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If wishes were Ferraris and supermodels accompanied them as standard equipment, Alan Dugan would not be a poet for
any season, let alone all of them. The world being as it is, however, Italian racing cars are not conjurable by
prestidigitation--though none of this matters, since his new collection of verse,
Poems Seven, reveals the kind of poet who would probably be disconsolate unless winter froze people's nuts off all year long. Which may be appropriate for a geezer too old to bang though refusing to whimper about it, but not for an American Catullus determined to grab our attention with more than just a nod toward the Escher
kvetch on which he obsesses: "This is the world, ain't it a
bitch?"--and flying up the down staircase--"Just who does this bitch think she is?"
Bad as any poet might think the world is, he or she is still beholden
to--for lack of a better phrase--the lumpen uses of poetry, which are to serve, no matter how obliquely, the brotherhood of man, and to share, no matter how thinly, the dividends of enlightenment wherever they might be found. Trite as this may sound, it has been the formula for excellence in Western poetry since Homer taught that Greeks and Trojans bleed alike and that doggedness, though it might keep us energized with thoughts of home, must make room in mental space for wiliness if we're to get there and, like Odysseus, hold on to what we have. Nature (Dugan and Romanticism-on-endless-trial, to the contrary notwithstanding) is
not just a crock; nor does love have to resemble an elimination bout between pigs over truffles as unsatisfying as a Whopper at Burger King.
Or not if we avoid playing our cards wrong. One of the useful things about poets is that they have taught us over the centuries how to hang in there when the world looks like nothing so much as a theme park for lemmings. All the same, we are entitled to ask of any
poet--even one espousing ends and means as occlusive and shrinking, respectively, as Alan Dugan's: "Just how
darkling is your thrush?" And even at the extremity of human durance, he or she must risk boring everyone with the reminder that poets have commerce not with
darkling thrushes, but with darkling thrushes. This owl of Minerva flies only where the dusk of italics falls.
Well, when it comes to ends and means, it would be hard to imagine a poet with lengthier winding sheet and more tightly shrink-wrapped tonal resources than the one now under review. Much Hardier, indeed, it would be difficult to get, Dugan's thrush out-darkling its nearest competitor to the last hamulus and barbicel. Here is the warbler in question, addressing the reader (or, more accurately, giving him the bird) from the well-worn perch of victim
I was raised in the suburbs where spite is the child of love,
and mortgagors worked out a doubted safety with their lives.
I heard them whisper of the threats implicit in an alien smile
so it's no wonder I ran away from such a patrimony
in pursuit of alien smiles, and found a foreign girl to love,
immigrant to my hate. I felt that she could help
me to come through to love beyond that class of property,
but I am what I am by birthright, she is no longer foreign.
Yet again, the Dugan medley: nothing lasts; corn brings to mind
alien (reinforcing, like the movie Signs, this bibulous cliché); and ruth, never more than a name, remains mercilessly nominal. Certainly not ever a saving grace.
Still, for many of the species (rather hastily dubbed "human") that's
"life"--or, as it's more likely to appear in Duganese, trench warfare. From the Sahl-ish vantage of the
condamnés à Mort, astringencies of mustard gas are never unsniffable in perfumes calling out "come here" and "breathe deep" to those dumb enough to believe "canary-in-the-mine" is played only by little yellow birds. Somehow, in his own game-playing, Dugan manages to conflate the cynic with the lotus-eater, the David Mamet lowlife with the fantasist of
dolce far niente. Far from being the dark familiars most poets shun, futility and tedium cling to Dugan like the wild boys of Eastcheap hang on Bardolph and Poins. Ever companionable drinking buddies, they're always on tap (like the spirits who made Georgie Yeats their channeler) to hand Prince Al metaphors for his poetry. Their barfly lubricity, buffed to radiant
schadenfreude, might seem too heady a cocktail for those too heavily invested in Mordancy.com. But then, what American poet since Anne Sexton and John Berryman has more enjoyed barking at hell's threshold while munching distractedly on towering ennui, net loss, and limitless write-off than Alan Dugan?
