Tourist in Hell
by Eleanor Wilner
University of Chicago Press, 2010
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Eleanor Wilner specializes in a medium-sized poem made to seem the larger by a finely-tooled rhetorical control switch. She is one of those poets who often sounds happier in literary English than in the patois that is all of our inheritance (and in which, notwithstanding, she seems to find no aesthetic issues in using). It would not be obvious to first-time readers, but to those of us who have followed her career, it's nice to be reminded just how wide, flexible, and variegated her range is. And yet it's no wonder to find that the language agreeable to her Muse often comes from the more literary side of the spectrum, marking her affiliation with a more senior generation and netting much of what is implied by that affiliation. Often too, her cargo seems to travel a long distance, coming from myth to moment. The far end of those psychic and biological caves, where our narrative paths began to emerge like turtle's footsteps providing forensic evidence of our origins are now more evidently remote than ever, the way back choked with distractions. For Wilner, the classical stories retain their ability to speak to us, thanks to the fact that their ambiguitiesby no means diminished by modern utterancepush against, but are contained by, the outlines, the configurations of their principle images, their figureswhether footstep or profile.
When they are not being only abandoned or superseded perspectives, the classical promises us the lure of the most ancient questions in some fashion close to their original formulations. Pursuing them presents us with binary options: the then and the now. The then is dim and must by metamorphoses such as those poems specialize in acquire the luminance of proximity, of the now. George Seferis, another poet obsessed with linking origins to present moments, writes of the name of an obscure king, bound for Troy, whose catastrophic destiny, like a solar flare, projects this merest piece of identity (his name in the catalog of ships), this true representation of authenticity, into the present. At length, though, as the narratorstourists)lose steam and interest, it again submerges and recedes into the roster of those who came to offer their lives to war in the hope that chance would find them at last on the side of right, if not of victory. What is suggested then, is that we are Baudelairean lecteurs of just such calamities, whose responsibility it is to hold off "all oblivious enmity" one more time, by one more thread (or in Ariadne's words, a "clew"), be it ever so thin:
. . . I am only the echo of a voice
Husk of power king of cobwebs cast off shell of the cicada
the singing insect long since flown memory a spectral thread
broken line across the centuries perforations
a place to tear open again the rift in time . . .
This is from a section called "Voices from the Labyrinth" that recalls the myth of Minos, Daedalus, the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne. Wilner knows that the poet aspires to the status of Daedalus, but confesses that "we were ourselves the labyrinth/ and the clew" ("Ariadne"). Part of the labyrinth's gift to amazement lies with the realization that these players aren't people, but masks and personifications, and that it would be nearer to the truth to say that we are the labyrinth itselfa constructthan to insist that we are sealed identities, persons of robust authenticity. And so it is that we are also the thread out of ourselves: the clew, our clue. Wilner's approach is to take up classical myth and fit those transformations to the present (all myth, in a sense, being present, just as the past and memory are).
In "Thinking about Unamuno's San Manual Bueno, Martir," Wilner meditates on Unamuno's great story of an unbelieving Spanish priest who refuses to come clean so as not to disillusion his simple parishioners. Maintaining what is in effect a lie, he reaches toward what he considers a higher truth. In Wilner's retelling,
Late in the story we learn
he did not believe in the hope
he kept alive believing as he did
(like his author) in the sustaining power
To which we might add, believing "like this author." If history is hell, then a liethe right liedoes not offend it. The point is not that a fiction is a "lie," but that "fiction" is always an equivocating term, as the Shakespearean Wilner recognizes. It is in exploring the fissure that divides a fiction as a falsehood from a fiction that constructs that Wilner's poems take hold and illuminate. In "The Show Must Go On," she references drama as a famous vehicle of such equivocations:
The play had been staged as long as we could remember,
a sordid drama in which truth kept changing sides,
the name of the enemy was never the same;
sometimes the players poured over the edge
of the proscenium, spilling into the audience,
who ran terrified from the house
that had become a scene of massacre; sometimes
the drama played at a distance relaxingly remote,
caught and burnished in the bright little
dollhouse screen, so far away it was no more
than fireflies in a bottle, mere hiccups of light
the carpet bombing, the village, torched.
