Kizer’s “A Month in Summer”

The section entitled “The Sixties� in Kizer’s Cool, Calm and Collected is rather short compared to other sections in the book. Many of the poems are labeled “Chinese Imitations.� However, the most interesting poem to me is “A Month in Summer,� a rather odd combination of confessional poetry and haibun formalism.

Too long to quote in its entirety, I will try to suggest why I found it intriguing. In opening, Kizer notes, “I have come to prefer the four-line form [of haiku]which Nobuyuki Yuasa has used in translating Issa because, as he says, it comes closer to approximating the natural rhythm of English speech. Though not convinced that the four-line haiku is better than a three-line haiku, it’s an interesting idea.

The poem consists of thirty days of journal entries written in haibun form describing the ending of an important relationship in the narrator’s life.

THIRD DAY Strange how tedium of love makes women babble, while it reduces men to a dour silence. As my voice skipped along the surfaces of communication like a water bug, below it I sensed his quiet: the murky depths of the pond.

Alone, I play a Telemann concerto on the phonograph. A rather pedantic German note on the slipcase speaks of “the curious upward-stumbling theme.� Can we upward-stumble? If so, there is hope for us.

When we go away
I play records till dawn
To drown the echoes
Of my own voice.
…
TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY

Seen through the tears
This moonlight
Is no more poignant
Than a saucer of cream.

Why the artifice of this haibun, which I have appropriated from a culture which doesn’t belong to me? Perhaps to lose me. Perhaps because the only way to deal with sorrow is to find a form in which to contain it. And, at last, surely it is time to study restraint

It’s intriguing how a poet can present material this personal, this emotional without embarrassing the reader. I know I wouldn’t want a complete stranger telling me these kinds of things about his or her life, but somehow they feel perfectly acceptable in a poem.

In reading this “poem� it struck me that, though I’m not sure I would want something this personal put on the web as it happened, I would love to write a blog that followed this format.

I tried to use the haibun form for several of blog entries, specifically those describing my cancer surgery and recovery. Perhaps unconsciously I felt like Kizer that I needed a formal structure in order to present those painful feelings.

Unfortunately, I lacked the discipline needed to write haibun’s daily, but I still think it may well be the ideal format for a blog as it conveys the important aspects of one’s life succinctly, a quality sadly lacking in far too many blogs, even some I love dearly.

For anyone interested in contemporary use of the haibun, this long poem might well justify looking this collection up in a local library or, may one dare suggest, buying the collection.

Kizer’s “Through a Glass Eye, Lightly”

Carolyn Kizer’s 500 page Cool, Calm & Collected will probably take me awhile to finish. Though my favorite Kizer poem from the 50’s is “The Intruder,� a close second would have to be one I don’t even remember from my previous two readings of The Ungrateful Garden :

THROUGH A GLASS EYE, LIGHTLY

In the laboratory waiting room
containing
one television actor with a teary face
trying a contact lens;
two muscular victims of industrial accidents;
several vain women – I was one of them–
came Deborah, four, to pick up her glass eye.

It was a long day:
Deborah waiting for the blood vessels
painted
on her iris to dry.
Her mother said that, holding Deborah
when she was born,
“First I inspected her, from toes to navel,
then stopped at her head…�
We wondered why
the inspection hadn’t gone the other way.
“Looking into her eye
was like looking into a volcano:

“Her vacant pupil
went whirling down, down to the foundation
of the world …
When she was three years old they took it out.
She giggled when she went under
the anaesthetic.
Forty-five minutes later she came back
happy! …
The gas wore off, she found the hole in her face
(you know, it never bled?),
stayed happy, even when I went to pieces.
She’s five in June.

“Deborah, you get right down
from there, or I’ll have to slap!�
Laughing, Deborah climbed into the lap
of one vain lady, who
had been discontented with her own beauty.
Now she held on to Deborah, looked her steadily
in the empty eye.

Despite the fact that this poem seems to me to read more like a short, short story than a poem, I like its immediacy, its conversational approach, its non-sentimental tone, and its clear message.

I’m afraid most of us are prone to comparing ourselves to those that are more “blessed� in some way rather than to those who are less fortunate. We do so, of course, so that we can convince ourselves that we must have, or that we deserve, something we probably don’t need at all.

Modern readers will have to remind themselves that this poem is written in the bad, old days when contact lenses were made of glass, not plastic, and cost much more than a pair of eyeglasses. You wore them out of vanity, because you wanted to be one of the “beautiful� people, not some nerdy bookworm.

It’s hard to read the poem and not remember just how lucky most of us really are, no matter how much we’d like to lose twenty pounds, have straighter, whiter, teeth, or have 20/20 vision. It’s even more embarrassing to discover this by meeting someone who seems perfectly happy without those things.

Loren’s Swan Song

Blake's picture of Leda borrowed from Jeff's page:

If this was the image I had in mind when I read Kizer’s poem about Roethke, I probably would have come away with a very different reading.

