William Logan’s sixth book of poems, whose binding falls apart on the second reading (shame on you, Penguin), sits atop a pile of even, well-turned work, and it’s worth recapitulating how he got here. His début, Sad-faced Men (1982), was the notebook of a close observer nudging his findings toward the figurative without much overt philosophizing. There is a lot of gray. Very few of the poems, then as now, ‘turn.’ Children, sleep, the ocean, and small animals (insects especially) absorb him. Places, even if they have proper names, float in a dream-geography, and relations to others take place in an interpersonal fog of war, where one expects to grasp only a certain amount. There is some straightforward ekphrasis. In its emotional timbre, its line, and its sense of occasion, the poetry might be compared with that of the British poet Douglas Dunn. Difficulty (1985) continues in a mood of mild decay and dislocation, but is less shy about its engagements, and repudiates some of what you might call the attraction of the unspecific (the street-portrait “New York” does not pretend to take place anywhere but the Apple.) The four- and five-beat tercets hold their cards close, but there is some sing-song and fancy: a poem considers “Flour Mites as Moral Beings” (“our philosophers have fouled themselves/with the available”). The subdued rhetoric gives out onto low and gently rolling emotional terrain. There is no sublime exasperation, no O!, and his Muse is content with the outward reality of a storm or a winter garden. When we do visit dispirited, “Skunk Hour”-like landscapes (as in “Black Harbor”), Logan does not push too hard on their Romantic implications, their correspondence with the inner life.
Sullen Weedy Lakes (1988) is introduced by Donne: “When I must shipwrack, I would do it in a Sea, where mine impotencie might have some excuse; not in a sullen weedy lake, where I could not have so much as exercise for my swimming.” Grandiosity (goes one lesson) is a function of where you happen to be shipwracked, and if his concerns appear minor, sullen, and weedy, it is an accident of circumstance. In “On the Late Murders” and “Political Song” he does begin to engage the moral world, but in a deprecating way that tends to take a back seat to craft. Auden, always an influence, becomes a presence (there’s a parody, “Haddocks’ Eyes,” of the elegy for Yeats). “To the Honourable Committee,” a poem evidently included with a fellowship application, shows Logan at his wittiest yet, having picked up Auden’s footwork (“and so within the democratic state/a poet has a democratic fate”) and is worth any number of essays on The Position of the Poet.
A ten-year gap follows. Vain Empires (1998), almost arbitrarily eclectic, should serve as a lesson to anyone who complains he’s got nothing to write about: the three and a half pages of notes tell us about (among other things) 13th century Calabrian abbots, calculating longitude at sea, killing termites with methyl bromide, guerilla organizations in Zimbabwe, a sermon Van Gogh delivered in 1876 in a chapel outside of London, and Keats’ plans to travel to India. It is as if the poet were growing younger. And yet there is in the book a compensating groundedness, a refusal to slip the intoxicants in with the reportage, that characterizes a person coming to terms with the narrowing of possibility. This is clear in the few reminiscences, or here, in “Florida Pest Control”:
The blonde unlocks
her daddy’s Firebird,
blood-red as a tropical fish.
Privilege, that old bête noire,
shakes its head in her exhaust.
Her rear lights swim
in a fantail’s glide.
The South exists,
I write my liberal friends,
with its wage slaves
and Burger King estates
in burning, frivolous pastels.
This is not a place that the exercise of imagination and technique may deliver one to, so it is reassuring to our sense of the poet’s quality that we find him here; the poetry feels robust in the variety of wells it is able to draw from. In Night Battle (1999), too, Logan is evenhanded with respect to his inspirations, and is trying, in his art as in his life (he lives in Florida and England) to appease nativist and cosmopolitan sensibilities (would that the high Modernists had had such a fence-sitter among them). Night Battle begins with a sequence called “The American Scene,” whose presiding spirits are Bishop, Plath (a little), and Frost (though I can’t tell if Logan’s over-the-top retelling of Niobe in New England is a jab at Frost or a bow). The book realizes vaguely eastward – first to England, where a more mannered style obtains:
Too short to be damned, our lives still long for souls.
