Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove
Wallace, Patricia, MELUS
When Emerson, in the 1840s, imagined an ideal American poet, he confessed his difficulties even with the models of Milton and Homer; the one he found "too literary" and the other "too literal and historical" (Whicher 239). As with other of his pronouncements, Emerson leaves this one suggestively unexplained. I take him to mean that his ideal poet will be equally faithful both to what we call art and to what we call history, and that even in great poets, these fidelities are not easily reconciled. Czeslaw Milosz also drew attention to the poet's divided loyalties in his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1981-82. Milosz defined poetry as a "passionate pursuit of the Real"(56), and then acknowledged, indeed insisted, that the poet's motives are necessarily mixed.(1) In the act of writing, Milosz said, "every poet is making a choice between the dictates of poetic language and his fidelity to the real" (71). But, he quickly adds, "those two operations cannot be neatly separated, they are interlocked" (71).
Adapting Emerson's terms, I want to explore the way both the literary and the literal make themselves felt in the work of three contemporary poets: Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove. Each of these women is a member of a different American minority, and the work of each exhibits the pressures of particular, historical reality, and of the poet's need to witness what is. All three of these writers experience what Milosz calls the way "events burdening a whole community are perceived by the poet as touching him in a most personal manner" (94-95).
Yet the work of these poets is shaped not only by their cultures but also by a passion for language's possibilities, for the creative and experimental energy of poetry itself. At times this passion can seem to separate them from the very communities of which they are a part; the sensuous appeal of poetry may seem irrelevant to those who live amidst more pressing and immediate concerns. The poet's formal, literary education and her fluency with written language may also separate her from her cultural community. And while beyond the scope of this essay, the important issue of a poet's fluency in English, when her experience is multicultural and bilingual, further complicates this matter.(2)
What, then, would faithfulness both to the power of the literary (with its creative use of language, its love of design, its connectedness to other writing) and to the power of the literal (with its material reality, its resistance to design, its relation to history) mean for poets like Cervantes, Song and Dove? This question must be grappled with in the immediacy of particular poems, where the imaginative transformations of language meet the resistance to transformation that Emerson calls the literal, or history, and that Milosz calls "the real."
2 It was never in the planning, in the life we thought we'd live together, two fast women living cheek to cheek, still tasting the dog's breath of boys in our testy new awakening. We were never the way they had it planned. Their wordless tongues we stole and tasted the power that comes of that. We were never what they wanted but we were bold. (16)
These lines are the opening of "For Virginia Chavez," from Lorna Dee Cervantes's powerful and accomplished first book, Emplumada (1981). In making this poem my starting poInt, I choose a work explicit about the poet's double loyalty. "For Virginia Chavez" negotiates the connection and the difference between the poet-speaker, whose access to literature and whose power with words separates her, to some degree, from the Chicana world she grew up in, and the girlhood friend to whom the poem is addressed. As she explores her relation to Virginia Chavez, Cervantes also thinks through the relations between poetic language and direct experience, between the activities of poetry and of ordinary life. She begins "For Virginia Chavez" with the pronoun "we," asserting the girls' mutual rebellion against their cultures' expectations for them. The edgy rhythms of the opening lines have an assertive energy that flouts predictable patterns. Rejecting the definitions of others ("we were never" the way someone else had it planned), Cervantes seizes the power of description for herself. But this is the act which also separates her from Virginia Chavez. A space widens between the poet's life, empowered by language, and the friend's life, embedded in a violent reality. "We" divides into "you" and "I."
There's an emblem for this division when, in adolescence, the poet reads aloud to her friend "the poems of Lord Byron, Donne, / the Brownings: all about love, / explaining the words," then recognizes Virginia's more immediate, and different, form of knowledge ("you knew / all that the kicks in your belly / had to teach you" ). This gap between the literary and the literal appears to widen in one of the poem's final sections, where Cervantes confronts the brutal consequences of domestic violence in Virginia's adult life:
Even that last morning I saw you with blood in your eyes, blood on your mouth, the blood pushing out of you in purple blossoms. (18)
The image of "purple blossoms" calls attention to itself as literary, the kind of image Cervantes might have found in Donne or the Brownings. It could suggest that the poet's language turns toward art in order to turn away from the event. Doesn't the image distance and mediate the actuality of male violence against women? Don't Cervantes's instincts as a poet, her desire to turn a phrase, here separate her from the life of Virginia Chavez, and from Virginia's direct, spare language as it appears in a single moment of the poem ("He did this./When I woke, the kids/were gone. They told me/I'd never get them back" )?
