the shifting sands on which Sebastian and Salvatore meet-- match medium to message with consummate skill. Iran's Zagros Mountains, Manchester's Rusholme, the Gower's coastline...merge into a flickering storyline. It is telling that Sebastian learns a surprising truth about Jess during a play-within-a-play in their London flat. Reality topples into fakery and then picks itself up again in a new form. The publishers of Equivocator, Parthian, never mention Shakespeare in their blurb, which is a pity, for in this, the 400th year since The Bard's death, Equivocator stands as a wonderful tribute to Shakespeare. Jack Messenger's cross-dressing, the feminisation of the masculine father who humiliated his gay son for being feminine and not a real man, is worthy of Twelfth Night. And the crossing of gender, female author into male narrator, is pure Shakespeare too! A "master-mistress" is the muse of Equivocator.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

For Two Thousand Years.

For Two Thousand Years is a poignant novel, one that has been oddly misunderstood. Or rather, one that has changed with time. 15 years ago, when Mihail Sebastian's Journal (Part One) was published it was described by The new York Times as tedious and then compelling. A similar issue occurs with the 1934 novel, until it is realised that the style is very much part of the novel's concern. Gradually, the novel develops from fragmented, aesthetic journal into fully narrated novel, the depth and range of the "I" narrating the novel growing richer and deeper with experience.

Recent reviews of For Two Thousand Years have concentrated on the contentious aspects of the real world of politics-- was Sebastian a Fascist sympathiser because he portrayed Nae Ionescu favouraby as Ghita Blidaru and was his novel an attack on Judaism? Some critics have faulted the novel for its Zionism and some for its anti-Semitisim. All of these strange views side-step the obvious: this is a novel in which various voices speak and it is inept to extract certain voices in order that political stand-points might be forced into the fiction.

For Two Thousand Years, though written a decade before Sartre pronounced Existentialism, speaks very much in tones that would become the intellectual signatures of that philosophy. The questioning of Jewishness is made from a position of isolation and aloneness:

The voluptuousness of being alone in the world that believes it owns you. It's not pride. Not even shyness. It's a natural, simple and unforced sense of being left to yourself.
(FTTY, p.13).

The separating of the individual from traditional beliefs is a search for self:

You will face yourself again in a moment of terror can escape from anywhere, but you cannot flee your own self.
(FTTY, p.2150).

This novel is far from being the racist novel that some have seen: it is rather one of the most thoughtful investigations of racism in any modern novel. Through the novel, a reader experiences the development of an exposed young man as he attempts to build a foundation (as an architect) for his own life, realising that people build to move on and build again. The racism shown towards Jewish students in Romania is described with searing intelligence.

Undoubtedly, this is a novel of ideas, but this is balanced with finely crafted human portraits-- the narrator's ageing family-- the dangerous S.T.Haim-- and the wonderful Abraham Sulitzer, lover of beautiful books. 

For Two Thousand Years, in its recent translation into English by Philip O Ceealigh, is a fascinating read, dark, melancholic, witty and perceptive.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Loop of Jade and the T.S.Eliot Prize

It is now established knowledge that Sarah Howe’s debut volume Loop of Jade was awarded the 2015 T.S. Eliot prize for poetry. Reviewers initially greeted the win with unqualified adulation; Ben Wikinson, in The Guardian, being the rare reader who side-stepped the hype to perform practical criticism on Howe’s poems and concentrate on her selection of language. (A fair and respectful response given Howe’s commitment to practical criticism and her belief that modern poetry reviews lack quality). Generally, reviewers readily ascribed to the view of Pascale Petite (Chair of the three-strong judging panel) that the volume was “erudite and dense” and came from a “culture [China] which we are not used to seeing in British poetry” and the result would be a sea-change for poets. Loop of Jade’s ground-breaking tone has been attributed to two important themes: Howe’s exploration of her Anglo-Chinese/Sino-British heritage and her enquiries into gender. UK attitudes have viewed Howe’s poetry as “deliberate exoticism” or “Oriental poise” transfigured by language into a realm where new identities could exist: the volume reveals more than just a nostalgic search for roots. The Boston Review uplifted the Chinese element into the higher realm of “identity politics”. As might be expected, the Asian perspective has made even more of Howe’s debt to China. The Hong Kong Review of Books emphasised Howe’s use of “forms and imagery normally associated with Chinese or Japan”. And the Asian Review of Books went as far as to claim that if “Hong Kong literature in English” exists, then it must be Loop of Jade

Unsurprisingly, those who have started to question the largely unqualified praise for Loop of Jade and exaltation of Howe have found themselves facing accusations of racism and chauvinism. Female poets have rallied to the defence of Howe against the male establishment (as exemplified by The Sunday Times, The Times Literary Supplement and Private Eye). There is little value in arguing whether Loop of Jade should have won the T.S. Eliot prize. The point is: it did. And a panel of judges stepped in to provide strong critical judgements within a climate of weak critical standards: Howe’s view of “prize culture” in an interview prior to winning the T.S.Eliot prize. Kate Evans-Bush, of Baroque In Hackney fame, who stepped into counter the old-boy-network in The Guardian, takes the correct line (in her website): the 2015 T.S. Eliot short-list places relevant and difficult poetry before the public. The T.S.Eliot prize has increased the status of Loop of Jade, even brought it to the attention of Asia, yet the prize does not change the poetry. Congratulations to Sarah Howe on achieving the Eliot prize, now set that aside and look at the poetry in Loop of Jade as it is.