The college carves lead coffins from its lawn
and cannot shift the Anglo-Saxon bones–
they rattle through the combination rooms.
The shelves are stocked in all the town museums.
His souls condensing on the freezing glass,
God drags the bass drum of His consciences
through stained-glass windows in the college walls.
and eventually, in a roundabout way, to Greece and Turkey, where it closes with the fall of Byzantium (“The Sultan, twenty-seven, son of a slave girl,//his features those of a parrot about to eat cherries.” You can spot, here and there, the figures that will inform Macbeth in Venice; he invokes the eyes of Turner, Tiepolo, and Canaletto, and in “The Late Perpendicular of England” (“perpendicular” here an architectural term) finds the quality of vision, the orientation of the antennae, that will preside in the next book:
The ancient churches,
hollow with embroidered cushions and flower funds,
still smell of the other world,
the world of damp masonry and decay.
–The phrase ‘the other world’ will prove to be a sticky one; it abbreviates a state of historical accretion and death-presence, part underworld and part Underworld, the glimpse of which happens upon one as a dream or a rare recollection does. One’s participation in it is similarly limited. It does not bend easily to any operation of language save evocation; that is, it may be referenced by putting together strings of words that produce an equivalent sensation, but not discussed in any ratiocinative way. If it is less susceptible to pathos than memory and dream, it is also less hospitable. The same poem:
Summer filters through the grayish-blue light,
distant and calm, with that dismay,
neither human nor wholly inhuman,
of Canaletto’s lost Venetian light
staining the palaces of Westminster.
Lost to the musky shades of greengages,
the ruptured Thames
was flecked with dozens of little gondolas,
dark smoked curls of Darjeeling.
This is Venice conjured in the land of Macbeth, but as it happens Macbeth has a historical excuse to be in Venice. The title refers to a version of the play James VI and I sent to the doge after the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and the expulsion of the Jesuits from Venice (1606) (the play was probably first performed in 1606). But it will be late in the book before we can make much of this. Like Macbeth, the book is ambitious; like Macbeth, it is morbid to the point of superstition; like Venice, it is beautiful to distraction, crowded, and built on tricky foundations. It begins with a sequence called “The Shorter Aeneid,” whose submerged narrative is the escape of a man and a woman from Nazi Germany (I wouldn’t have known it was Germany without the book jacket), to England, via Venice. The poems in it are all of twenty-two lines (seven tercets and a closing singleton). The sequence begins in turn with a poem that has apparently little to do with any of this, on J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Fighting Temeraire”; although it is not one of the Venice landscapes, it dates from the same period (it was first shown in 1839, and Turner was in Venice between 1835 and 1840) and depicts the Temeraire, a sailing ship, being towed by a steam tug on a calm estuary: the proud veteran of Trafalgar bound for the breaker’s yard. Turner called the painting his “darling,” and there is in it a Loganish combination of moment and indolence, of subject matter given a highly polished surface almost to spite its human interest. The book warms up in a descriptive register. A cow watches as
Florid and testy, a miniature industrialist,
the steam tug spouted its fiery plume of smoke,
and on the bank the dead trout lolled,
beyond the reach of fishermen now.
Fish, mist, cows, sunlight, the ship, and her tug: no people appear, although in the distance we see a train crossing a viaduct. Logan is tactful to let the implied figure be implied: the Temeraire, the dazzling and outmoded stuff of another age, is bound for the knacker’s yard of modernism (and of the rest of his book). The following poem, in a deft transition, cuts to a compartment of the train, where our two refugees are passing an anxious journey. A ruined city, a Troy of sorts, lies behind them, as do “the millefleurs duchies of Europe”:
From darkness to darkness, across the ragged
carte du pays, folded in your lap were headlines,
and as I slept in my tarnished suit
the decade vanished and we were strangers again.
None of the new-risen worlds had fallen.