This question requires attention to the rhythm and shape of Cervantes's lines, for it is in these "literary" properties of Cervantes's poem that the pressure of the literal is both felt and resisted. In the lines quoted above, the image of "purple blossoms" takes its place in a pattern of repeated stress, where stress is a poetic, psychic and physical event. The repetition of the strong, monosyllabic "blood" (each time taking the accent at the end of the line) is a part of this stress. The word keeps resurfacing, as if to block out an intact image of the friend's face; it pushes itself between "eyes" and "mouth" as part of a coercive force the poet both witnesses and experiences. When '"blood" becomes "purple blossoms," something alters. The image breaks a pattern (the trochaic unaccented second syllables alter the rhythm that dominates the previous lines) and answers the threat of fragmentation by turning the interruptive and obliterating '"blood" into discrete and intact "purple blossoms." The need (and capacity) to break coercive patterns, and to compose anew in a way which restores particularity and wholeness, are central both to the subject and the activity of this poem; this need joins the act of the poet to the life of her friend.
For if many of the poems in Emplumada (among them "Cannery Town in August," to which I will return) demonstrate that the lives of men and women cannot be separated from conditions of race, sex and class, the energy and power of Cervantes's language also challenge the claim that these conditions are wholly definitive. They are part of what is "given," part of the order of things, but not the whole story. "Life asserts itself in spite of the most imposing obstacles set against it from without," Cordelia Candelana has written of Cervantes's "Freeway 280" (159). Cervantes's poems are often acts of assertion against restrictive social and linguistic structures (a less precise and distinctive use of language weakens this challenge in her second book, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger, 1991). In this opening poem of Emplumada, the energy of Cervantes's language seeks to free, if only momentarily, the existence of Virginia Chavez, and the friendship between the two women, from either social or literary fixity.
But the subject of "For Virginia Chavez" is not strictly a creature of figuration; she is a co-presence with the poet, and her substantiality is grounded in a world outside the poet's power.(3) Her life cannot simply be transformed by imagination into the freedom Cervantes desires for her. In the conclusion there's a tension between the poet's vision of Virginia (as a double for the poet herself) and the conditions which resist that vision. We feel this tension in the rhythms of the lines, which recall and revise the poem's beginning, its rebellious energy. Here the rhythm and syntax assert against a weight present in the lines, a weight most easily located in the way the verb "ignorin" cannot overcome what follows it; the poet thus admits into the poem what she wants to forget. In her image of the two women walking, their "arms holding / each other's waists," Cervantes reaches for unity, for the power of imagination to close the gap between the poet and the friend, between language and experience. But the conclusion of the poem insists on the difficulty of defining these mobile relations in any way which does not encompass both difference and sameness:
With our arms holding each others waists, we walked the waking streets back to your empty flat, ignoring the horns and catcalls behind us, ignoring what the years had brought between us: my diploma and the bare bulb that always lit your bookless room. (18)
We might also read these lines as a version of the divided yet interdependent relation between the literary and the literal. In The Witness of Poetry, Milosz says, "Mankind has always been divided by one rule into two species: those who know and do not speak; those who speak and do not know" (66.(4) When a poet is a woman, and when her identity is constituted, in part, by minority experience, she transgresses this division, as all good poets must, but in an especially conscious way. She speaks and writes as one who knows (who knows in part how much goes unspoken), and so her poems are entangled in the literary (which gives her the power to speak) and in the literal (which is the source of what she knows). Cervantes is one such poet. "For Virginia Chavez" embodies both the gap between the diploma and the bookless room and the deep connections between the lives of these two women.