Luckily, I had recently read my grandson Gavin the story of “The Ugly Duckling” and held in my mind the image of the ugly duckling that each of us sees in ourselves as a child being magically transformed into the beautiful swan that each of us truly can be if we but recognize it within ourselves. Anyway, that’s the swan I want to be, not the one Blake captured in the above print.

No, this is the portrait of ultimate despair. Look at those eyes. Only someone who has unfairly chastised his dog or has watched a favorite pet suffer, could truly identify with the anguish in those eyes.

Perhaps it is as Jeff points out: “And as both Blake and Yeats conjecture, it's also possible that after the rape Gods and humans might share each others characteristics, as Blake has so aptly drawn.”

If that is true, then Blake’s Leda seems to be caught in the awful moment of realizing she is:
half saint
half harlot
united in one

It’s hard to imagine any greater sorrow than to have that holy half tied down to the vulgar earth, no longer able to rise above bodily desires, and all of this brought about through no fault of her own, her only sin a beauty so profound that even the god’s lust for it.

What this powerful print does show, though, is the ability of the true artist to employ a symbol to convey the meaning he desires. Symbols are merely tools, and in the hands of masters they are powerful tools to convey their vision of the world.

A Convergence of Symbols

I tend to see my whole life through metaphors and symbols, perhaps explaining why I love poetry, painting, and photography so much. In fact, I sometimes wonder which came first, my love of poetry or my propensity for seeing the world through symbols. I suspect that I have always seen the world through metaphor and symbolism, and poetry and photography simply met those needs.

I think I love symbols as much as Jeff Ward of Visible Darkness loves definitions. Two of my most-referred-to books are The Secret Language of Symbols and A Dictionary of Symbols. In fact, at this very moment, after having written most of this essay, I decided to look up the word "swan" in The Secret Language of Symbols. Under birds it says, "In Greek myth, Zeus took the form of a swan to seduce Leda. Queen of Sparta, and the swan therefore came to symbolize love and the gods. It also stands for solitude, music and poetry and its whiteness represents sincerity." A swan is obviously not a goose, but the symbolic meaning of the swan discussed here seems to fit fairly well with the way the goose appears in the following poems, and the two birds are similar enough that it would not be unusual for poets to take "poetic license" to adapt it to their own particular situation.

Irregardless, I find special pleasure and meaning in moments when symbols from different books seem to converge. Such a moment took place when I was re-reading Carolyn Kizer's The Ungrateful Garden. Her poem about Morris Graves appeared opposite the following poem about Theodore Roethke:

A Poet’s Household
Three for T.R. in the Tanka form
1
The stout poet tiptoes
On the lawn. Surprisingly limber
In his thick sweater
Like a middle-age burglar.
Is the young robin injured?
2
She bends to feed the geese
Revealing the neck’s white curve
Below her curled hair.
Her husband seems not to watch,
But she shimmers in his poem.
3
A hush is on the house,
The only noise, a fern,
Rustling in a vase.
On the porch, the fierce poet
Is chanting words to himself.

Now, it seems like more than coincidence that this poem comparing Roethke's wife to a goose or swan should appear opposite a poem dedicated to Morris Graves, whose paintings often emphasize the spiritual aspect of birds, as pointed out in the poem.

It's obvious that Roethke's life tooka dramatic turn for the better after he married his young wife Beatrice, and he often used bird metaphors to express his love for her in lines like, "I cried, and the birds came down/And made my song their own," "Love likes a gander, and adores a goose;" and "If she but sighs, a bird puts out its tongue." The cental image, or symbol, in "The Happy Three" is of Roethke, Beatrice, Marianne, the goose, frollicking in the back yard.

The Happy Three

Inside, my darling wife
Sharpened a butcher knife;
Sighed out her pure relief
That I was gone.

When I had tried to clean
My papers up, between
Words skirting the obscene –
She frowned her frown.

Shelves have a special use;
And Why muddy shoes
In with your underclothes?
She asked, woman.

So I betook myself
With not one tiny laugh
To drink some half-and-half
On the back lawn.

Who should come up right then,
But our goose, Marianne.
Having escaped her pen,
Hunting the sun.

Named for a poetess,
(Whom I like none-the-less),
Her pure-white featheriness
She paused to preen;

But when she pecked my toe,
My banked up vertigo
Vanished like the April Snow;
All rage was gone.

Then a close towhee, a
Phoebe not far away
Sang out audaciously
Notes finally drawn,

Back to the house we ran,
Me, and dear Marianne –
Then we romped out again,
Out again
Out again
Three in the sun.

These coincidences, in essence, bring me full circle. A little over three months ago John Logan's poem got me interested in Graves. Since then I've researched Graves' works, sought them out, and now, a month later, I'm re-reading Kizer and she ties together Graves' works with Roethke's works, who is has always been one of my favorite poets. While such synchronicities have not yet caused me to forecast the Second Coming, they do remind me a lot of Yeats' spiral, a model of life which I tend to subscribe to. I like to think that as I grow older and seem to end back in the same old situations that I have grown and become more capable of understanding and appreciating my situation.

Oh, by the way, didn't Yeats also write some poems with swans in them? I wonder if that should fit in here somewhere?