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Kitsch and the Talking Cure
Posted By James Rother On November 30, -0001 @ 12:00 am In Reviews | No Comments
Origami Bridges: Poems of Psychoanalysis and Fire by Diane Ackerman. Harper Collins, 2002. $22.95
Until “poet, essayist, and naturalist” Diane Ackerman, the only celebrity from Waukegan, Illinois able to toss off jokes and fiddle off-key simultaneously was Jack Benny. “Star of stage, screen, and radio” (with TV soon added to the list), Benny put away a fortune by pretending to be a skinflint. He also perfected a deadpan expression that made the facial read-outs of disaster Keaton and Turpin were known for seem relics of an age as deep-sixed as anything in Steamboat Willie. Those two mainstays of the silents, imperturbable still points in a world of turns that they were, discovered that hilarity was likeliest when flows were gone and ill enough left to do its thing alone. Benny got his laughs by precisely the opposite route. His hangdog look transcended the extremes of both exasperation and stoicism to embrace disbelief in ever being able to account for the blow, setback, annoyance (the listener/viewer was encouraged to fill in the blank) just this instant administered to Benny through mismanagement of fate. His stock in comic trade consisted basically of the single stock routine of the dandified perfectionist endlessly beset by con-artists, incompetent domestic help, and a non-comprehending wife, all doing their damnedest to separate him from his money. With nothing ever going his way, his only consolations laying in rubbing his hands expectantly over financial coups that never materialized and mangling “Love in Bloom” (his signature tune) on an out-of-tune violin.
Why the to-do about a dead comedian? Because the taste in fiddling of the poet under review also runs to love in bloom, though her attempts to probe its depths might seem more appropriate to a Fleurs du mal than to any posies gracing a Fritz Kreisler recital. With a Natural History of Love (not to mention a Natural History of the Senses) under her belt, Ackerman brings to her poetry an airy disregard for the loftier verities, obviously preferring the lowlands of the erotic over the Mont Blancs of revelation, the ecstasy of great organs over the spiritual throb of processionals. Her verse collections reflect in their titles an almost Nabokovian delight in erotic hyperbole—Deep Play, Reverse Thunder, Lady Faustus—while her most recent volume, Origami Bridges, carries psychopathia sexualis to the brink of spaceyness with its Bachelardian subtitle, Poems of Psychoanalysis and Fire.[private]
All very serious, not to mention heady, stuff, though to read widely in Ackerman is to be bombarded more often than not with insights that have the shelf life of quarks and the real-world value of expired lottery tickets. The already cited book jacket credits her with having won “many prizes and awards,” but the only ones listed—the John Burroughs Nature Award and the Lavan Poetry Prize—remain as intriguing, if obscure, as her present professional assignment, Visiting Professor at the Society for the Humanities. But enough of preliminaries. We need now to consider the poems occasioning this not altogether sanguine introduction: Origami Bridges itself.
A preliminary “Note to Readers” describes the collection as having “geysered up naturally over a year and a half, during which I wrote poems daily [. . .] to corral the unruly emotions that arose during intense psychotherapy.” Origami Bridges is thus not so much a chronicle as a symbolical re-encoding—via a deliberate reversal of the dream process—of the poet’s experiences during her own psychoanalysis, much of which was conducted (unconventionally, to say the least) by telephone. According to Ackerman, this odd wrinkle “allowed for greater intimacy and risk, although it deprived [her and her analyst] of the lavish visual cues that can be so telling.” To complete the circle of “psychoanalysis and fire,” the poems that emerged from this confessional were sent to her therapist “hot off the heart,” as she puts it, so that they became “an important part of therapy, another place where we could meet.”
