John Gery

John Gery: On "The Horse"

Philip Levine also tells a tale of sorts when he depicts the aftermath of Hiroshima in an extended metaphor in "The Horse." Still alive, yet "without skin, naked, hairless,/ without eyes and ears," the horse represents the spirit of the hibakusha which has fled the devastated city. Although the survivors, their mouths open "like the gills of a fish caught/ above water," continue to speak about the lost ghost of the horse, the poem's speaker realizes that the horse never existed and will not return; even the survivors themselves will forget about it, the poem concludes, once their "rage" has "gone out of/ their bones in one mad dance" . . . .

John Gery: On "Advice to a Prophet"

Wilbur's "Advice to a Prophet" reverses his earlier appreciation of things of this world from the perspective of a sensible emptiness to an appreciation of that same emptiness from the perspective of the things of this world. Considered one of his most overtly political poems, "Advice to a Prophet" also reveals a Wilbur apparently even more confident than before in the power of the physical world (specifically, in nature itself) to provide meaning. At the same time, he seems less concerned about any allegorical resonance to that meaning--regardless of the fact that the image of the rose in the last two stanzas seems deliberately symbolic.

The first three of this poem's nine quatrains (their alternating pentameter and tetrameter lines counterpointed by the abba rhyme scheme) open with the poet's advising the "prophet" what not to tell us when warning us of our approaching doom. Nothing in the poem identifies the prophet as priest, scientist, or poet, subsuming all three under the traditional notion of the prophet as doomsayer, or a "mad-eyed" prophet such as Ezekiel or Cassandra. Such a prophet, the poet reminds us, will not come "proclaiming our fall but begging us/ In God's name to have self-pity," that is, imploring us to put life above the sensible emptiness our minds seem to hanker after. We will not, he goes on to say in the second stanza, be swayed to self-pity by an account of the "force and range" of weapons of mass destruction, because any such description will "rocket the mind," thus actually feeding the imagination rather than curbing it. "Our slow, unreckoning hearts," on the other hand, "will be left behind," unable to accommodate our feelings to whatever unfamiliar notions our minds may grasp. Nor can "talk of the death of the race" carry much emotional weight, since we cannot really imagine a state of annihilation, and we have no basis to "dream of this place without us":

The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,

A stone look on the stone's face?

 

The tone and imagery here recall the "pure mirage" of " 'A World without Objects . . .’" ("the long empty oven/ Where flames in flamings burn"), but in this rendition Wilbur is thinking of an absence created by the elimination of any perceiver, rather than "the brink of absence," as that which a perceiver cannot fully understand. This shift in emphasis is a slight but crucial one: In the earlier poem the failure to be able to conceive of an immaterial state is expressed with a hint of resignation, but in "Advice to a Prophet" not to conceive of it means not to feel the full import of the prophet's warning. What has become more important than the preeminence of "light incarnate," of the things of this world, is the presence of the watcher of that light, of those of us who "cannot conceive/ Of an undreamt thing" but who, because we can dream, remember, and speak, can also attribute meaning to the things of this world.

The poem next urges the prophet to present his or her prophecies in terms we can accept, in terms of "the world's own change," and throughout stanzas four, five, and six he catalogues a variety of images from nature that "we know to our cost"--the dissipated cloud, the "blackened" vines, the disappearing white-tailed deer, the evasive lark, the lost "grip" of the jack-pine, and the flow of a burning river such as the mythic Xanthus, which was destroyed rather than surrendered to invaders. These earthly images, together with "the dolphin's arc" and "the dove's return" to Noah's ark, are all "things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken." In this line Wilbur introduces the vital connection hinted at earlier between seeing, knowing, and saying, and as the poem approaches its climax, all of his concerns are heaped on one another: Not only does he ask the prophet to explain our apocalypse in terms of changes in nature, as well as the termination of those changes, so that we might better comprehend its implications; he also links our experience of nature's changes both to our consciousness and to our acknowledgment of our consciousness, both to our seeing and to our speaking about what we have seen. Unlike "'A World without Objects...,’" "Advice to a Prophet" becomes increasingly preoccupied with our perception of the world more than with the things in it. Therefore, even though nature itself is prominent both as the source of the heart's understanding and as the source of our physical existence, the annihilation of nature is meaningless unless or until it is articulated in terms of the human experience of it:

Ask us, prophet, how we shall call

Our natures forth when that live tongue is all

Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

 

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean

Horse of our courage, in which beheld

The singing locust of the soul unshelled,

And all we mean or wish to mean.

