James Longenbach: On "The Unseen"

"The Unseen" begins with a group of tourists in Kraków, touring the death camp. The scene is "unswallowable," both unbearably familiar and unbearably horrific: "We felt bored / And at the same time like screaming Biblical phrases." Stalled between these extremes, Pinsky remembers a "sleep-time game"--an insomniac's dream of heroic destruction: granted the power of invisibility, Pinsky roams the camp, saves the victims from the gas chamber, and, as a finale, flushes "everything with a vague flood / Of fire and blood." As in "The Destruction of Long Branch," Pinsky dreams of having power over his history, remaking what made him.

It's not possible to take that dream too seriously in "The Destruction of Long Branch," of course: its act of destruction serves as a kind of metaphor for the self's struggle with language and history. In "The Unseen" the act is too literal, too historically charged, and Pinsky must back away from it more distinctly.

I don't feel changed, or even informed--in that,

It's like any other historical monument; although

It is true that I don't ever at night any more


Prowl rows of red buildings unseen, doing

justice like an angry god to escape insomnia.

Though he feels unchanged, Pinsky describes an important transformation here. Having imagined himself as the "unseen," Pinsky now recognizes a more potent invisible presence,

                                                            And so,

O discredited Lord of Hosts, your servant gapes

Obediently to swallow various doings of us, the most

Capable of all your former creatures ...

In Pinsky's lexicon, this force could be called "history" as easily as "Lord of Hosts." Having earlier found the scene "unswallowable," Pinsky realizes that he has no choice but to take in the past. And as "The Figured Wheel" suggests, the past--however sordid--is already inside him: in this sense, the force could also be called "my heart."


Title James Longenbach: On "The Unseen" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Longenbach Criticism Target Robert Pinsky
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Modern Poetry after Modernism
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