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The Unadorned Life: Andrew Frisardi on John Haines
Posted By Andrew Frisardi On May 6, 2008 @ 12:13 pm In Reviews | No Comments
The eye becomes concentric through contact with nature. – Paul Cézanne
John Haines is well known as a writer who has communicated not only his rare experience of homesteading in Alaska, but also a view of modern society as seen from the perspective he gained there. Ever since I discovered Haines’s poetry in an anthology in the late 1980s, I have returned to it many times for its sane values and contemplative intensity. Recently I read for the first time his prose memoir The Stars, the Snow, the Fire (more memoir pieces are in the earlier Living off the Country). I was taken with his economical, clear depictions of hunting, trapping, building, and surviving in Alaska, where he lived on and off for twenty-five years, of the land and the plants and animals around him, about which he seems to know every feature, habit, and use. What a fascinating, enviable life he led at the Richardson homestead, north of Fairbanks.
One sentence in this book that stood out for me was, “In this wilderness life I have found a way to touch the world once more.” When we read Haines, we have no doubt this is true. His knowledge of the natural world is utterly realistic, detailed, and practical, even as it is also the stuff of poetic imagination. In Haines’s writing, naturalism blends with an appreciation of nature as the signature of all things, a language of both everyday and vast impersonal realities. The point of contact between man and world is especially palpable in Haines’s prose, where the world also touches the reader through the transparent medium the poet has crafted. There is a speaker, but he only speaks when necessary or useful, and he is also a good listener—not often a listener to people, but, important as well, a listener to the rhythms of the wilderness. His words are marked by the deep stamp of the creatures and things he has lived with so closely.
[private]Haines could have gone to Alaska and homesteaded without writing about it. Would he then have felt as vividly that he had touched the world? Or was the practice of writing necessary to his arriving at this experience? Only he, if anyone, could answer that question, but it is clear that Haines, like every person with a strong drive to master the art of poetry, felt a need, conscious or unconscious, not just to survive in the wilderness, but to create himself. There is a wilderness of the mind, as well, and Haines has explored that as a kind of microcosm of the Alaskan subarctic. His life in Alaska gave him images for the expansive, sometimes fecund and sometimes desolate spaces of the dreaming mind. As his readers know, Haines’s later poetry—especially from the late 1970s on—views the world of human society and culture in terms of that imaginal wilderness.
I have looked back across
the waste of numerals—
each tortured geometry
of township and lot—
to the round and roadless vista,
to the wind-furrow
in the forest track
when I had myself entire.
(“In the Forest Without Leaves”)
Haines’s literary technique and style also reflects the direct, unadorned life of the homesteader: brief lyrics, or sequences composed of brief lyrics, and the lyrics themselves composed of two- to four-beat lines, syntactically simple, unflinchingly sober and still. It is the poetic equivalent of the moccasins or dog harnesses that Haines put together with strips of moose hide. They are the verses of a taciturn man, living in a country where there are few women. It’s a harsh view in many ways, a secular asceticism, and the language of Haines’s poetry is pared down, layer by layer and veil by veil, to the essentials. It is a voice that knows the bare necessities of life with brutal directness, and does not want to waste words, for fear they will only ring hollow.
How is it that such a practice could help a man to touch the world? A key to this is that Haines simply paid attention. The naturalistic detail in his writing is always intimate and clear, seen with an alert and appreciative stillness of mind. His language proceeds slowly, mimicking—or rather, embodying—the state of contemplation. His compressed style evokes something akin to the practice of meditation, whereby thoughts and sensations are made to pass through a narrowed sluice of calm attention. Japanese literary tradition, going back at least to the twelfth century, refers to the hon’i of a poetic subject, which is its essence or primordial substance. In order to reveal hon’i, the poet had to focus his attention, not on superficial aspects of the poetic topic, but on the essence of the topic as it lay within his own mind. The poet had to become one with his subject in order to disclose its poetic essence. Clearly the conditions of contemporary society make it very hard indeed for anyone to find such crystalline, receptive focus. Haines found it not only by leaving all the distractions behind but by finding language that corresponded to his discovery. When he says that he finally touched the world, he is also saying, since he is a poet, that he has found something to say about its essence, and that this essence is a passage into his own essential self. Self and world are no longer separate in the state of contemplation.