Fallen, vanished, strangers, tarnished, ragged; also brackish, bristled, broken, twisting, gone, nothing, derelict, dirt, humpbacked, crooked, blur, swayed, burnt-out, ruined, weeds, and fall in the space of twenty-two lines. We have flown from the cheery matter-of-factness and pleasing arrangements of the painting to a vocabulary of contortion, befuddlement, and loss, which, though not yet strongly personalized, has well-defined reporters. When they arrive, in the next poem, at a station, it is explicitly London, 1945.
The gas streetlamps glowed like mercury
and over the chimneys of cobbled walks
martins like Spitfires darted through clouds
of insects. Each brick house a sooty curtain
above a sprocketed bay. Odor of smoke and bacon fat.
Odor of Eliot and the “Preludes.” (In a couple of decades, the streetlights will glow with mercury, which takes some oomph out of the simile.) The poem’s attention drifts upward, to clock towers and bird nests, as if on the watch for air raids (though Spitfires seems the wrong association, if the refugees are indeed German), and otherwise frets about the couple’s feathery, insubstantial, and precarious earthly refuge: their possessions amount to passports, paper nametags, and cardboard suitcases. The strange psychic cooperation of these upward and downward yearnings is characteristic of ‘the other world,’ through which our Aeneas is led in five poems of that title at the heart of the sequence. Aeneas reminisces:
In Venice, once, I beheld that other world,
the prewar rooms of water,
lights of decaying palazzi floating
ghostlike, eerie as fish, in the drowned canals.
The prewar rooms are “stanzas,” of course, but what to make of it? In this memory, Aeneas is outside the opera house, looking up at its windows; something momentous, possibly precipitating his decision to seek asylum, has just happened. An English diplomat will play the Sibyl of Cumae:
That black morning history was unmade elsewhere,
I stood uncertain of my path,
“staked-out,” as you say, by a lounging Englishman
beneath the hotel’s rusted sign,
a tiny compass in his cupped palm…
The compass, and the conceit that Logan’s high style is taking place in someone’s second language, are giddy touches. The Englishman is clearly a guide to the other world, but what follows is a rhetoric of illumination and admonishment, not of prophecy and persuasion. The past is elephantine, the future of no account:
“Aeneas, throw away your canvas map.
Here on the back canals, the houses lull
on limestone rotted by retreating tides,
the pleasure of palazzi on the mud,
the crossed wake of the gondolas, oaring past
to songs their fathers’ fathers sang to tourists,
though finally none are tourists here. Each night,
the singer’s little gasp and clutch of pain
float to the upper windows, like an aria–
the mud below still casts the doge’s bones.
The upward and downward impulses strive cheek-by-jowl. The faint but inexorable magnetism of this other world, of its languorous and sordid, perpetual dying, derives from a sense of dispossession from decay, which I would not have thought could be so powerful. The Sibyl continues talking for the next five poems, imparting hideous visions:
The six-toed cats can see, see the old doge
hauled on his barge, his gilded trumpets roaring,
the painted sailcloths taut against the breeze,
his sails the flayed skins of his enemies.
He judders across a bay of flailing arms
that plead for pardon in the burning waves.
He issues sober reminders of the fate of traitors, which presumably would catch the attention of our German Aeneas. The guide attempts to summon Aeneas’ parents (“The two ghosts you have asked for cannot speak”), but their affect has become inhuman, deformed or debilitated by residence among the dead. His speech builds to a crescendo wherein the claims made for the other world become extravagant: there is no chapter in the Christian story Venice has not appeared in, no drama but Venice has enacted it better. “Each church a Calvary,” the Sibyl says, “each black canal a hell.”
Venice rewrote the book of Genesis:
the waters of the Flood belch from these drains;
the dove of Noah spies, atop the ocean’s slur,
the Campanile hoisting its angel like a buoy.
The rushes of that barren islet thieve
the orphan Moses for the doge’s arms,
the acqua alta dividing at his hand
to drown the Austrian privates as they sleep.
