Despite all the poetic chatter about victims -- being a victim, making a victim, knowing victims -- most never gets beyond spouses who don't get along or the difficulties of daily life. It is no news that spouses break up in large numbers, children are difficult to raise, and jobs that fit one's talents are difficult to find and keep. Nor is it exciting (nor truthlful) to hear a spouse comparing a verbally abrasive spouse or parent to a concentration camp guard; such trivializations were tedious in Sylvia Plath's day and are nothing but poetic affect now. The various tragedies of domestic life usually aren't, at least those depicted in most poetry on the subject. The din of fraud is such that people with genuine complaints are difficult to hear. Even more difficult to receive are poets who take personal tragedy and convert its passions into expression bigger than the story to be told. David Slavitt is one of those.
As the locus of an immense amount of literary activity, from a number of translation series that he edits with Katherine Washburn to 12 books of poetry to dozens of translations of his own of Ovid, Seneca, Virgil, Aeschylus to many novels and books of essays and other nonfiction, David Slavitt has had good fortune by any standards for a writer. True, he hasn't made millions from movie rights sales, but with 60 books under his name as author, and many more under his name as editor, he is probably more widely published than any contemporary author outside genre fiction. He fuses great seriousness with great humor in much of what he does. And yet, after all the honors and books and work, he found himself in middle age in one of the worst nightmares any of us will experience -- his mother was murdered. Is it possible in art to address the deep and ghastly pain of such a crime?
In these poems, written in a period between 1989 and 1994, Slavitt crosses into that terrible event again and again, not so much in detail, but in both memory and meditation:
Sweet as apple cider, yes,
but rather dowdy, like a loose housedress
with flowers on it. Ida, she decided,
wasn't her, and she would not abide it.
Many girls reach more or less the same
conclusion and reject the name
their parents happened to give them; only a few
persist in this notion and conjure out of the air
something better. Fred and Adele Astaire
were dancing together then, and they had chic
and style, as much as anyone the week
my mother went job-hunting and had to choose
something to put on the form. Few Brooklyn Jews
named Adele, but even Brooklyn was
part of America, with bright promises.
Adele danced into her mind, and it would suit,
she thought, as well as any. Not too cute,
not too plain, not Ida.
Years go by,
she marries, has two children. My sister and I
grow up. At length our father dies, and she
is killed, and only then, when it falls to me
to order her grave marker, do I learn what
her real name was, from her elder sister. But
not real: her friends, her children never knew
Ida was what she once had answered to.
Adele, she chose herself. Therefore, I put
that on the order for workmen to cut
into the stone.
from "Ida" by David Slavitt
With such plain detailing, Slavitt takes us into the heart of grief, into those moments when we find out something we wish we'd known before. The rhyming couplets only add to this with a touch of that irony we all know well from "happier" losses than this one. Memory and discovery become the dominant themes when death crosses our stage. What is most striking is that the poem is so fully realized; there is nothing hidden here, nothing for a secret sharer. The result is heartbreaking.
...our parents, we realize, lied
and teachers too. As pavement melts in the hot
truth we are forced to acknowledge, underfoot,
old certainties give away and shimmer. Raise
your eyes, and the very buildings wriggle. Often
we wear of comforts' burden, imagine that load
jettisoned, somehow: in front of some tropical hut,
our poorer but richer selves encounter a fate
utterly other. We respond to the strange duress
enlarged and even ennobled. Desperate and fine,
we could live from moment to moment, dangerous, lewd,
and almost animal lives of love and hate,
impulsive, but weighty in risk of utter defeat.
At light, we dismiss the idea as pure caprice....
from "Pentina: A Drive Through A Bad Five Blocks" by David Slavitt
We try awfully hard to avoid such thoughts but on some days they can't be stopped; and it would be so much easier to throw it all aside and live like feral dogs. So many already do. It makes for a world that is the thinnest of shells over bubbling, furious chaos.
Touching bottom, there's nowhere lower to go:
this must be the it we've always dreaded,
and yearned for too, its certainty. But it
changes, shifts, betraying us yet again
as contours revise themselves; sandbars appear,
erode, and reappear; there are also wrecks....
from "Bottom" by David Slavitt
Such work hardly needs commentary; again, there is no effort to conceal anything. Grief doesn't lurk behind the shrubs and trees like an unwelcome guest at a garden party. It walks out to greet you, try as you might to avoid it.
It wasn't to gain the world that we put our souls
at risk -- but only to know that the world is there.
Our body's boundaries bound us, closed us in.
Beyond was mother, was other, and we were othered,
orphaned, as often enraged as enraptured: we sickened
from "The Penitent Peters" by David Slavitt
As in other poems, there's a touch Auden here, in the rhythm and phrasing, the internal rhymes, and the directness. Mostly of all, there's Slavitt's unrelenting ear and eye.
...St. Andrews, why not a piper? Nevertheless,
the kitchen is northern Italian, some higher-up
having drawn the line, thank God, at haggis. It works,
one must confess, and that nature, naked, requires
tinkering. No place, no event is ever
sufficient unto itself. At Pebble Beach,
tee shirts allude to Maui, as there, to here.
To sit still, to be wholly where we are
and be content even with luxury, sunsets'
spectacular shows of the sky and the sea, demands
too much, is too expensive, exclusive. Heaven!
It's almost all one could want. But it costs the earth.
from "Poems Written on Hotel Stationery" by David Slavitt
As above, and thankfully, not all of the poems in this collection are wound about shock and grief; for a change of pace, we're given a variety of poems as the previous, and others, such as the dark but sometimes amusing "Job's Wife:"
Consider, in its verso version, Job's
story -- as that of his wife, who is never named.
What he suffered, she suffered, but then
she would not be appeased by the new herds
of sheep and camels and all those oxen and asses.
The three new daughters and eventual seven
sons of the whispering concubines, she hated,
mourning her own children, cursing heaven,
and holding fast, as her distracted mate
was unable to do, to the hurt that throbbed
at each beat of her unconsolable heart....
The resolution of this poem, as the many other strong pieces (and sometimes very funny poems as well), is left to the reader for whom Crossroads is highly recommended. This book is not easy, nor is it brand new (1994). But it's in print, well worth looking at, as other older books have been in this page's archives of reviews, because Crossroads is a clear example of how poets can address tragedy not as a matter of personal therapy but of public meaning. It seems likely that one cannot have one without the other.
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