After the burst bubbles of the ‘90s, we seem to need catharsis almost as much as we did in the chaotic and frenetic ‘60s. The highly praised poet Richard Howard has recently published a new volume of verse titled Talking Cures, and it has struck a responsive chord with a culture whose younger members at least seem uninclined to privilege talk about the thing over the sweaty ding-an-sich itself. Howard’s language, once “a difficult pleasure,” in the words of Edward Hirsch in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (November 24, 2002), has in this most recent gathering of poems taken on “another, curative, dimension” attributable to a fresh realization on Howard’s part of a Gordian knot imbricating the freeing of the self with a “[repudiating of] the ‘said’—the monumental—in favor of a radical form of ‘saying’”:
One of the premises of this highly theatrical collection is that speaking becomes a form of necessary action, a process of making, of constructing a self in the face of dissolution. Voicing the unconscious in controlled circumstances is therapeutic, especially when it has been enabled (and chastened) by the artifice of poetic form. We are strangers to ourselves. Talking, which gives insight to experience, sounds the depths of our solitude. It also reaches out to an unseen listener. Wit redresses what is wounded in us. Poetry heals.
An interesting notion, you might say, and one readily adaptable to such New York war games of Freudian transference and counter-transference as the middled-aged version of Dora Dora Dora favored by Diane Ackerman. As will be shown, phrases like “hot off the heart” alert us to difficulties routinely encountered by this poet in avoiding what the French demonize as de trop. And well they should, for to ignore its dangers is to court what is probably the most insidious of all antipoetical depth charges, kitsch, a booby trap acknowledged in no less an authoritative study of the ups and downs jiggling elitist art during the last century than Matei Calinescu’s Five Faces of Modernity (1987) as artistic expression that more than anything else “implies the notion of aesthetic inadequacy.” This inadequacy, he goes on to point out, “is often found in single objects whose formal qualities (material shape, size, etc.) are inappropriate in relation to their cultural content or intention.” What such pseudo-art exudes is “middle-class hedonism” carried to the noxious extreme whereby it becomes, in Calinescu’s words, the very “’style’ of bad taste.” Nor, he further declares, should this sort of inadvertency be confused with the intentional, épater le bourgeois strain of acute Baudelaireisme that unleashes ‘the intoxicating effect of bad taste, derived from ‘the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing.’” Real kitsch—an oxymoron that consorts nicely with such as “military intelligence” and “safe sex”—just happens, which couples it, quite fittingly, with the substance that verb achieved bumper sticker immortality with not all that long ago. A victim of its own hyperventilation, kitsch literally flies onto the page, fueled by blindsidedness and whipped to a veritable froth of overdetermination by an ego on automatic pilot wholly unaware of its having been hijacked in what never seemed for a moment unfriendly skies. In the mode verging on free fall it sounds very much like these lines from “Omens of Winter”:
Poems arrive as meteorites.
Collecting them, I try my best to impart
impulses, the morse code of the heart,
but I do not understand the vernacular
of fear that jostles me until art occurs,
or why, know you from afar
spare hours of working myself into the stars.
Well, I do know, but I fight its common sense:
I try to stabilize us through eloquence.
It’s an old story, better told than I tell,
how artists shape what hurts like hell
(usually love) into separate empires
of lust, tenderness, and lesser desires . . .
Gilbert Highet, another maven of the fell art of kitsch, cites in his famous essay on the subject a couplet by Amanda McKittrick Ros, “Holy Moly, take a look, / Brains and brawn in every nook,” that as a demortalization of Manhattan puts even Ezra Pound’s kitschy apostrophe to the city, “O woman with no breasts,” in the shade. But just as tellingly, it enables us to recognize Ackerman’s less than heroic couplet, “It’s an old story, better told than I tell, / how artists shape what hurts like hell,” for what it is: pure singsong-y kitsch on the hoof. Highet sees this abortion of style as deriving from the Russian verb keetcheetsya, meaning “’to be haughty and puffed up’ … [It is] applied to everything that took a long time to make and is quite hideous.” However it comes into the world, the afterbirth it trails is a clown placenta that leaves only a laughable mess in its wake. And its cap and bells are discernible almost everywhere one turns in Origami Bridges. Sometimes, as in the passage already quoted, the lapsus into the unintentionally comic is coincident with a negligent collapse into doggerel. On other occasions (“In My Dream Nothing Supernatural Happens” being a lamentable example), the problem arises out of incommensurables being thrown together in an impenetrable ragout of grammatical pretzels and oddly sundered similes. The poem begins lubriciously enough, in (osculatory) medias res:
Fringed in tassels,
a blue hammock
lolls like a burnoose
from exposed porch beams
where it cocoons us,
blending our mouths
with sticky kisses.