The problem is, poets in hock to these and other loan sharks of despair leave the critic precious little to praise or blame in what they write. Richard Howard recognized this about the Dugan case in the first years of its adjudication, allotting him but 7 or 8 pages in the 1980 edition of his Domesday Book on contemporary poetry,
Alone with America, rather than the 20 or more routinely accorded to an John Ashbery or a James Merrill. Howard was also first in parallel-tracking the importunities routinely trafficked in Dugan's verse with Thersites's venomous asides in Shakespeare's
Troilus and Cressida. One either takes to this kind of thing or one doesn't, and if one doesn't, the number of prizes and literary awards lovingly lobbed Dugan's way since the '60s might seem, well, excessive. A sense of "Give me a break" hovers over the irony with which Howard broaches the sheer ingratitude with which Dugan has received the torrent of kudos wafted him by the poetry industry. By what discrepant order of the universe, Howard is but an inch away from asking, could this nub of presumption be justified in giving fate the finger when the brunt of its fatality has remained a cocked fist in his case? Is it fair, he wonders, that so minor a poet can dun the world for sympathy while
incredibly garnering (justice being, after all, "an only natural
human invention to begin with") every prize in sight and presumably out of reach:
Poems by Alan Dugan, published in 1961 by the Yale Series of Younger Poets, was given both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1962, and gained Dugan a Fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Rome. "Encourage your essence!" the poet had some reason to adjure himself [. . .] ?
And the jurisdiction of these remarks extends only to the publication of
Alone with America's first edition, the onset of the '70s! Since then there have been (at least according to the capsule biography of Dugan gracing the dustjacket of the book under review) two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Yet nowhere in print does the
roman à fleuve of Dugan's resentment ever acknowledge the banks that have shored up its liquidity since the 1960s. As a distributary of
that conduit, "Provincetown
Totentanz" spells out just what pot of gold awaits us where the geriatric rainbow
It's obscene, the way you have a girl's voice
and flirtatious manner in a broken-down old body.
When we stand together on canes at cocktail parties
you say, Let's kiss, nobody kisses anymore,
come on, kiss me, I'll give you AIDS.
Remembering how you felt when you were fifty,
I could get a hard-on if I could get a hard-on
so I send you off to get another zombie.
Then we can dance together later, drunk,
six-legged, bones to bones, we'll knock 'em dead,
you, the ancient flapper, me, who looks like death,
as figures in the comic strip The Plague Years
for those kids who never knew what it was like to kiss
everybody at the party, regardless of the sex.
--but not how, much earlier on, its spectrum went plectrum.
Counting lines (ignoring for the moment those around our own eyes and mouth, spreading the opposite of cheer), we are nastily reminded that the house of horrors we've just toured is in fact a
sonnet and therefore--ostensibly, at least--either some sort of love poem or a love poem of sorts embalming the vicissitudes of Amor which, five hundred years of fourteeners later, we all are heir to. Which fact, given the murder of crows hosted by the sonnet during that demi-millennium, could scarcely justify an injunction against a riff on the fallout from falling prey to the equivalent of Circe's isle in our time, the Gadarene hell of Alzheimer's disease. Or so we might conclude from Dugan's reference to "the comic strip The Plague Years," a throwaway phrase which seems to suggest infirmities well beyond geriatric insurgencies like arthritis and incontinence. We
could infer that, were it not that throughout the length and breadth of
Poems Seven, memory--and its loss--is identified as the "plague" of these years. Besides, barring the ancillary downside of Alzheimer's disease-one truly
dreadful--a dimming of memory's brights would likely be seen, at least by a Dugan, as a mixed blessing perhaps, but certainly not a curse. Time
(pace Pound) may be the great destroyer, but it is also the matrix to whose enfolding arms we give up the ghosts that have plagued us
(pace Freud) through a life of crime and victimhood. When it comes
to choosing tactics for countering Time's predations, Dugan, a incurable
downsider, opts for extreme measures over measured responses very time, as "In
Memoriam: Aurelius Battaglia, and Against His Tragic Sense of Life" from
Poems Six (1989) demonstrates:
Aurelius Battaglia, the greatest loudmouth in the world,
has bored everybody to death and shouted down
everybody at cocktail parties and bars
in New York, Hollywood, London, Paris, Rome.
Now, when I meet him at Ciro's bar, he can't talk,
he's had an operation for cancer of the larynx,
he can only whisper, constantly, spitting in my ear:
he claims it's his fate, his destiny, his comeuppance,
he's being punished for the sin of hubris, of overweening pride,
he's paying out to all the people he has pissed off
by his immoral shouting domination of all conversation,
he feels proud of his own personal, ironic, and tragic fate
as the greatest loudmouth ever made silent by overuse
of his vocal chords resulting in absolutely just throat cancer. . . .
