A Fortnightly Review of
Reaching Out to the World:
New & Selected Prose Poems
by Robert Bly
$16 White Pine Press 200 pages.
By Myra Sklarew.
“IT IS WELL, AT certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest,” writes Pablo Neruda in “Toward An Impure Poetry.” Like Neruda’s Elemental Odes that celebrate objects and the restoration of our relationship to the earth, Robert Bly’s prose poems “focus on the objects in the world—a rock crab, a farm granary, a hockey game—and the changes the mind goes through as it observes them,” not at the desk but “in the presence of the object.” And though these are written as prose, certain rhythmic and sound repetitions that might occur initially guide the making of the prose poems here and satisfy the expectations that are awakened or “outwit them.”
The music of Bly’s writing is key to its making, to its presentation, to its inherent shape and is of the body. This sense of expectation and the reason for its power, whether in music or poetry or dance, is beautifully described by the child psychiatrist, Joseph Noshpitz, in developmental terms and has to do with the exquisite rhythms of the body at the core of all life processes. “To listen to music,” Noshpitz tell us, “is to reexperience our earliest encounters with sensation, to forge once again a set of random elements into a state of coherence, to weave together our soaring affect-contours and our cognitive constructs into an orderly pattern of predictable regularities.”
And it is not only the mastery over random elements but the urge for novelty that guides this process. Bly’s writing is the song of the body, the memory of rhythm. And each piece opens a door beyond itself. Just as we think we have come up close to the caterpillar with its “Hairs” that “wave like triumphal plumes as he walks,” the caterpillar “rears up…perhaps looking for another world.” In Reaching Out to the World, a piece (“The Lover’s Body as a Community of Protozoa”) written for Lewis Thomas and his Lives of a Cell, Bly writes: “This body is made of excited protozoa…It is with my body that I love the fields. How do I know what I feel but what the body tells me?….As the body walks, it enters the magnetic fields of other bodies…”
This collection calls to mind Francis Ponge whose poetry and prose poems Robert Bly translated and responded to in his own work. There was a time in America when the notion of prose poems caught the attention of many writers, including William Matthews who translated the prose poems of Jean Follain: “Behind each thing, a password lies hidden.” Something about Follain’s prose poems, or prose poems in general, that permits the writer and the reader to see what has been hidden before. Follain suddenly notices an object that had been his for ten years that he had never looked at before. Or the hair of women, suddenly like enchanted creatures with long falls of hair spilling to the waist or swept up high on the head. Or days “when strict buns refuse to be built up after you’ve unwoven the long braids made for those hours of sleep.”
AS I READ PONGE once more, and Bly, it occurred to me to wonder if the impulse in writing object pieces had to do with the sense that the world was so contaminated or somehow obliterated that they must name the world again from scratch, object by object, creature by creature, act by act, light and dark. Like latter-day Adams or Linneaus, in this naming they must recreate what is here, a living poetic encyclopedia.
In the case of Ponge, it was a matter of giving “human characteristics “ to such creatures as snails, or to pebbles, to mullusks. And in the case of Bly, often providing animal characteristics to the human—Robert Creeley’s “crow hair,” a beak that “is a crow beak,” “language…crow speech coming up from every feather…” (in “Seeing Creeley for the First Time”). But like Ponge, a mushroom can have “a traveler’s face,” and the onion, its “worried fibers…like the survival root of the old man…”
And what is striking in this work, though published in 2009 and written over some five previous decades, is how intensely it relates to events that are occurring in this time and place, in our revolutionary time, as we watch first Tunisia and then Egypt make claims for more democratic societies – Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen stirring after Libya and Bahrain. Bly has no need of diatribe nor lengthy battle scenes nor historical treatises and justifications. He need only mention the “frightened white underside” of an orange, “as when citizens on the border lift their faces when the tanks approach.” In the simple assault on an orange, the whole subject of power is encapsulated. In “An Orange,” which occupies no more than a half-page, Bly lays out the dynamics of human aggression. Nothing more is needed.
THOUGH HIS PEOPLE HAVE animal characteristics, his creatures, like the dead wren in his hand, has a bill “with the sorrow of a rabbi whose daughter has married an athlete.” And the “black spot” on its head a “mourning cap.”
Bly comes upon what at first appears to be a dead seal but upon closer examination notices “a quiver in the dead flesh” and is shocked, “as if a wall of my room had fallen away.” Bly returns the next day only to discover the seal still alive, bids the creature farewell: “Goodbye, brother, die in the sound of the waves….swim in long loops through the pure death…” The piece, “The Dead Seal,” ends with our narrator climbing the cliff and going “home the other way.” So elemental is this encounter, and so powerful. It reminds me of an old tradition among certain peoples in Eastern Europe who, when they go to bury a loved one, do not return to their houses by the same route as they set out, lest they bring death home with them. It is that quality in the telling of these brief pieces that seems to link them to a bedrock of shared and ancient experience.
But I have omitted the danger in this piece, a naked confession that stirs in each of us: what is the observer able to do? How can this death be stopped, the dying creature rescued? And what have we done to bring about this agonized dying? “This is the oil. Here on its back is the oil that heats our houses so efficiently.” Bly brings us up into the breathing presence of the other. We cannot look away.