Where Cain slays Abel on San Marco’s steps,
beneath the horses of the Apocalypse,
the blood-stained pavimenti heave and split.
There is no denying my contact high in the rush of all this stuff (though how, exactly, is a buoy hoisted?), and the sequence’s conceit is sound enough, has acquired its cultural credentials steadily enough, to bear the density of such a passage. Or so I want to think. On every other reading, it seems that the poems get away with their pretensions, like an opera star, through straight face and force of will, and underneath their achievement lie overwrought premises of perception, in which the floods are all Noah’s and the beds are all Procrustes’. There are no places, only worlds; there are no people, only gods; there are no collections, groups, or bunches, only empires. When Logan compares a janitor using a carpet cleaner to, well, God –
Breathing like a sirocco, as if the eighth day
could scour the old world clean again,
he passed his hand over the darkness of the kilim,
the hum of his machine a fatal tide.
– I see clearly that I hold two incompatible virtues dear: that of seeing the divine in the ordinary, and that of calling a spade a spade. It would be difficult to contrive a more extreme clash of these two principles, and indeed in my mind an irresistible force has met an immovable object. Here, I struggle, and struggle is worthy; I am more frustrated in the places where I languish; the sequence closes with the couple leaving Venice, or remembering their leaving Venice, and then, finally, contemplating the project of their Rome, which is a lapsed garden (in England, I gather). The arc of their story does not have consistent scope – it is either so personal as to be vague, or so impersonal as to be vague – and in the end the terms of correspondence between the “The Shorter Aeneid” and the Aeneid (to say nothing of World War II, Christianity, and Venetian history) escape me, and I don’t know how fussy to be when I overlay the template of one on the other, how diligent in my associations. Am I to be puzzled that I cannot find a Dido amid the wreckage? The fragments seem so pulverized I cannot tell the Temeraire’s figurehead from the Trojan Horse’s tail.
Domenico Tiepolo in the 1790’s executed a series of queer, enchanting drawings of a Commedia dell’arte figure named Punchinello. In “Punchinello in Chains,” Logan has written a poetic libretto for some of these hundred-odd drawings, whose narrative is, as Logan notes, “confused, incomplete, or purposely misleading.” The drawings were collected in a volume called Divertimenti per li regazzi, but it was broken up and the contents auctioned off in 1921, and their original order is a matter of speculation. They have (assigned) titles like “Punchinello is Abducted by a Centaur,” “Punchinello’s Indisposed Bride or Mistress,” and “Punchinello Receives Extreme Unction.” Punchinello, part clown and part burgher, wears a white suit, a tall, fez-like hat, and beaklike mask. He has a slight humpback and a protruding belly (the editor of the volume I found keeps comparing him to gnocchi), but Tiepolo stops short of making him a travesty of the human form. Punchinello is sympathetic without being pathetic, and the fact that he is appealing while ugly lets Tiepolo take naked delight in the human figure, in its attitudes and expressive possibilities, without coming across as an empty formalist. Similarly, Logan can let run the pantoums, villanelles, and heroic couplets. It is impossible to overdress for a costume ball.
Punchinello Is Hatched by a Turkey, fr. The Punchinello Drawings, by Domenico Tiepolo, ed. Adelheid Gealt; George Braziller, Inc., New York, 1986.
Certain facts about Punchinello’s world are not immediately clear from the poems. There is more than one Punchinello – they seem to constitute the majority of the male inhabitants – and they are, except for age, almost indistinguishable. They are neither clearly subservient nor clearly superior to their fellows. Children of Punchinellos, or children who appear to be in the care of Punchinellos, may or may not be Punchinellos. Most of the women appearing are “normal,” but a few wear the Punchinello-mask. In “Punchinello Hatched by a Turkey,” a junior Punchinello emerges, costume and all, out of a giant egg, but elsewhere the guise seems to be an acquired thing, and one gets the sense that Punchinello-hood is something between a guild and a race unto itself. Animals have a beloved presence in the drawings (Tiepolo makes no substantive distinction between an elephant and a centaur), one that appears at intervals to humble and amaze the assembled Punchinellos (there is one of a giant crab that I am surprised Logan did not tackle, given the stature of the crab elsewhere in the book). Even dogs are revered, and Tiepolo seems bored only when he has to draw something inanimate, like a stack of tureens.