Richard Howard sees in this sort of enforced diminuendo of life's tonalities nothing less than a war against language, a renouncing of the very buttress of words to which most poets gratefully cling for sustenance and, yes, apologia.
. . . The frustration, the failure, and the self-erosion follow on the logic of Dugan's situation ("Dugan's deathward, darling: you . . . need be only formally concerned"): the act of writing poetry is, precisely, an invocation of destruction, a luring of language to its wreck, and this tormented man's
exemplary interest emerges from the record he leaves of an esthetic impoverishment and excruciation which we recognize as one source of our century's creative possibility. . . (italics the author's).
As always, Howard's insights and way of putting things are rife with pertinence and a literary smart bomb's nose for the jugular. But I'm bothered by the reference to Dugan as "this tormented man." I could perhaps accept something a little less dressy, such as "this over-elected back-bencher"
(viz. Howard's and my own comments on this above), but I balk at seeing the sobriquet
tormented applied to someone like Dugan. If elephantiasis of the ego mated to a persecution complex were all he had to answer for as a poet, there's no shortage of fast company out there for him to be down with. Kenneth Rexroth, Delmore Schwartz, Louise Glück--and they're only among the most
obviously listable--has each been pilloried at one time or another for possessing a personality weighing in as portly and talent tipping the scales as at best
petite. They got (or in the case of Glück, get) away with it because more is thought to rattle round their quivers than a single sorry-looking arrow, down at the feather and blunt at the tip. That is, their readers are willing to ignore the self-important whining, the childish look-at-me antics masquerading as profundities, and to pretend the lying sweetmeats just about everywhere are just sweetmeats lying everywhere about.
With Dugan, the transpositions aren't always easy to negotiate. He has, as they say, "issues," which lack the susceptibility to Hegelian "negation of negation" of Rexroth's guru complex (though he did, when all is said and done, orient a generation of jaded American provincials to the glories of the far East), or the supine absorbability-through-multiculturalism of Amiri Baraka's Mao-Mao chic. And while he has a letch for what satiric poets get off on, he can't quite seem to grasp what drives them to make booty calls. Thus, it is difficult to imagine readers ready to relegate any verse they feel lacks the true Horatian smirk to dumpsters like
The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery revelling in what Dugan has to offer. His laconic gibes fall (as the mindless solecism would have it) "between the cracks" of poets whose wit is too stand-up by half and
poets too crepitant in their humor not to have it backfire on them with
But Dugan is nothing if not a survivor, and so being pigeonholed by non-fans as a "clown of nihilism" has not blunted his instincts to any appreciable extent. In fact it has made them keener. Whereas a poet like A. R. Ammons might think nothing of devoting 1860 lines (divided up into 155 sections of 12 lines each, the whole sum of pearls strung on a single sentence) to a version in verse of a Calder mobile abstractly titled "Sphere: The Form of A Motion," Dugan often heads his pieces "Untitled Poem" and goes on to give a lecture on the untold bounties likely to be littering a nearby vacant lot. "Spring Song for
Symplocarpus Foetida and Me" inverts the normal order of rank and file in order to file this testimonial on the laudably rank:
Any plant that makes its own spring
is the plant for me: that's why I am for
the skunk cabbage in the New Jersey swamps.
Its hot frost-thawing far-gas
makes a hole in the snow late in February
and it comes up like a purple prick
with a hairy brown foreskin around
its base in the slush, and does it stink.
It's a great thing to see and smell on a raw day:
you can tell yourself: maybe I can make it too
for another spring, if this lousy stinkweed can do it.
Carrion comfort, perhaps; but for Dugan a way to restore perspective to a universe drunk on the self-pity of a gaggle of "confessionalist" poets who shall remain nameless. Or is the curmudgeon card resorted to rather too predictably in
Poems Seven? Bitching (mostly about the non-compliant bitches he has known), sulking and lamenting do occupy center stage in what by any count is the lion's share of this poet's utterances. Could Dugan's grizzled persona be a phoenix too frequent in this tomb of distemper where ash outcozens flame to cheat even death of its all-consuming fire? The soul of wizened worldliness, it might come on like some Albany grifter out of a William Kennedy novel, but the wait is usually not long to see it revert to that incurably Gray thing, the mute and inglorious Bukowski.