Those sticky kisses might be said to lack a certain je ne sais quoi from an erotic standpoint, but let it pass, let it pass. The second stanza continues in much the same vein–
Wrapped tight as a single ear
of maize, we bake in the sun,
basted by sighs.
My spine is a rosary
you know bead by bead.
–but in the third the poet’s concentration springs something of a leak:
Your key fits my lock
and the door of my flesh
opens wide for you
in another, more honeyed
way of knowing.
Well worn clichés of middlebrow porn like these should not receive a pass, however. Their lock-and-key formulaics come as close to genuine eroticism as the recent sexpot libel on Truffaut from Mexico, Y tu mama tambien, does to Jules et Jim and accomplish little but set the scene for the horrors that unfold in stanza four:
Like two bat wings
my dark eyes beat
as new hungers dizzy us
and spot welds arc
to the core of us.
If this is the Song of Solomon brought up to date, I’m the Queen of Sheba. Nothing but grammatical silly putty holds these lines together, and the key figure of spot welds arcing to a mutual core is as silly as it is banal. But even worse is on its way. Not even the Donne family pet on acid could have caught the high frequency of incompetence sounded in the “Valediction Forbidding Sense” of the two concluding stanzas:
Love heightens our senses,
but also limits them:
a tender blur holds us fast,
the outer world flattens
and we remap it, exploring
new trade routes to the interior.
There we find ourselves
in mirrored alleyways
lining each port of call,
timeless and complete.
When we make love
happens, only us
and minor miracles of light.
To unmix this metaphor would require a feat of decreation no less monumental than returning the universe to the primordial dottiness that was its nascent state before the Big Bang, or in this case, the other big bang. In fairness to Ackerman, however, no explicit claim to poetry (beyond the poem itself as contrail left behind by the meteor shower of great sex) is made for the “conversation” alluded to in the lines “When we make love/ nothing supernatural/ happens, only us/ and minor miracles of light” being an upender of the natural order. (Though it might have been more honest to cite Origami Bridges in its entirety as co-respondent in Ackerman’s protracted divorce from intelligibility.)
Not to make light of this poet’s shortcomings (as she herself does in poems like the one above), for they are considerable, it has to be admitted that, as with all devotees of kitsch, the desire to create an original and lasting artistic fact is discernible in every line of verse Ackerman commits to paper. Surely it is a tin ear in a million that can allow duds like the tone-deaf “How the Poet Got Her Stripes” to pass muster without recoiling in horror at the permissiveness it lets run roughshod:
Long ago, in the faraway land
of Midwest Childhood, there lived
a curly-haired girl who stared
through living room windows
at scenes of pure dazzlement.
Snowbanks rose shoulder-high
and she tunneled through leaf piles,
entranced by musty dustiness
as rustling colors spilled over her.
Owning a Roy Rogers writing tablet
his untroubled smile, the best friend
Dale Evans lovingly beside him,
twin holsters and fringed shirts,
a glistening palomino standing ready. . . .
