The poem "A Refinery" from Pinsky's The Want Bone (1991) and reprinted in his recent Selected Poems (2011), shows the first of two qualities that the poet possesses and that usually, as Lowell reminds us, stand apart. I refer to the ability to invent, and the obligation to remember. Invention, because it imitates the gods, stands higher than memory, but the latter, it must be noted, because it generates the Muses in the first place, has the prestige of precedence. Just as familiar dualisms leap to the aid of scholars keen on pidgeon-holing literary producers of one kind or another, so similar tanonomies—continuous-discontinuous, formal-free verse—and so forth bring us to the brink of useful insights, as long as they don't ossify into doctrine. The invention-memory distinction points not to incompatible dispositions, but to some useful things to be known about the ether, that medium where poetry itself is air, before it becomes a strapping thing of sharp, often heavy detail. In this poem, the gods are awakened and descend, by special train, like Lenin to the Finland Station, across the star-sprinkled sky down to Northern California, where they arrive at their real shrine, an oil refinery, which gleams at night like Disney World or Pandemonium, whichever you prefer. Now the very idea, abstracted and pitched, is likely to strike sober folk as darkly whimsical, at best, frivolous at worst. But this is to neglect the dogged and dark muscularity of the language.
Their long train clicked and sighed
Through the gulfs of night between the planets
And came down through the evening fog
Of redwood canyons. From the train
At sunset, fiery warehouse windows
Along a wharf. Then dusk, a gash of neon:
Bar. Black pinewoods, a junction crossing, glimpses
Of sluggish surf among the rocks, a moan
Of dreamy forgotten divinity calling and fading
Against the windows of a town. Inside
The train, a flash
Of dragonfly wings, an antlered brow.
I was recently driving to Baltimore, some 5 hours away from my home, and I happened to put on the audio book recording of Pinsky's celebrated translation of The Inferno. I had read a few cantos when the book came out, and I had no doubt that it was a more-than-commendable effort. I was certainly not expecting the sound of this Anglo-American Dante to exhibit the density that Heaney brought forward from his Irish Anglo-Saxon when translating Beowulf. After all, that poem alternated between fanfare and cudgels. Yet the liberal Jewish intellectual from New Jersey and the medieval Catholic conservative from medieval Florence shared a natural disposition to take language away from abstraction and return it to its demotic angularity. Moreover, it stood to reason that a poet of Pinsky's canny surveillance and sizing-up of opportunity would mine the words that supplied hell's Final Vocabulary, this noplace where sensory overload kept the hero on the verge of fainting like a Victorian heroine, much to the exasperation of his stern and belaureled poet-guide. The sinew and knotted energy of that translation are apparent in his poems too. Dante, that consummate hedgehog, liked to work in the muck, finding and wiping off the meanings found there. It's a closed system, after all, and the whole, infernal as it is, echoes point-by-point, as if reverse engineered, the living creation above. Pinsky is drawn to the muck too, but there are no closed systems available to him. Still, there is the modern irony of the living dead. There is, as well, the acknowledgment of surprise, of the pathways out into strained nonsense and inarticulate wonder both (see "Ode to Meaning"), just as the inward tracks land our Masters before their viscous hive, the refinery. And what better word could there be for the work of the poem, or for that matter, the descent of barbarous gods, more at home in the chthonic stone than the etherial reaches?
The muttering gods
Greedily penetrate those bright pavilions—
Libation of Benzene, Naphthalene, Asphalt,
Gasoline, Tar: syllables
Fractioned and cracked from unarticulated
Crude, the smeared keep of life that fed
On itself in pitchy darkness when the gods
Were new—inedible, volatile
And sublimated afresh to sting
Our tongues who use it, refined from oil of stone.
The wonder extends, too, to the child's discovery that aphids are suffered servitude as the chattel slaves of ants, and that therefore function and ownership, including hierarchy and directive, operate according a system of ancient behests that seem to bypass Darwin to land at the feet of these monstrous Originals:
The gods batten on the vats, and drink up
Lovecries and memorized Chaucer, lines from movies
And songs hoarded in mortmain: exiles' charms,
The basal or desperate distillates of breath
Steeped, brewed and spent
As though we were their aphids, or their bees,
That monstered up sweetness for them while they dozed.