During Dugan's lengthy
career--his first collection of poems dates all the way back to 1961--he has garnered nearly every major award for excellence that an American poet can win, including the National Book Award. Wherefore, then, all the bitterness of the sort usually resulting from years of neglect, or abuse, at the hands of reviewers and critics. Dugan has had to endure almost none of this, so one is pretty much compelled to attribute the unremitting rage loosed in his poems to a nasty life from early childhood on. But even that fails to account for the spongefuls of vinegar with which so many Dugan poems are saturated. Clearly, the human condition is something he will only knuckle under to when, having made his peace with the earth, he is dragged, no longer kicking and screaming, to be laid in it. In "Gargoyle's Song for the Warming Trend," his surrogate self has no problem surrendering what for many are the comforting illusions of singularity and purpose in order to embrace the eternal recycling of spew as its gargoyle conduit, should someone want a poet to "vent" his pipedreams for him:
I am a sewer
useless to myself.
The water of this life
flows in and out of me
the wrong way. No drinks,
while I cry thirst,
no gutter jokes! I puke with it.
I'm all mouth.
Please be my house.
I'll vent your pipes and drains
and sing and roar for you
through the coming rains.
Bubbling in and through the rancors with which Dugan's rants are laced is more than a hint of that acid-tongued scurrility that identifies not only Shakespearean misfits but also square modernist pegs uncomfortably wedged into round postmodern holes. But unlike
Troilus and Cressida, the labor of asperity in Dugan's poetry is not neatly divisible into the misogynistic and the misanthropic. Kinder to the ear than Bukowski's dumpster-ragas, they're not quite of a piece with Juvenal's storied distemper or Catullus's graffiti-for-the-ages. For acidulousness to reflux sublimity rather than common heartburn it must learn to think outside the esophagus of "Us versus Them." True, there's little in Dugan of the sort of Marxist finger-pointing that poets reluctant to let the '60s die find all too ready to hand. Nor will he blight minstrelsy with gossip concerning this lay or that. But unlike verse satire's black belts, he is not above reducing the inveterately human to the merely personal, and so dyed-in-the-wool viciousness on the distaff side becomes no more exceptionable than ms.-feasance in the skein trade. When Catullus takes the tease Aufilena to task for not performing as promised, her name is not merely constellated among whoredom's expiring stars. In the poem in which she's duly flayed (rendered below in the version by Peter Whigham), we are led to focus upon womanly perfidy, not on the resentment a particular woman provoked in the poet:
Men always praise an honest whore, keen
for the price of what she proposes to do,
but to promise & break promise
frequently taking & never giving
proves the woman, Aufilena, inimical to men.
Keep either your words or your modesty intact:
or don't make the offer at all.
To take fraudulent payment proves you
worse than the tart who avariciously
prostitutes herself with every part of her body.
In "On Rape Unattempted" Dugan sees such matters differently. He can't resist tweaking the "universal," to the point of wishing to see it up to its neck in concrete:
"Be alive," they say, when I
am so alive I ache with it
so much I do not look alive
but chase that cock-teaser till
my balls so ache with her
that I fall groaning into speech
and write the one word RAPE
on subway lavatory walls
while she, receptive but to me,
dances and sings around me:
"yes and no and maybe so
and everywhere all over." Oh
my nonsense: she's the truth;
I cry the sentence of the Fool:
"I don't know what to do!"
Her left eye winks Yes,
her right eye stares No,
and her smile smiles smiles
while I write copy for
her disappearance on the air!
as "Miss Unknowable, 1964."
cri de coeur wobbles into more detail than Catullus's blue- and blackballing waul from somewhat lower down, but not without his protest's falling away to a prissy hairsbreadth from pinky-swear. As the poem airs its
casus belli, tautologies swarm as thickly as token blacks at a Republican convention. If we're less than inclined to join Dugan in prosecuting
die ewige weib, it could be because never once, throughout the whole of
Poems Seven, does he convince us that he has wrestled this temptress even to a near-Fall. While many a marriage older than seven years has the drawn look of something fought to a draw, the interlocutory pain of these stalemates should bring to book more than just numbness-by-the-numbers hopelessly stalled between verse and reverse. If it is true, as Nietzsche says, that a joke is the grave of a feeling that has died, then might it not be fitting to view a poem as the obituary of an unscratched itch? When Catullus flogged his Lesbia to a pulp, it's usually because he couldn't take her to bed. (Or if he could, it would be with more misgivings than pleasure since he would never know which of her
lovers-in absentia would be helping them access their Freudian conjugality.)