There is a strong and interesting handling of identity in Loop of Jade. Howe’s “Tame” has been praised for its attack on China’s one child per family and a male child preferably. Howe has said herself that she wanted to write about gendercide and the line “He called her Mei Ming” (No-name) alludes to a real and tragic case in the film Dying Rooms, but it is more a case of wanting than doing: the poem is a finely written metamorphosis, yet it hardly engages with the deep horror of child-murder. In a similar way, “Crossing from Guangdong” reflects on Howe’s girlhood with memorable images, yet it is diffuse and rarely exhibits the ardent insights that come with feminist poetry.  The wonder of Loop of Jade is in its variety of forms and richness of imagery and it is here that critical thought ought to begin, not with questions outside the poems themselves.

Loop of Jade is an “erudite” volume. It is also very readable. To combine depth with an enjoyable reading experience is an achievement to be valued and recognised. In “Sirens”, Howe begins with a moment of musing, a misreading of Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane”. She moves the poem through Cambridge, into affective literary criticism, into Homer and Horace, into the Renaissance imagery of Alciato (Enblema CXVI), and finally arrives at an epigrammatic image with its moral message for life “on reigning in fancy”. It is done with craft by someone who spans the history of images with passion and skill. The Renaissance flows into a lot of the poetry in Loop of Jade, as does China, and they meet in moments of gentle elucidation: “My heart is bounded by a scallop shell--/this strange pilgrimage to home” hearkens quietly back to Raleigh. The Renaissance enters clearly in “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” and more subtly elsewhere. Howe’s re-telling of Chinese myths in “Loop of Jade” has the quality of Golding’s version of Ovid. The concrete poem “Banderole” (as visually clever as Howe’s “Human Marks”, not in Loop of Jade, a poem about the Renaissance manicule) echoes the shape poems of Herbert. The tradition of hortus conclusus hides behind “The Walled Garden” and the topos of innutrition shapes “Crocodile”. There is a stitched quality to Howe’s poetry, as in the title poem, which draws from text/textile correspondences, a synthesis alchemised in the Renaissance.

Howe re-vitalises traditions intelligently. Loop of Jade is a field of creative images. Is it a re-birth of poetry, though, the renaissance that Petite has claimed? There is an emblem by Alciato (one that Howe will know) that shows the caduceus of Hermes balanced by a left and right horn-of-plenty. “Fortune” records how the cornucopia of life must be moderated by the precise Hermetic wand of language. Art mediates Nature. The emblem also has Confusian echoes: the heart must be ordered by language if the expansive riches of the state are to be ordered. Life is language and language is life. Howe’s embracing of a wide-ranging imagery is both her strength and her weakness. Sometimes the fertile teeming achieves intriguing fusions, as in “Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush”—a poem that mimics Pound’s Cathay very well. Howe has an ability to play with forms and harmonise form and meaning. And yes, she has added something new to British poetry. Sometimes the work becomes over-indulgent, however, even prodigal. Howe, like Ashberry and Graham, both of whom are influences, is curious about surfaces and the stratification of imagery. This leads her into a fascination with visual and auditory images and the tricky/hermetical nature of language. “Crocodile” descends into silent movie slapstick as the waiters slip flat on their backs… like “so many Michael Flatleys”. The prose poetry of Haas becomes a “gush” in which the stream of language meets Riverdance. It works. Less successful are the strained tonalities of “Pythagoras’s Curtain”. The music of the spheres seems to have been unstrung in lines like “cadenza the acousmatic dusk”. Just as there are exact sensual images such as “curlicues/slick on the backs/of thighs”, images with syllabic weighting and shaped by line turns, so there are imagistic blobs like “the sunflower patch/of a forethought” which would have benefitted from self-criticism. Double meanings play across the volume, from allotropes of Chinese in “Having just broken the water pitcher”, to extrovert puns in “Others”, to non-sense in “Start with Weather” and to insubstantial stuff  in “Stray dogs”. Here, Howe’s devotion to word play gets the better of her disastrously. There is illuminating scholarship in Loop of Jade and there are examples of real howlers. A close reading of “Stray dogs” shows the weak points of Loop of Jade.