“Entranced by musty dustiness,” further clogged by the internal slant rhyme of “rustling colors,” is as unmusical a potlatch of syllables as has entered a poem since the Ghost Dance of 1890. That such writing could seriously invite consideration with such subject-rhymed classics as John Ashbery’s “A Portrait of Little J.A. in A Prospect of Flowers” defies credibility. Yet, even more incredibly, this mash note of Ackerman’s to her analyst limps on for another ten stanzas, piling up every lore-ridden agon of singularity and loss that one would expect to find in so self-regarding a backward look. As often in her verse, Ackerman crushes into an indiscriminate mass retrospective and irrespective, apparently seeing the one as the flip side of the other. Among the memorabilia paraded are the rainy days spent communing with her loneliness, being made to eat grass by her brother, and the indignity of being at the whim of selfish and uncaring parents, most especially her mother, who hid out in a room to which she and her brother were denied entry:
Mother worked at home,
in a nearby room as far away
as the sun, so the girl mainly played
on her own. No crybabies allowed,
mother warned, threatening,
if she cried, to leave her all alone.
Predictably, the child’s response to this neglect was a spinning of compensatory fantasies in whose flaxen recesses she could hide, there to invent heroines on whose love binges she could pork out:
In time she began devising other
kingdoms and shadow families—
thrilling treks to the Orient, spy sagas,
escape routes and asylums hidden
in plain sight-swashbuckling
fantasies where she invented a self
brave and strong and just and true,
a woman who righted wrongs,
and incited love in those she loved,
indelibly, as only children can.
Even ignoring the hackneyed sentiment and rhetoric, is there really any justification for the short lines and trundling rhythms other than to mask a lack of cogency and originality that margin-to-margin prose would have glaringly exposed? As with works that are indisputably kitsch, Ackerman’s self-projections almost never escape the limitations of their own artificiality, which are themselves the hobbled recruitments of a will to succeed unable to find traction within a dimension of the possible. The Gilbert Highet essay cited earlier offers numerous examples whereby the true art that wills being into itself can be contrasted with that pseudo-art (known as kitsch) which can only will itself into being:
The essence of this kind of literary trash is incongruity. The kitsch writer is always sincere; he really means to say something important; he has a lofty spiritual message to bring to an unawakened world, or else he has had a powerful experience which he must communicate to others. And then, he chooses the wrong form. Either he picks an elevated and difficult style which he is not skillful enough to use, or else he constructs one of his own, mounts it, and falls off. And, worse than that, he adopts the wrong attitude to the subject—like Ezra Pound from Idaho addressing New York City as a maid with no breasts, and telling it to listen so that he could immortalize it. It is like climbing Mount Everest in order to carve a picture of Popeye the Sailor on the east face. It is like the Boston Philharmonic tuning up for ten minutes, and then playing “Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot.”
While there is nothing incongruous—at least from an orthodox Freudian point of view—in wanting to mount, or be mounted by, your psychoanalyst, there is something offputting, even tacky, about devoting a whole cycle of poems to seamy gossip, the major thrust of which (if I dare use that word) involves the spilling of beans about a prolonged lapse into unprofessional conduct. And, yes, sex harassment, too—at least to the extent that any psychiatrist preying upon a defenseless patient for purposes of sexual exploitation is guilty of having breached inviolate ethical standards. Even if the practitioner in question was but a lay analyst and not (as is more likely) a member in good standing of the American Psychiatric Association (forgive the double-entendres—loaded language is not easy to avoid in these affairs), mounting a lay analyst is not in any way comparable to mounting a style. Someone—an intimate friend, perhaps—should have staged an intervention with the aim of reminding her that failure to grasp so basic a home-truth would undoubtedly wreak havoc on her psy/ops as a poet.
Numerous other versifiers, no less unfortunate in their stuffing of owls, have preceded Ackerman down that road—as Highet’s essay memorably points out:
Bad love-poetry, bad religious poetry and prose, bad novels, both autobiographical and historical-one can form a collection of kitsch simply by reading with an eye wide open. College songs bristle with it. The works of Father Divine are full of it, all the more delightful because they are usually incomprehensible. Not long ago one of the Indian mystics, Sri Ramakrishna, delighted connoisseurs by describing the Indian scriptures (in a phrase which almost sets itself to kitsch-music) as
Fried in the butter of knowledge and steeped in the honey of love.
