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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas (Black Lawrence Press, 2012). He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review

Carolyn Kizer: Late And Last Poems

I was a student of Carolyn Kizer's in the late 1960s and early 60s and 70s at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In those days, boosted by tailwinds of the student and anti-war movements, young people were taking up Bics, Rapidographs, and even Pelikan 150s to write creatively as never before. Kizer had arrived at Chapel Hill with a positive buzz, having resigned from her job as first literary director of the NEA, the first of several significant pushback political actions she would take, endearing her to progressives. She had also published "from Pro Femina," a didactic wake-up call that women's liberation, as it was then called, was a thoroughgoing and life-defining stance, not simply a program to arouse righteous indignation in housewives. Yet her poetry, even then, struck many of us as lofty and arch—far from the demotic lexicon that we used. How was it, we puzzled, that her democratic sympathies lay so at odds with the often-aristocratic diction of her work? We learned over the years the uses of pitching language up, as a way of managing acknowledgment of content's importance. Her subject matter left us feeling that we worked on smaller canvases than we might one day be required to do. We were young romantics, writing what it felt like to be alive in such heady times. She was a classical poet who was as likely to people her poems with goddesses as with the ordinary Homo Sapiens who was her real subject. At one moment Olympian, the next understatedly Asian, she was fond of covering herself by saying, "classicism is just romanticism without all the excess." In this witticism danced all the contraries of her subsequent career: desire and restraint, smoldering content and chastening means, the call for political action and philosophical reflection.

Although she could be combative, her idea of the poetic culture to which she offered both loyalty and resistance, seems by present day standards benign. She believed in a tradition that included a laying-on of hands and the creation of artistic families. In her capacities as editor, arts administrator, teacher, contest judge, and literary board member, she helped launch and/or boost the careers of such poets as Lucille Clifton, Mona Van Duyn, Judith Johnson, Robert Peterson, and Richard Shelton. She also performed reclamation deeds for such neglected poets as the Brits Ruth Pitter and Bernard Spencer and similarly sought a spotlight for international poets: Shu Ting, Edouard Maunick, and Nina Cassian. An itemized list of her generosities—all in one way or another recipients of her patronage—could go on for pages.

It should not come as a surprise that she also believed it was possible to envision one day a summing up, to shape a final period that would exhibit something like an achieved coherence, aligning all her poems into a new force-field that would both render them anew and increase the intensity of the light in which they were read. In fact, she sought to give shape to her entire career, and her collected poems, published in 2000, should be read in that spirit. Whether she believed this at the starting out is perhaps moot, but such a belief follows logically from her formalism: to control some aspects of the future—where death, too, is waiting—is a worthy goal for an artist and bespeaks likewise a respect for the past, rightly understood. Such idealism notwithstanding, from the "intentional fallacy," keystone to the New Criticism, to postmodernist assumptions of our own day, the idea of authorial intention has undergone devaluation. Although the devaluations were usually local, they had global implications, including implications for career shaping as a predictor of one's reception. It takes a healthy ego to push back at such intellectual climate change, but Kizer operated under the assumption that it was so and indeed preferable to no attempt. It wasn't that she misunderstood the issues either, or thought that she was fighting a windmill in thinking she could fashion an oeuvre from her poems.

She had no patience with what she saw as the machinations of theorists, who sold poetry short. She saw her own feminism pass through the mill of academic revision until it succumbed, in her judgment, to the worst of fates that can befall a great idea: terminal obfuscation. It is not surprising that she trained her pen on the career trajectories of so many talented, yet minor, failed or compromised poets, whose paths were diverted because they were unable to bring determination to bear through no fault of their own—or for that matter, through venial faults aplenty. The poets whose careers were marred by self-inflicted wounds or premature endings seem somehow to become the objects of contemplation on the struggle of determination and chance in the making of careers. Often the poems suggested that they were concerned with the making of a body of work that might withstand what the existential body would inevitably find daunting.

Like her own teachers, she held to the notion that art provides an image of timelessness, and she subscribed to the idea that such an image is a necessary fiction. It seemed that when Hegel commanded modernity to historicize everything, Kizer did not get the memo. For many of her colleagues, the question was, was this a rock of truth upon which art could build its church, its tradition, its literary culture, in spite of the hungry generations other, or was it a necessary fiction to bind literary communities together in mutually flattering (or consoling), even ecumenical relations? In some larger sense, the answer mattered little, as succeeding generations would come along to breach the gap where present artists had fallen short. The main thing was that the larger machine of literary discourse had a kind of honor and integrity. The first beneficiary of this idea that art stood to mend what life could not was the artist herself. As work accumulated, it became both a matter for shaping and upward striving, as it matured beyond the mere sum of individual works. In this way too, poetry stood to correct—or at least exonerate—the life that gave it shape—the life that, unlike the art, knew it would someday come to a close. Why not a conclusion, then, instead of simply an end? Why not a chord, instead of silence only, that airless space where only literary criticism seems to find breathing room and cause for utterance?

I suspect that Kizer foresaw the end of her active writing career in light of thoughts such as this and took pains to conclude it so that the closure resembled the last movement of a symphony, with its restating of older themes with the added wisdom of experience: issues finally exhausted in satisfaction, dissonances resolved in consonance. When it comes to the final period, one likes to think that its accompanying style has both the privilege of final speech and a retrospective mandate to bring old themes into a new focus. In other words, insofar as the poet has a chance to give final shape, to do otherwise would be to succumb to a congeries. Of course, death and debility have other agendas, and thus the question becomes who the author of one's work will be—the poet or that poet's end? Preemptive ending is like preemptive criticism, an insurance policy taken out against the chief contingency of authorship—i.e., its very end.