“Stray dogs” is poem (g) in a series of poems, (a)-(n), which is based on a fictional list by Borges—a list that prefaces Loop of Jade.Howe described the poem, during a lecture at Harvard, as “a sequence of terrible puns… including that Ezra got sent to the [dog] pound”. Supposedly, the poem is about empathy and an enquiry into censorship, yet the crude joke by Howe exposes the poem for what it is. The title is followed by a quotation from The Pisan Cantos. “Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail” (Canto LXXXI). A parallel is drawn between the Borge phrase and Pound in the Disciplinary Training Camp outside Pisa. The suggestion is that Pound is “a beaten dog” whereas the line refers to the Dogs of War in Canto LXXXI. It is not a self-reference by Pound. Perhaps, this is a deliberate misreading, a pun on facts. Mind you, a mistake seems more likely, bearing in mind that Howe told the Harvard audience, with conviction, that Pound’s The Pisan Cantos were “the last cantos that he wrote.” Of course, they were not: they were followed by Rock Drill and Thrones. Suddenly, the erudition behind Loop of Jade becomes suspect. “Stray dogs” opens with an aloof, academic tone: “To think again of Pound”. Howe stands outside events, as a spectator, one who assembles facts and images for synthesis. The poem is built with lacunae, gaps that must be filled in by the reader. These breaks avoid narration and keep both author and reader outside the story. It is a kind of alienation that allows space to think. For such a method to function, however, images must be selected with accuracy. Pound is “bared to the sky”. There is a lack of precision in that phrase. In what sense is he “bared”? The cage in which he was held had a sealed roof. The cage was open to the elements, but not to the sky. Is Pound himself “bared”? Even so, the image does not match reality. Further distance is made in the poem by the word “traitor”. Howe moves herself away by citing Pound’s criminality. The poem moves on by patching together factual details with quotations from Cantos LXXIV and LXXXI. Again, there is a misreading: “Swollen magpie” refers to the bombastic Black and White army of the Allies, not Pound, and a dull piece of Imagism tries to fix the scene: “Wire diamonds shadowed starkly underfoot.” Puns thicken towards the middle of the poem. Pound’s copy of the Analects is “dog-eared”. (Angela Palandri, as a Chinese student with little English, visited Pound in St Elizabeth’s and she makes this exact observation, without the insult, in an essay in Paideuma 3.3 The essay focuses evocatively on bi-cultural identities— Howe territory). Then, “a rifle butt” is “ pounding the door”. And Howe is so busy having fun with the pun on Pound/pounding that she writes without checking facts. The clich├ęd phrase that she has selected, reducing the scene bathetically to pulp fiction, is untrue. There were no rifles. The Italian partisans who arrested Pound for ransom were armed with a Thompson machine gun. A moment of terror is rendered clumsily as inaccurate wild-west comedy. By standing two unrelated images side by side, a logopoetic image/Pull down thy vanity (Canto LXXXI again) and a phanopoetic image/the opening of Canto LXXIV written on toilet paper, Howe links pride with abasement and suggests the punning conclusion of “Stray dogs”. As the poem closes, an anti-semitic line from Pound’s Fifth radio speech, “Those Parentheses”, is quoted. The reader has descended into “Circe’s sty” because Circe changed men into pigs. And Pound saw the Jewish control of money as occult trickery and banking as a sty for swine. The reader has hit the core of the poem, Pound’s unjustifiable hatred of Jewishness. (Something undoubtedly felt at a personal level by Howe because of her “mixed marriage”). But at the heart of this poem, there is nothing. The text does not support the belief that this is a poem about censorship. There is no debate with ethics. All that exists is a pun on canto/”Glorious cant”. That single piece of word-play is insufficient to stand for a debate on where the boundaries of language might be drawn. On being forced from Sant’Ambrogio, Pound took a copy of Legge’s Si Shu with him. In writing about the life of Confucius, not in the Analects (Part I of The Four Books) as cited in Loop of Jade, Legge describes the well-known story of how Confucius was separated from his disciples and resembled a “stray dog”. (This was the term that the Cultural Revolution used to discredit Confucius). It would have been impossible for Pound to be reading the incident in the Analects as imagined by Howe. But then, truthfulness to either Pound or Chinese history does not appear to be the point. The whole of the poem drives towards a conclusion that juxtaposes Pound and Confucius, a conclusion that is the main reason for the poem, another pun in which Pound’s pride and humiliation can be stood ironically against the humility of Pound’s hero, Kung. Together, they make up the “dogs” of Borge’s title. In speaking about the form of “Stray dogs”, Howe has said that the “visual block”, the justifying of the type-face at the right margin, mimes Pound’s “restraint”. But does it? The layout occurs on four occasions in Loop of Jade. Why should it suddenly become a mimetic image of imprisonment in one poem and not in others? There are multiple weaknesses in “Stray dogs”. There is a poor grasp of material. The material is not transformed into an aesthetic experience. It reads like a student writing exercise, though it is one of the later, mature works in Loop of Jade. And most seriously there is a failure of human sensibility. It is a bit of knock-about academic fun on a serious matter for Art: can the life of the poet and the poetry be split into separate worlds? Can there be double standards within censorship so as the poet descends to Hell (St Elizabeth’s in Pound’s case) and the poetry ascends to Paradise (The Bollingen Prize)? Ethical distancing results in a lack of ethical involvement and judgement.

Within Loop of Jade, there is a sense that though Howe achieves real successes and takes many whole-hearted risks, there is rather too much poetic game playing. The volume is strongest where it encompasses the richness of cultural and historical imagery and weakest where it must engage directly with emotion and political contexts.

Monday, March 21, 2016

What is the Point of Criticism?

The Observer on Sunday recently published a lengthy article on criticism and culture. Or that is what it purported  to be. The title of the main piece, by the New York Times film critic, A O Scott, is "What is the Point of Critics?" That title places the debate with personalities rather than purpose. This thrust became apparent when the debate was widened to the views of The Observer's main Art Critics: each critic explained their personal approach to the matter of criticism-- not all would concede that criticism is an art. 

The questions that came to mind on finding the article staring over toast and Sunday morning coffee was "Why now"? and the "Why the views of a New York film critic rather than Kermode, the resident Observer film critic?" The answer was simple: time to flog Scott's new book, Better Living Through Criticism-- to be released in paperback in a few days time. The book was released in hardback a month ago, did not cause many waves then, but with the paperback imminent and future sales, time to publicise: which speaks louder in the background of this debate, cultural values or making money? None of the major UK papers reviewed the hardback, in fact, the only main review was in the New York Times, Scott's own newspaper, 

The published excerpt reads like a rather bad and over-lengthy film trailer and nowhere as cogent as Ronan McDonald's Death of the Critic (2007) which is a concise and lucidly written analysis of the connection between criticism and critic and the resultant ideologies. The title of Scott's book indicates a significant link between criticism and life skills, almost mimicking the title of some dreadful DIY self-motivation book. Perhaps, that is all done with intended irony. Until the book is available it is hard to judge--critically, and fairly--its worth. It should be noted at this point, however, that Scott  puts faith in "the rigor of scientific method", an approach that has sent modern criticism down many dubious alleyways...into its present cul-de-sac. So, the title might be meant without any tongue-in-cheek smirk as science offers support to much of the mumbo-jumbo that comes out in the plague of self-help books that peddle mental health revolutions as dubious as diet fads.

