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Mar102011

1968

The Light Around the Body

By Robert Bly

Original and Current Publisher: Harper & Row

Patrick Rosal writes:

By the mid-1960s, the world had become colossal. The possibilities for travel and communication were booming. (Leslie Ullman’s discussion of the poetry of the sixties in A Profile of Twentieth Century American Poetry is an excellent guide to the decade and a good number of the poetic trends of the time.) Television had secured a place in the American household and so images of the Vietnam War were broadcast directly into living rooms across the country. Many poets, of course, opposed the war, but how were they to respond?

In Robert Bly’s case, it was with outrage (if not rancor) toward the patriarchy and materialistic culture of the time. In The Light Around the Body, Bly’s second collection, the poet relies on the capacity of language to convey our dream lives—the terrible fantasies of the American imagination as corollary to the violence of war, mostly in reference to the conflict in Vietnam, but also to the struggle for civil rights at home. (The subject, imagery, and register are an extreme departure from his pastoral debut, Silence in the Snowy Field.)

The associative power of that dreamscape is, at times, arresting, as in “Come with me,” a poem in which the speaker makes the invitation: “Come with me into those things that have felt this despair for so long— / Those removed Chevrolet wheels that howl with a terrible loneliness.” The poem continues: “Those shredded inner tubes abandoned on the shoulders of thruways, / Black and collapsed bodies, that tried and burst, / And were left behind.”

And while the language of dreams is one of Bly’s primary lexicons, one of the fascinating recurrences in the book is the language of numbers. In “The Busy Man Speaks,” the persona confesses, “I am drawn / To the desert, to the parched places, to the landscape of zeros.” Meanwhile, in “A Dream of Suffocation,” the speaker observes, “Accountants hover over the earth like helicopters.”  There is a through-line attempt to integrate the subconscious, irrational world with the rational vocabularies of management, the market and the intellect.

There is one stunning poem, worth quoting whole, called “Counting Small-Boned Bodies”:

Let’s count the bodies over again.

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
The size of skulls,
We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
Maybe we could get
A whole year’s kill in front of us on a desk!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
We could fit
A body into a finger-ring for a keepsake forever.

The cruel irony of mathematic detachment, a landscape of skulls, the trophies of skulls, and the small keepsake of bones does its work well here. Much of the book, in fact, might be seen as a litany of violence, a way to disrupt the veneer of rational thought sanctioned in board rooms and legislative bodies.

I should say, the macabre renderings are also the failing of The Light Around the Body. Much of the litany does not cohere. Not that a book of poems should force an artificial order onto senselessness. And surely a catalog of injustices is within the ken of a politically conscious poetry, but you have to ask when the poetic catalog becomes complicit in the abstraction of violence. In this collection, it’s evident in the language.

Most of the poems in the book are accretive in nature, building a lyrical constellation one image at time—mostly through a series of declarative statements. Interestingly enough, the subjects of those declarative statements are largely plural. They are collective, which is to say, they enact a subsuming of the particular: “the executioners / Move toward Drusia”; “The bombers spread out”; “We distrust every person on earth with black hair.”

In contrast, there are astonishing moments of particularity, though much more rare: “This grandson of fishes holds inside him / A hundred thousand small black stones.” They seem missed opportunities for introspection and investigation, explorations of the conscious self in an apparently arbitrary world of violence. And I wonder if the proliferation of collective nouns, the lack of seeing through the individual and the particular, is one of the reasons why The Light Around the Body is no longer widely read.

On the other hand, despite the book’s failings, I admire the boldness of writing about the Vietnam War as the death toll climaxed. I ask myself which poets have written explicitly about the ongoing wars of the last fifty years (I distinctly remember hearing the news of the American death toll tipping 3,000 in Iraq). Some individual efforts are extant, but whole collections about war? (Of the current generation, off the top of my head, I think of Brian Turner and Elyse Fenton.)

In the end, the work of the poem is to present questions, and our work, as readers, is to present questions back to the text. So I ask the speaker(s) of Bly’s poems: What country do you come from whose violence is so familiar to mine? How did the cruelties of your era take the shape of the cruelties of your own individual heart? What were the challenges in finding a language to map the wells from which those cruelties were drawn? What would have happened had you kept asking, if you had found we all have hauled the endless atrocious draughts from those very wells—haven’t we all taken long, sweet swigs from them before we sang?

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Denise Levertov for The Sorrow Dance
  • W.S. Merwin for The Lice
  • Kenneth Rexroth for Complete Poems
  • Louis Zukofsky for A-12 

Poetry Judges that Year: Donald Hall, Harvey Shapiro, Theodore Weiss

The Year in Literature:

  • The Hard Hours by Anthony Hecht won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • William Jay Smith was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Robert Bly (1926- ) was born in La qui Parle County, MN.
  • The University of Minnesota purchased Bly’s archive in 2006. The archive contains more than 80,000 handwritten manuscripts and a journal that spans almost fifty years.
  • Bly has also translated the works of several other well known poets, including Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca. 

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Reader Comments (1)

Hey, Patrick! Great post, like the previous ones! I thought I would add to the list you began therein of poets with whole collections about the wars of the last 50 years: Tiffany Higgins's book "and Aeneas stares into her helmet" is a terrific example. It focuses on the U.S. engagement in Iraq. Anyone interested in following the thread you've identified would do well to check her book out. Disclaimer: I selected it for the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Prize a couple years ago -- which just means I loved it then and I still love it now . . .

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvie Shockley

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