Let's face it, how many poems can there be out there, in verse memorable or unmemorable, which celebrate a poet's filling a hole in a courtesan's
livre d'affaires? (Mention of Irving Layton, a Canadian poet of Romanian extraction, would not be without point here, but I don't want to rush his insertion into the argument.) No, when an itch like this gets scratched, it's invariably "off camera." Such events not only don't get enshrined in poems, but experiences bearing upon
them--assuming they don't end-over-end into catastrophe--generally find closure in that circular file of forgetfulness where less than industrial-strength
schtups and their liquidities are laid to rest. Almost never do real sex acts give rise to woodies a masturbation fantasy is choreographed to trigger. It's always an
imaginary one, lovingly protracted into screenings of bodies licking, penetrating other bodies, culminating in what porn directors call a "money shot," bringing the stroker to an exquisitely realized (because all-too-real) point of no return.
But we've not yet exhausted the haunts of Catullus. To begin with, that imperial Rome's first rank of dyspeptics didn't just happen to be poets is a truism that can never be overstated. Posterity has seen fit to honor these
dyspeptics--apart from their undisputed literary merit--because they refused to blink even when usurpative power gone mad caught them full in its glare. (Or, no less blindingly, when a Lesbia went a-maying, leaving no forwarding address around which to skulk
à la Swann and Odette.) Their diatribes held acerbity not a vice to be subdued but a guarantor of values that ransackers of decency (and bottom feeders in the aquarium of Venus) could conceivably be shamed into. Unlike the self-lacerating humour of Shakespeare's
cynics--Mercutio and Malvolio, for instance (those honeyed dispositions sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thoughtlessness not their
own)--their wit in no way turns inward, but makes the mundum and its corrupt ways the focus of a
saeve indignatio that for dumbfounded virulence is comparable only to Swift's in his star-crossings with Stella. Contrary to popular legend, there was nothing in the least liverish about any of the great Roman poet-satirists. (Chronic indigestion does not necessarily sound an alarm for jaundice.) Their passion was real and its disposition almost never feigned. If its demeanor seems rock-hard, even crystalline at times, it was ice in the veins of the satirized that was furnishing the obduracy, not rancor as default-setting in the blood of the poet. Whereas in Dugan's verse, the excess of bile
secreted--both yellow and black--seems by comparison almost metaphysical. The febrilities of complaint, everywhere treated as normal; the outages of on-line compassion (more than a few staged for effect); detrimental delicacies laid on like
hors d'oeuvres--after even just a few pages of this the reader begins to imagine lines turning on him, as a beleaguered quarterback might when sacked a handful of times in as many plays. With a countervailing ethos never once braving the poet's firing line, it's not surprising to see flagellation becoming its own reward.
You can see where he's coming from. Dugan is one of those writers who, like Max Beerbohm, seems to have drunk from the fountain of premature
senility--indeed, to have been born old. This is why from early on he is at pains not to appear the fey old fart who pisses on his shoes and can barely get it up for carfare, let alone a joyride on the body-bus. To hear him tell it, the whores call the tune and the pussywhipped can only rise to do their bidding. And the dance is decidedly not that Kermesse painted by the elderly Breughel. It's a harrying of Toms, not a single one of whom has a dick he can call his own.
If you want to write stuff like this--I mean the real
thing, and not just Roman knockoffs strutting around as modern American
verse--why not sit at the feet of a poet, or poets, who can show you how it's done? I mean poets such as the late Irving Layton, whose collection of verse
Balls for A One-Armed Juggler (1963), remains one of poetry's best kept secrets since Juvenal hung up his sandals in triumph after the third, the sixth and the tenth of his
Satires. What punches Layton pulls as a verse satirist he later sends flying from a more fluid cocking position (and when you read enough of him you'll see just how suggestive that phrase is). One could open his
Balls for A One-Armed Juggler---or any other of his volumes of verse---and find something no less pungent and in-your-face than "On a Clothing Manufacturer":
Nowadays a malook if he's got the kale
Gets his ass kissed uncommonly clean;
All tongues are his, this fart from a latrine.
Fart? Flea in the straw of some stinking jail.
Why I, Irving Layton, know such a one
Right here in this city--a manufacturer
Of suits--whose dam, a sharp trader in whores,
Gave him his taste for holes and buttons.