Certainly, the debate in The Observer via the pens of its resident critics did not amount to much. Scott's piece tackled the usual attack on critics: they are failed artists. Moore was willing to concede that his architectural writings were better than his design submissions. Johnston accepted that her work was enthusiastic but often wrong about pop music and she playfully debunked the idea that criticism was done to make lasting, accurate judgements; a reasonable tone for online pop music. Maddocks wrote with seriousness about the difficulty of making final judgements at classical music concerts and Brennan stressed the importance of context in criticising theatre. The earnestness fitted the genres. But one aspect that did strike oddly was that Brennan felt the need to give a sense of the moment for those who were not there and Maddocks insisted that strove to give a sense of what the experience was like for the reader of her reviews. Is that what criticism does? Recount the event for the absent, for those not lucky enough to get to the event? Such seems a bit like disclosing all the fun of the party for the sad individual who could not make it. Cooke, explaining book criticism, went above her methodology into what she saw as wrong with book criticism in general: a lack of honesty and over-praise for mediocre work and a tendency to offer paraphrase as a successful book review. 

Scott rightly pointed out that the digital age has made much of criticism redundant. But then, criticism was dying before the birth of the www and its "extending of democracy" into the belief that life is all about opinions and not much else. The Observer dumbed itself down before the internet, disposing of its adherence to higher cultural values. It once employed serious poetry critics such as Adam Mars-Jones, now it reviews poetry rarely and when it does-- inadequately. It's not accidental that most critical space in The Observer is given to film criticism. Nor is it accidental that a film critic, such as Scott, should be asked to lead a debate on cultural issues and criticism. Clearly, the assumption is that film is what most people like so film critics are best to tread the hallowed ground of criticism and popularise criticism (or the critic) once more. Better Living Through Criticism will be an interesting test case for that belief. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mark Doty as Hermeticist in Deep Lane/Hermetical poetry (1)

The underworld has grown closer to the recent work of Doty: his fascination with Pound's Imagist poem "In a Station from The "Metro"

                     The apparition    of the faces      in the crowd  :
                     Petals    on a wet, black   bough .

transformed into the title of his Theories and Apparitions (2008).  Pound's image connects the subterranean railway through the word "apparition" with the Nekuia in Homer's Odyssey. Travel, travelling to the dead, the route of Hermes and speaking with spectral beings. Pound's energised image is as Hermetic as H.D.'s Imagistic exemplar, "Hermes of the Ways." In Doty's latest work, Deep Lane (2015), the chthonic gathers and the poetry exists, for the poet, like a membrane between this world and the world beyond. The word hints at memory which is both a barrier to death and a medium through which disembodied voices might speak. Towards the centre of Doty's volume is a curious poem, "Underworld", which seems "just the right" poem for Deep Lane and its descent into the dark earth and the bright roots of life. The poem is a tantalising read. 

The poem commences with a young man who has attempted suicide:

                      The new and towering boy in outpatient
                      folds the lavish scaffold of himself
                      into a smallish chair...

The figure is "new" in that he is beyond a death. In the adjective "towering", resembling a skyscraper, Doty suggests the height of this individual. Then more, for the adjective glances at the verb "touring/towering" and Milton's fallen angel in Paradise Lost (1674 final and revised edition) as he sweeps upwards and then downwards into the new underworld of Hell. Through the choice of "lavish scaffold", the poetry captures the structure of the youthful man, "scaffold" is read as a development of "towering", and suggests that he is a being needing support. Also, the beautifully imagined compression of the young man echoes Milton's Satan and the dazzling perspectives that amount to illusion as his size shifts in and out of focus. The opening is finely done.

As the poem progresses, Doty is drawn into marvelling at one aspect, "his legs" and this results in a digression via the history of English and Milton:

                    his legs (I want to spell long
                    with two n's as Milton spelled
                    dim with a double m
                    to intensify the gloom of hell)

For the Hermeticist words are magic. Spell and spelling, as the hermetical Robert Duncan demonstrated are inseparable. From Old English, a spell is a spilling out, a telling tale...and this is the direction to which Doty swerves. But before the reader can get to the tale, there is a jolt.  Reviewing Deep Lane in Ambit, Lydia Macpherson found that she had to "wince at the slightly self-conscious aside about Milton’s spelling in ‘Underworld’." Doty's interjection seems too clever, even forced, and it is fully self-conscious rather than "slightly". Macpherson is being gentle in her criticism (of a book that she admired). But there isn't just a difficulty with the interruption, there is also a problem with the details. Where in Paradise Lost does Milton spell dim as dimm? Certainly, not in his descriptions of Hell. The original edition only uses that spelling once, in Book IX, where Eve describes the effects of eating forbidden knowledge. And did Milton really make these kinds of visual images in Paradise Lost? Spelling in the C17 reflected the whims of the publisher/type-setter as much as the intentions of the poet. More to the point, would "lonng" mime the long legs of the figure anymore than a thickening of consonants imply deeper dark? Surely, "llong" would be better. Doty's egotistical interposition is the equivalent of a magician speaking his conjuration to angels and suddenly breaking off to have a chat with his assistant about some learned point in Latin. The spell would fracture. And maybe that is the point here: this mannered distraction is Doty forcing himself into language. It is anti-hermetical and serves as a contrast with what follows. The brackets denote a wrong method, one heard and best ignored, one outside the mystery of Nature.

The matrix of the poem comes later as the unspecified, spectral figures in outpatient, sit in an implied circle of conjuration-- the "speaking circle". Suddenly, the young man stretches his legs forward and in a moment of revelation reveals the name on his shoes-- a skater brand named "OSIRIS": 

                    maybe a brand too newly stylish
                    for me to have registered.

Not a new brand for the new man, OSIRIS has been around for almost two decades amongst the fashion conscious, stocking footwear, t-shirts and caps, but new or not the key word is "registered". The deep roots of "to take note" are in court, regis and king-- "registered" as much as "OSIRIS" marks the presence of the Egyptian King of the Underworld. (Much of Deep Lane is concerned with how Mark Doty marks darkness). Following street fashion the shoes are unfastened, so the "unlaced word" unlocks the Word and in a moment of epiphany, Doty is shown the "right god" for the time: Osiris, who was tricked into death by Seth and whose limbs were scattered and subsequently gathered into a whole again by Isis. For Doty (and the reader), the image "OSIRIS" is an hermetical sign, not a symbol, a point at which the silent world speaks; as in Imagism whereby the image simply presents itself. In one sense, OSIRIS is a found poem. 