That "monstered up sweetness" could have come from the alternately fraught and stingy pen of Jack Gilbert. It is, you might say, cultural memory. I suppose the dozing gods a nod to Yeats' sleepy emperor, himself nodding, for whom art is a distraction to keep unconsciousness at arm's length. Pinsky also performs the work of personal memory, raising and placing it in the historical stream. Several of his best-known longer poems, including "Sadness and Happiness" and "History of My Heart," arise out of specifically personal regions to be reemplotted in larger settings. This trait has contributed to the sense that he is as close to a "public poet" as we have had, pace Robert Lowell, i.e., Allen Ginsberg, and Billy Collins. He is also the bright student of his destiny, approved alike of parents, friends, and critics. But such patronage can be a liability, as Lowell sensed. Better to clock your father, as Lord Weary did, or veer off into Cheeverian caricatures, as Collins does, to make a public place for the inner poet. Pinsky gives the impression of being just such a smart student, but he dodges the eventual resentment that comes back to haunt preciosity, and he refrains from biting the hand. He does this by showing how this intelligence, following its own nose, leads inevitably from memory to imagination and back again, like Ezekiel's ladder to and from heaven, like the railroad of the gnarly pagan gods, until we arrive at those aphids and the micro world is now the world in toto. In his final essay, Rorty remarked that "reason can only follow paths that the imagination has first broken." He goes on to note that words—imagination's transport mechanism—precede all moral and intellectual progress.
Pinsky is fond of anecdotes, particularly as they hint at tears and anomalies in the cultural fabric. At the basis of every image casting its glowworm light on the poetic line, there lies a story, a bestirring that gets the molecules going until, at length out of gas, they are handed over to—to some—regrettable circumstance; to others, the utmost in consolation, namely to metaphysical existence. Here is one from "The Street":
Once a stranger drove off in a car
With somebody's wife,
And he ran after them in his undershirt
And threw his shoe at the car. It bounced
Into the street
Harmlessly, and we carried it back to him;
But the man had too much dignity
To put it back on,
So he held it and stood crying in the street:
"He's breaking up my home," he said,
"The son of a bitch
Bastard is breaking up my home." The street
Rose undulant in pavement-breaking coils
And the man rode it,
Still holding his shoe and stiffly upright
Like a trick rider in the circus parade
That came down the street
It's that old school "dignity" that makes the youth flinch when it shows up shorn of quotation marks, but here it's exactly le mot juste because it raises the prospect, not only that the humiliated cuckold's possession of the qualities present in this noun suddenly lies under threat, but that it's a word whose moral coverage is shared by the onlooker, the poet, and, it is hoped, the reader. To which half of a room of readers will respond, "Thanks for sharing!" but that the other half, his half, gather instinctively around the wronged man in solidarity, giving his sense of personal laceration the widened significance of a tribal wounding. Such a solidarity provides a justification for cultural memory. In "If the Dead Came Back," Pinsky observes,
The dead who know the future require a blood offering
Or your one hand accuses the other both lacking any
Sacrifice for the engendering appetites of the dead.
"Engendering appetites"—that's fine. The prepositional phrase "of the dead," on the other hand, has caused no end of mischief for lesser poets, as Pinsky is aware. There was a time, not so long past, when you could easily find poems (and book titles) with howlers like "Valentines of the Dead." You get the picture. Sometimes such a solecism is a necessary component, and one is put in the paradoxical position of using a dead phrase to propel a live one into place. Thus the poet, in laying out the fact of paradox, spreads the cards in their spectrum before us, like a croupier in a smoky room of serious players. Pinsky understands the paradoxical configuration of his lyric matter, indeed of his status as a public poet who is deeply drawn to memory's images, the hallmark of privacy. The welcome success of his status notwithstanding, his intelligence learned quickly to finesse the contrary, often obscured claims: one requesting articulation before the polis, the other demanding the language that gestures to the mystery of subjective feeling and utterance. The finessing becomes itself a subject and comes to stand for the difficulties inherent in all mediating poetries. I am not suggesting that the poet wishes to represent some aspect of poetry's difficulties of address in the midst of words' sometimes Elizabethan ease, even eloquence. Like the man who has been returned his shoe at the site of his outrage and humiliation, Pinsky wields something like a dignity of circumstance that transcends the bullshit besetting lesser bards. Sometimes playing against type, he declines to show that he can, once more, orchestrate the polysemous parts of larger narratives by selecting the Beckett option of downsizing the means, both to discover what will suffice (that's a given) and to put the less-is-more paradox back on display as an emblem of the poem's inverted reach in the face of baroque temptations. His well-known "Samurai Song" shows the type:
When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.
