Search View Archive

Carolyn Kizer

Carolyn Kizer, COOL, CALM AND COLLECTED: Poems 1960-2000 (Copper Canyon Press, 2000) $30 hardcover.

Readers will be pleased at the sheer size of Kizer’s Cool, Calm, and Collected Poems. After all, we are accustomed to equate care with parsimony. At 400 pages, it will appear that parsimony was not her vice, while care has ever been a virtue. Wisely arranged by decade rather than by book, Kizer’s nod to chronology is a wager that the justice of time transcends time’s erosions. The arrangement can now demonstrate not only the evolved contours of a career that moves from the 1950s’ neo-Metaphysical formality à la Theodore Roethke (her mentor), through a depressurized period of Chinese impersonations, to a stretch typified by the brilliant, bipartisan conspiracy of formal achievement and organic free play. This book also reveals an evidentiary dimension—impossible to ignore—that shows each decade as producing a brace of memorable poems. There are no dry decades, no queer gaps requiring explanation: the days and the years made poems possible, not—as was too often the case for her peers—impossible.

And what poems they are, passionate alike in love and denunciation, never merely witty when they can be hilarious, never sad when they can be heartbreaking, Olympian, self-justifying. Intuition knows that ends and beginnings touch, although self-divergence, as Miss Bishop told us, paradoxically mediates such wholeness as it may be our lot to achieve. Wittgenstein likened human life to a rope: although no individual strand goes all the way through, the rope is continuous. What is continuous in Kizer are the conditions for song, combined with a sense of poetry as a discipline whose longed-for outcome is the union of image and voice presided over by occasion. In her work, beauty is not suspect, and this also means that evil is real, not a rationalized inverse of a positive (it appears, for example, urbi et orbi, as cruelty). Over nearly 50 years her impressive consistency has been maintained in a realization that voice both chants and enchants. In this dual maintenance, even the sorrows of history and nature can find their necessities destabilized, just as plain fact can surrender its ordinariness. As the lover admonishes in one of her admirable Chinese “imitations” (“Summer Near the River”):

Come, tease me a little!

With such cold passion, so little teasing play,

How long can we endure our life together?

Keyed to a different register, the same voice—tender, teasing, in-the-know, colloquial—can sing an apocalypse into being:

We are coming down the pike,

All of us, in no particular order.

Not grouped by age, Wanda and Val,

her fourth husband,

Sallie Swift, the fellows who play bridge

Every Thursday, at Mason’s Grill, in the back,

Two of them named George.

We are all coming down the pike.


Rereading the early formal poems, I was struck by the fineness of the inlay—not only a reflection of the artisan’s pride in construction and line but of the subtler and at present very much out-of-fashion notion of “finish.” This is the stylistic closure that implies not fidelity to a mimetic ideology, but in Nelson Goodman’s sense, a “world-making”—in other words, not situated among occasions for recording, but represented as invention. Robert Lowell called attention to this distinction in the 1970s and registered his anxiety not only that invention (world-making) was hard, but that simple mimetic acts—descriptions, say, of facts and states of affairs—might be beyond his grasp. For a poet, Kizer is blessedly free of such intramural anxiety, and this confidence in the power of words to stay where they’ve been put gives her literary production a sense that authorship and authority are not cognates but synonyms. In this, she is perhaps more postmodern than she imagines.

While she began to develop a reputation in the 1950s as a poet of high promise, it was the appearance of (what eventually came to be) a work-in-progress, the (then) satirical Pro Femina that announced an agenda both playfully subversive and subversively in earnest. However, Pro Femina’s connection with the poet’s first volume, The Ungrateful Garden, is so profound that one wonders at its inclusion among the Chinese brushwork of the next volume, Knock Upon Silence, a fact that only the chronology of composition is in a position to explain. Pro Femina’s precursor and companion poem from the first book is the great “A Muse of Water.” In that poem, woman is a shape-shifter connected magically, metonymically, with water while the “march” of civilization unfolds its stiff-jointed diorama. The point is that insofar as civilization is a march it can’t be much of a civilization: the excluded half is precisely that which doesn’t march, but flows freely. It can be “harnessed” to man’s needs, but such a need to control can’t escape a certain breath of perversion, his nature’s taint:

And yet these buccaneers still kneel

Trembling at the water’s verge:

“Cool River-Goddess, sweet ravine,

Spirit of pool and shade, inspire!”

So he needs poultice for his flesh,

So he needs water for his fire.

The last poem in the present book and the poem that now concludes Pro Femina—“The Erotic Philosophers”—rereads St. Augustine and Kierkegaard, twin pillars of patriarchal rectitude who locate what will become the Western master’s (i.e., the male’s) self-important dysfunctions in the ambivalence toward sexuality and women. Kizer now locates the ground zero of feminism in this same ambivalence. But the Roman, stentorian clatter of the earlier revision of Juvenal (the opening section of Pro Femina) is superseded by a more bemused I-told-you-so that is notable for its tolerance, as the earlier was for its scorn:

We women,……

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.”

