A Darkness Pulled out of Us: Stanley Plumly and the Elegy of Relationship

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"Language is a darkness pulled out of us."

--Stanley Plumly, "Infidelity"

In seven volumes over 30 years, Stanley Plumly has written numerous elegies--for friends, for poets, for his mother--that have much in common with the traditional elegy, particularly the use of nature as a source of consolation. But Plumly chooses an elegy for his father to title his recent selected poems: Now that my Father Lies Down Beside Me (The Ecco Press, 2000). Plumly's elegies for his father, who died of alcoholism at 56, are of particular interest because Plumly mourns not so much his father's death but their relationship, one disrupted by his father's alcoholism and violence. His father's death has given Plumly an occasion to consider that relationship, to seek reconciliation. It is worth considering Plumly, then, in light of the "modern" family elegy as described by Jahan Ramazani. Citing the elegies of such poets as Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Allen Ginsberg, Ramazani suggests that angry confrontation with the deceased, exposing the faults of the deceased, and refusal to accept traditional forms of consolation are the modern family elegy's distinguishing characteristics. In important ways, Plumly does not fit Ramazani's definition. First, many of the elegies for his father find consolation, specifically a consolation characterized by reconnection. Second, Plumly refuses to succumb to anger. If he writes plainly of his father's weaknesses and inadequacies, Plumly does not berate him for them. For Plumly, language is not simply "a darkness pulled out of us." Rather, it is an attempt to pull out the darkness, expose it to light, let it burn away the veil that keeps him from reconciling with his father. The question, ultimately, is whether in light of Plumly's elegies we need to reconsider Ramazani's definition. Plumly's poems, as I will show, open an alternative theoretical basis for considering the modern family elegy: I will suggest that what unites many modern family elegies and what sets the modern family elegy apart from tradition is a focus on a relationship. That is, modern family elegies, though occasioned by death, do not seek compensation for that loss. Instead, these poems seek consolation for a relationship with the deceased that was ruptured prior to death. Attitudes toward the deceased--expressions of anger or gestures toward reconciliation--are poles of this model: Plumly forgives his father. The elegies of Plath, Berryman, and Ginsberg, as Ramazani notes, refuse forgiveness. But, Plumly's elegies help us to see that, whether offering reconciliation or anger, these modern family elegists lament a poor relationship with the deceased, not death itself.

The pastoral elegy began with the poems of Theokritos, Bion, and Moschus, who set their elegies in a fictional, ideal pastoral landscape that provides both a place distinct from everyday life and a natural setting in which the mourner can place grief. (1) Though he does not use shepherds to sing his laments, and though the landscape is closer to his native Ohio than to Arcadia, Plumly is a modern pastoral poet who sets many of his poems in forest and field, amid birds and trees--natural settings that allow Plumly to transform his grief into consolation. (2) In "From Fossil, Wyoming," for example, he mourns mortality itself--his own and others'. In that poem, the poet ruminates over the passing of geologic time, which is embodied by the fossil of a fish "whose bones are little horizontal / ladders embellishing the silence ..." (In the Outer 2-3). Like the fossil, he suggests, "we learn to swim in stone" (6) as we "look hard into the future" (12). Though the poem begins as a lament by presenting images of fragmentation--like the fossil, "the day is white and brittle" (8)--the poem concludes with darkness turning to light, "splitting into stars over unbroken waters" (14). Like the waters, the connection between the living and dead through time is "unbroken. …

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