The detached voice in contemporary poetry demands attention. It reflects a stay against the complex, paralyzing contradictions of life. There is a progression of detachment, an increasing withdrawal of self into the pure act of seeing. Some might ask, how else to respond to the perceived, spinning vacuum at the core of the cosmos? In the multiple, dissolving planes of Anne Carson’s poetry–at her most playful, tantalizingly out of reach–we come upon a trajectory that is emblematic, if not definitive of the age.
In “First Chaldaic Oracle”, a poetic manifesto, Anne Carson examines the relentless pursuit of what remains forever out of reach. Her questing but playful voice, sounding through the architectural layering of tercets, captures the continual striving toward meaning, the poet’s elusive, shape-shifting art.
She sets the bar high, to an occult art, defining the challenge of her perspective–that one may move so far in and out, that there may be no self, only the dissolving state of perception itself. “There is something you should know / And the right way to know it/ is by a cherrying of your mind.” …
To hold an object with an intensity of gaze that would reveal it, both as itself and yet more than itself, becomes a sacred act and a sacred art–embodying the mysteries– in the work of Elizabeth Bishop. In her poem, “The Moose”, she writes with an impersonal, distancing effect that so precisely articulates the natural world that it moves into dream, opening new dimensions of perception.
Bishop begins with a long, mesmerizing evocation of Nova Scotia, the land “of fish and bread and tea,/home of the long tides”, with a sinuous line that moves from stanza to stanza without a complete break, rising and falling like the tide itself to capture the feel of travelling through the late afternoon.
The music of quiet end rhymes breathes like a sigh, as of a distant, infinitely patient watcher moving with the snail’s pace of the bus that “journeys west . . .down hollows, up rises” along the south shore. We are drawn into a trance of seeing the landscape move past the bus windows as “the fog,/shifting, salty, thin,/comes closing in.” Everything is washed with it, “the sweet peas cling/to their wet white string/on the whitewashed fences;/bumblebees creep/inside the foxgloves,/and evening commences.”
MacEwen’s gift is her voice. In “A Breakfast for Barbarians”, she exposes the deep, insatiable appetite of the soul for its mysteries, cajoling us with confidence, humour and a Rabelaisian delight in the universe that few contemporaries can match. She takes risks, offering us a diverse menu of possibilities that brooks no demur resistance. She will have passion, she will have joy.
The poem with its mythic overtones opens with an echo of Mark Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”–addressing the reader in the intimate, knowing and suggestive voice that is MacEwen’s hallmark, “my friends, my sweet barbarians”. With the authority of an oracle, she asserts the claim that underlies all of her poetry — “there is that hunger which is not for food”. And then the transformation begins as a third eye seizes the centre of appetite, as it seizes the poem itself–“an eye at the navel turns the appetite/round” — enacting the turning point with the pivot “round” isolated on the middle line of the opening stanza. The first meal of the day becomes a visionary sacrament, “the brain’s golden breakfast” with its heraldic companions — “eaten with beasts/with books on plates” — an aside resonant of bookplates, claiming an ownership of extravagant proportions. Immediately we know we are in the territory of the soul, the insatiable landscape of MacEwen hunger.