Boy, you ought to see how the Directors
Sidle up to him, all smiles; how they itch
To get that first lick in, each son-of-a-bitch
Of them--cultured men, too, doctors, lawyers:
While I, if he turned to me his prickface,
Would let go on it, friends, from a high place.
Clearly a poet willing to aim, and not just pointlessly wave, his Jonson at all whom the gesture requites. And even the future was fair game for Layton's typological divination. How in "The Pillar" are we
not to see Monica Lewinsky's 15 minutes of fame Nostradamussed up in lights?
Using the moist end
of a half-smoked cigar
for proper demonstration,
a white pillar
in the crumbling graveyard,
I taught my darling
how to provoke love.
Now she cannot look
at a funeral wreath
or see a hearse
without her pants
Or in "No Shish Kebab," not wonder at literary pretentiousness and gimcrackery laid waste in a single swat:
Mayakovsky had it.
And Tuvim, the Jewish Pole.
Byron also: probably
the only English poet
who did, not forgetting
you know who.
(Form mistress, Miss Snell,
of her hero's Greek bum boy
but knows the leaves
of his thirty-sixth year
were all brown and sere.)
Keats and Shelley didn't.
And not, definitely, Milton.
A smidgen, perhaps; no more.
And in his youth only.
Caught lifting it
from the decadent French,
Thomas Stearns Eliot
resolved to go straight
into the Anglican Church, and did;
nevertheless, the pew he sat in
of spiced meats only.
Pray for him now
and at the cocktail hour.
And Maude Gonne
gave Willie Yeats
a smell of it;
and later, old age.
He was a charlatan,
pretending to smell it
when of course
he didn't, not really.
Can it be
the nullibicity of its odour,
warm and corrupt,
is what makes
certain anal professors
of English Lit.
stare all day at mirrors,
and their wives at inkblots
for the manifestations
That must be it!
Or fail to appreciate the nullibicity--to use Layton's
word--in "Friends," of that most bankrupt of modern desiderata, more drained of the milk of human kindness than perhaps any other sacred cow of our time:
S--loves you, I said.
She'd do anything to help you.
Yes, my woman replied,
She'd stand at my bedside
if I had a hysterectomy
or both legs were amputated;
and put herself into hock
if my eyes needed removal
because of cancer.
Well, tell her I'd do the same for her.
Even more daunting to his competitors, Layton could shift in more conventionally rhetorical poems like "Androgyne," from mid-gear to high with scarcely a hitch in torque or power, challenging even you know who (in a version of his own language, too) to a poetry slam on the mat of Love & Death:
Were Death a woman I should never die.
So jealous is my loving wife that I
Could look upon a passing hearse and sneer
At this dumb show of frail mortality.
For what from Death would I have then to fear?
Who might not even by her darkest guile,
Her frowned commands, her most sensual smile,
Tear me from my Love? Tell me, who'd encroach
On her whose fingers stiffen to a file,
Seeing a woman from afar approach?
No, certainly I shall live forever;
For my dear wife will be immortal too
As one whom Death, androgynous lover,
Rages against my jealousy to woo.
Only by dread compact shall we be free
For waiting Death to ravish her and me.
Such bipolar, bicameral,
biplanar wit is wholly beyond Dugan's range. When waxing satiric his verse barrels where it should glide and immures itself just at those times when it should break, lickety-split, for the light. "Androgyne" can be read as a love poem, a poem about death, or a poem in which love and death each contribute calories to a self-consuming conceit. Layton sensed that if verse was to be prickly as well as sophisticated it needed to remain mindful of its own posterity-seeking requiring him to white-out his own mortality as he sculpts his testament to Wit on the tomb of Love. Dugan, on the other hand, manages the heartless part just fine. But where mindfulness should assert itself, it's all as his piece "Another Cat Poem: A Cat Is Not a Dancer But a Hunter" concludes: "Dancer, dancer, oh you dancer."
In the Laytonesque vein, the best he can come up with are pieces like "Why There Is No Class Solidarity in America---I Read It in
The Times, Aug. 2, 1987":
An Italian in Hackensack got mad
at the Jewish lady downstairs
and hired a Polish man with three rattlesnakes
to slip them under her door and kill her,
but her cats raised such an uproar
that the cops came and caught the snakes,
the Pole, and then the Italian
because the Pole ratted on the Italian
but who ratted on the Pole? The rattlesnakes?