Just as I, one day while walking past a homeless man sitting on a stoop, attempted to avoid the man’s eyes, and he caught me in that attempt. And in that split second, I realized that he had caught me. And we looked at one another and we both burst out laughing. In that moment we were the same. Both human. Neither discarded. I was on that stoop. He was passing by. A cord, a knot joined us.
IN THE INTEREST OF full disclosure, I must share a story. As a student in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins under Elliott Coleman, I had got up enough courage to send a few poems out into the world, in this case to Robert Bly at The Seventies, his journal begun in the fifties. Perhaps some would have taken offense at the response I received, but I was astonished by his response, written in longhand, from Odin House, Madison, Minnesota.
The end of “Threshold” is good, and I like much in “every day.” But there is something boring about the poems. I think it’s partly language—you use such overused-in-poems –words—you, towns, books, say, torn, rode, stars, sewer, vessel, etc. Read Harmonium by Wallace Stevens—his willingness to use unusual words saves many a poem.
And beneath his words, a typed two-stanza poem, “The Walnut Tree Orchard,” by Wang Wei and P’ei Ti, adaptations by R.B.
About Stevens, he was absolutely correct, not only for his wisdom about language but for Stevens’ teaching of multiple perspectives, of transformation and a kind of objectification that opened the world of imagination. That Bly had taken the trouble, in his own hand, to respond to a novice, seriously, was immensely helpful. And I knew then that I was not alone in receiving Bly’s careful response.
In the section called “Six Friends,” we meet once more Robert Francis whose name has not been uttered in many a year. Long ago, Francis came to tell us about how he lived in the woods in Amherst on a bare $400 a year, growing his own food, requiring little. Now he accompanies Bly to Emily Dickinson’s grave, telling Bly how “her brother refused to trust her body to a carriage,” how her “coffin was darkened with violets and pine boughs….” And there is Voznesensky whose “voice is coming from deep in his chest that is bent forward like a javelin about to be thrown.”
At times, when I hear poets attempting to describe what it is they do, I have the feeling that they are describing what is happening in their brains. When Bly speaks of the image as providing the psychic energy for the exploration the poem is making – rather than naming a location, a position in space – I think of the brain’s plasticity. What once was thought a rigid and fixed apparatus is now clearly thought by neuroscientists as an entity plastic and capable of enormous change, capable even of creating more of itself. The way we experience the world is in a constant dynamic flux. Sensory input, various forms of encoding and storing information, ways of reconstructing and constructing anew, is a process in flux, rather than a matter of taking experience like a book in a library, placing it on a shelf and retracting it later. It is an unbelievably complex process, a process in motion with many parts of the brain acting at once. Location is only a portion of the process. But if we imagine the dance of 100 billion neurons, it is not difficult to see that a memory of a specific object – or parts of a metaphor – is not localized but is to be found throughout the brain in our vast and lifelong interactions with that particular object. Bly, in his wide landscapes in these prose poems, insinuates that dynamic flux.
ANOTHER INTRIGUING ASPECT OF Bly’s investigations and creations occurs in his translations, to be dealt with only briefly here. It is no accident, Bly’s attraction to the Spanish poets and in particular to Federico Garcia Lorca. His journey to and absorption of the poetry of Rumi and Ibn Hazm bears a strong resemblance to the underpinnings of Lorca’s poetry built upon the cante jondo, the “deep song” of Andalusian gypsy art and 11th century Arabic poetry, the casida. Bly’s reach is long and deep. He returns to a period in our history when Christian, Jew and Muslim shared a stable existence, a period of great flowering in art, literature, medicine and science, the likes of Averroes and Avicenna, a golden age of poetry in Iberia, writings in exquisite forms on subjects ranging from the metaphysical to the erotic. The prose poems are but a single facet of his eclectic range. All are part of the woven tapestry. The ghazals against the Iraq War, the strange irony of the use of that ancient form to decry our inroad against the region of origination.
One must speak however passingly about initiation rituals, so important in Bly’s writings and in the conduct of his life. In his review of a work by Martin Prechtel on the last such ritual in the village of Santiago Atitlan in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, Prechtel differentiates between our cultures which send young people to war and the Mayan which “sent their Rainwarriors…not to make more death but to coax Death into releasing life back to us.”
The book begins in solitude: “I lie alone in my bed; cooking and stories are over at last, and some peace comes.” And ends in transformation: the boy, turned into a log, is once again a boy, the son of Bly, who is rescued just in time to pronounce, “That’s the end” – and our narrator vanishes.
No matter the subterranean texts, the shadows and influences, molecules and particles from the past, the Bly of Reaching Out to the World is a presence, a powerful force, all hints and subtleties gathered up into an enormous bouquet that he and his speaker offer to the world.
Myra Sklarew is emerita professor of literature in the writing program at American University and a former (1987-1991) president of the Yaddo community. She is the author of Harmless and five more collections of poetry. Her 1972 poem, “Umbrella,” appears in the Fortnightly here.