It stands as an example of how language might elect and what has not been recorded in daily life, something even ordinary, suddenly strikes the imagination and assumes unexpected significance. It is the very opposite of the Miltonic section of this poem in which meaning is being forced into a poem somewhat dubiously. In "Underworld", Doty suggests what is at the heart of Deep Lane, method and meaning: how the poet/human being must surrender to the dark world, to read the signs that are placed there and hear rather than impose speech. Investigating the deep strata of existence, the hermetical poet interprets what is shown. "Underworld" is reminiscent of "To Caravaggio" in School of the Arts (2005), an insignia poem by Doty in which the erotic and religious coincide and observation transfigures a nude, Hispanic boy into the body of "our Lord". There is, however, a crucial difference. In "To Caravaggio", Doty is eager to set the scene and draw the reader in to experiencing the young man. The poem is what Bachelard would have called an example of the Promethean complex: how Doty describes the massaging of the youth is deliberately frictive, it rubs and sparks the imagination. It brings fire-- a profanely and sacred (gay) fire, like the paintings of Caravaggio. In "Underworld", the reader is kept out of the scene and the young man is kept at a distance. There is a community that shares pain in outpatient

                       Whose pain's not a common one?

yet the narrative is focused on communion. The word "on the tongues of his shoe" ignites the speaking of tongues, that moment when significant meaning speaks out of deep lanes of thought. Emphasis is on the sign, the act, not the individual man. The "lustrous blacks" of the Hispanic boy hold the shine of something transcendent (and sexual). The new "boy's/body radiantly restored" belongs to a different order of perception, of light: the hermetical where love reconstructs the scaffolding of existence. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

Back in October, BBC 3 broadcast a documentary entitled Is Britain Racist? The production was typical of what passes for documentaries these days. Either the documentary relies on facts with a twist in the tale or proceeds with crazy experiments to convince viewers of the programme's cutting edge research. Is Britain Racist? followed the second pattern. People were subject to implicit race tests, the presenter had her brain scanned for hidden responses that marked prejudice, and a group of three guinea pigs/researchers went out into troubled areas to test reactions. Deji/Black encountered no hostilities, but was the most searched in shops. Hanna/Muslim was insulted for wearing her niqab and told by White British males to get back to her own country. Richard/Jewish was subjected to fuck off gestures by Asian Muslim males. Race was confused with religion (mind you that blurring exists in the UK). The most bizarre racism test saw Deji, Richard and Hanna offering free doughnuts to passers by as a way of eliciting racial responses, that is evidence of prejudice. The best section of the programme concerned the mutation of "racist" into a new term "Culturalist", which is pig thick ignorance given intellectual status, the blustering nonsense of the UK's Right Wing parties re-cast into a lot of hot-air about preserving cultural traditions and values. This is the sort of stuff that the UK Government has peddled as British Values in its schools...things like the creation of democracy...which the Greeks copied from Britain and its Empire. 

Last night, BBC 4 screened Stanley Nelson's masterly documentary film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015). (The film can be viewed here). It was all that Is Britain Racist ? wasn't. There were no tricks, just solid research and deep, meaningful images. As Nelson phrased it: "I had to dig deeper for footage that captured an authentic portrayal of the Party and which was not distorted by mainstream media." And there was no gimmicky surprise findings at the close, rather a continual effort to appraise information.

The real triumph of the documentary was its ability to rely on a thematic element: the visible and the invisible. Throughout the film, Nelson focused on the visibility of the Panthers and the invisibility of FBI-- the extent to which the Panthers were almost too open about their intentions, how the need to trump statements led to a frightening visual scenario, one growing out of control; the degree to which Hoover was "insidious" in briefing against the Panthers. The documentary showed the roots of the Panther's appeal and power: style intersecting politics and language. There was a chilling moment on Newton's release in which he stripped off his shirt to reveal his torso: masculine, sexual power, the threat of the phobic Black body. In contrast, the forces of Hoover were mind games, yet more destructive.

The documentary did not lose itself in a survey of cult figures. It read the carrying of weapons as a sign of honesty as well as threat. This wasn't a closet terrorist organisation: it was an open defence unit. Also, the documentary addressed the importance and presence of women in the Panthers. There were not the negative, sex objects often cited. Their parts were as vital as those of women in other Black Freedom movements. They were portrayed then as now, as literate, intellectual and fully aware of their roles and responsibilities. Most interesting was the link that the Panthers made between nutrition and schooling, a modern idea in UK schools, such that their breakfast clubs cooked 20,000 meals a week to guarantee that children started the day with the energy to study.

The skill with which Nelson handled imagery was poetic. Everything flowed into the eye, from the beauty of Black is Beautiful, to the military fashion of The Panthers, to the unchaining of the Afro, to the propagandist art of Emory Douglas, right down the line to how The Panther's controlled the visual image in their newspapers, the auditory image in their radio broadcasts, and the sensual imagery of the voice in their speeches. 

There was no pig-shit ignorance in Nelson's documentary-- it was replete with intellectual insights that did its subject full justice. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution matched meaning to method (as did The Panthers), and belongs in the vanguard of documentary film making. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Post Identity Politics.