When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.
Pinsky manages intelligence so that it doesn't snuff out magic on the one hand or succumb to self consciousness, which Baudelaire taught us was death to the artist, on the other. By intelligence I'm not referring to IQ, but to the literary manager's highest degree of consciousness and sweep. When you cross the Wittgenstein line that separates what can be said with what can only be turned back from (most poets would substitute gesture toward), Pinsky is more willing than most to accept the glossolalia that brings the ineffable to mind, although it doesn't takes the ineffable's measure. He makes a distinction between what lies beyond articulation's reach, which might on a better day be said, and what properly speaking, and in fact, is unutterable. In the first instance, he writes "thing" poems, poems of definition, as if to suggest both the precision that can be brought to the definer's art and the infinite Borgesian pathways, of time and perspective, that neutralize the very concept of demarcation. In the second instance he nods to neologisms and scat-singing (his love of jazz evident). That which is not (words) then becomes the picture (in nonce words) of a condition we may now experience. Poems with this feature are not numerous with him, but where they occur, they stick: in "Gulf Music," for example, the title poem of a recent collection. The renaming of assimilating Jewish is another instance of this linguistic slippage ("...you could say "Morris" was his name. A Moshe."):
The New Orleans musician called
Professor Longhair was named Henry Roeland Byrd.
Not heroic not nostalgic not learned. Made-up names:
Hum a few bars and we'll home-la-la. Who ohma-dallah.
They also accompany disaster, and it doesn't take an Adorno to tell us that words are not adequate to describe. Gulf Music brings us to the national disaster that was Katrina, contingency itself bearing down on the cradle of jazz (itself the cradle of musical contingency). Thus the definition poems are intended in some way to show the reach of articulation. It's the old Elizabethan confidence that whatever can be conjured out of the depths or met in experience can be offered forth in language. Consider the opening of "Jar of Pens":
Sometimes the sight of them
Huddled in their cylindrical formation
Repels me: humble, erect,
Mute and expectant in their
Rinsed-out honey crock: my quiver
Of detached stingers. (Or, a bouquet
of lies and intentions unspent.)
Pilots, drones, workers. The queen is
Cross. Upright lodge
Of the toilworthy, gathered
At attention as though they believe
All the ink in the world could
Cover the first syllable
Of one heart's confusion.
From the Neruda-esque and Adamic thing-poems that open the Selected Poems, as if qualifying floor exercises, to the magnificent long poems on which his early serious reputation rests, Pinsky's career has been in some way a meditation on and demonstration of the vexing relationship between intelligence and language, on the ability of the former to monitor its idiosyncracies and adjust accordingly and on the latter to supply the right word horde. It has also been a career that steers between the two towers of fact and imagination. Indeed, these markers correspond roughly to the contest between articulation and the intimation that something important lies beyond the Wittgenstein limit.
Doubtless if Pinsky never received another kudo or epaulet, it wouldn't make any difference. He doesn't need more name recognition or face recognition (in some benign way he doesn't look like a poet. He looks rather like a physician—"and that," as Yehuda Amichai once remarked, "is a good thing!"). Pinsky needs readers worthy of the full-voiced challenges that deal in reckonings, that examine the ways we must finesse experience to accomplish our pilgrimages, readers who understand how divergent pathways have origins in disruption and discontinuity. He needs readers who do not turn up their noses at having to do their own metaphysical, psychological, and literary work. These are readers who likewise have a hunch they may find themselves momentarily exalted, both in the poet's public struggle to fashion the image until it gets as close as it can to iconic status—and in the image itself. And yet, I despair that Pinsky, for all his honors, can get his due. For that, we would have to meet his ambition in making poems with our ambition to complete such a circuit with a stranger, accessible and well meaning though he is. Such a meeting almost always falls subject to diminishment by the deflationary expectations on the part of the readership, that is, poetry's readership. I am reminded of the ending to Chana Bloch's "Tired Sex," where she says the subject is "like turning the pages of a book the teacher assigned— / You ought to read it, she said./ It's great literature." And yet the teacher is right.