Theodor Adorno, who thought a lot about lateness in terms of style and architecture, was of the opinion that, far from summing up, a number of great artists (Beethoven in his case) twisted free of the conventions that had sustained them and given them both the keys to artistic intelligibility and enhancement and the rewards that go with positive reception. Edward Said took Adorno a step further in showing how poetic power and fame were manifestations of cultural power relations between artist and community in which the art was countenanced and appreciated. For Said, the late period bore the relationship of an exile to a distant, though formative, country.

If Carolyn Kizer had anything like an exilic relationship to the culture that found her muse, it was the unfinished—indeed ongoing—business of feminism in the face of her own sense of winding down. It is in the uncollected poems in Cool, Calm and Collected—tellingly millenial in its subtitle (poems 1960 - 2000)—that we see two forces at work. In "In the Night" the poet is confronted with shadowy images crowding her bedside, against which she offers a temporary resistance:

      There are spirit presences
      around my bed
      waiting for me to die.
      They are in no great hurry
      nor am I.

In "Shalimar Gardens" we get another warning note, though this one, being aestheticized, comes across as less threatening:

      Here spirit is married to matter.
      We are the holy hunger of matter for form.

      Kizer you enter the dark world forever
      To die again, into the living stone.

Then follows a series of poems that pick up recognizable themes: feminism, politics and justice, the fate of poets at the mercy of chance, the presence of the past. It is notable that after the alarm of death's presence in the first two poems, there follow four elegies for (male) poets, each of whom is in some way affected by his relationship with a female partner. Once this Beckett-like mood of persistence in the face of minimal hope is established, she ends the section with her final poem, "The Erotic Philosophers," a text that, far from assenting to the views of the two philosophers under review—St. Augustine and Kierkegaard— takes these authors to task, and the very tradition of detached meditative thinking that underwrites their philosophies. This latter is the object of the complaint that, more than any other, spans Kizer's career and enunciates the formative issue of her feminism, namely, the contention that "Yes it was always us, the rejected feminine/from whom temptation came. It was our flesh/with its deadly sweetness that led them on.

"The Erotic Philosophers" is Kizer's last major poem, and its place among the canonical pieces—"Columns and Caryatids," the early version of Pro Femina, "A Muse of Water," "Singing Aloud," and "Fanny," her poem about the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, gives it something of the status of the last word, and thus it deserves the special attention of her readers. Kizer thought so in another way, as the poem bears a note that it should be considered the last section of the ongoing sequence for which she is best known, Pro Femina. When she made a similar statement, annexing the Stevenson poem back in the '80s it caused the raising of some eyebrows, for that poem was a dramatic monologue, now suddenly appended to a three-part Juvenalian satire. Not everyone was convinced that Pro Femina grew organically, although the poem was definitely a feminist reading of a woman who had sublimated her career to be the helpmate of her more famous Victorian spouse, the creator of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island. The detour Fannie took was to become an obsessive and finally a masterful gardener, but the obsession overwhelms and nearly consumes her—at a time when her famous spouse goes from triumph to triumph. In the last line of the poem she swears, "never again [to] succumb to the fever of planting," which, in turn, recalls the first line, "At Samoa, hardly unpacked, I commenced planting." With the emphasis on the repetitive and sacrificial nature of the sublimated muse, Fanny is left with nowhere to go, except toward the stance that Cavafy, following Dante, termed "The Grand Refusal." "The Erotic Philosophers," by contrast, tells us what we had all along suspected, that the hands of the masters weren't clean, that in their sense of duty,
                 ....Saint A. and Soren had much in common
      including fear and trembling before women,
      the Saint scared himself, while Soren was scared of us.

      Yes, it was always us, the rejected feminine
      from whom temptation came. It was our flesh
      with its deadly sweetness that led them on.

The indictment endures long after the resignation sets in:

      Think of the worldly European readers
      who took Soren seriously, did not see
      his was the cynicism of the timid virgin.

Kizer finishes the poem and sums up her career at the intersection where moral responsibility, psychological acuity, and poetic judgment converge:

      In Soren's long replay of his wrecked romance,
      "Guilty/Not Guilty," he says he must tear himself away
      from earthly love, and suffer to love God.
      Augustine thought better: love, human therefore flawed,
      is the way to the love of God. To deny this truth
      is to be "left outside, breathing into the dust,
      Filling the eyes with earth.". We women,
      outside, breathing dust, are still the Other.
      The evening sun goes down; time to fix dinner.
      "You women have no major philosophers." We know.
      But we remain philosophic, and say with the Saint,
      "Let me enter my chamber and sing my songs of love."

At this end, Kizer not only concludes with the final installment of Pro Femina and legitimates its inclusion, which is her conclusion, in the process), she does so by conceding that women are still "the Other." But thanks to the courtesies of language she still writes within a tradition by no means exhausted by timid male virgins or corrupt philosophies. Moreover, she asks now only to "enter my chamber and sing my songs of love." Thus the last published word of Kizer's active poetic career is "love," and thus love becomes the auspice under which the oeuvre can be seen. We close the book and remember Tillich (justice is "the form in which and through which love performs its work") and Rorty (work "not done under the auspice of love is not worth doing"). Two men, I note, who thought a great deal about the Other and the self's halting pilgrimage in its despite.