Counterintuitively, where the breadth and intensity of material in “The Shorter Aeneid” was handled quite naturally by one kind of line (a dense but languorous one that, averaged over many stanzas, is pentametric), the limited enactments of single drawings get a more various treatment. In a sonnet, we watch “Punchinello Introduced to Society by the Ostrich”:
What a fine sergeant it would make, feathers
beating against the legions of Napoleon,
whose storm clouds rise above the Alps. Venice,
what raises Venice if the mainland falls?
The ostrich prances, and castrati fall
in love or down the steps of our new play.
Ice-blind canals have primed old cannonballs.
It would be a handsome enough poem to be sensitive to fancy (a dancing ostrich!) and historically aware. Here, though, the two wits are not only integrated, but mutually aggrandizing, and the poem extends the letter of the drawing, as it were, in the spirit of the drawings. This spirit is elsewhere momentarily betrayed by a couple of anachronisms (Ponzi schemes, egos and ids), but Logan succeeds in finding the interiority of the artwork in a way that has escaped him in previous books (and even as it did when approaching “The Fighting Temeraire”). Here he attends Punchinello’s wedding:
In churches raised from the dust of ancient Rome,
each wooden Christ hangs gilded like a whore
and casts its painted eyes along the walls’
forgotten booty from forgotten war,
while Punchinello in his beak-nosed mask
faces the future with a rueful grin.
He knows that every mongrel has his day
and every Christian sacrament its sin.
Punchinello is a cad, but part of you warms to him, and where the epithet “poor Punchinello” initially sounds sarcastic, by the time Punch is, over several poems, rounded up, tried, sentenced –
The magistrates intoned a weary hour
about the state’s religious gift of power,
the obligation of blind law to rule
to wayward king, the gondolier, the fool,
Fate’s disenchantments and the Alpine snows,
the Lord’s forgiveness and the doge’s toes.
They criticized the old, rebuked the young,
then sentenced Punchinello to be hung.
– jailed, and hanged, you may be surprised to find your crocodile tears turn real. I have no clear explanation of why the contrived sufferings of a dramatic patsy should be as affecting as they are, but part of the answer is surely Logan’s stance with respect to the drawings. He has not written descriptions of the drawings’ contents, nor has he tried to imagine the circumstances of their composition, nor has he tried to stand outside, above, or behind the drawings to make inferences about Tiepolo’s psychology. He has taken their delight as a given, a first principle, and thrown himself into the verbal translation of it. In Czeslaw Milosz’s book Provinces, a series of painting-poems (including one about a Turner) is introduced with an anecdote of Baudelaire’s: Balzac, he says, once approached a painting of a winter landscape, only to comment, “How beautiful it is! But what do they do in that hut? What do they think about, what are their worries? Did they have a good harvest? Certainly they have payments coming due?” It seems to Baudelaire “that he gave us, with his adorable naïveté, an excellent lesson in criticism. I often will appraise a painting uniquely by the sum of ideas or reveries which it brings to my mind.” Even when the material has a goofy element, such an appraisal dignifies the appraiser and the appraised.
In “Venetian Hours,” the only section of Macbeth in Venice that is not a sequence, the major conceits are relaxed, and we get the standalone poems of a poet afoot among all the squawking birds, accreted culture, political striving, and visual splendor that makes Venice Venice. There is a certain canonization of insects and sea-creatures. The sublimated personality of Logan’s work is usually an asset, but here the poems founder somewhat under the majesty and exoticism of the setting and their own prejudice against sensuous pleasure. Doesn’t the curator smile at him? Isn’t the gelato good? We never hear. There are strong gestures here (“Outside, rain swept the campo like molten tin”) and, though it is seldom elicited, the poet’s empathy can give human affect to the merely exquisite. He is examining the seafood in a restaurant window when he sees one of the crabs is alive and trying to make a break for it. How to wish it well?
