Essays:

Instead of Proving Human:
A Note on Robert Frost's "The Most of It"
by Tim Scannell

Stages of Man and Earth:
James Ragan, the Poet Behind The Hunger Wall
by Maureen Holm
 

Essay:
Instead of Proving Human:
A Note on Robert Frost's "The Most of It"
by Tim Scannell

This is not a 'proper' essay. It is not intended to be. Its relaxed shape shows the way I read a poem to myself, to understand and enjoy it: slowly, word by word and line by line, part of speech, trope...what is first and what is last, and always, why, why, why. (And many more times than once I think, 'Oh, how clever of the poet...to tuck in that little nuance!') In short, I converse with a poem.

The Most Of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush - and that was all.

A little war between personal (he/him/it) and indefinite (all/nothing/some/someone) pronouns -- cleverly in the third person -- by some lake, near some cliff, at some time of day and in some season not identified. (We do know, however, thought and mood.) Still, remembering that poetry is a little war between a poet's flesh-and-blood ego and a poet's voice/tone/persona (at least if one wants to tell most of the truth), Frost uses only two subdued similes, "unless it was . . . as a great buck" and "like a waterfall." He reaches, then, an extreme limit, captures all of 'poetry' possible (without lying). Because, "unless it was the embodiment" is a phrase conjecturing soul, idea, principle, type as concomitant given -- a propitiatory conditional -- as in the embodiment of courage or a manifestation of "counter-love."

Now, we know that Frost never lacked courage in his poetry, never veered from the most nettlesome questions of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, pushing 'poetry' as deeply into Reality as humanly possible. However, is "The Most Of It" a concrete instance or mere personification? What other "original response" could be more eyebrow-lifting, more quizzing -- also, more problematic -- than this buck whose power pushes, crumples, pours, lands, stumbles, and forces?

The persona says, "nothing ever came of what he cried /Unless it wasÖ" this embodiment, this deer. And is it a symbol or metaphor or emblem -- or even, perhaps, the manifestation of "counter-love, original response"? If the reader willingly suspends disbelief, the stag is an original response, is real; if not, the poem qua poem only ameliorates/appeases/mitigates the persona's great fear, a "mocking echo." Perhaps.

Because, "instead of proving human" when seen, this embodiment, the stag, is not "someone else additional" to the speaker, rather, is an 'it' with its own character, intention and action, its own being, whose "horny tread" forces the underbrush and disappears. Now, that may or may not answer to the speaker's "cry out on life," respond to his keeping "of the universe alone." Frost, a tough taskmaster, a merciless teaser of a reader's whetted appetite ("unless"), offers a frustrating conditional whose inferential proof depends entirely on the thought and belief of the reader, on the inference the reader decides to draw ---- poet and persona having given the 'most' each can.

And so, in this fine poem -- sly, terrifying -- Frost boldly pares away the interfering self so that voice both can and may speak of some stead, may articulate some plinth from which to prevail. Yet, it is the reader's own thought which must conclude, his own voice that must answer -- and that is all (except for the rest of the 'most' whose tide rises and falls through one's own mental make-up, own spiritual girding of Fate-Destiny-Faith-Hope-Will-Belief).

(A former magazine editor and the author of hundreds of reviews and articles, Tim Scannell lives on the Pacific Ocean in Washington.)
 
 
 
 

Essay:
Stages of Man and Earth:
James Ragan, the Poet Behind The Hunger Wall
by Maureen Holm

Immigrant Native Son

Poet James Ragan began as a painter. Language was a resource quickly acquired to parry the jabs every immigrant child confronts. "Oh, boy, were there fights!"

To visualize Slovakia from the perspective of post-war Pittsburgh surely challenged insular, young minds. The lesser twin in a political amalgam, Slovakia knew a tradition as territorial wild card traded off between Bohemia and Hungary, much as Norway was prized and contested by Denmark and Sweden, or Poland by Germany and Russia.