In many of the poems in Emplurnada, Cervantes's desire to alter circumstance through imaginative power meets with what resists that desire. Her poems provide us with desire's transforming energy at the same time that they reveal her understanding of intractable circumstance. Such an understanding is present in "For Virginia Chavez" and is also powerfully evident in "Cannery Town in August." Here are that poem's opening lines:
All night it humps the air. Speechless, the steam rises from the cannery columns. I hear the night bird rave about work or lunch, or sing the swing shift home. I listen, while bodyless uniforms and spinach specked shoes drift in monochrome down the dark moon-possessed streets. Women who smell of whiskey and tomatoes, peach-fuzz reddening their lips and eyes (6)
Like many other of Cervantes's poems, this one takes as its subject lives largely disregarded by literary traditions and by the culture at large. Those lives belong to women who work at a California cannery, and Cervantes here seeks to reclaim those lives from the shadows of that disregard. Yet the poem opens in a highly literary way, with one of the oldest of literature's conventions, personification, followed by an image "the night bird"--resonant with literary associations. Personification, Barbara Johnson writes in an essay on Wordsworth, provides us with "fiFes of half-aliveness," with '"conventionalized access to the boundary between life and death" (97). But the concern in "Cannery Town in August" is with a lived condition of "half-aliveness," one which eludes conventional literary figures. Thus the sound of the "night bird," which calls up a tradition of poetic singers, is here not song but a form of "raving," incoherently connected to the conditions in this poem. Cervantes focuses on "bodyless / uniforms and spinach specked shoes," those whom circumstance has robbed of animation and turned to ghosts. She sees that these ghosts are, in fact, "Women / who smell of whiskey and tomatoes / peach-fuzz reddening their lips and eyes" (6), resolutely unghostlike details. Cervantes does not personify the women; they are too separated from the poet's imaginative power to become wholly literary creations. For this reason the poem can't hold the women in focus, as it can (and does) sharply evoke the sights and sounds of the cannery. It is the cannery which Cervantes personifies in her opening, as another form of coercive force against which she directs her language. The power and noise of the cannery have drowned out these women's voices and rendered them all but invisible:
I imagine them not speaking, dumbed by the can's clamor and drop to the trucks that wait, grunting in their headlights below. They spotlight those who walk like a dream, with no one waiting in the shadows to palm them back to the living. (6)
If it is the poet's task to try to "spotlight," like the truck's headlights, "those who walk / like a dream," what she spotlights is the women's "half-aliveness." That they are like ghosts, but are not ghosts, that the culture places them on its borders (between Chicana and Anglo, male and female, on the "swing shift" between day and night) is a literary and literal description. Cervantes wants to bring these women back to life, but knows that poetry cannot deliver them from deadening experience. To "palm them back to the living" would be a trick of language, a literary sleight-of-hand Cervantes's fidelity to the real won't let her perform.
The poems of the Hawaiian-born Cathy Song transform what seems simple or ordinary--including words themselves--by lifting things out of their ordinary settings. A Song poem then moves between the beautiful strangeness such transformations reveal and a sharp sense of dailiness and practical necessity which resists that power. I think of "Humble Jar," from Song's second collection, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), as a kind of emblem for Song's poetic practices. The title derives from a mayonnaise jar in which an Asian American mother keeps a variety of buttons "for every emergency" (44). Like Cervantes's Virginia or the women in "Cannery Town in August," the mother of Song's poem is someone whose life is not identifiable with "literature." She exists in the poem as a presence distinct from the poet, as someone whose life is evoked by and yet resists the poet's designs. The mother's life is as "oddly private" as the buttons she hides away in the jar: "She could easily have led / the double life of a spy" (44). The poet uses her imaginative power to reveal what is hidden in the mother's life (hidden from American culture at large and from the poet in particular) and so to bring poetry and the mother's life closer together. Song wants to transform the "undervalued" life of the mother, to uncover its hidden beauty and power, and to open possibility. But this effort is countered by a knowledge, felt in the rhythms of the poem, of how much the mother has had to put aside.