Though urging the prophet to couch his prophecy in the context of nature, Wilbur in fact draws attention to our awareness of nature, as revealed by our speaking of it ("we shall call," "live tongue," and "we have said"). Once we see the relation between language and nature, he suggests, we will better sense annihilation as silence and understand that "with the worldless rose/ Our hearts shall fail us." Then in the final stanza, he further emphasizes our perception of nature ("the bronze annals") rather than nature itself ("the oak-tree"), as he isolates our sense of time's continuity by isolating, in what seems a deliberately awkward fashion, our vocabulary for that sense: "come demanding/ Whether there shall be lofty or long standing/ When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close". "The final, urgent plea of 'Advice to a Prophet' is that we not destroy vocabulary!" Wendy Salinger notes, "Wilbur's most moving political poem is at its heart about language." It is about language, but specifically it is about feeling the loss of language (and through that the loss of perception) as our only means of appreciating the dangers of nuclearism. Annihilation, in other words, is a physical and psychic condition that encompasses the signifiers "lofty" and "long standing" together with whatever they signify, as well as everything else imaginable.

With its intricate interweaving of natural imagery and language, "Advice to a Prophet" ingeniously conveys how our experience of nature, perception, and language is the key to our grasping the implications of annihilation.

John Gery on: "Trying to Talk With a Man"

Two earlier Rich poems, "Night-Pieces: For a Child" and "The Demon Lover," anticipate her later use of nuclear imagery to depict subjective experience. In the former poem, the poet as a young mother anxious about her child suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night "in a dark/ hourless as Hiroshima/ almost hearing you breathe/ in a cot three doors away" and then combines the primeval and the modern, when the mother imagines herself and her infant "swaddled in a dumb dark/ old as sickheartedness, / modern as pure annihilation," as the two of them "drift in ignorance." "The Demon Lover" also combines progeny and aimlessness with annihilation, when Rich records a dream about being bombed, and then adds:

The end is just a straw, a feather furling slowly down,  floating to light by chance, a breath  on the long-loaded scales. Posterity trembles like a leaf and we go on making heirs and heirlooms.

In this poem the spectre of nuclear annihilation has the contours of the emptiness in a self-enclosed relationship.

In "Trying to Talk with a Man," the title and language point not to the landscape of holocaust, as "Early Warning" does in its intentionally misleading way, but to the intimacy of a collapsing marriage. Yet like Turner, Rich juxtaposes the imagery of domestic life against the arid "condemned scenery" of a Nevada test site: the "underground river/ forcing its way between deformed cliffs," the "dull green succulents," the "silence of the place," "laceration, thirst." Instead of using familiar images to portray extreme horror, Rich uses extreme images to express the deadening effects of a painful breakup between a man and a woman:

Out here I feel more helpless  with you than without you You mention the danger and list the equipment we talk of people caring for each other  in emergencies--laceration, thirst— but you look at me like an emergency

Your dry heat feels like power your eyes are stars of a different magnitude  they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT  when you get up and pace the floor

talking of the danger as if it were not ourselves as if we were testing anything else.

In this poem, not only does our shared notion of a nuclear explosion (together with the expectation that weapons tested will inevitably be used) convey the despair of the poet, but in a fashion more subtle than in either "When" or "Early Warning," Rich's poem weaves a distinctly subjective yet broadly human experience into the very fabric of our conception of nuclear weapons, together with our impotence in containing them. The personal dread created by a failed relationship equals the deep cultural dread associated with annihilation. "Talking of the danger" of one reiterates exactly "'talking of the danger" of the other, because in both cases we are talking about ourselves and testing ourselves. As Turner and Rich both insinuate, only by acknowledging that it is we who are being tested will we begin to see our way through that danger.

By metaphorically integrating nuclear imagery and the fear of annihilation with more private dimensions of experience, apocalyptic lyric poets may not always express direct opposition to nuclearism, but, at their best, they broaden the figurative scope of both political poetry and the personal lyric in ways that reflect the age in which they are composed. "Trying to Talk with a Man" is finally neither solely about gender relations nor about nuclearism; it is about both. Once Rich's poem establishes its peculiar but intricate bond between these two critical concerns, our sense of both is irreversibly altered, as she speaks through the nuclear present. Whether or not the reconstruction of thought her poem embodies can lead to our survival is debatable, but without such a reconstruction we remain mired in our present inadequate modes of thinking.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1996 by the Board of regents of the State of Florida.

John Gery: On "The Snow Man"

In "The Snow Man," which was originally published in 1921, Stevens typically unleashes his imagination in an ingenious manner. But from a post-nuclear perspective, ultimately his poem is a philosophic tour-de-force that suspends the mind a little too comfortably. By its use of simple diction and concrete imagery, the poem begins by lulling us through several tercets, before turning toward its paradoxical closure about nothingness:

[. . . .]

