Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Archeologist of Memory": Autobiographical Recollection in Tate's "Maimed Man" Trilogy

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Archeologist of Memory": Autobiographical Recollection in Tate's "Maimed Man" Trilogy

Article excerpt

The "Maimed Man" trilogy, including "The Maimed Man," "The Swimmers," and "The Buried Lake" (1952-53), comprises a terza rima cycle of poems linked not only by form but by connected imagery of mutilation, musical endeavor, baptism, communion of blood and body, and divine light mirrored in nature. The poems are also Tate's poetic autobiography, beginning in a Southern small town (Winchester, Kentucky) and developing from his childhood terror at the disturbing anarchy in nature toward his adult reaction to this perception of loss. This defensive reaction took the form of rational systems, technical virtuosity, formalism--those gestures of human control that the sensitive mind, like Yeats in his creation of "masterful images," shores against the ruin of nature. Echoing phrases from Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot, Yeats, romantic and Victorian poetry, the trilogy seeks affirmation and resolution; it is Tate's summing up directly parallel to the culminating act, the sense of a lifetime of tortured inquiry coming to a triumphant but also weary end, of his great essays from the early 1950s collected in The Man of Letters in the Modern World (1955), in which Lewis P. Simpson adduces an autobiographical drama that is essentially "the failure of the critical--more broadly of the critical and poetic, the literary will" ("Autobiographical Impulse" 66). The "Maimed Man" trilogy is likewise a dramatic action embodying the failure of the "will" but discovering a triumph in this very failure as the final stanza of "The Buried Lake" concludes the trilogy in the assured pronouncement, "I knew that I had known enduring love." It is a rare moment of unambiguous vision in a lifetime of labyrinthine tracing and retracing which can only at this point, toward the end of Tate's active poetic career, be seen as the progression that it is.

In the trilogy's first poem, "The Maimed Man," Tate describes a childhood encounter with a headless young man, the "maimed man" who reappears later in the trilogy as the lynched black in "The Swimmers" and the female lover beheaded by the poet in "The Buried Lake." The poet's greeting or "oath" to the maimed man sticks in his palate even as the play of light on the maimed man's purpled neck fascinates him. As both god and man, the maimed man's neck reveals a "rusty play of light," but he has "grass instead of feet." Being a self-conscious youth, Tate fears the loss of his "manly honor"--especially in the eyes of his football coach--if he is revealed as the "known slave" of the visitor. Forty years later the poet is still "questing" seeking certainty against the "poor boy's curse" of shame and pride: "Witching for water in a waste of shame."

A proud faith in art and the artist's self-sufficiency temporarily displaces the poet's childhood consciousness of dependency on the maimed man. "The verse shall scan / All chance away," he writes. This tomb-like stage of artistic self-sufficiency involves "iambics willed and neat," an aesthetic as well as a spiritual death-in-life. Echoing the romantic poets, especially Wordsworth, whom Tate regarded dismissively in his early criticism as "destructive" and "positivistic" in their separation of intellect and feeling, Tate now in his fifties writes in familiar romantic language: "the sleek senses of the simple child / Came back to rack spirit that could not tell / Natural time." To the greatest of Christian poets as well, Tate continues to pay homage: "and let me touch the hem / Of him who spread his triptych like a fan."

The "pompous youth" only realizes his own "scarecrow" appearance after glancing in his room's mirror. It is the beginning of the youth's understanding that "the entire natural world is a replica in reverse of the supernatural world" (Essays 441). In a brilliant metaphysical trope, Tate puns on "the eyes, recauled, enisled." The eyes, mirror of blue heaven, double of the light of Saint Lucia in the trilogy's conclusion, are not only "recalled" after Tate's half-hell crisis as a young adult in "love disordered"; the eyes are also "recauled," the caul or part of the amnion covering the head of the child at birth and supposed to be an infallible preservative against drowning. …

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