Buttons are the poem's central image, and as Song uses it that image is wonderfully figurative and stubbornly literal; it unsettles any stable distinction between those categories. Words, like buttons, can be "useful yet undervalued"; they are a form of "common currency," like the commonplace white buttons the mother keeps in the jar, "unremarkable but reliable, / rescuing a garment at a moment's notice" (45). Words can also be like the "less practical" buttons in the jar, distinguished from the ordinary. Separated from their "original setting (a cashmere coat,/a bottle-green evening gown)," these are endowed by their freedom from context with beauty and possibility:
What remained was no longer a button but a relic-- a coat of arms, a silver dollar-- something you couldn't spend. (45)
A poet like Song uses familiar words so that they are no longer strictly defined by previous use, so that they become more than counters, become "something you couldn't spend." Yet the poet's words are also bound up in common usage, where, like the mother's buttons, they repair or mend, or retrieve "a moment / out of a cluttered life" (46). So the poet-daughter and the mother of this poem mix the plain and the decorative together in their jar and poems. It's amusing to think of "Humble Jar" as Song's humble version of poetry's Grecian urn, as her way of insisting on the connections between art and daily life. To imagine a button jar (and a mayonnaise jar at that) as an icon for poetry bridges the apparent gap between domestic activities and the making of poems, and suggests that each is a form of creative shaping. This means the making of poetry is not innately superior to other activities, a conviction that also underlies a number of Cervantes's poems (for example, "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway"), and many of Rita Dove's poems as well (especially "Dusting"). And we may think of Emerson, who suggested in "Self Reliance" that there can be "prayer in all action" (162). Such equations are part of an implicit argument for the continuity between the poet's life and work and that of other men and women, for the continuity between literary and literal.
But such an argument is not untroubled in Song's poems, any more than it is in Cervantes's. The poet's identity as poet also sets her apart; she is empowered by words in a way the Asian American mother (or Virginia Chavez or the women at the California cannery) is not. Her imaginative transformations have a freedom from some of the unyielding conditions that accompany most people's work. The poet-speaker of "Humble Jar," for example, transforms herself through button-art. She holds "flat disks of gold" to her ears "as if they were the earrings" her mother never wore, "offering them to a younger self, / a child's soft face in the mirror, / gazing back, almost beautiful" (46). In this moment Song conflates her poet-self and her mother, unites them in the image of the face in the mirror, that "younger self" who is, ambiguously, mother and daughter at the same time. But this poetic unity isn't really stable. It leaves out too much that separates these two lives: the passage of time, the claims others (including the poet) have made on the mother's life, the things that have been put aside and cannot be retrieved. The conclusion of the poem briefly recaptures-- for the instant of a camera click--a moment of the mother's youth, light with possibility ("the summer she wore that scalloped dress"), only to lose it in the final, heavily stressed repetitions, with their weight of what is:
The summer she wore that scalloped dress, she turned and smiled for the camera, my father, for life that was certain to be glorious. Beginners, both of them, the blind leading the blind. (46)
In both her books Cathy Song is occupied with the shifting relations (divided and intertwined) between a transient reality and the designs of language and art. Her first book, Picture Bride (1983), explores exactly these relations in two poems dedicated to the Japanese printmaker, Kitagawa Utamaro.(5) Even more pertinent is the title poem of Picture Bride, where Song struggles with the limits of her own imaginative power and her own uses of language to render another person's life. "Picture Bride'" begins with the gap between an image-- explicitly, a photographic image--and the life that image claims to represent. The poem imagines a grandmother who, Song suggests, was chosen as a bride from such an image and summoned from Korea to Hawaii, where "a man waited, / turning her photograph / to the light when the lanterns / in the camp outside/Waialua Sugar Mill were lit" (3). The poet tries to recover a fuller sense of the grandmother's life, to see beyond the boundaries of the photograph. But the making of images is also the poet's work, and the grandmother's life remains in crucial ways beyond the reach of the poem's images, unassimilable as a literary creation.
Although "Picture Bride" begins with an assertion of likeness, part of an effort to bridge the distance between the poet's life and that of the grandmother ("She was a year younger / than I, / twenty-three when she left Korea" ), everything that follows takes the shape of an unanswered question. This method of imaginative speculation that seeks to reconstruct an ancestral image is, Gayle K. Fujita-Sato points out, reminiscent of Maxine Hong Kingston's strategy in the opening chapter of The Woman Warrior (50). In each case a young Asian American woman tries to imagine the life of a female ancestor whose history has been erased or repressed. Kingston's chapter is titled "No Name Woman'" and Song's grandmother is never identified by name, only by the anonymous category of "picture bride." But in Song's poem the emphasis falls on the way each effort to "fill in" the picture of the grandmother runs up against her unavailability to the poet's imaginative designs. The solidity of each detail dissolves into questions until, in the conclusion, the grandmother seems simply to disappear from the poem itself:
And when she arrived to look into the face of the stranger who was her husband, thirteen years older than she, did she politely untie the silk bow of her jacket, her tent-shaped dress filling with the dry wind that blew from the surrounding fields where the men were bunting the cane? (4)
The gesture of untying the "silk bow" of the "jacket" promises a revelation of what has been hidden--a fully embodied figure of the grandmother. But no sooner is the image made than it is unmade. As the dress fills with "dry wind" the grandmother evaporates. In the place we look for her we find only the wind and sugar cane fields; she disappears into a Hawaiian landscape (Waialua Sugar Mill fields) where powerful corporations often erased the presence of Asian American laborers, and from an American history which excludes mention of her and Asian American women like her.(6) Like Cervantes in the conclusion to "Cannery Town in August," Song doesn't claim poetry has the power to overcome this erasure, any more than "Humble Jar" claims to restore the mother's youthful possibility. In an important way, "Picture Bride," like other of Song's poems, refuses to separate the problems of language from the problems of culture. Yet the very uncertainty of Song's poetic structures honors the degree to which the grandmother's life is not a purely literary figuration.
Gifted with words, these poets blur the division Milosz describes between those who know (and don't speak) and those who speak (and don't know). They try to speak, to write, in ways faithful to what they know, and that activity is often the struggle of the poem. But what the poet knows is not only history, or experience, it is also literature itself. Of the three poets I am discussing here, Rita Dove's knowledge of literature is most inseparable from her experience and her understanding of history. This may be, in part, because Dove's is a fuller body of work, and there's simply more evidence to go on. But I think it also has to do with her particular sensibility, which is deeply, even passionately, literary. Arnold Rampersad, who calls her "perhaps the most disciplined and technically accomplished black poet to arrive since Gwendolyn Brooks," observes that Dove comes to poetry "with a profound respect and love, and appropriate solicitude for its traditions and future" (54). Her own comments in interviews and at readings reinforce my sense that the shape and sound of language are utterly compelling to her: "it's by language that I enter the poem, and that also leads me forward" (Rubin and Ingersoll 237). This is a poet for whom Milosz's "dictates of poetic language" are especially compelling, but no more compelling, 1 think, than her fidelity to the real.
For Dove is preoccupied with history, less frequently personal history (although this is an emphasis in her most recent book, Grace Notes, 1989) than American history and history more generally. In particular, she is concerned with what standard histories leave out. This preoccupation has appeared with its most sustained complexity in her book-length sequence, Thomas and Beulah (1986), which might be said to put Dove's double loyalties strenuously to test. The sequence, loosely modeled on Dove's grandparents, traces the story of what she describes as "a Black couple growing up in the industrial Midwest from about 1900 to 1960" (Rubin and Ingersoll 236). The poems do not overtly treat what Dove calls "big moments" (like those listed in the chronology she included at the back of her volume); rather, they are faithful to the particular circumstances in which ordinary people live their lives.(7) "I was interested in the thoughts, the things which were concerning these small people, these nobodies in the course of history," she has said (Rubin and Ingersoll 236). For all of Dove's imaginative power, her imagination is not self-sufficient; it seeks an engagement with something outside the poet herself. Her need for such engagement is, for me, part of Dove's great strength as a poet. The lives of Thomas and Beulah are not identifiable with art, and exist distinct from the poet's mastery (as do the lives of Virginia Chavez and Song's picture bride). This is true despite the fact that Dove writes her sequence from the point of view of the two characters. The absence of a poetic 'I'speaking in the poems might suggest that Dove tries to hide her identity as poet, and so evade the differences between herself and the lives she writes about. But such isn't the case. Dove's presence in the sequence appears in the design and fluency of her language, in its conscious relation to (and revision of) other writers, in addition to its powerful connections to colloquial speech.