A moment’s reflection tells us that even contemplation speaks many languages. We have only to think of Thoreau, or Hopkins, or William Everson, to see how various oneness can be, represented in imagery, phrasing, and rhythm in accordance with the author’s temperament. (I remember hearing a story about the Amherst hermit-poet Robert Francis, who had gone to hear Robert Bly give a reading shortly after the publication of Silence in the Snowy Fields. “I never knew silence could be so loud,” said Francis.) Haines’s experience of nature was more savage, more tied to survival, than it was for any of the writers named above, and the imagination he discovered in it is correspondingly severe in its beauty. One of his best poems, “Meditation on a Skull Carved in Crystal,” which was collected in New Poems (1990), approaches a stillness that verges on nothingness, much in the tradition of the mystical via negativa:
Intelligence is what we find,
gazing into rock as into water
at the same depth shining.
Mirror, glazed forehead of snow.
Holes for its eyes, to see
what the dead see dying:
a grain of ice in the stellar
by a sun, distant within.
While a writer like Hopkins (in his journals and his poetry) used the surface qualities of language to create excitement and motion, like electromagnetic fields, each with their own quality and texture, Haines, on the other hand, aims for transparency, the limpid surface, a near-stillness of perception.
One could say that Haines, upon returning to the mainland United States in 1969, eventually found his vocation as a prophet—or spokesman for a forgotten, fundamental truth—of the wilderness as ever-present backdrop and foundation of culture. As Dana Gioia wrote in his introduction to New Poems, “The special splendor of Haines’s poetry is that it honors experience without cheating literature. He mastered the craft of poetry without forgetting that art both originates and returns to life.” In Haines’s more recent poems, such as the following lines from the final poem in his collected poems, The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer, there are occasional echoes of King James Bible language (probably coming to Haines via classical English poets, since he didn’t read the Bible when young):
Divided is the man of hidden
purpose, and evil his redemption.
Harness the wind and drive the water,
you that govern,
who yoke and stride the world . . .
Such traces of English prophetic language and other landmarks of the Western tradition are pervasive in Haines’s later work. There is something profoundly Western about Haines’s position, however much the calm surface of his language derives in part from his reading of Pound’s and Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poetry. One often senses an ornery intellectual skepticism, more akin to Diogenes the Cynic (a persona Haines has used explicitly for some recent poems) than to Li Po. George Santayana in his study Three Philosophical Poets (a book, incidentally, that Haines admires a great deal) sketches the basic trends of the Western philosophical tradition as they are exemplified by three great poets. Santayana characterizes Lucretius as the poet of naturalism; Dante as the poet of supernaturalism; and Goethe (in relation to Faust) as the quintessential Romantic poet of “mystical faith in will and action.” This description of Goethe clearly fits Haines’s forging of a life in the wilderness and the courage required to heed such a calling—as in fact it describes the American pioneering ideal in general. One of Haines’s achievements has been to show us in his life and writings that “the American dream” is actually something quite more profound than is usually meant by that phrase.
The other two traditions, of which Lucretius and Dante are the supreme poetic exemplars, may also shed some light on the worldview implicit in Haines’s writing. Lucretius wrote De rerum natura partly to present nature shorn of its anthropomorphism or views of man as somehow special within the natural scheme of things. We too will perish, like all things natural, says Lucretius; our bodies come from nature and will decay back into it. Anyone who has read Haines knows that he has much to say along these lines. How could he not, with his daily experiences of death, killing, and the brutal necessities of survival? “A drowsy, half-wakeful menace waits for us in the quietness of the world,” he writes in The Stars, the Snow, the Fire. “I was suddenly aware of something that did not care if I lived.” The critic Carolyn Allen’s excellent essay “Death and Dreams in John Haines’s Winter News” analyzes Haines’s use of images of whiteness and snow to evoke an imagination of death. She is right: death is everywhere in Haines’s poetry. Even in the later poems, the reader constantly encounters an urge to see life, phenomena, and the artifacts of social life through to their conclusion in demise, death, silence, and entropy. Like Lucretius, Haines is profoundly aware of nature’s engulfing impersonality. The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer and The Stars, the Snow, the Fire both finish with images of dissolution and vast darkness.
Leave to me
this one sustaining solace—
my night that has more night
The man turns away, pulling his parka hood around him. He walks again on the road in the direction he came from, into the wind, toward Tenderfoot Hill. He disappears in the darkness. Snow closes around him, filling his tracks as he goes.