Which saint, O saints, watches over the saintly crab?
The man of forks and spears, the man of arrows?
In the Ca’ d’Oro, the stiffened Sebastian takes
each arrow through his flesh like a skewer.
He wears a little napkin around his middle.
Saint, watch over the fragile boat of the runaway crab.
Let him steal his way back to the green lagoon,
go floating down the Grand Canal on his own motoscafo.
The expression of a wish (that the crab escape) is atypical of these poems – most are not so presumptive – and the tension and the emotional stakes here, even in their semiseriousness, expose a static quality in the neighboring poems. It is the difference, I suppose, between a Punchinello drawing and a Turner landscape.
The tyranny of material, at issue throughout the book, becomes most intense here, and the mixed feelings arise that often do when an accomplished writer is shipwracked, as it were, in a sea: big wars, famous lives, Venice. A kind of inverse high-wire act can develop, as the writer tries to keep what is naturally interesting from overwhelming him. It is hard to imagine a book entitled Macbeth in Venice being boring in the conventional sense; but on the other hand it is easy to imagine it succumbing to a Euro-kitsch syndrome of borrowed profundity and paperback romance tableaus. The transaction taking place when a writer invokes material that is the accepted currency of sophistication in his social milieu is complex, and a reader must be on his toes to be sure the invocations of place and event are not empty graspings at significance, which is ultimately made and not appropriated. Encountering a poem – suite of poems – set in Venice makes me automatically leery that the author is propitiating an idea of Europe as instant poetry (just add proper nouns). Art can still emerge – Macbeth certainly propitiates the Scottish monarch for whom it was written – but it is handicapped. Logan skates, and it is because of the occasional eccentricities, like “The Saint and the Crab,” where his consciousness is not kneeling at an altar, muttering, Que bella!
In the last poem of the section, “Leaving Venice,” the intense private constructions of the city evaporate in the harsh light of dawn, and are replaced with the superficialities of commerce and getting around. Some policemen are ogling some mannequins,
and Venice at this lingering hour
is caught beneath Old World clichés.
We pause below a crumbling tower.
The sky glows like red lingerie
or like a modest local saint.
Above us, large white bras are hung
across the shutters’ peeling paint
like warnings in the mother tongue.
Quick! We have to catch our boat!
It lounges at the pier, all sooty-eyed,
as a line of sleepy tourists floats
aboard at low tide.
It is satisfying to see those Old World clichés given a nod, even if they deserved more. The dropped foot in “aboard at low tide” sounds like the Auden of “As I Walked Out One Evening,” though Auden would not have necessarily have correlated doggerel with fatigue or degeneracy. We have, at any rate, not really left Venice yet, as the last section of the book is given over to the “Macbeth in Venice” sequence itself, which is to the Scottish Play what Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror” is to The Tempest (though thankfully there is no equivalent of “Caliban to the Audience”). Logan notes that James VI and I sent an emended version of the play to the doge “[f]or reasons of state diplomacy.” The Jesuits had already been expelled, so presumably James was issuing a veiled threat to ensure the doge’s continued cooperation against the order (and perhaps preen a little). Who speaks, here? The curtain does – in the stanzas of “To Autumn,” no less (ababcdecdde). Lady Macbeth’s mirror, the murderers’ horses, the porters, cooks, and guards all do; Macbeth’s daughter, Birnam Wood, and Macbeth himself each have a piece. Chiding those in the audience who are prepared to view the proceedings as mere entertainment or metaphor, the witches get in some zingers:
Which of you, silent as the world convicts
some poor dull sap of some real sinner’s crime,
would raise a hand if resurrected Christ
were crucified before the shopping mall?
Three robbers died that dusk at Calvary.
Though plays must end, kind evening resurrects
the dying villain from the matinée–
the lovers sip their poison once again;
the husband wads the fatal handkerchief.