If, like Sri Ramakrishna, I believed in reincarnation, I would lay odds (not having an analyst handy to ante up with) that some time, somewhere, Diane Ackerman and this Hindu poet have blended essences on the plane of Cosmic Kitsch. How else explain the presence of addled eggs, such as “Watercolor by Paul Klee,” that turn up, like an inversion of manna, everywhere Ackerman roosts?
Because your head is a birdcage
(Jeder Mensch hat seinen Vogel),
because your brows still ladder high in surprise,
because your eye slots accept the large coins of devotion,
because your lips calm a kite wearing a spit curl,
because your sex is a lightpull beneath the hem of an angel
striding away briskly in pinstripe pants,
because you float above an organ’s rosy music
and flaming exclamation points,
because you don’t believe me when I pretend to lie,
dance you monster to my soft song!
One could throw a dart anywhere at this anaphoric map of the misbegotten and be certain of hitting at least one slough of stylistic despond. The cut of its imagistic and tropical jib is sufficiently skewed to deck any sailmaker able poetically to distinguish a bowsprit from a yardarm. Come to think of it, to speak even glancingly of taste when confronted with something as throbbingly—no, thrillingly—grotesque as this is to risk being trapped in the same birdcage (Jeder Mensch hat seiner Wundervogel) as the loon that inspired all this twitting and twatting. Is it possible to imagine anyone who’d so much as heard about the contents of Highet’s essay (now over a half-century old) not move, on the basis of what is quoted above, to elect Ackerman Kitsch Goddess on the spot? Anything of course is possible, but this would have to be considered doubtful in the extreme. Indeed, one would like to believe (though the evidence is short in the shanks) that even Adriennne Rich, doyenne of the lobby for having the refusal of anyone’s poems for publication declared unconstitutional, might be prevailed upon to make a one-time exception for Origami Bridges.
It would be heartening to be able to find something to praise in poems like these, but, as Howard Nemerov once wondered aloud about letting student poets down easy, how do you find something done right in a poem in which everything is clearly and most awfully wrong? Take the line “because your eye slots accept large coins of devotion,” for instance. What’s wrong with it exceeds the normal definitional bounds of banality and ineptitude. To do it justice probably requires that it be treated as a solecism of not less than lunar dimensions, as a flasher of kitsch so gross as to leave the reader of serious verse not only seriously mooned, but unable for the life of him to cease ogling the rictus conspicuated before his eyes like a pair of mutant fireflies in heat. Such moonshine reflects badly not just on the stills of metaphor and imagery, but also on the distilleries of language engaged respectably in the business of alembicating bienséance, that nectar of French poetics, which for centuries has been gathered out of fear that the cochlea of sense, absent the membrane of decorum to keep its rimshots alexandrine-crisp, might slip unseen into the labyrinth of words (verse’s middle-ear), never to be heard from again. Even if playing with language on any level amounts to no more than a shell game, poetry, to rise above a mere shell of a game, must satisfy on a level higher than that of rubes too dumb to get out from behind the curve of a con-artist who alone knows where the pea went and their money is going. Though only heaven knows how even rubes would react to “because your sex is a lightpull beneath the hem of an angel / striding away briskly in pinstripe pants” other than lightpull their sex somewhere else.
From what, one asks oneself in something very like pain, could figural disfigurement of such plenitude—a warpage taffied enough to make the solecisms of Malaprop and Spooner look harmless—possibly proceed? From Walter Abish-style slasher hypostatics punctiliously equilibrating “Ardor/Awe/Atrocity”? Fuggedaboutit. In the verse-world of a Diane Ackerman ardor tempered with awe results in atrocity. “How German is it?” In Origami Bridges the German lies, as always, in the hurting, as becomes unmistakably clear when the by this time unmovable reader collides head-on with a wall of kitsch as irresistible as the first three lines of “The Ascent” prove to be:
Your building’s facial muscles
set long ago in a beautiful countenance
of iron, granite, and swirling cement.