While Ragan soon shed all traces of his parentís accent, he matured into their features: wide-angle Slavic cheekbones and a slight lift at the eyelidís taper as though predisposed to a smile. From them he bears as well the memories of place and event too deep to descend by speech, the a-verbal impressions bequeathed by blood. That legacy informs an inner kenning which he successfully transforms to idiom and sound.

Imagine if,
in the rehearsal of her lines so long repeated,
she had favored as a lostness in us all
the bestiary of our tribal greed.
("Hit and Run at the Pantages, II, RAPE")

In the Talking Hours (Herodias NY, 2000; Eden-Hall, 1979) and other individual pieces convinced the hosts of the 1985 inaugural International Poetry Festival in Moscow that they had found the unusual American poet, one who addressed the things that matter outside a country that "needs to be invaded."

It serves to recall that an Old Dealer had then just been re-elected by the nation that prides itself on youthful naïveté. Standing tall in trickle-down greed and star wars one-upmanship, he let pockets of poverty finance a B-movie High Noon face-off against the Evil Empire and beachhead adventures against the Grenadian mouse that roared. Why indeed address self-absorbed imperialism, beyond recognizing the oxymoron and then leaving its parsing to journalists? To paraphrase Milan Kundera: shared life -- and language -- is elsewhere.

We are faces phrased in voices,
lost vowels in the drift of innuendo
in a cityís dream.
("Purgatorio, c, WATTS")

Yeatsís four ages of man offer a paradigm for the phases of nationhood. The U.S. staged its first fight with doughboy body and walked upright in Europeís Great War, struggled second with the heart and saw its innocence and peace depart as Franceís can-do-better successor in South Vietnam. André Gideís words in 1918 acknowledged for a continent its midnight defeat in the battle with God, the fourth and last: "Nous savons maintenant que nous sommes mortels." The U.S. is engaged in the struggle with the mind, still just the third. If we are ever to leave pride behind, then, short of the invasion others prescribe for us, we do well to assimilate the blood memory of our immigrant native sons.

And with my hair soot red
as coals above my grandfatherís bones,
buried near the poems of Desnos,
I hurried . . . to holding cells
where brush wire and Jewish arms
in tubs of creosol
scrubbed all brains of the mindís eternal no.
("The Stone Steps to Hradc?any, c, TEREZÍN")

A Sense of Déjà-lu

Ragan sought out and honored his poetic antecedents as well. Begun early, his dialogue with them continues. Any student of poetry, practitioner or critic, must know the canon, heeding John Gardnerís cautionary that even a genius, if ignorant of the highest effects previously achieved, is doomed to search out the lesser. The more that Ragan conveys to those he mentors at USC, in Prague or New York is the potential for dynamic internalization of impressions won both on and off the page.

His own work realizes that potential in full color and with no visible trail to anotherís palette. Any "anxiety of influence" has long been overcome; the authority of his voice leaves no after-chime of "triumphal usurpation." Yet he could be a genial host on "apophrades," Harold Bloomís day of ancestral poets returning to inhabit their former houses, thus, the poems of their progeny.

But, whether appearing by invitation or intrusion, are ghost-sightings the most rational explanation for Bloomís sense of déjà-lu or do the best poets simply have unstudied access to a collective pool of elemental imagery? Raganís poem, "Zivanska," takes its title from the forest gathering of men around a fire to make music and roast animal flesh, a ritual identified with Janosik, the legendary Slovak bandit and folk hero.

After the doors were shut and the windows sealed
to let the emberís soft foot lie, my father
slapped the crystal clear of wine and rising
tall as Janosik, full of heart, whispered down,

"Grass is burning. Stags are in the wood."

And out into the green night and salt arbors
of the brook we followed the king of bandits
upslope through the branched spires and thickets
into woods where only mold and roses thorned.

Under a moon as low as a mushroom scone,
>we soured coals in sprigs and ginger grass,
and hidden as with any intention the mind deceives to rob,
the sparks saw into the burning earth

what flint of fire could set the night to gasp.
A crackling sound began to grow into the roaring
hooves of deer and longer still to racing herds
as bacon fat dripped longingly into laps of bread,

and onions skewered and spat above the fire spears.
In my fatherís fist the long wind reed became a switch
that like the last finger on a hand hooked
potatoes by the eye. Wine took the aching down

into the throat and further in, the heart of something
shook that only nature recognized as sound.
The grass had burned to snapping darkness and to the last
sobbing tongue, my father pointed down to silence,

"The stags are gone. Boars have killed their young."