The fact that you do not act, are not expected to act, does not make a neutered fiction of the spectacle. “Macbeth’s Daughter” speaks a villanelle, and “Macbeth’s Daughter Drowned” is the same villanelle with the lines in reverse order. The stunt leads to some brittle imagery–
A broken mirror is the soul’s veneer,
a city built upon the mirrored sea.
I wander through its drowning atmosphere.
– how could it not? – and her psychic plight is clouded where it ought to be clarified. But the problem is larger than this, in that (much as in “The Shorter Aeneid”), I do not know how or whether to map the literary shapes of the sequence onto Macbeth, Venice, Macbeth in Venice, or Macbeth in Venice. The witches, with their casual mention of shopping malls, television, and Visa cards, are plainly not addressing the doge en costume, yet the sequence’s epilogue, a letter from James to the doge presenting him with the play, is a straightforward period piece with a cool, Duke-of-Ferrara menace. So if Logan is capturing the spirit of James’ alterations to the play, there is an additional level of idiomatic indirection in the game. The monologues express a Venetian landscape (“Palazzo Dunsinane”), but one less overbearing and determinative than has appeared up to now – Venice is treated in this section as settings often are in Shakespeare’s plays, that is, as brusquely honored conveniences. There are songs in the sequence, though, that find a wry, no-bullshit voice with no responsibility to imply anything, and the groundling in me appreciates the comic relief. A tippling porter makes toast after toast to true love:
The shepherd eats the sheep,
but true love makes him weep
from Lent to Michaelmas
or when he’s fast asleep.
True love is middle-class.
Let’s raise an empty glass.
And the castle guards have a pool going on the Queen’s sleepwalking:
More logical than most
murdered passing ghosts,
she’ll spout philosophy
at odds of 8–3.
If murder’s sweet intent
requires the grace of Lent,
the odds are 5–6
she’ll clutch her crucifix.
When battles are discreet,
a soldier gets cold feet;
but, though he can’t afford
the dull or rusty sword,
he’d rather pick his nose
than pick the summer rose.
The next-to-last word is had by “Macbeth the Rationalist,” whose Machiavellian exposition comes in Dantean terza rima:
Save us from gods who love themselves alone,
who need the burr of beatific love
bleated by angels in pale baritone
or cooed each morning by the morning dove.
Our fallen world loves malice on the air;
the cold assassin wears a velvet glove
to mop his brow, or part his victim’s hair.
A king buys murder on the installment plan
to stab a rival, suffocate an heir,
or justify the ways of God to man
by firm example.
In this case, at least, I can feel the trickle of sweat running down the doge’s back.
“Rationalist” is a suggestive term. Logan has described Pound as “a rationalist with a mystic tinge,” and the phrase works as well on Logan himself: his empirical cast of mind is given over, in Macbeth in Venice, to the contemplation of morbid visions (if the book were a teenager, it would be wearing a Bauhaus t-shirt). He sees with a clear, Euclidean eye, but takes greatest pleasure when able to conjure something that is, in one sense or another, not of this earth. In one of his essays, Logan picks up a variation on one of Auden’s dichotomies, and goes about classifying poets as “Calibans” or “Ariels,” according to whether their work is ruled by emotion or by intellect. Logan is pretty squarely an Ariel, but many of the effects he is shooting for are in ‘the other world,’ the realm of Caliban. As a rationalist beholding the mentally subverting enchantments of Venice, his challenge has been to reproduce that sense of transport using the nuts and bolts of cool perception and an effort of intelligence and will; this is another sense, then, in which “Macbeth” is in “Venice.”