Or if that’s not convincing enough, how about “When You Answer the Phone,” where body language, strangulated by its own conceit, neatly fits literal foot to over-literal mouth:
I welcome you into the small parlor
of my ear, rearrange a few
pillows left by convention,
and settle you down in my head . . .
Sometimes, as in “Lying on the Couch,” kitsch takes off after bull split-ass with chaps akimbo and a-flying—
A wrangler in your country
I struggle to cut truth
from life’s herd of milling fibs,
try to rope and drag candor
squirming into view.
Often enough it bolts
in a mad flailing of hooves.
Sometimes it’s content to trample the likes of Emily Dickinson, who deserves better than to be run over as muddyingly as she is in the poem “Unlawful Assembly,” and is, anyway, hardly in a position to avoid the indignity of Ackerman’s unwarranted stomping:
When the Secret Society
of Selves meets, it calls no one
to order, avows no creed,
follows no agenda, hangs guns
and masks at the door.
Members mingle uncomfortably,
play crazy-eight, snore. . . .
At still other times–viz. “The Origins of Desire”–Ackerman skips gaily over abstractions well plowed under by ’30s Auden, still in his ’20s:
After the first axe of love,
the royal palaces splinter
as the Atlantis of childhood
sinks below the memory waves,
and truth dissolves in tear-salt. . . .
Mostly, the problem with Ackerman is tonal–leaden echoes in a dearth of gold–as “A Tournament of Fears” grayly attests:
. . .
The fear of your knowing these fears
are only the beginning. What if my heart
starts foraging in alleys for scraps?
What if that wolf’s tooth, depression,
slices my throat open, pierces my sanity,
and leaves me to drown in the magma of a mood?
What if I become a tall dark stranger?
I fear you may discover fear armors me,
and the fears I fright myself with I seek. . . .
But her poetry doesn’t pan out as a credible representation of all-embracing experience, either. Kierkegaard says in Either/Or, “It is essential to conjugal love that it become historical,” which, to be sure, is an odd prerequisite for getting it on. But misreading “hysterical” for “historical” hardly improves matters; to the contrary, Ackerman’s waist-deep plashings through the Freudian swamp only bog down her resolve to get straight with sex and let the good times roll. For one thing, she finds it enormously difficult to resist the age-old Lutheran temptation (heightened by a bit of Norman O. Brown) to conflate light with lucre, no matter how filthy the light; and of course it’s only a short step from there to staring at the bankable and have the eminently beddable stare back:
I remember it was there once–
a steady blaze shining through the waves,
scattering a path of gold coins across the water,
all that bankable light:
the sun immense and inconsolable,
porridgy at heart, annealed by fire,
scarred to within a breath of perfection:
a liquid light that construed the gloom
and gave a living sumptuous quality,
an eminence to everything. . .
In fact, so hot is Ackerman to trump the ace of death with her own Queen of Raunch that not so much as an eyelash is batted when being mounted (and stuffed) by a Laurentian silliness indistinguishable from a schoolgirl crush on The Rainbow:
Mischief minds its manners when we speak.
I don’t picture you bubbling with laughter,
coming unglued, getting under my skin.
(Except now I do in spades, in stalagtites.)
But when we speak, I bridle the ample mare
of my sensuality, ignore her steamy flanks
heating my legs, her rapid breath that creates
clouds on frosty mornings. I don’t dampen
from the weather system she sometimes stirs
in my limbs, nor describe the lusty galloping,
the heat, the blur of mixing hooves and heartbeats.
Mischief minds its manners when we speak.