One of the rattlesnakes bit one of the cats
but the cat recovered. All this proves
that there is no class solidarity in America,
and that cats are better than rattlesnakes
if they come from Hackensack and are Jewish cats.
The humor of this remains at best dicey; and as for the kicker Dugan floats in the last two lines (as an inducement to
what--accepting the drift of the poem as a vicious circle?)--the less said about it the better. The date of the volume
(Poems Six) in which this poem appeared is 1987, which means that 16 years down the road from the excuses offered by Richard Howard in
Alone with America for the off-putting attitudes increasingly given air time in his poetry, he could no longer take refuge in what seemed
now--to put it mildly--a profligate mitigation. To wit: that Dugan was (all else to the side)
in extremis (it does not matter whether the extremes are
of ecstasy or of suffering--it is the last rites in either case, which he would have) who writes to save himself, and he is too honest and desperate in his solitude for the consolation of some visionary transcendence of language. At the same time, his
energy--the clenched, intense resentment of
helplessness--immeasurably surpasses the limitations of the standard formulas, the common speech. So he does not exploit the formulas, the forms, he batters against them,
as if they were his Bastille--the gruesome repetitions of incident in these poems, the ghastly paranoiac events and wisdoms which must be endured again and again are the scratchings and bangings of
claustrophobia--and the poem is the lament against its own hardening . . .
He should perhaps have paid more attention to theories of satire like Kenneth Burke's. As that polymath-never-at-a-loss-for-words nailed it, the satirist is driven to "attack in others the weakness and temptations that are really within himself"
(Attitudes toward History, 49, in case anyone's curious). Though in all fairness to the poet (if not the man), not all the verse in Poems Seven slums alongside pieces like "Love Song: Class Analysis" or, heaven help us, "Monologue for A Sixth Avenue Screamer"---
You don't know anything about city life.
Sometimes you were lucky to get out alive
from some of the places I used to go to,
and if you were lucky enough to get out alive
you were lucky you weren't killed outside the door
and if you weren't killed outside the door
you were lucky you weren't killed on the street
and if you weren't killed on the street
you were lucky you weren't killed in your apartment
because you know who you'd find in your apartment,
you you you, screaming in your toilet bowl:
You God-damned shit.
You God-damned turd.
I hate the standard of your life.
I hate the standard of your soul.
It's just that the other, better kind are rather less numerous overall. Passing for the moment on whether a poem isn't too valuable a thing to be wasted on noisome ephemera of the sort cited above, I'm reminded by this schoolyard riff of lines by a younger but more mature contemporary of Dugan's, Charles Simic, who, in the Dickinsonian mood of "Pain," wrote:
I was doing nothing in particular,
Spring was coming,
When out of the blue
I grabbed my side,
Surprised by this most awful of rewards
From which at first I wanted to
Run away and couldn't.
The pain stayed until I knew its child-like
Cruelty and innocence,
Its pettiness too.
Fear came to keep it company:
A theater director
Wearing a black cape
And offering a series of boring melodramas. . . .
In such as "Monologue for A Sixth Avenue Screamer"--fluff reeking of the high school annual,
really--it's not unfair to say that the theater director and his boring melodramas blot out nearly everything else. To couch it in the phraseology of one of the most under-appreciated poets of the last century, Roy Campbell, it's not just the "bloody horse" that's fled the scene. In such verse "the bit, the snaffle, and the curb" aren't anywhere in evidence either. Yet, another, less emphasized side of Dugan, the side that bestows some sanity on the accolades his published work has received, also deserves a hearing. I'm referring to poems like "About the Pseudo St. Dionysius" from
Poems Four (1974), in which the poet discovers an unexpected subjective correlative for his own isolation in the apocryphal fancies of a "cost-plus" visionary:
For him the cosmos was a pearl, hell
contagious at its center, and around it
a burnt-out crust of earth
cooled but not cured by wild salt water.
Then, set as seals against this ill,
in laminated spheres in turning spheres,
rose heavens of pure shifting light.
However, he despised such jewelry,
and through the nine fold veil of shells
that censored him from love, he prayed
to burst like trees from seeds,
slowly in final Spring, and reach the heart
of the empyrean self-curing oyster god
who should be everywhere beyond his search,
holding his flaw in brilliant quarantine.