In an author's note printed beneath the dedication in Thomas and Beulah, Dove writes, "these poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence." The two sides Dove tells are those of Thomas and Beulah, but "two sides" also suggests the claims of literature and of history. "I started off writing stories about my grandfather," Dove has said, "and soon, because I ran out of real facts, in order to keep going, I made up facts for the character, Thomas" (Rubin and Ingersoll 236). "Made up facts" is a pleasing phrase; it catches what Rampersad aptly describes as the way "imaginative flights are tacked down again and again in homey details" in Dove's poems (59). Like the work of Cervantes and Song, Dove's poems often turn on a desire for imaginative transformation as it encounters what will not or cannot be transformed. In doing so, her poems show us once again how entangled are the literary and the literal. Consider, for example, the opening portion of the poem "Sunday Greens," from the second half (Beulah's "side") of Thomas and Beulah:
She wants to hear wine pouring. She wants to taste change. She wants pride to roar through the kitchen till it shines like straw, she wants lean to replace tradition. Ham knocks in the pot, nothing but bones, each with its bracelet of flesh. (69)
"Sunday Greens" is a consciously literary poem, by which I mean that the poem's speech carries within it a consciousness of previous literature's uses of language. The image of the hambones "each / with its bracelet / of flesh" is an act of literary homage and revision. Dove's lines recall and revise Donne's "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone," as famously cited in T.S. Eliot's essay, "The Metaphysical Poets" (34). Eliot quotes Donne's line apart from its poetic context, as a brilliant fife of language. Dove's witty and daring image, on the other hand, not only rewrites Donne but restores context and does so in a new way. She anchors the image of the "bracelet" in the elementary; the spare hambone in the kitchen pot is a detail faithful to the particular circumstances of depression Ohio, and of Beulah's life there. It is simultaneously Dove's own brilliant figure of language, shining out of the poem.
In "Sunday Greens" the issue of context--what is anchored in and yet longs to be freed of context--is not a purely literary matter. Intense longing runs throughout the poem (all those insistent "she wants"), rises out of a concrete sense of restriction. This longing is Beulah's (and Dove's) desire for more, a desire for beauty which is everywhere in Beulah's half of the sequence. Beulah's poems are characterized by her sense of the distance between the material conditions of her life and the beauty of art (often represented as Paris, Versailles, or the Orient). Dove renders this distance between art and the actual even as she also crosses it. The image of the '"bracelet / of flesh" is faithful to the fact of spareness (too little meat on the bone) and to the desire for beauty and a longing for what "shines." It is also a display of literary power, the kind Frost complained that critics never talk about: "What a feat it was to turn that that way and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this" (32).
Over and over again Dove's distinctive use of language reveals her awareness of literary and artistic traditions. Yet she is equally aware that, under too great a pressure to become art, the actual can seem to disappear. She creates a witty and arresting image of this danger in the beginning of her poem "Magic," where a young Beulah obsessively practices the title's art until she can "change / an egg into her last nickel" (48). So preoccupied is Beulah with her magic that when sent into the yard to sharpen knives, she stands "so long over / the wheel the knives / grew thin":
When she stood up, her brow shorn clean as a wheatfield and stippled with blood she felt nothing, even when Mama screamed. (48)
Even as Dove's wonderful image--the brow "shorn clean / as a wheatfield"--seems to float free of the concrete event, the structure of the poem suggests the dangers of abstraction. Magical transformations, whether of eggs into nickels or experience into poems, can separate us from everyday tasks and from the life of our bodies. There are things in experience which resist the forms of art, and that resistance is signalled in the lines above by the mother's scream. Dove's image for Beulah's shorn brow ("stippled with blood" recalls the artist's method of painting or etching with dots) is an artful image in a poem which suggests the magic of art can sometimes separate us from the real. Although Beulah needs, as we all need, the imaginative capacity for transformation that can lighten the burdens of history and allow for change, Rita Dove knows that the poet's "magic"--to transform images and alter meanning-can evade a more intransigent lived reality. It is tiffs knowledge which shapes the end of her poem. Beulah awakes one night to find that "on the lawn blazed / a scaffolding strung in lights" (49); but she represses this figure's historical meaning (racial hatred) and substitutes for it an image of possibility (the lighted scaffolding of the Eiffel Tower):
Next morning the Sunday paper showed the Eiffel Tower soaring through clouds. It was a sign she would make it to Paris one day. (49)
The art of Dove's poem is to leave the "sign"---here, the burning cross conflated with the Eiffel Tower--weighted with a violence and force outside the magic of poetry (the blank space--like a stanza break-- which precedes the final line seems filled by what resists verbal magic). No figurative transformation, no metonymic substitution has the power to erase the specific historical conditions of Beulah's life. For a young, black woman in Akron, Ohio, in the 1920s, the constraints of race and class restrict Paris, and the open possibilities it represents, to a dream.