The subtle mismatch of his gift and his intentions has been present since Sad-faced Men, and has occasioned, as in this book, some tours de force. It also leaves peas under the mattress. It is as if, having committed himself to the rhetoric of the hypnotist and the mental habits of the detective, he cannot avoid certain habits of syntax. Critics are fond of making sententious statements like ‘Content is form,’ but here is one case where the mechanism of such a claim is transparent. A poetry of augmented observation is at some level giving qualities to things, and can only go on for so long before showing the syntactical impoverishment of adjective and noun, adjective and noun. When the pairs pile up, they begin to erode their intended reverie:
…on midnight’s dreaming skin, the sugary poisons
in the draining stones, where cold acids tear…
…dappling the mottled carp in kept ponds.
…pale ladies of the stairs
loll in vain commerce for vague gentlemen
whose battered passions come at bargain prices.
There, the bloated faces of drowned politicians…
…lest we eat in his hollow shell his captive meat.
Their hearty dance woke the antique silence.
Take from the grieving map its stormy front…
…now the drowned captain of the sunken fleet…
of moonless missions for the murdered doge.
There is also a predilection for a comma-spliced each construction, as in “windows faceted like shattered mirrors, each living beam a peaceful remonstrance” – which has always sounded to me like Poetese. No one of them offends particularly, but cumulatively they form an inhibitive gristle.
There are corollaries to this in phanopoeia and logopoeia, where, again, the tightness of Logan’s perception sets up expectations for sense that one would let slide in a sloppier poet. He leans pretty hard on his figures (I am surprised he has been so unkind to Crane in his criticism). A candle is “burning like a misanthrope.” A country is “wasp-waisted.” Salt eats not their pores, but “the crevices of their pores.” Architecture consoles not the air, but “the genuflection of the air.” He asks not what shelters the exile, but “What shelters the arms of exile.” When one encounters
Where once the loggias were slipped with gold,
the praise of Ruskin fixed the modern line,
wringing his brushes on his laundered shirt.
the standard grammar in the rest of the poem wags its finger at the dangling participle.
In his essay “Condition of the Individual Talent” Logan wrote that “no poetry can aspire to permanence without making our previous understandings of tradition inadequate.” I buy this, though the idea seems of a feather with our concepts of progress in economics and morality, which can be noxious. But, taking the statement as a given, it is natural to ask if Macbeth in Venice has carried its mission this far. The book sits squarely on the pilings of high culture, and I only intermittently discern – as if glimpsing that other world – the ways in which it acts on them rather than depending on them. Does the sequence “Macbeth in Venice” really transcend “The Sea and the Mirror” to such an extent as to make our previous understandings of tradition inadequate? In another prose piece, on W. D. Snodgrass, Logan wrote that Snodgrass embodied “the condition of introspection without suffering.” You could say something similar of Macbeth in Venice, and maybe of Logan’s work in general: that his voice has skirted the entanglements, humiliations, and buffoonery of published pain, and that, as a result, he struggles to give moral consequence to his gift. The stakes are higher than the poetry is loud. Macbeth in Venice is his most programmatic attempt yet to write himself out of this condition, and seems stronger to me, impersonal and high-flown as it is, on the terms of its author’s development than on those of its relationship to tradition.
Logan has written perceptively about the later development of poets, as they relax the distinction between the moi profond and the public act (and both suffer in the process). If foresight is any help at all, he will clear this obstacle. He has also written perceptively of other poets’ relationship to native soil (Heaney’s and Walcott’s, among others) and of the parameters of moral obligation (Hill); neither of these, though, has interested his own poetry as intensely as Venice has, and when they are approached, these themes seem treated with a tact that borders on formality. He has Hill’s chops, but not his anger or guilt, and has heretofore had a very attenuated interest in public language, civil society, and the messier, demotic side of his inheritance (though people compare him to Hill, I can’t imagine him writing an entire book, as Hill has, about the difficulties and frustrations of raising one’s voice in a polis of compromised language and historical unconsciousness). It would be fascinating to see him in the mode of an allusive, ambitious William Meredith – to see him come back from Europe refreshed, and, having internalized the modernist aestheticism (and athleticism) of Hill and Eliot, do as his flour mite philosophers and ‘foul himself with the available.’ He’s made hay of a drizzle in Venice. Now what can he do with a hard rain in Hartford?