Friday, June 19, 2009

Three Poets: Esther Raab, Denise Levertov, Larissa Miller

And what connects them? Of different generations and divergent experiences, all three are, by descent, Russian Jews (although Levertov was raised Christian, something that inflects her recent work increasingly overwhelmingly).

In grouping together three poets linked only by their choice of lyric poetry and their ethnic background (claimed or dis-), I could essay a naïve comparison that would get entangled in issues of "national", gendered and Jewish voice. Instead, I imagine the three poets as alters created as a single historical life (that of the Russian Jewish woman in the twentieth century) took its different diasporic turns: to Palestine, to England and then America, and staying put through Communism and glasnost. Loosely, I imagine the three poets I'm annotating here as split-off personas along the line of the multiple protagonist of Sherri S. Tepper's novel The Margarets. As an advocate of diaspora, a believer in syncretic, nomadic formations, I present the poets in chronological order of their birth, which also appears to reverse the supposed narrative of that 20th century Jew: rather than going from Russia to Europe/the US to Israel, I work backwards from aliyah to Russia, asking how the poets' lyric attention to landscape, to memory and to voice is involved - deliberately or not - with larger political questions of home and land.

Esther Raab is canonised as the first "native-born" Israeli woman poet. Living in Palestine, Egypt and Israel between 1894 and 1981, her long writing life is entwined with -- and contributed to -- Israel's mythopoeic "birth of a nation" narrative. As her translator Harold Schimmel writes in his introduction to Thistles, the Selected Poems published by Peter Cole's very fine Ibis Editions, in Raab's work "Topography of the land becomes a human topography. The one merges into the other." All well and good, perhaps, if you are Emily Dickinson (one of Raab's major influences) in the United States (and not so innocent then, as Janet Holmes' The ms of my kin shows so eerily in its erasive take on Dickinson's Civil War-era poems) -- but harder to maintain as apolitical in Israel. Schimmel hints that Raab became an increasingly hardline Zionist as time went on, but it's hard not to hear the construction of a nationalist ideology through lyric tropes even in her early work:
"My heart, homeland, is with your dews,
at night on fields of bramble,
and to the cypress' scent, and moist thistle,
I will extend a hidden wing."
The poem argues that its speaker will "move forever" -- it's hard not to hear, and has moved forever -- over the land, which is minutely described in terms of its flora but as (if) uninhabited. In this, Raab comes close(r) to the American pioneer poets who wrote Manifest Destiny over the landscapes of Turtle Island, erasing the humanscapes. When figures do appear, they are Orientalism-as-background-colour/threat, as in "Return," where Cairo is onomatopoeically presented as "Tarbooshes, tarbooshes / Berbers, blacks, / beat, tarrarum, trilli!" like the drums in the dark of colonial horrors such as I Walked With a Zombie. The final poem in the book, "A Landscape Not of this Place," written only days before her death, imagines: "Me and him - just / the two of us - and a world entirely empty." Of course it's unfair to ask poetry for a two-state solution (is it?) but such an imagining, even as a dream of the edge of death, strikes a deeply wrong note in me. It's hard (again, for me) to take Raab's "concealed hand extended: / mercy of tender bindweed", when the bindweed is "dangling by a thread on the fence" that marks out the colonisation of Palestine. These poems, in their minute attention to flora, have a myopia that Dickinson's work never falls into, and -- when they speak of eternity and other imagined places -- an imprecision by which Akhmatova (another key influence) is never seduced.

I was sad to discover that Levertov, a poet whose 1950s and 1960s work I discovered as a teenager in crumbling second-hand American editions, has also fallen into imprecision. Her work, for me, always combined a crispness of observation with a limitlessness of vision, a Blakean ability to step from the leaf to eternity. But A Door in the Hive / Evening Train, the first of her work to be published in the UK by Bloodaxe, slides into sententiousness that her orotund yet accessible diction cannot carry over, or through. I'm still in love with her "o" sounds (in the patterning, for example, of "I had lost you long before, and mourned you, / and put you away like a folded cloth / put away in a drawer. But today I woke" in "To R.D., March 4th 1988", where the varied "o" do the work of mourning) but her need to elongate inelegantly, to explain it to the back row McKee-style is onerous. In A Door the sententiousness is partially attributable to her choice of model: Rilke, perhaps the modern master of the Blakean aevum, its lift and awful majesty. It's not because it's her childhood Essex that "For Instance"'s "gleam of East Anglian light" seems not to equate to the poem's closing line "Erde, du liebe...", not the place that's pedestrian but the insistence on exposition. Her forms lack Rilke's musicality, even when she styles a poem as psalm, threnody or chorus: and she cannot quite conjure the inner-yet-impersonal speakers of these modes.