And no one moved. The king of bandits sheathed
his spearhead into ground. None had known
that hidden in the wet rock of the August clearing
a boar, alone and sorry for its breed, had moaned and wept.

The American reader senses immediately that he has left the home continent, and entered a folkloric wood most last visited with the Brothers Grimm. One can envisage walking the green nightís brook to the thorning rose with Goethe, the first to write "from within." But around the fire, as the tonality takes on Rembrandtís tawny browns deepening to a leafy, blackened fringe, the keen, secret anguish is Rilkean, traced in hot by Dürerís exquisite hand with the costly, after-discovered blue of lapis lazuli.

The forest takes on a druidic feel with Yeats, but imagery and mood, cross-cultural, remain intact. His calls as hound with one red ear unheard by the white deer with no horns, he longs for the boar without bristles to root the sky of stars and end the world, grunting in darkness. ("He Mourns for the Change that has come upon Him and his Beloved and Longs for the End of the World")

Raganís "Zivanska" proceeds from shared legend to renewed private awe, from community to isolation. While wholly independent of Yeatsís lament, the painterly, elemental imagery chosen by each is strikingly similar; each voice suffers change and degradation in his role as pursuer. The lover, who all in green went riding to low-crouching hounds after red deer, of cummings, and Stevensís primal men at their flame ritual in "Sunday Morning" could form panels, right and left, in a narration by progressive tableaux of wooded, birdless romance whose players know, "there is enough evil in the crying of the wind." ("He reproves the Curlew", Yeats)

Birth-Wet and River-Deep

"I think I like my answer to that question!" James Raganís eyes, already so inclined, tip into full grin. "Itís something I always wanted to talk about." We are five poets and musicians in interlude with the grape on a lengthening April afternoon in New York, while design becomes dinner on the stove. With a paraphrase of Yeatsís "The Spur," someone has opened a free-for-all colloquy on the age limit imposed on passion.

Raganís response invokes more than the maxim of sensing anew; the key is his knowing anticipation of the next sip taken, kiss exchanged, love made. He expects more, not less intensity in the writing of his fifties and sixties. Implicit is a different turn on the benefit of familiarity to searching out the highest effects, and the value of a vintage sensibility, like that of Yeats, able in "The Spur" to objectify itself even while in their embrace.

Not leaving frustration unacknowledged, he reminds that Yeats also wrote from the extrapersonal rage and bewilderment of his interwar era. As a graduate student in the late 60ís, Ragan was overexposed to radiation treatment for bone spurs, developing a cancer which lamed him for two years, as anti-war marches led to wholesale revolt against U.S. bombings in Southeast Asia. Temporary handicap became permanent gratitude, both relative, both audible in Talking Hours.

Through Yeats and Eliot, among others, he appreciates the "pastness of the past," depending on it to merge present into future, excited when all commingle and the boundaries vanish, giving the lie to linear time. His share in the Slovak past no doubt implanted ken that spatial borders were more metaphor than reality, and in his upcoming sixth book (also from Grove), he deliberately folds and spindles both to cyberambulate at large.

Ragan was in Prague in 1968; a portrait he painted of a Czech girl omits her fifth finger. He was in Beijing not long before the massacre at Tien An Men Square. Then, with his second book, Womb-Weary (Carol, 1990), he logged distance and risk.

In the single dying of a stoneís
last breath there is progress
we will all come to
in time, falling, each of us
through the rain of our breath,
imitations of the Dantesque,
fused by the bodyís currents
down the chutes of Montparnasse,
birth-wet and river-deep
in bones descending.
("The Rivers of Paris")

Let All Buckets Fill

He has plotted around the world the fault lines become fissures that part rich and poor. In his third book, The Hunger Wall (Grove Press, 1995), he connects the globeís dots from the stone reality of Pragueís Hladová Zed, the WPA-like hill project of the compassionate Charles IV, to Berlin ("a symbol of nothing / more a wall could do"), through Native American community and myth, to a metaphoric have vs. want badly which collapses under the Turneresque valley skies of Rodney Kingís riot-riven Los Angeles.