(“Richardson: The Dream”)
But the very restlessness for and impetus toward emptiness and night in Haines betrays his affinity also with the spiritual view that Santayana examines in Dante. A fundamental characteristic of that view, Santayana says, is that “its sources are in the solitude of the spirit and in the disparity, or the opposition, between what the spirit feels it is fitted to do, and what, in this world, it is condemned to waste itself upon.” The image of death that we find in Haines is related to a spirituality that aims to tear away the nonessential, knowing it won’t last—rending the veils, seeking all or nothing. It is the passion to reach the life that “ordinary” life so easily forgets or glosses over. The classical-materialist view represented by Lucretius, on the other hand, comes up with a different conclusion, based on the same fundamental observation of nature’s sublime disregard for individual existence. Seeing the eventual dissolution of all creatures and things, that view prescribes that our brief span of life should be lived in sensual fullness and respect for the great forces of nature.
One way to see Haines’s writing, then, is that it inhabits a space between spiritual faith or longing and a materialism learned firsthand in the most basic of material circumstances. Haines does not write explicitly from any one religious or cosmological tradition, although he did once consider the Catholic priesthood and it is clear that religiosity in a broad sense informs most of what he writes. He makes frequent, eclectic use of myths and fables from a variety of sources. Haines feels a special kinship with the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, whose autobiography and essays he introduced for recent reissues by Rowan Tree Press and Graywolf Press. Muir’s imagination, like Haines’s, was deeply informed by the natural world he knew and loved—for Muir, the seascape of the Orkneys and the farm life of his family and community. And although Muir wrote explicitly from a Christian and Platonic viewpoint, while Haines has not, Haines as much as Muir has written out of a need to create a fable to go with the story of his life (the first version of Muir’s autobiography, which Rowan Tree Press reissued in 1987, was called The Story and the Fable). The “fable” is our literal life seen from the side of the dreaming or visionary mind; in it and through it, the particulars of our lives tell a universal story. For Haines, “touching the world” was made possible by living as he did in the wilderness and finding a way to write the fable of that life.
I understand the story of Gilgamesh,
of Enkidu, who called the wind by name,
who drank at the pool of silence,
kneeling in the sunburnt shallows
with all four-footed creatures.
The above lines come from a poem called “The Legend,” in Haines’s late collection of poetry, For the Century’s End (2001). One of Haines’s most powerful poems, it tells of a mythical alienation from nature parallel to the expulsion from Eden, a favorite topic of Edwin Muir. For both writers, the theme of paradise found and lost is the essence of their “fables.”
Haines’s lecture “The Theme of Loss, of Sorrow and Redemption in Gilgamesh,” given in the late 1990s, discusses his intimate relationship with the Gilgamesh story. As he says at the start of that lecture, the theme of this ancient story is “transgression against the forest gods, of punishment, and eventual reconciliation”—the very theme that has dominated Haines’s writing. Haines’s work communicates not only the touch of the world as he came to know it in his life in the wilderness, but also the loss of that touch, the exile from unity. One of the things that makes Haines, like Muir, an unusual writer for our time, is that he profoundly experienced this unity or touch of the world; it was one of the formative experiences of his life. It is an experience which many of us need to be reminded is possible, since it is so difficult to find in the context of the contemporary world. A major source of our collective unrest—the “distracted from distraction by distraction” that Eliot wrote about—is that we often forget that there is any state of mind or nature to be in exile from; the state of alienation and division are taken as the inevitable, one-sided norm. A writer like Haines shows us otherwise:
It was far, far back in time, that twilight country where men sometimes lose their way, become as trees confused in the shapes of snow. But I was at home there, my mind bent away from humanity, to learn to think a little like that thing I was hunting.
And from the Gilgamesh poem, the lines immediately following the verses quoted above:
I know the name of that exile,
the form that it takes within us:
the parting and breaking of things,
the distance and anguish.
As Haines expresses this exile in his lecture on the Gilgamesh epic: “In leaving that wilderness life behind, as I did at the end of the 1960s, I could not have defined my reasons for doing so. I knew that a certain life in a loved place had mysteriously come to an end.” That he found a way to write about his experience of paradise found and paradise lost, touch and isolation, unity and division, is a singular and important contribution to a world sorely in need of it.[/private]
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