Perhaps it's such a lack of sense of the reader/writer relationship as continuum or community (located in the exclusivity of Christian prayer?) that informs her lack of trust in the reader's intelligence. Yet the poems' frequent conclusory dying falls seem odd, given her modulation and management of complex syntactical and narrative structures to open the poems. She is utterly, wonderfully confident at directing the reader's eye and ear as in the opening deflections and returns of "A Sound":
An unexplained sound, today,
in the early sunlight
and no wing stirring the leaves,
of something breathing
surrounds the house
. "A Sound" is part of the finest group of poems in the double collection, Part III of "A Door," which also includes the Dickinsonian "Complicity," with its complex Penelopeian doing and undoing of visibility. These lovely poems, with their focused attention on the remarkable paradoxes of the natural world, culminate (for me) in "Flying High" in which Levertov contrasts herself with the "Cloud poets, metaphysicians, essayists, / fabulists of the troposphere": it's true that she's earthier, and unfazed by air travel's optical illusions, but she still gives in to a conjuration -- in the final line -- of "epic epiphanies." Likewise, "The Life of Art" steps from the brilliantly-conjured edgy "borderland" of impasto
striate, gleaming - swathes and windrows
of carnal paint -
or, canvas barely stained
to the flabby suggestion that "one almost sees / what lies beyond the window, past the frame, beyond..." Could there be anything lazier than that ellipsis directing the reader towards a vague, homogenous horizon? For me, this is where Levertov's idealistic politics fall down: despite (and even in) her choral ode on behalf of the murdered of El Salvador, she seems to lack trust in the agency of her readers (and subjects). She tells rather than shows, closing the poem out to ambiguity and readerly effort. It's a didactic practice, one that suggests a less liberal politics (or classically nanny-state liberal politics) informs her activism for social justice. This direction culminates in poem titles such as "Witnessing from Afar the New Escalation of Savage Power." Maybe I'm of a generation that codes all its grand récits in layers of irony, but I want something more thought-provoking, less easy, than "the world's raw gash" (from "Witnessing").

Larissa Miller's Guests of Eternity was a punt, based on a review in the Guardian (rare, as I find British newspaper reviews of poetry to be a lot like lassooing clouds, and don't make reading decisions based on a puff of air) and a lot of respect for Arc. I hadn't come across their Visible Poets translation project previously, and I'm looking forward to discovering further contemporary poets through their facing-page editions. From the dedication to Arseny Tarkovsky (poet father of the better-known filmmaker), I was intrigued by the edition's ability to set Miller in an historical and aesthetic context (with an excellent introduction by Sasha Dugdale) while creating while space in which her plangent, alert poems can be read (more space would be even better: two poems per page can get rather crowded). Her poems are mouth-sized, thought-sized, a poem that could be carried (and honed) through a working, surveilled day to be noted down on a scrap, a flyleaf. Mostly untitled, with rare epigraphs from the span of world literature (with an emphasis on outsiders from Villon to Lewis Carroll), Miller's poems have a humility that is also a breathtaking confidence in their own precision. Setting out a narrow remit for herself -- "And instead of grace - a hint at grace" -- she leaps "even over the abyss."

Like Raab's, Miller's work is enriched by the language of the psalms -- grasses and shepherds, cliffs and reeds -- but, contrastingly, they are lifted out of a landscape (the landscape of Canaan) into a soulscape that shimmers with the tropes of fairy-tales and folk songs ("the smile of the mother / blossoms over the light cradle") that work in specific contrast to nationalist ideologies. By reclaiming at once the varied and mighty landscapes of Mother Russia, and the idealised Soviet myth of motherhood, Miller's seemingly timeless poems have a gently astringent effect on the monumentality of sanctioned Soviet art. At once modest and ironic -- "What do you pay to stay here" one poem asks, answering "'It's all for free... / whatever you give it will always be too little'" -- her poetry immerses itself in the personal not as an antidote to the political, but as a remaking of it back to the scale of the individual who is at once part of a community (not a nation, not a schoolroom):
Where are you from?
Like everybody from Mama,
from darkness, from the old drama,
from happiness shared with disaster
Dugdale notes in her introduction that Miller's poetry is particularly rich and flexible in its use of rhyme ("Each backstreet," notes her most explicit poetics statement of a poem, prefaced by an epigraph from Mandelstam, "is full / of the torment of the soul and yearning / for feminine and masculine rhymes"), and Richard McKane's translation never forces English, relatively impoverished in full rhyme, to echo the Russian. The singsong effect of Mama/drama fits with the riddling nature of the poem. Such gestures of discrepancy do make the translation "visible" as the series hopes, inculcating -- for me -- a curiosity about the relationship of form and prosody in Russian. It made perfect, intuitive sense when I discovered that Miller's website has a lovely page where you can listen to delicate musical settings of her five of her more recent poems: her work has something of the anonymous folk song as expression of collectivity, with its invocations of elemental constants in conversation with human emotion and history. She has the lyricist's gift of great and immediate precision combined with universality: in "English Lesson" the "English verb in the infinitive" is "bored and thirsts for transformation." That is what Miller brings to the units of poetry - words, tropes, rhymes, phrases, relations - through her humble eye and sense of presentness. As a guest of eternity, she hangs by small words onto now, not preserving it or mourning it, but setting it in motion:
I teach the word that is flying,
and the tenses, that eternally confuse past and future.

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