In "From Heraclitus" Dugan shows he can leap tall "What am I?"'s in a single sonnet's bound:
Matter is palsy: the land heaving, water
breaking against it, the planet whirling
days in night. Even at the still point
of night I hear the jockeying for place
of each thing wrestling with itself
to be a wrestler. Is this the stress that holds
them, whirling in themselves, an ache?
If so strained to shape and aching for release,
explode to peace! But I am here poised
within this eddy, sentenced to a shape,
and have to wrestle through a gust of violence
before I sleep; so may I make or augment
all these lights at night, so as to give out
all the temporary ornaments I can to peace.
And in matters of love and
sex--as we've seen, for Dugan, most problematical--"For a Lost Girl" gets past the Big Sticky without side trips to Erewhon or the Yellow Brick Road:
The skinny girl I never loved and lost, ah how
she pressed against me, how I pressed her so
she disappeared in me, ribs meshed into ribs,
prick into cunt, toes into toes to the heels.
she turned on our pelvic bones and settled in,
locked in my bones in itching sweetness. Then
she fell asleep, smiling. That's how I lost her.
She is the one I walk around with in the way
the marathon dancers used to do it: she
asleep in me, while I dance after a prize.
So when I hear a girl's voice in my mouth
or see another's eyelids on my eyes when I'm asleep,
it's her, so I come to her in losses of wet dreams
the wrong way, outward, not inward to herself.
It is by this love that I rationalize myself
to myself, in hopes of the death of first self-love.
For all its pushy folderol, its pseudo-macho shoulder punching, Dugan's poetry---the
best of Dugan's poetry---has just enough of that "engaging shimmer" (a phrase of Evelyn Reilly's, from "Afloat," a review of John Ashbery's "conceptual art" extravaganza,
Flow Chart , appearing in Parnassus in 1993) to offset the largely "preceptual art" extravaganzas in
Poems Seven. Yes, too much of what he's written can be dismissed as guerrilla theater (the first word being spelled the other way); and no, he's not among the handful of recent American poets anyone in their right mind would want to take with them to a desert island. (Would want to
leave on a desert island---now that's a wholly different matter.) What I would like to see is a version of
Poems Seven that someone has taken a pruning shears to, leaving us with an albeit thin but essential Dugan who can hear a girl's voice in his mouth and see another's eyelid on his eyes when he's asleep. That Dugan---you know---the one who, from the giddy escarpment of the National Book Award winner pictured on the dust jacket of his New and Complete Poetry, can be imagined for once not looking down on the fanless roadshows of the hopeless, like that luckless equine-imity described in "Carla Is A Horse Lover":
Carla bought an old horse
to save it from the glue factory.
She fed it, combed it,
and rode it carefully,
but it threw her. Then it
sat on her and broke her pelvis.
Now she can't take care of it
because she lost her job
because she's in the hospital,
and people say Carla!
Sell that horse to the glue factory!
but Carla says No!
My girlfriend Simpson
will take care of it,
and Simpson does.
But it's late to be hoping Dugan might someday change his ways; the sun has already pretty much set on his roadshow with its gravelly, take-no-prisoners act: hard-ass unplugged. Still, there are, or were, moments in
Poems (1961) when the verse swaggered a little less predictably, moved from the hip, rather than squarely from the shoulder, as in the shapely "Importation of Landscapes":
The seed of an iron flower
must grow in gravel
or else make its own
if it is taken from the desert
and sunk in loam.
What a hard garden,
lovers: iron is used
in the routine of oil
but gets the bloody rust
in damp: there, the oasis,
a devotion in the sand,
prays fresh, virus to mammoth,
and supports them all,
but when the regular iron
flowers in sensuous ease
it languishes; the bloom
weeps dust. Spear-shaped,
venomous as plows were thought to be,
the leaves fall sick
and make a desert: iron's
oasis in delight
and field of strength.
Who kidnapped the feisty and promising son of W. C. Williams, A. R. Ammons and Robert Creeley, the hustler who could put away rivals like Fast Eddie while sweettalking the muse as "a guy what takes his
time?" Where did
that poet go? It's an enigma that just will not up and leave and so sticks in posterity's craw like a pill that will not go down. How could Dugan, having so smartly refused the bit, the snaffle and the curb, become the bloody horse's ass that
in 40 years of writing verse put enough un-negated negativity between covers to set even a Hegel on his ear?
As the mantra of the movie Shakespeare in
Love's entrepreneurial flop would have it: "It's a mystery."