For the past few days I have been reading Song After All (2013) which is a series of exchanges between Reginald Shepherd and Alan Contreras. At the core of the book is a discussion on gay male post identity politics. To make the discussion clear, Contreras (as Editor) includes Part Two of Shepherd's blog post and their follow-up comments. I remembered reading these at the time. Eight years on (to the very day by coincidence) I read them with a different perspective--not to disagree with Shepherd, who was right to insist that gay identity poetry produces dreary poetry, nor to change my view on the discussions we had, but to note a personal take on the debate that was not present then. There is a world of difference between the poetic spectrum and waving the rainbow flag. I re-read the debate with different eyes: must be the new varifocal glasses.

Firstly, having returned to Shepherd's blog, I noticed his belief that there was a change in consciousness that could be called pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall, a point at which the gay world shifted and gay identity became political. That is often stated, but how true is it? In Part Five of his posts on post identity politics, Shepherd posts an AWP presentation by Brian Teare in which the issue is approached through Thom Gunn's admiration and friendship with Robert Duncan. Strangely, hardly anything is said about Gunn's response to Duncan's courageous outing of himself in 1944...twenty-five years before Stonewall. Nor is anything mentioned about how the situation went against the Duncan grain. Duncan's statement in Politics was a political stand and Duncan's argument with Ransom was equally political: Duncan told Ransom that his refusal to publish the poem was against the First Amendment. Yet Duncan believed that politics and poetry did not mix: political activism was not the role of the poet. Perhaps, Teare ought to have made the important point that identity did not create poetry for Duncan, but that poetry was the creation of complex identities. Homosexuality, for Duncan, was defined by poetry and the idea of identity politics was a falsehood. Possibilities existed within poetry and within that totality the love of men would seek new definitions. Duncan knew H.D. in depth and there was no identity outside the poet, outside H(ermetic) D(efinition).

On a simpler note...for whom was Stonewall such a massive watershed? For USA "gay" poets who can shrug off the label "gay".  But the debate surely ranges beyond here. Is post-identity a luxury for USA poets? What about the emerging gay poets in Singapore, for example, who are as significant as the USA poets, but do not live in a society that allows them to be free, where society is two-faced and a liberal face masks another that wears a conservative blindfold. Or the oppressed poets in Russia under Putin? Can they live in a state of post identity politics?

It is interesting and worrying how insular the AWP debates were...I am speaking only of those cited in Shepherd's blogs. 

Secondly, having returned to Shepherd's blog post (as quoted in Song After All) I started to assemble the varied responses. 

1) "Gay poet" is a double displacement...both gay and poet are marginalised within society." (A minority-ethnic gay poet, then, has a triple displacement???). Post-identity makes the cancelling of "gay" acceptable. But would the poets who cancel "gay" be as happy about cancelling "Black" or "American". Clearly not, as all the poets think within their American identity. Shepherd would cancel "Black" and "Gay" because the purpose of poetry is what language can create. Poetry is the creation of what is possible and should not be restricted by what is. I empathise with his intelligent view. (It is why, in Song After All, he finds little value in Essex Hemphill and poetic activism). Shepherd's position is very much in line with Duncan--the poem is everything. But what happens when all the "gay poets" transform into poets? What happens to visibility?

2) Gay poetry has lost its element of risk, it is trying to pass (as in society) as straight. So, the change from "gay poet" into "poet" follows the trend of passing. Ronan McDonald makes a telling point in The Death of the Critic (2007that no one wants to be just a critic these days. Critics are "Critics and Writers" so that the unacceptable is made acceptable by the honoured term "Writer". It is interesting to note a similar step being taken by Poets. They are no longer simply Poets: they are Poets and Writers. As society moves away from the Arts, the tendency is to dump terms that do not pass. It is part of the need to be "liked" at all costs. If a Poet wants to protect Poet, why not protect Gay? Is the post-identity phase a way of denying the thorn-in-the-side?

3) Gay is a sign of the "antithetical"...poets gain strength from their antagonism. Here, it is curious how gay is always seen as antithetical to straight, how homosexuality is a reaction to the heterosexual norm. Marjorie Garber wisely points out in Vice Versa (1996) that this common assumption is a huge mistake. Heterosexual is a cultural back-formation. "Homosexual" was coined, then "heterosexual" was created to reflect the opposite. Edward Carpenter, the radical Socialist thinker (in the UK, not USA) imagined this in one of his poems in Democracy when he viewed the Uranian Adam as homosexual before the creation of Eve--what a daring idea, that Adam had an identity that could be known before heterosexuality came along! The gay male is not antithetical to straights, he is antithetical to orthodox perception. 

4) Queerness creates questioning. It is perpetual challenge. Would the questioning stop, though, if the term "gay" is dropped from "gay poet"? Isn't the Poet about questioning too. Isn't that what a poet does? Isn't poetry about a challenge to what is by creating what Shepherd called Otherhood? Is "gay poet" a double-questioning of assumed reality or a tautology? 

5) There is a danger that as society becomes more accepting of gay people that the process of "normalising" begins. Is that a loss of identity, of difference? Is the loss of "gay poet" a step towards conformity and a loss of a unique poetic voice? 

6) UK gets a mention...interestingly, though, Gregory Woods is quoted for his historical view-point, not as a significant "gay poet", so no real attempt to widen the debate beyond American poetry. The gay poet expands awareness by engaging with paradoxical language, a variety of language beyond the mainstream. Is this more to do with "poet" rather than "gay"?... "British poet and author"...the word gay is not attributed to Woods...strangely he already seems to have been liberated beyond the identity politics boundary and has entered into the post-identity Paradise!