In "Aurora Borealis," a poem from Thomas's section of Thomas and Beulah, Dove grapples with the dangers in too powerful a sense of history and too powerful an attraction to art.(8) The burden of history, of what Rita Dove knows, is felt in this poem as something that keeps cutting off ("crippling," in her image) the line's effort to surge forward. "Aurora Borealis" has an understanding of intractable circumstance that recalls Cervantes's "Cannery Town in August" or the concluding rhythms of Song's "Humble Jar":
This far south such crippling Radiance. People surge From their homes onto the streets, certain This is the end, For it is 1943 And they are tired. (31)
The momentum of this poem keeps stalling. Like Thomas's perception of the night sky when he emerges from "the movie house," the rhythm of the poem also "hangs and shivers." Here the radiance of the aurora borealis and that other form of American radiance, the movie house, are ancillary to the unyielding circumstances affecting Thomas and others: "it is 1943 / and they are tired." The simplicity and flatness of these lines seem as far from the literary as Dove might go; it is as if, in this moment, Dove sought to abandon the radiance of poetry. The poem then concludes with Thomas's vision of the sky:
What shines is a thought Which has lost its way. Helpless It hangs and shivers Like a veil. So much For despair. Thomas, go home. (31)
The rhythmic foreshortening in Dove's poem, the way each movement forward is cut off by a line break or the syntax, cuts short the possibility of imaginative release. The poem seems held in the grip of circumstance. But this same rhythm also checks despair, that helplessness which shivers in the night sky and threatens to dominate this world. Despair--a buckling under the brute weight of actuality--fills the blank space between stanzas (that much is given over to despair). But the imperative at the end of the poem demands, demands rhythmically, getting on with it, getting on with the task of the everyday, with survival. Dove's rhythm in "Aurora Borealis" mediates between too great a pressure of history and too great a pressure of art. The first would reduce Thomas and those around him to sheer helplessness; the second would focus on the beauty of the night sky, or the promises of the movie house, or the brilliance of Dove's own language, by turning away from the actual. The art of Dove's poetry here lies in the way it keeps resisting too much artfulness; the poem has a brilliance faithful to poetry and to the real.
In the poems of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove, the poet's creative use of language seeks to overcome what appears fixed or closed. I have been calling that use of language "Literary" and what resists it "literal," though I have tried to show how these two terms keep slipping into each other. Like the buttons in Song's "Humble Jar," the poet's language is both literary and literal, and like the history and culture of which it is a part, that language is implicated in prior meanings, in structure and design. I read Cervantes, Song and Dove for their imaginative power, for their ability to create meanings afresh. But I also read them for their sense of the Limits to their power, and the obstacles to fresh creation. As poets who write, in part, out of cultural traditions weighted with historical loss and displacement, theirs may be an especially strong sense of obstacle. Their poems convey a recognition of what lies outside the poet's mastery, resists her own designs, and cannot be wholly transformed. We call what is distinct from the poet's power "history" or "the actual" or "the real," and it acts as a gravitational field through and against which the poems move and have their life. Energy and desire quicken these poets' language and create, amidst obstacle, a sense of possibility. Emerson remarked that "the quality of imagination is to flow and not to freeze" (237) and so Cervantes, Song and Dove unsettle categories we customarily freeze into opposition; possibility and obstacle, history and poetry, the activities of literature and those of ordinary life flow into and out of each other in varied and complex ways. The fidelities of these poets go deep, and are deeply entangled. Reading their work we find the most literary aspects of the poet's language bear the pressure of the actual. The sudden shift of rhythm, the grave or luminous detail, the most familiar of images suddenly revised, are never purely literary matters.
