POETRY SEPTEMBER 24, 2010
by Amy Clampitt
Knopf, 352 pp., $19.95
Influenced by Derrida’s early work in deconstruction and the Yale School’s integration of that approach into their prominent program of literary studies, many of the poets active from the late 1960s through the 1980s (perhaps most explicitly the Language poets) worked to rearrange themselves around their seemingly self-disarranging, even deranged, medium. Language was forced to materialize and undress to the bare bones, to expose its impossible origins and contradictions. The trouble was that the poem with deconstruction as its project and its mode more often than not failed as a poem: utterance was drowned out by arcane storming, austerity faded into sterility, cognitive power was transmogrified into alienating difficulty. If meaning is feeling, as the Stevens of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” would perhaps argue, then too many of these unfeeling unfelt poems were smart, but not meaningfully so: merely smart.
Then, in 1983, Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher appeared, and something new was felt. Unlike the barren writing of so many of her contemporaries, Clampitt’s poetry fertilizes and increases upon itself. As we drink in its rich heady diction and its precise figuration, a Clampitt poem drinks us in; and as our consciousness is diffused by means of vascular, often gnarled syntax into the enacted consciousness of the poem, the poem itself grows, meditating through association on that growth until Clampitt’s forms gently bow with the weight of their own fruits back into a pregnant silence. And so we grow.
Sure, every now and then Clampitt’s diction soars so high as to melt in the sun, or her line breaks strike us as slovenly, or her tireless associations become tiring—but all this comes with the territory of making something new, and her few failures are justified by her many successes. It is what Clampitt would call “a luscious mess.” This is a mess that abounds with trees and rocks and slime, predatory birds, rivers, routes, highways and ever-roving cars, Greek ruins and heroes and gods, musicians, poets, even Cold Warriors. This is a mess of places and the things that place those places. Clampitt has been rightly described as a poet of place, but she prefers to think of herself as a “poet of displacement.” Her longing to expand, to see and feel new things, drives her to seek new places; and in this way the restlessly curious poet self-displaces. She wanders from Beethoven’s concert hall to Jerusalem to Keats’s Europe to Ancient Greece to Kansas and all of the “unmapped sources” in between, absorbing like a sponge beauty and confusion alike, and in her capacity as a visionary she transfigures the experienced place into a place steeped in poetry.
“Fog,” first published in The Kingfisher, is an impeccable example of this self-displacement.
opens up rooms, a showcase
for the hueless moonflower
corolla, as Georgia
O’Keeffe might have seen it,
of foghorns; the nodding
campanula of bell buoys;
the ticking, linear
filigree of bird voices.
Here, the “opacity” of some fog that earlier “comes over everything,/ as though proving color and contour/ alike dispensable” awakens in Clampitt’s painterly mind the conception of the thing perceived as a doorway to the place wherein a thing is not solely what it is but rather what it suggests—that is, the place of associative figuration. And as some vague, quasi-abstract “opacity” opens Clampitt’s eye to the world in a grain of sand, it also phonetically suggests to Clampitt “opens.” What does opacity open the mind to? Well, Clampitt thinks, it needs to open the mind to a place where the mind can associatively play; but in that place there must be things, things of “tactile definition,” for the mind to play with. So opacity needs to open the mind to a tactile place—“rooms.” These are the rooms that two years later become in “Losing Track of Language,” from What the Light Was Like, “strict stanzas, little rooms/ for turmoil to grow lucid in.” In the stanzas of “Fog,” the turmoil of ‘not having the foggiest idea’ magnificently grows into “the hueless moonflower/ corolla.” Clampitt chooses this flower because only after fog-like nightfalls do its petals open, does its corolla self-beautify in exposing its reproductive organs, like a mind showcased in its recreation of the world’s image. In turn, the moonflower suggests Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of sexualized flowers, which suggest more flowers, “campanula” (the bellflower), which suggests “bell buoys,” the shape of which may suggest “filigree,” and so on, ad infinitum: in Clampitt’s oeuvre, nothing is forever what it is. Or as Clampitt posits in her favorite of her own poems, “A Hermit Thrush,” “nothing’s certain.” This is a good thing for readers of poetry: uncertainty greens Clampitt’s thumb.
The Kingfisher was Clampitt’s first widely-released book of poetry, and at the time of its publication Clampitt was sixty-three. Like Stevens and Frost, Clampitt as poet was a late bloomer. Born into a Quaker family in New Providence, Iowa, she wrote poetry in high school, but soon stopped to work exclusively in fiction. After a series of failures in that form, she returned to poetry in the mid-1960s. Her first published poem appeared in The New Yorker in 1978. Then she made her wildly successful debut with The Kingfisher, and would go on in the following decade to publish five more books of poetry, four of which are represented here. (The Kingfisher—Clampitt’s strongest book—is particularly prominent). Though we would perhaps desire a brief selection of a younger Clampitt to more fully appreciate her trajectory, such a selection is not in the spirit of a Selected Poems, which seeks to reproduce Clampitt’s “best” work, the work that distinguishes Clampitt’s voice from all others.
I suspect that Clampitt’s distinction as a poet in part stems from her earlier break with poetry. Distanced from the ephemeral poetic fads of her time, she could come to possess authentic formal strength. This is not to say that such distance antiquates Clampitt’s poetry. In fact, she wanted to be modern; and by treating subjects as morally urgent as the ugliness of modernity, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, and by indulging in unmetered rhyme, she reads as modern.
In “Medusa,” for instance, which appeared in “The Mirror of the Gorgon” sequence from Archaic Figure, Clampitt makes the ancient new. Naturally she shows us “the tentacles” writhing on the scalp of Medusa, who is a kind of personal symbol for Clampitt, and “the brazen phiz.” But the pun on “phiz” moves us into heretofore uninhabited poetic space. Clampitt calculates that before we know what “phiz” means, we hear “fizz,” or a hissing sound, a warning that the mazy hair and fatal glare are waiting just beyond the next line break. We can still turn back. But then we learn that “phiz” is British slang that refers to the human face, Medusa’s face signifying our stony nothing. Clampitt has tricked us: the warning is the danger!
Such a pun is one of the “hysteric” symptoms that “Medusa” recognizes as it diagnoses the sexual terror of modernity and works to surgically “unthread those multiplicities of cause/ of hurt from its effects”—do we turn to stone because we ‘look at lust’ backward, as Clampitt has it, or do we ‘look at lust’ backward because we are already stone? To unravel these threads of thought, Clampitt begins to unravel the threads of history, here by engaging Milton in symbolic dialogue. This historicizing is characteristic of the poet: she is not quite at home anywhere, except perhaps in the past with all of its ever-moving parts. Here her reading of the Medusa myth is pitted against Milton’s, in which Medusa is, according to Clampitt,
put…at the gate of hell, a woman to
the waist, and fair; but ended foul, in
many a scaly fold, voluminous and vast—
whose name indeed was Sin.
But Clampitt revises Milton—after all, “the Gorgon…is no such Manichean tease” as Sin—and, in an effort to resist the temptations of Miltonic moralizing, Clampitt heaves the Gorgon into the sea with “the stinging jellyfish, the tubeworm,/ the tunicate, the sea anemone’s/ whorled comb,” an amoral place from which we cannot move because we can’t really get there for the lexical and imaginative strangeness of it all. But we’re already there. Clampitt has petrified us with modernity. But then we realize that from the beginning we’ve been frozen in a matrix of unmetered slant rhymes (“periodic”/ “hysteric”; “Puritan”/ “Milton”; anemone’s”/ “mysteries”) that unclench the poem’s core before we recognize the core. So despite its self-proclaimed archaisms, “Medusa,” with its historical revisions, formal innovations, and anti-catharsis, is nothing if not modern.
It must also be said that Clampitt’s distance from poetic fads has not isolated her from the poetic tradition either. In Clampitt’s work, we detect Keats’s lushness (particularly in What the Light Was Like, with its beautiful if stiff and cloistered failure of a sequence, “Voyages: A Homage to John Keats”), Dickinson’s taut musicality, Whitman’s catalogues, Stevens’s acrobatic vocabulary and refined lexical textures, Crane’s resonant figuration, the allusiveness of the High Modernists, and most presently Hopkins (Clampitt borrows her kingfisher from his “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”) and Moore. And yet Clampitt is in all aspects of her craft herself. When we read
The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes—a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom—
for sale in the supermarket!
(“Nothing Stays Put,” Westward)
beyond the woven
unicorn the maiden
God at her hip
bluebell and primrose
growing wild a strawberry
chagrin night terrors
past the earthlit
(we shall be changed)
a silence opens
(“A Silence,” A Silence Opens)
we know that we are reading nobody but Clampitt. And we are grateful to have filled the silence and felt her singularly singing voice, that voice which now has its place among our major poets.
Josh Wilson was a literary intern for The New Republic.