As an imagist might, Stevens captures a specific moment on a clear, cold January day after a snowstorm. The most complicated word he uses is "junipers," hardly a mind-stumper, and the imagery of the pine trees, junipers, and spruces firmly roots itself in the mind's eye. Furthermore, with its widely varied tetrameter line, stresses are determined by syntax more than syllables, creating a fluid, conversational rhythm. Indeed, syntax provides the key to its magic. All five stanzas comprise one sentence, which Stevens carefully strings through a series of infinitive phrases and subordinate clauses to tease us out of our present thoughts into his "mind of winter," that state of mind necessary to experience this landscape for itself. The main clause of the sentence uses the impersonal pronoun "one," which suspends the identity of reader and writer alike, and the modal auxiliary verb "must," implying a prerequisite condition yet also suggesting that "one" may well nothave the "mind of winter" needed to carry on through the poem. In this quickly established state of suspension, "one" adopts a "mind of winter"--either a brain made of snow like a snowman's (a virtual impossibility) or, more figuratively, the frame of mind one has during January in a cold climate.

Prompted by the clarity of the poem's first line, once we make the deceptively easy leap to a mind of winter we gain the power to perform three acts: "to regard" (an act both physical and cerebral), "to behold" (a physical act only), and "not to think" (an act most assuredly cerebral yet one that Stevens simultaneously negates). In a mind of winter, one can "regard" the scene before him or her, and if one has been "cold a long time" then he or she can look at that scene without thinking "of any misery" in its sights and sounds. Of course, not to attribute any emotional qualities to a landscape as a viewer perceives it is to be not a human but a "'snow man, so what the poet asks of us is possible only within the imagination.

From this point, we drift through the series of phrases and subordinate clauses away from our inherently "human" minds into the very "mind of winter" Stevens has created until we come to the sound of the wind. . . .

In these final six lines, Stevens includes no fewer than six subordinate clauses introduced by relative pronouns, each of which works to draw us further and further from our originally suspended state into his increasingly abstract landscape. Also, the imagery has become generalized: "The sound of the wind" and "the sound of a few leaves" have broadened to become "the sound of the land"; the vividly described trees in stanzas one and two have faded into "'the same bare place"; even the snowman has become merely "the listener" who is "nothing himself " and whose only function is to listen. Despite the visual strokes of the poem's opening, Stevens has drawn us artfully through his subtle qualifiers and negative terms until, as Robert Pack has noted, "Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snowman. We become the snowman, and we see winter through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort." Yet as Walton Litz contends, the poem is neither "a poem of negation" nor a "critique of the man without imagination," but "an affirmation of primary reality" that "'lays bare that irreducible reality upon which the poet builds his fictive structures, just as the lusher seasons build upon the frozen outlines of winter."

Finally and most pointedly, what the listener actually "beholds" in the last line is "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." In other words, the snowman beholds two phenomena: (a) "nothing that is not there" and (b) "the nothing that is" there. The overt repetition of "nothing" lures us into construing an entirely barren scene, but rephrasing the line according to its parallel structure actually creates a choice: Either the listener beholds the something that is there as well as the nothing that is not there, or, if we suspend the article "the" in the second clause, he beholds nothing that is not there and (yet) some thing that is not there. To say he beholds "'nothing that is not there" implies that he beholds only that which is there and nothing else: such a listener perceives only what is before him. On the other hand, to say he beholds "the nothing that is" (or some thing that is not there) can only mean that he beholds that which is not there, namely, nothingness--an absence which, for Stevens, is an imaginary, not a real, state of being. As Michael Davidson explains it, these "double negatives literally produce a 'nothing' that is both full and empty at the same time." No matter how we rephrase the line, the listener must admit to beholding these two phenomena of antipathetic natures--that which is only available to sense perception and that which is not available to sense perception but to the imagination.

To recall the poem's opening, for one with "a mind of winter," that "listener" who is "nothing himself," such a dichotomous, self-negating act of mind is possible with no disjunction of feeling. But for a human mind, that disjunction itself risks "misery," as the thought necessarily comes into conflict with our feeling about it. Consequently, to appreciate Stevens's expression of nothingness in this poem requires that we suspend our human part with its accompanying emotional baggage. In this way, as a modernist poem, "The Snow Man" stands as an evocative treatment of the mind in tension with its environment. As it follows the sentence's steady digressions, the mind alters its perspective on the winter landscape, while the landscape itself never changes. Instead, like Wordworth or Keats, Stevens draws us out of ourselves and sets us up for the paradox in the final line.