This essay is in memory of John Benedict
1. Czeslaw Milosz takes this definition from an essay by his uncle, Oscar Milosz, "A Few Words on Poetry" (cited in The Witness of Poetry 25), and then explicitly adopts it as his own.
2. The poet's use of English, and the possibilities and limits of that language for rendering her experience, are explicit issues in the work of many American poets whose backgrounds are multicultural. Lorna Dee Cervantes's poems, for example, often make use of Spanish phrases and lines, and some suggest the poet's struggle with a linguistc alienation from her roots. See especially '"Oaxaca, 1974" (44) and "Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington" (45-47). For a discussion of the ways in which the mixing of English and Spanish reflect the bilingual reality of Chicano experience, see Carmen Tafolla, "Chicano Literature: Beyond Beginnings" (Harris and Aguero 206-225). The issue of dual languages (in this case, Chinese and English) also appears in Cathy Song's "Losing Track" (Frameless Windows 29-31). A dominant language used as a form of power and violence is the explicit subject of Rita Dove's powerful poem, "Parsley" (Museum 75-77).
3. My description here is influenced by David Bromwich's discussion of Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence" in an essay which has striking relevance for the work of the poets I discuss here, "The Sense of Vocation in Frost and Stevens" (Bromwich 218-231).
4. See the epigraph to the second section of Emplumada, taken from Antonio Porchia, which reads "This world understands nothing but words and you have come into it with almost none" and also the conclusion of "Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington ( "I need words / simple black nymphs between white sheets of paper / obedient words obligatory words words I steal / in the dark when no one can hear me" ). For a discussion of Emplumada as a narrative of "the Chicana struggling to find a language appropriate to deal with reality" (Harris and Aguero 180), see John F. Crawford, "Notes Toward a New Multicultural Criticism: Three Works by Women of Color" (Harris and Aguero 155-195).
5. The poems are "Beauty and Sadness" and "Girl Powdering Her Neck" (37-40). They are followed by a poem which has a dear relation to them but is not explicitly dedicated to Utagawa, "'Ikebana'" (4142), and by a longer poem, "Blue and White Lines After O'Keeffe" (4348), which follows up Song's exploration of the artist's relation to experience.
6. In the "No Name Woman" chapter of The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston is also confronting the way a woman's life (and what that life represents) is erased, in this case not only by the larger culture but by the Asian-American family itself. "The real punishment," she writes of the aunt, "was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her" (18). The question of what has been forgotten and what can be recovered seems especially intense for a multicultural writer.
7. "I've added a chronology to the end of the book," Dove has said. "I never thought I'd do this in my life, but I did a chronology from 1900 to 1960. If s a very eccentric chronology, so you can see what was happening in the social structure of midwest America at the time this couple was growing up" (Rubin and Ingersoll 236).
8. Although I don't think Dove is deliberately recalling the aurora borealis of Wallace Stevens's "Auroras of Autumn," Stevens' poems play a part in any American poet's debate about the imagination's power to transform the real. In "Auroras of Autumn," as it might relate to Dove's poem, see especially Stevens' closing section with its variations on "An unhappy people in an unhappy world" (316). Another poet whose work enters this debate, in a way I think is especially important to Dove's poetry, is Robert Hayden. See especially his "The Peacock Room" (118-19), "Free Fantasia: Tiger Howers" (130-31) and "the Tatooed Man" (160).
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Publication information: Article title: Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove. Contributors: Wallace, Patricia - Author. Journal title: MELUS. Volume: 18. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1993. Page number: 3+. © 2007 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.