Obviously, satisfying the articles of membership for admittance to this poet’s sex club appears something only the most freakishly endowed could manage to do. Spades, stalagtites, rutting mares beating their hooves in heat—is it just me, or has Ackerman in fact stranded us in Diamond Lil territory? (Actually, it feels more like the tattered remains of Mae West’s Las Vegas lounge act, but we’ll let that pass as well.) As was observed earlier, getting it out, as opposed to merely having it out, with your patient is doubtless de rigueur among liberated boomers like the inspiring incubus of Origami Bridges. Still, restraint, even if only verbal, shows class; letting it all hang out in verse whose culottes are already spotted with excess gives rise to suspicions of a literary nature where only the occasional eyebrow and hackle had gone vertical before. The cycle of poems tends to cast analyst and analysand, both, in an unfavorable light; and since incubi and succubi do what they do to the unaware, sleeping and sleeping with become in Ackerman a single two-handed engine which, as even an Empson would agree, lays up some version of pastoral. But all jokes aside, there is something deeply unpleasant coursing through these poems: something redolent not of forbidden fruit untimely plucked, but of rotten fruit untimely consumed and reported upon. Worse, it is swaddled in a style that aims at the sumptuous but can only rub elbows with the smarmy, the embarrassing and the altogether laughable.
Beyond the nominal reaches of kitsch, there is no term that immediately brings to mind what authors like Ackerman, in what one can only assume is good faith, foist upon the world. In benighted, pre-feminist times, such overwrought scribbling was held to be the sign by which women writers (and their spiritual counterparts, the homosexual contingent) were immediately identifiable. The unmistakable effluence of adjectives and adverbs telegraphed their lack of punch and the non-competitiveness of a style that was all gush and no go. One of the leading neanderthals in this regard, Norman Mailer, may be observed anticipating Jimmy the Greek in the act of launching himself from a Tarpeian crock as he brings his 1959 evaluation of his rivals for the title of Great American Novelist to a sputtering conclusion:
I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem to be able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy-Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure—that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls. . . .
In fairness to Mailer—and I will go out just far enough on a limb to suggest that such an allowance is possible, even on this issue settled long ago, the other way—some women writers today, indeed some very celebrated and admired ones, continue to fit the profile offered above, just as writers like Hortense Calisher, Pearl S. Buck, and Katherine Anne Porter did in the period covered by Mailer. Take the much gushed over British writer, A. S. Byatt, for instance. Here she is, doing what she does best, pulling out all the stops in the novel, recently published, A Whistling Woman:
And across the wet turf, over the dry-stone walls, the snails slid fluently, creating an intricate net of silvery ribbons, their shells glistening with water, their dove-grey translucent bodies glistening with their own secretions, their fine horns wavering before them, testing the air, peering quietly around. Their shells were variegated and lovely, some a delicate lemon, some a deep rose, some a greenish soot-black, some striped boldly in dark spirals on buff, some with creamy spirals on rose, some with a single band of dark on gold, some like ghosts, greyish-white coiled on chalk-white . . .
Though this sample of over-the-top is offered in what is, strictly speaking, poetic prose rather than conventional verse, the poetic turn dominant almost to the point of shutting all others out in the poetry of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop can hardly be shunted aside and overlooked. Of course in Bishop, no less than in Moore, the web of intricacy is drawn tight about the particulars of moral representativeness in such a way that the pangolin, the fish, the armadillo are made to reflect what these creatures have to teach us about nature’s hold on life as an ecosphere profligate with its gems.