For all that she likes the sustaining power of fiction, the desensitizing effects of aesthetic distance do not go unnoticed because, as Kafka (another master of the labyrinth and the Lie) knew, at the end of the day, there is no longer a meaningful distinction to be made between the aesthetic and the moral.
So at one end you have the existential person, entirely wrapped up by and in languagemoreover, language that is aware of its status as linguistic construction. At the other, you have the last emanation of a person's beinga word, a name. Or it could even be a word that no longer signifies a person but is merely a placeholder for a human singularity. Horace boasted that the linguistic animal could monumentalize itself, and Shakespeare (one of Wilner's household gods) promised that, as death-defying inventions went, the poem was a good bargain as a destiny, albeit a cold one. Yeats followed in this. It has been traditional to see the Horatian/Shakespearean boast as art's coping mechanism for responding to our natural discontinuity. In "Ariadne," Wilner brings the classic within the scope of the boast:
Daedalus serves a new god
and I a foreign figure
in a greek story
the Greek key is a maze
it is their design fit
for the walls of their temples of stone
finding us weak
they took what they say we gave
I shall free mself
from that fiction
as soon as I find
the right turn
a way out
At the center of "these lines" is a word: Seferis, whose work haunts about the edges of Wilner's poems, says it is a name. If that is so, then the name, the final registry of people, the final placeholder, lies at the center of the labyrinthine destiny. Given a clew (thread), one might reverse the direction, or if that isn't possible, represent a reversal in much the same way that formal, recursive art "reverses" timeor at the least, rewrites it in a way that favors us more. What makes Seferis a point of reference here is the suggestion that Wilner shares a belief in the scope of poetry (or at least the scope of a certain kind of formally strict, rhetorically-powered poem favored by literary cognoscenti) as having some ongoing business with the facts of names, be they ever so remote. Meanwhile, she never loses sight of the fact that the poem, too, is cast into, or upon, the future, even as it immediately begins receding into the past. Readers will not be surprised to find her cautioning against a too-fond belief in art's abracadabra. For example, in "Encounter in the Local Pub," she is
like a man who wants to hang a hammock
in his yard, to let its bright net cradle him, but only
has one tree, so hewild and aware of itknew
he had lost the order he required, and with, it, rest . . .
By contrast, in "Restored to Blue," what we would, we are,
So look away, or look: today the sky
is cloudless as a canvas used exclusively for blue
and filling in the blanks seems nothing more
than sport, a game to leave behind, a way to keep
the mind from knowing that the blanks, though
time and time filled in, return: a cloudless sky
we're meant to read as happiness, and so we do.
Although a formalist, she relishes the elasticity of form in a way reminiscent of May Swenson, who also made her way by syllabic path-finding. In "Meditation on Lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73," an elegy for Julia Randall, Wilner considers the endlessly readable "When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang." In such a sequence (like the sequence of seasons, of which it is a parodyand yet no parody) we discover,
But most of all, I love this line because
I hear by heart, when that "do hang"
rings at line's end, the deeper sound . . .
What better way of writing an elegy for a friend than of employing Shakespeare as intermediary and intercessor? The dead poet (Randall) is described as the "fierce critic/ of the failed melodies of mediocrity..." In the Shakespeare sonnet, "where late the sweet birds sang" establishes birdsong itself as melody. Rhythm, by contrast, is a traffic barricade. Songnot meaningis the thing. Or rather, song is the meaning. Hence birdsong is central (not Eliot's "jug jug to dirty ears"), and hence the appearance of the critic who practiced criticism on the basis of such "meaningless" melody. Also like Randall and May Swenson, the neo-formalist Wilner has an interest in not simply adhering to classical principles of containment but in following more idiosyncratic paths, in moving ahead, where others would fold. In "Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD),"
when the beekeepers arrive to see to their bees
in the spring, the colonies have collapsed,
the dead bees tumble out like pieces from
an old game, the dried comb crumbles
at a touch, no milk and honey left to spill...
in the rutted rows of stumps, the olive grove
(what were we thinking?) cut down, the hum,
a wind in the ghostly trees,
grown louder nowdead bees
in the phosphorescent flowers
tossed in an open tomb.
The poem itself is about ecological closure, and I take it as a mark of her poetic intelligence that her own investigations of closure depart from the expected, if only, as Larkin memorably put it, "that so many dead lie around." Among the voices not heard and yet heard with the inner ear here are poets as diverse as Virgil, Milosz, Linda Gregg and Robert Hass, poets whose imaginations find Mediterranean light agreeable. Wilner brings these poets along, not in imitation, but in a more remote camaraderie of aims.
In "The Gyre," she imagines the custodial ennui of the historian/cartographer, whose world, recreated in book and map become "the world unmade." The Yeatsian title tilts us into the direction of the widening spiral of scholarship and intellectual mastery, until "syntax and sense" come to seem synonymous with comprehension:
as centuries and cities fall, cascade
into the landfill of history . . . worlds born
on the waste of those that came before.
As a glowing cloud of smoke will hang
over a burning dump at night, and the bears
and raccoons come out, eyes shining in the dark,
to paw through the smoldering heaps
just so the historian sits, sifting and sifting
entrails, cornices, motives, bonesall
that is left to be indexed and filed,
rearranged, given syntax and sense;
Similarly, in "Wreck and Rise Above," she considers the contrast between fact (wreck) and interpretation (rise above), finding the vocabulary of transcendence, the "vertical direction of virtue," illusional and yet, as with magic tricks, not without "wonder" in view of
all those bodies not exempt from gravity,
beneath our notice as we ride
above it all, like froth on a wave
that will be water falling by the ton,
soon, when the tide turns.
Such a tsunami of souls takes us to Keats's paradoxes, of unsung melodies and frozen harps:
But for those of us who stayed, the absence
of the trees grew larger, and with it,
the sky, which began its vast retreat
into the past, light years away . . .
("Larger to Those Who Stay")
Here, vividness itself is situated on irony, and to the extent that it is, is a kind of "reverse art." Is there affirmation in private irony? There are analogues in the classical worldwhich is both absent and fictiveand therefore rich with implications (and complications). It raises the question: does implication have (can it have) the force of assertion? This is in turn another way of asking whether secondary utterance, i.e., criticism, can have the force of art. Such writing invites a sigh of Stoic fatalism, a mid-course correction to the long bloody slide. However, the darker sense comes through without the usual hints of doom that, like too much acting, can sink a poem.
As with Hamlet, it is possible to track the play's development by reading the soliloquies, so with Tourist in Hell, it's possible to do the same thing by reading the sequence of section epigraphs. Beginning with Hegel's "Man learns from history that man learns nothing from history," we move to the irony of the infamous "Mission Accomplished" of Bush/Cheney, to Ovid's "then all but failed to find his own way out again," to Milosz's "I was left behind with the immensity of existing things." As a thematic arc (and it is an arc), the book travels a Romantic distance, spiraling back upon itself, but with evidence of its own chastening, and on a higher plane. Wilner is not a poet much enamored of redemptive promise, but neither does she throw up her hands. There is about as much redemption as a clear focus bestows on a picture, and isn't that enough? Speaking of epigraphs, it is Hayden Carruth who supplies Tourist in Hell's lintel-piece: "What do you think hell is if it isn't history?" How to move the mind (if not the body) around, given this sobering malediction is the question that this collection poses. Michel Tournier has remarked that "writing can only ever be rewriting, not just the rewriting of key myths but also conscious and unconscious inter-textuality." Myth, then, does not try to circumvent history, but to provide historical creatures formal narrative opportunitiesnothing resembling closure, mind you, although poems are closed, aesthetic wholes. But even form's enclosing arms embrace commensurable events in human life: we identify, sympathize, and imagine in ways so often an outrage to the aesthetic sense. And what is an effrontery to the aesthetic sense is an affront to the moral sense too.
This is a big, moving and intellectually satisfying collection by one of our most humane, wise, and intelligent poets. I was recently aghast to read the syllabus for a graduate-level contemporary poetry course at a local university. For one thing, there was nothing of the real diversity of our national poetry hinted there, although the tone of self-congratulation on this score was evident. But what most struck me was that poets of Wilner's stature, of which there are only a handful, were themselves completely absent. And it occurred to me that I didn't know whether a book working at this level would stand to redress such an omission. But I do know the students are thereby impoverished, and not withstanding the fact that graduate students are bellwethers of nothing, such a narrow and partisan readership as that syllabus showed can only imply that the split between academic and literary culture works to the advantage of neither.