7) Is there still a need to reflect gay desire in poetry in which case "gay poet" remains a valid term? The sexual element of gay poetry--which marked identity politics--is in retreat. Poets are afraid of being confessional because Confessional Poet is a feared label. But maybe...beyond the USA...there isn't that fear. American poetry had to go through its stages of Confessionalism to break new ground...maybe Confessionalism is a legitimate goal for poets outside the USA. Maybe there is a poetry beyond the prison-camps that the USA has elected so that the tedious can argue against the tedious. (Shepherd was absolutely correct about the danger of camps and allegiances and the restrictions of having to write is a certain way). Gay, as Duncan saw, is a misleading word for the homophilic (Carpenter) experience. If the sexual element disappears from poetry written by men who live men...what kind of poetry is left. As the writer Terry Goldie once asked in an essay on Fanon, what happens to the homosexual when he isn't having sex? Does the homosexual only exist in the act of sex? There is a continual sense within this debate on post-identity poetry that "gay" means something wider than sex, even so, if poets deny a sexual core because they wish to move beyond a limiting definition, then something vital is lost. 

8) Is the change from "gay poet" to "poet" a step back into the closet? Or is it an elevation to Parnassus, an entrance into the world of Poets United?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Robert Duncan, An African Elegy Re-visited

Duncan's "Towards an African Elegy" or "An African Elegy" as it appears in The Years as Catches (1966) is a high-tide mark in Duncan's work and in the history of gay poetry. Sadly, as is the way with criticism in the C21, it is a poem often referenced, but  never actually read. It is a poem that is talked about rather than imagined. The nadir comes with the student aimed essays written on the net that authoritatively state the importance of the work and then use its difficulty to avoid investigating anything of worth. Duncan's Guides in poetry were the strong-willed Modernist visionaries: Pound, H.D. and Olson. And he has come to share their fates-- references to difficulty are allowed to justify poor critical insights and prejudice. 

The best starting point for "An African Elegy" is Thom Gunn's essay in Insights, Working Papers in Contemporary Criticism, Robert Duncan, Scales of the Marvellous (1979). Here, Gunn sketches the conflict behind the poem and states with simplicity the bravery of Duncan's actions in his article in Politics (1944). Duncan made his homosexuality "a matter of public record. His early bravery found few imitators...[.]" (p.143). Duncan did what no other poet had done in that essay, linked sexual openness with poetic openness. "An African Elegy" became the test case for that openness when John Crowe Ransom re-examined the poem and decided it was unfit for publication in the Kenyon Review. Ransom wrote to Duncan in no uncertain terms:

Originally I thought your poem very brilliant, and it occurred to me that Africa was a fine symbol for whatever was dark in the mind, and that you explore the symbol well ...But since then you have written the courageous piece in Politics in which you say that the homosexual poets have usually symbolized their abnormality and palmed it off on the innocent ‘little magazines.’ And you propose in the future that they be less furtive.....As to the present seems to me to have obvious homosexual advertisement, and for that reason not to be eligible for publication [.] 

(Letter dated October 26th, 1944).

As Gunn intelligently points out, other homosexual writers were present in the journal. Duncan's sin was the act of self-advertisement. He was not prepared to be a poet in public and homosexual in private. There was going to be clarity and no wondering about the sexual nature of Duncan...a break with tradition, so no poems with an ungendered "You" (Auden), no poems hiding a love of men behind romantic commonplaces of human friendship (Owen), no poems dressing naked male desire in religious oratory (Hopkins) and no poems translating homosexual desire into heterosexual imagery (Symonds on Michelangelo).

It is often stated that "An African Elegy" is a poem that suffered unduly because there is no homosexual element in the poem and the suppression was just a consequence of Ransom's prejudice towards Duncan's confession. It was not like Winters disliking Whitman for his sexual choices in Song of Myself or disliking the poetry of his student Gunn because of his gay themes. "An African Elegy" is innocent of all such references. That is not really correct! Kenyon Review--under Ransom--was the voice of the New Criticism. Though the personal and textual element of the elegy would have remained outside the interests of Ransom, as a New Critic, and it is here that much of the homosexual context resides, Ransom would have been tuned-in instantly to the "fine symbol" of Africa. And he would have known that just as Africa stood as a representative for the spiritual dark, Duncan's essay in politics had opened with a parallel between the suppression of African Americans and American homosexuals. That parallel would have allowed Ransome to see the released "Negro" in "An African Elegy" as a code for the free homosexual. And that unease would have been re-enforced by Duncan's suggestion in Politics that homosexuality was seen as "unnatural" and maybe "supernatural" and "occult":

The law has declared homosexuality secret, non-human, unnatural (and why not then supernatural?). The law itself sees in it a crime, not in the sense that murder, thievery, seduction of children or rape is seen as a crime—but in an occult sense. 

(Politics, 1944, p. 210).

In his Introduction to The Years as Catches, Duncan acknowledges the rising of the poem. At Berkeley, in 1942, Rosario Jimenez read him Lorca in the original. Out of that encounter with the homosexual Lorca,  the rhetoric of "An African Elegy" began to swell.  Lorca's "Negros. Negros. Negros. Negros" became the pulsating "Negroes, negroes, all those princes" (TYAC, p.34). Behind that moment is the memory that Lorca's poem came from his encounters in the homosexual world of Black Harlem. And further back, the fact that Lorca had ventured abroad to escape his suicidal thoughts. Two elements there, Blackness and suicide, re-surface in Duncan's "An African Elegy". There is a dark under-tow within the poem that references homosexuality.

At the opening of "An African Elegy", Duncan imagines "the groves of Africa" and their symbolic fauna. Emphasis falls on "wildebeest", wild, "zebra"/wild horse, "okapi" and "elephant". It is a world of mixed linguistic roots and Afrikaan, Congolese, Pygmy and Greek origins fuse to picture a place of knotted life. These lead into the "marvelous", "natural jungle" of the "mind". For the rest of the first paragraph, Duncan imagines the primal scene of Africa. In Lorca's poems blood has no doors, but in Duncan's "the Swahili" open the doors of Death and blood. In 1940, Duncan created an impromptu female Swahili dance with friends: this was at a time when he was intrigued by Shamanism and the wild ecstasy that came with dancing. The Shamanic pulse is created through the driving verbs from "There the Swahili" to "barking of dogs".