On the day that fire swathed the clouds,
we heard the crackling of eucalyptus
ignite the distant barricades,
as if some Virgilian urge
had launched all minds into bereavement,
as if, in searching far from the fireís edge,
but for its madness we were so near to it,
raging with Cato on the rock lineís scree,
ĎAre the laws of the pit thus broken
or is there some new counsel
changed in heaven . . . ?í
("Purgatorio, b, MUDTOWN")

A "lizard Lazarus," more "hiss than grammar," prefigures Raganís next, expanded inquiry into the origins of violence, "a million years of stutters racing / hatred with fitful starts." ("The Skinhead") In Lusions (Grove, 1997), he tracks its evolution with reverence and humor from prehistoric pebble culture through premillennial seclusion to gratitude in "The Astonishment of Living," which urges, "Let all buckets fill, all loss be light," inviting elemental placation of the ravenous flame. Gravity soon re-exerts its "pull-step," and he takes up burden, personal and universal, in The World-Shouldering ĎIí (Grove, due out 2001). Suspicious of "trauma résumés," his courtesy is tried by self-termed "victims," whose injuries, exaggerated by privilege, rate minor in the planetary triage.

The Lyrics of Devastation

In six collections, Ragan has sought to ensure that each word earned its place, that all rhythms rang true. While that crafted approach remained constant, shifting affinities led him through phases, from image to sense to sound, before arriving at what he hopes is an equal-parts blend of metaphor, meaning and music. He tips his goblet toward the piano.

"At his lyrical best when..." is a phrase that appears with regularity in reviews of American fiction. Are boundaries blurring?

Ragan responds that the image-making mind, spatial where tenses merge free of linear time, is more easily rendered visually, with the immediacy of canvas or film. To achieve similar effects in prose demands verbal reproduction of dream-state flow and truncation, thus, stream of consciousness. Metaphor and mythos are automatic givens, the stuff of Freudian and Jungian examination. Poetry is the verbal means to the highest effects. Since the key is fluidity, lyric poetry may well be "the way in."

Does lyric poetry only ever deal with love and death? Ragan identifies the fallacy: The essence of lyric is song, argumentation, resolution, love and death merely the simplest cases to argue -- for enduring, against transitory, sometimes vice versa -- though certainly not the only ones. His "Purgatorio," like Picassoís Guernica, lyricizes rupture and devastation, completely persuasive of the way out.

In the community of dinner lit by two tapered flames, Ragan seems a man suffused with profound happiness and unspoiled sensuality. As we raise the red over white lace, his eyes angle down, replaying ceremonial imagery: from The Deer Hunter, its scene of spilt wine, from "The Wedding," his parentsí of spilt blood, memory, the way across illusory borders.

          and all she could think of
was the eye turned black
on her white trousseau,
          and all he could think of
was to steal away beyond the walls
the guards had bribed
each night to open like a cask,
          and all she remembered
was her breath tossed like a river
rasping over rocks and the wet
weeds of her bed when he left at dawn,
          and all he remembered,
was the year of nightly raptures,
and mourning in the cell he had grown
like stones around his head,
and all that each remembered,
was the passion they had married
to the slow want of an embrace,
a bridal dance to death,
          two continents
adrift in a world racing
past the Archdukeís carriage,
falling off its rims and spinning
slowly into ash.

(Also successful as a playwright and screenwriter, James Ragan is the Director of the Graduate Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He reads on March 29 at the United Nations, along with Yusef Komunyakaa and Joyce Carol Oates. See www.dialoguepoetry.org to order free tickets.)

[Versions of this essay have previously appeared in Lagniappe, II/2, Spring/Summer 2000 (SUNY Buffalo) and Paris/Atlantic, Spring 2000. Ed.]