Needless to say, the poetry of Diane Ackerman does not breathe such rarified air. When she zeroes in on the particular—which isn’t often—the balance of nature, along with almost every other balance, is swiftly and raucously overturned. Generalities long hoarded for their traumerei are sent flying in every direction; “belief orchards bordered / by the hedgerows of consequence” ransack themselves on demand; lines “staggering up from the memory’s mines / after an hour’s heavy lifting and eurekas” find their way to the page like lemmings to the manor born. Knowing what we know about the poet’s traffickings with the psychoanalytic profession involving, on at least one occasion, the rather obvious phallic symbol of a motorcycle—
Dipping low around a turn,
pillow-close to gravel,
the engine’s heavy panting
revs my pulse as we pivot
on iron air and become pure
speed and weight: streaming metal:
swinging up through balance
and counterbalance, climbing
a steep arpeggio of gears,
until noise hits a deafening calm
that blurs everything but us.
At 60 m.p.h., the motorcycle hangs
motionless, grazing on blacktop.
Sunlight glazes the winter-bashed wheat.
The highway pours like lava. . .
—one can only speculate about how the magma might have flowed on the roads not taken. Far from being a mature woman’s dream of sexual glory limned in raging digital, “Dream Cycle” has all the turbo-rev of a Danielle Steele make-over of The Wild One for hysterectomy patients—more Harley Street than Harley-Davidson.
Is this much of Ackerman indeed the whole of Ackerman? It’s hard to conclude otherwise, unless the on-again, off-again forays into pastiche—usually of Denise Levertov, but also, with somewhat less frequency, of Elizabeth Bishop (as here in “Grace”)—
in a green glass vase
before the picture window,
as pink tremolos
whole sentences of light,
the Venetian blinds.
The sun keens itself
in a curve
of the vase,
fizzing yellow. . .
—are seen as evidence of inconsistent badness in her work. When she can drag herself away from the conceit pile, when she can immerse (other than in Velveeta fondue) beings in whose existence she doesn’t for a moment believe but cares not a whit for the need to believe in them or not, she’s up to tearing off as healthy a piece of morass as Charles Bukowski on an extended toot. She might slam it into a frilly tutu and make it toedance little-girl jettées, as in the opening lines of “Those Angels”—
Flakes of pure heat, they wing
over the countryside,
blessing all, delivering alms,
haloed in laughter,
peeling the colorful rind of nature,
bathing in starlight. . .
—but at least the verse won’t have you wishing you could cover your ears and your eyes at the same time. These tootlings, however, never cut deeper than the tinkling of a celeste, and as we know, it is not for such things that poets get called to Stockholm. Also, such poems, for all their welcoming gestures, make a depressingly familiar process even more predictable: an initial stanza, more or less lisible, being inevitably followed by one or more that are plainly risible. Finally, there is the conceit pile I mentioned, into whose tacky contents Ackerman can no more resist plunging in up to her elbows than she can keep the demon of hyperbole from befouling her confessions. “Telltale Engineering,” with its mostly three-word lines, manages to be just what its title advertises:
Wearing love’s tourniquet
I entered your ward
with severed thoughts.
Soon I became a gentle solicitor
trying my case
in the court of appeals.
Then baring the archaeology
of my need, I spoke to you
in a dialect of bones. . .
And one hardly needs a billboard to cement product to claim. Well done, such a thing of shreds and Patchens might well be credited to a Sharon Olds or an Ann Michaels. Executed poorly, ineptly, altogether kitschily, as in Origami Bridges, with its plaster casts propped every which way but tastefully, the result is unmistakably (though not, heaven knows, unerringly) Ackerman. Not feted for excellence by an admiring jury of her peers, but suffering yet another TKO in yet another of her many losing bouts with poetry. What else is there to say? With the real thing nowhere in evidence in this new collection, what jumps out from its pages are the doodlings of a Sunday versifier on busman’s holiday, filling in until the regulars return.
When not fitting short line to short line, Diane Ackerman does what most poets do today to make ends meet, and she has done it at some of the best universities in the country, including Columbia, New York and Cornell. With no fewer than 19 books to her credit, she can surely take comfort in having successfully avoided the peril most feared by academics, that of perishing, while coincidentally obeying the Horatian caveat: Long in the ars, short in the curriculum vitae.[/private]
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