The second paragraph opens with a composite creature, a man who is "dog-headed and "zebra striped" and walks "like a lion". This creature, which recalls the cynocephali described by ancient Greek visitors to Africa, is Death. From this wild canine creature, Duncan leaps to a pun on Wolf/Woolf, thus rhyming darkness and death with the suicide of Virginia Woolf. Like a dog himself, Duncan follows the "scent" that leads him to the "hounded" Woolf. Transformed in imagination to a " white Afghan hound", like Sohrab the afghan in Between the Acts (1941)--the final creative work before her suicide--Woolf makes her way into the fog. Woolf is white against the black of death, a recurring motif that begins with the "zebra" stripes of line 1. In The H.D. Book (1959 onwards), Duncan discusses Between the Acts as a novel about "giving birth to one's self" (p.493) out of darkness. And this is the direction in which the elegy tends.

The short third paragraph of the elegy, locates the poem in winter, in the fading light, amongst the Eucalyptus Grove at Berkeley. Duncan is waiting for "the negro armies" and life to retreat to the forests and leave his mind in solitude.

Paragraph four of  "An African Elegy" begins a recapitulation of the poem's opening. Duncan return to the wilds of Africa and closes the section by paralleling Africa and himself:

I know
no other continent of Africa more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.

(TYAC, p.34).

Reaching back into the Harlem of Lorca and the Harlem Renaissance, Blackness touches what it was for the White artists: a fascination with the primitive and the spiritual that linked male desire and crossed the racial barrier.

As Woolf became a sign for the mind's darkness, its madness, Desdemona now becomes a sign for desolation. Hearing the rhyme between mona/woman and moan, Desdemona "wails within the body", like a "demon", a howling wolf that has lost a love absorbed by the ego of Othello. 

In paragraph six, the poet cries out. "And I cry" translates the Biblical "awah" and the crying of jackals. Behind the poem lies the symbol of Anubis, the dog-headed/jackal-headed god Of Death. Africa is now a serpent-like entity in the "coild and secretive ear". An Orphic descent into the Underworld begins as Duncan listens to the pulse of blood in the ear. There is a long, winding progression of sound from "Hear!" to "Hear", into "ear", into "hear" again and then into a visual rhyme with "hEARt". The lines mimetically twist as "in/jungles of my body, there/Othello moves. This inter-penetration by sound and blackness is deeply a point where dark Death becomes a "lover like a hound". Lorca despised the racism of North America in Oda al Rey de Harlem, which as already said was the poem that became the ground for "An African Elegy." He cursed North America for degrading its African Americans. Duncan's transformation of Lorca is felt as he recreates the royalty of Africa, of people who "were as giant kings". (Readings that connect the elegy with Conrad's negative Congo and its heart of darkness venture in the wrong direction). A deep example of poetic digestion and transmutation comes in Duncan's remembrance of the line "a tu gran rey prisionero, con un traje de conserje"/"your giant king imprisoned by a door-man's uniform". The Black male was a guardian of doorways in Harlem and this for Duncan inflates with creative breath to an image of his Africa, one in which Africa is a doorway to the spiritual and the double facing Black "janitor" who opens and closes Harlem's doors for its White patrons is Janus (the root of "janitor"), the God who faces two ways, towards Death and Life, who closes one year and opens the next. This lies behind the cryptic line "This was the beginning and ending of the year." 

At the close of the elegy, Duncan declares that "The halls of Africa" are barriers against "the deep". These fictions swell to keep desolation at bay. Gunn notes in his essay that Duncan is "the Seeker" in his poems of the 1940s and there is a continual sense of unfulfilled desires. It is this dissatisfaction that ends the elegy-- that indeed makes the poem an elegy. Seas turn against themselves, into spaces that are empty. The roots of love and sexuality are vacant. The Sirens that emerge out of the waves of sound in the poem are "tired" and untouched. They are passive and undisturbed by the sexual sea that thunders around them. Sadness creeps into the world of the "marvelous" because there is a chasm between Duncan's emergent homosexual desires and poetry, between imagination and reality. "An African Elegy" is a lament by a poet who is trying to unite his body with mind. The emotional image that captures Duncan's disenchantment and discontent, at the close of the elegy, echoes both the sea imagery of the homosexual Hart Crane and the contempt that Duncan pours on the term "gay" and society's attitudes  in his article in Politics:

a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extended to oneself, to life itself.

( Politics p.211).

and seas
disturbd turn back upon their tides
into the rooms deserted at the roots of love.

(TYAC, p.35)

For Duncan, "gay" is a piece of camp gaiety, light-hearted nonsense (at odds with the spirit of elegy and the depths of homosexual life). The final attack that Duncan launches in his essay is seeded in the earlier elegy and its sadness. When Ransom rejected the poem, he rejected a poem that was in a sense out-of-date. Duncan's essay "The Homosexual in Society" was his answer to "An African Elegy", his step towards healing the schismatic wound identified in the poem; and like a Shaman he knew that the essay's prophecy would be a form of death, for a Shaman must put life on-the-line and fall into Death to utter the truth and bring new life to his tribe. 

Duncan told the truth when he said that the blackness in "An African elegy" was not a metaphor for homosexuality. (Blackness referred to what was hidden from the human and his homosexuality was not hidden from him. That was a mis-reading). Even so, the poem is a poem linked to homosexuality. It is a song by a poet who sees the drowning Orpheus (like Woolf who committed suicide by sinking into the River Ouse) and Duncan, knowing Renaissance mythology according to Ficino and the Italian Hermetic Neo-Platonists, would have known that Orpheus in their version of the myth was ripped apart, his head thrown into the waters, because he turned (as Duncan himself did) from the love of women to men.