With imaginative lyricism, the poem approaches an almost ideal expression of nothingness, a landscape devoid of any human presence. As Edward Kessler has argued, "Stevens achieves what is probably the coldest, most naked poem in the language, a poem without hope or despair, good or evil--for all of these man-made ideas corrupt pure perception." Stevens himself, in a 1944 letter, describes the poem as "an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand and enjoy it." But how "real" is the "reality" of nothingness imagined here? As delicate a balance as Stevens strikes, does not a conceptual problem arise if we reread the poem's rhetorical strategy from the perspective of the "potentialist discourse" of nuclear annihilation? Without dismissing the complex nature of "reality" throughout Stevens's oeuvre, might we not ask about this poem what it costs, in terms of human consciousness, to achieve that prerequisite "mind of winter" necessary "to understand and enjoy" reality? The poem does, in fact, insinuate that death to the individual imagination would have to occur for one's mind to become the snowman's. But it does not take into consideration the erasure of the imagination beyond individual death. The point here is not to fault the poem or to detract from its light touch; rather, it is to draw attention to how Stevens concerns himself with an erasure of the imagination without feeling compelled also to consider that state of unimaginable nothingness beyond good and evil we call annihilation.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida.

John Gery: On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

Ai's "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer," with its conspicuous subtitle of "A Fiction," belongs in a series of dramatic monologues in Ai's collection Sin, where she speaks in the grim voices of those in extreme historical circumstances--John Kennedy after his assassination, Joseph McCarthy fantasizing about unlimited power, a leftist dying in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, an aging journalist remembering Vietnam in 1966, the Atlanta child killer in 1981--so Oppenheimer's "testimony" (presumably before a Senate Committee on atomic warfare in the 1950s) takes its place in the landscape of horrors that comprise for Ai our recent American legacy. Though portraying widely different characters in her monologues, Ai makes no attempt to vary their voices from poem to poem, and the speaker in "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer" makes his confession in the same frenzied tone of the other poems, as though recalling a nightmare. Still, Ai's characterization of Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb, is not unlike other psycho-biographical accounts of him by those such as Brian Easlea and Lifton: Her poem opens with the physicist praising the bomb as evidence of modern "enlightenment." Yet because this is a confession, the speaker also acknowledges his guilt for having pursued truth too scientifically, a guilt he then tries to rationalize:

To me, the ideological high wire

is for fools to balance on with their illusions.

It is better to leap into the void.

Isn't that what we all want anyway?—

to eliminate all pretense

till like the oppressed who in the end

identifies with the oppressor,

we accept the worst in ourselves

and are set free.

As a scientist, Ai's Oppenheimer embodies the cultural urge to know beyond speculation. But in the second strophe, he equates this obsessive drive, this desire for "the big fall smooth as honey down a throat," with prenatal desire, as he sighs, "Anything that gets you closer/ to what you are./ Oh, to be born again and again/ from that dark, metal womb,/ the sweet, intoxicating smell of decay/ the imminent dead give off." As Spenser Weart has also observed about nuclear psychology, this poem insinuates that the drive for atomic wisdom reflects a desire to return to the womb. Yet in the last strophe, Oppenheimer confesses his ultimate frustration with the futility of pursuing a truth that "'is always changing,/ always shaped by the latest/ collective urge to destroy," and he feels trapped by his own "urge" to know, calling his soul "a wound that will not heal." He looks at the country around him, "our military in readiness,/ our private citizens/ in a constant frenzy of patriotism/ and jingoistic pride,/ our enemies endless,/ our need to defend infinite, " and mocks us that "we do not regret or mourn" but "like characters in the funny papers" just "march past the third eye of History." By the end of the poem, Ai portrays Oppenheimer not in order to imagine a nuclear holocaust but to question the popularly held assumption that history is progressive. Behind the veneer of Oppenheimer's guilt-ridden confession, she disrupts that notion, and she reconfigures nuclear annihilation not as a violent climax but as a slow spiritual decay:

We strip away the tattered fabric

of the universe

to the juicy, dark meat,

the nothing beyond time.

We tear ourselves down atom by atom,

till electron and positron,

we become our own transcendent annihilation.

As a dramatic monologue, with its obsessive tone, its focus on the past rather than the future, and its Browningesque psychoanalysis, Ai's poem distracts attention from the phenomenon of nuclear war, turning instead to the ideology behind that phenomenon, and, by implication, condemning that ideology.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1996 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida.