A Primal Cry

Article excerpt

[BOOKS] A Primal Cry FIRST THINGS TO HAND, by Robert Pinsky. Sarabande, 2006

BOOKS, PENS, A WATER glass, a photograph, the newspaper, a pair of pliers: Robert Pinsky 's chapbook, First Things to Hand, traces the smallest possible circle around a self, mere objects dotting its circumference. Even the individual at the center is an object, a thing to be handled by the "hand" that touches, say, "the tattoo on my right shoulder" or the mind "waiting in the mind/ like the first thing to hand." That last formulation invokes Wallace Stevens ("The Palm at the End of the Mind"). Often, Stevens' existence in the actual world, more haunting than haunted, informs these new poems. Both the choice of muse (Stevens representing the quintessence of "private," even clandestine, poetry), and the deliberate, monitored narrowness of milieu (the family cat, sole "fellow mortal" to appear here, only makes it in by crying at Pinsky 's office door) establish an art of indrawn breath and tentative mental foray.

For a poet of full-throated social, indeed public (and increasingly political) voice, these poems would seem a departure. But, as Stevens knew, "this absence of the imagination/had itself to be imagined." What the "imagination" here does-what it has always done for Pinsky-is to restore to emptied forms their original luster and density. As Pinsky points out, the word "thing" (itself an abstraction that identifies a class of non-or anti-abstractions) once meant "an assembly or council," the etymology suggesting what a remarkable congeries of human will (as well as human blood) makes up our everyday matter. An ordinary drinking glass cannot be considered without conjuring an "assembly" of the dead:

Ancestral totem substance:

My one grandfather

Washing store windows

With squeegee and bucket,

The other serving amber

Whisky and clear gin over the

counter,

His son my father

An optician, beveling lenses

On a stone wheel.

No optician's son would want to isolate sight from the mechanical processes (shaped by the body, itself an object shaped by culture) required for a person to see. And so these poems move rapidly back from sense impressions (the glass "waterlike," then "still visible," then "nearly invisible") into the tools, "mere" tools, of the senses, and from there into memory, history, lore. …