Now we see (and the chronological layout reinforces) the possibility that Pro Femina may be profitably read not as a single poem (although the poet calls it that: “a poem”) but as a series of poems related by theme and refined by an evolving dialectic of resistance and homage. This dialectic, like the muse of water, shifts in turn from satire to narrative to meditation. “The Erotic Philosophers,” we learn, is in part an affectionately ironic tribute to Kizer’s philosophy teacher at Sarah Lawrence, Charles Trinkhaus. So concludes Pro Femina. The distance from there to here may be charted by innumerable graphs, but none more telling than the graph that discloses a poet’s willingness to mill privacy into public discourse while managing to retain its affective skin. Many of Kizer’s best poems go back to biography and emerge as situated memories, memoiristic descriptions leading inescapably to judgment, with a number leading—as with her poem of seeing (and being seen by) Professor Einstein—to spots of time pure enough to suit any Wordsworth. Nor do the increasing forays into memoir and—inevitably—elegy spell out a loss of rhetorical muscle-tone. That outer coat for which she has been praised is still being worked, though the application is more relaxed, more settled and timed by event and recollection than predestined by form. And there is that beautifully controlled (and controlling) vernacular.

Kizer once criticized the (male) Western poet’s obsession with elegy as an implicit necrophilia. Preferring the chronicles of friendship by which Chinese poetry holds, as it were, a mirror to the West’s infatuation with absence, the years since the 1960s and her poetry’s purifying journey into chinoiserie have reinvented elegy’s utility, as the gathering shades take their place in the larger chorus: teacher, lovers, parents, other poets and friends from time immemorial became the subject of recent elegiac treatment. One of my favorites for the 1980s is the poem “Gerda,” which fixes, and so in part restores, the memory of a beloved Swedish maid and nurse, banished by her parents during the Depression, whom the desolate child can restore only through linguistic conduits years later in another language—English. It is but another step to see elegy as one of the covers for self-elegy, as in the recent “Trio,” where the poet’s name rhymes with the very singing it has every hope of becoming:

Some say sorrow fades.

I shall carry my sorrow forever

After I smile farewell

To those who led me here.

Only joy endures.

I pace the days along,

Three shadows follow after:

Two who were tall and fair

Are caroling behind,

And a third, who had no song.

Issues of history and tradition need not always require elegy to transact their business—translations can accomplish many of elegy’s purposes without the intrusion of the personal. As I argue in a book on Joseph Brodsky, translations are honorific elegies by virtue of the attention (one would hope total) they direct to the absent poem, the poem “under” translation. Having said this, I will only add that Kizer’s translations, as they mediate the terrain between stringent integrity and vernacular correctness put here in the company of our best poet-translators: Merwin, Wilbur, and Pinsky—good company indeed.

In Kizer’s case, translation also becomes a means of engaging the political imagination, which in other poems is often left to fend for itself before resolute forms as “mere” content. Because her social commitments are seldom at variance with her deeper desires (they are often her deeper desires), her political poems are some of the best contemporary instances of this notorious (for Americans) terrain, so frequently vexed and tainted by the very idealism that gives it character. The early, anti-McCarthian “The Death of a Public Servant” still threatens to make Jeremiah re-materialize after all the elegiac consolations have grown remote: “A poet, to whom no one cruel or imposing listens,/Disdained by senates, whispers to your dust.” More recently, the anti-Fascist “Valley of the Fallen,” begins with a casual, girlish introduction (then 1946) to a new friend, who confides that she is sticking with her abusive husband. Just so, politics contains ideology, and not the other way around, a hard thought for so authentic a feminist sensibility as hers:

One day I have to ask,

“Maisie, why did you ever marry him?”

Gazing into her large, pale-blue eyes

That brim with rue: “Well you see

He fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.”

“Oh,” I say. I would have done it too.

Her positions and credentials are well-known. Her Who’s Who entry bristles with original self-fashioning: religion: Episcopalian; politics: socialist. Who but an artist could incorporate such a congeries and keep course, let alone a straight face? Reading the old poems, I was moved by the force of their rightness, their intricate solidity, hilarity, savoir dire, existential coherence, and joy in the face of every challenge to these things (challenges that are often the subjects of the poems). And I was struck by how every deployment of theme invites variation so that an outward-facing, yet self-referential figure begins to emerge with a force resembling logic.

But it must be said, too, that a poet’s collected poems inspires ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the understandable urge to sum up; the same urge may occasion regret for the reader: when we approach anything like a total oeuvre, the figure that this work makes loses its mystique to its warrant to be comprehended. Since her debut in the 1950s, Carolyn Kizer has proceeded from presence to eminence, but with the gradus ad Parnassum comes the danger that one’s reception will become less than critical. It has happened before. But the use of a volume like this is that it trains us to stay on point, not to be dazzled by reputation, but as she puts it in Pro Femina, to “get back to the meeting.”



David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of the forthcoming The Dissolving Island, a book of poems (BkMk Press), and coeditor of the forthcoming Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry (Virginia).


The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues