A Review by Forrest Gander

The King is Old? Long Live the King!
Life and Death by Robert Creeley
New Directions, 1998 $19.95.

For more than forty years, Robert Creeley has forged a signature style in American poetry, an idiosyncratic, highly elliptical, syntactical compression by which the character of his mind's concentrated and stumbling proposals might be expressed. In many ways, what Creeley finds essential to poetry is what improvisational jazz musicians like Keith Jarrett and Mal Waldron emphasize, the process of composition. "I see as I write," Creeley has noted, and his poems are less "Emotions recollected in tranquility"-- as Wordsworth described his own project-- than linguistic enactments of the emotional conflicts at work and war in any present moment of conscious awareness. Reading his poems, we experience the gnash of arriving through feeling at thought and word. If Creeley talks about writing as seeing, he takes for granted that the poet, like the lover, can see with his ears. Quick internal and end rhymes, jumpy rhythms, and subtle sonal patterns generate the expressive music of his poems. Besides his famously distressed syntax, there are significantly returning figures in his work-- those repeated talismanic words such as echo, window, light, here, there, distance, face, place, among others. In the very relativity of their reference and intonation (light changes constantly, here adjusts around us), they emphasize Creeley's insistence on rejecting any "hold" on meaning in word. So the poems propose that truths are ongoing, mutable, and subject to endless interrogations and revisions.

As ever, in his new book, Life & Death, Creeley's very ideation seems often directed by sound and word play rather than vice versa, as if poetic thinking were always, in all senses, a sounding. It is typical of his style, in the poem "Credo", that a series of assertive statements beginning "I believe" come to manifest equal attention to the phonemes of "believe" as to an explication of Creeley's beliefs. When the second stanza continues

    By your
    leave a leafy

    shelter over the exposed person

those newly introduced images-- leafy shelter, exposed person-- and expressions--by your leave-- which extend Creeley's meditation, indicating that belief can be a shelter over the exposed ego, have been generated most clearly by audition.

Although Creeley's poems have always seemed closely connected, pieces of a singular lifelong project, those of Life & Death emphatically engage Creeley's own earlier poems and those by other poets, contemporary and otherwise, belonging to that notable company Creeley keeps in mind.

Although Creeley's poems have always seemed closely connected, pieces of a singular lifelong project, those of Life & Death emphatically engage Creeley's own earlier poems and those by other poets, contemporary and otherwise, belonging to that notable company Creeley keeps in mind. Consequently, these new poems function, in part, as palimpsests, revealing multiple layers of memory and literary reference. For instance, when we read in the first long poem, "Histoire de Florida,"

    . . . truck's broken
    down again: no one left
    to think of it, fix it, walk on

we are likely to recollect both William Carlos Williams' lines from "To Elsie"--

    No one
    to witness
    and adjust, no one to drive the car

--and the last lines of Creeley's own poem "I Know a Man," written in the fifties with more than a nod toward Williams:

    drive, he sd, for
    christ's sake, look
    out where yr going.

Such "echoes" can be thematic, imagistic, or syntactical. When we encounter in "Histoire de Florida" the line "As if, and why not," we hear the "shall we &/ why not" of an early Creeley poem. A phrase from a new poem, "the dense/ persistent light," is redolent of an older "quiet, persistent rain." When Creeley writes of being "Locked in my mind," we may recall the question he asked in a poem forty years ago: "am I to be locked in this/ final uneasiness". Often, Creeley seems to be reconsidering investigations he made when he was younger or revising his responses in light of an increasing awareness of mortality, a central concern of Life and Death. In "Pieces", written in the sixties, Creeley asked

    How much
    money is
    there now?

    Count it
    again. There's

Now, in his seventies, there is not enough money, if money is time. Creeley apparantly remembers that poem when he writes now, minus the earlier optimism,

    he counts his life
    like cash in emptying pockets.
    Somebody better help him.

But he isn't only growing gloomy, darkening his responses to the essential questions about life. If Creeley is keenly aware of his body's ache and predictable decline, he finds himself also capable of a happiness particular to his experience. Thus at the end of a recent poem, "Credo," he turns to address his love:

    As it gets now impossible
    to say, it's your hand
    I hold to, still
    your hand

Such statement instantiates a tenderer, more satisfied and domestic gesture than Creeley described years ago in the "hands unreasonable/ never to touch" of "A Form of Women" or in an early poem wherein he orders his hands to

    . . . re-
    occur, else-
    where on
    some other

Perhaps it is domestic contentment which is communicated as well in the surprisingly regular syntax and rhyme of some of the current poems. "Present (Present)," for example, carries itself along in mostly end-rhymed trochaic tetrameter: "What is William (Raymond's) tome/ Where have all the flowers gone?" Usually, however, Creeley uses rhyme (and consonance) in more radical modes, often as a kind of connective ligament that supercedes common syntax. When, for instance, he writes in "Thinking," "Was it a book I'd read/ said death's so determined," the immediacy of the rhyme, "read/said," jumpstarts the logic connecting the two lines with a sudden lurch. Rhyme substitutes itself for the missing pronoun that or which. In the same poem, one of many invoking the poet's childhood, Creeley notes that as a boy he had walked

    back past the Montagues
    from the ice pond
    and rotting icehouse
    held the common pigeons

Again, the normative pronoun (icehouse that held) is superceded by an aural link, this time consonance, as the h of house and the h of held snap the lines together into a sense which stresses its own making as music. In any stanza, minor epiphanies of sound propel the poem forward in small heuristic leaps, encouraging in the reader a sense of mass and momentum. And meanings adhere to the musical phrases which tend to be orchestrated more by enjambment and line break than by punctuation. When Creeley writes of the way life's continuum is fractured in memory and reconstructed-

    salvageable bits
    but incommensurate
    chips yet must
    get it back together

--the short i in bits, in, chips, and it create a leading pitch. The short u in but and must, the growl of sur and ther, the chime of yet and get, and the three b's and five s's conspire to bind the stanza together, tight as a molecule. As we simultaneously attend the sonal and semantic features of the stanza, the patterned sounds organize and intensify the poem's expression.

One of the longer sequences in the book, "The Dogs of Aukland" finds its occasion in an extended trip to New Zealand. Like Hello, the book Creeley shaped from journal entries while traveling in the South Pacific, "The Dogs of Aukland" shifts back and forth between Creeley's memories and his present. Dogs, which readers might observe are "wandering the roads" in many of Creeley's poetry collections, compose for him another, parallel and unobstrusive company "yearning/ toward union" (as he notes in the book, His Idea). Locked in their dogness, incapable of speech, but living among people, dogs become the perfect figures for Creeley's own dogged battle to escape himself in order to become more deeply involved with others.

Much of Life and Death concerns Creeley's shifting sense of the place he is in. Sometimes that place is home, sometimes it is his "figuring mind," and sometime, for him and for all of us, it will be death.

So these poems continue the great tug of war that marks his earlier work: inside pulls away from outside, the individual who is redeemed in a company (or family) strains against the isolated Valerian poet trapped in his own obsessively churning mind. Creeley, like George Oppen, thinks of Robinson Crusoe and wonders "when it all became so singular". He "looks at his wife, children, the dog, as if they were only// a defense. Because where he has been and is cannot admit them." Isolation seduces and terrorizes him. But at times, as toward the end of "Edges," Creeley rediscovers that "One is included." "No one is one," he writes ecstatically in another poem, "No one's alone/ No world's that small." His self-concern shatters when a daughter calls to say she is pregnant. But it creeps back. He is, we are, inevitably composed of both impulses, the tug to be a part and the tug to be apart. In one of the most expressive of his new poems, Creeley gives each impulse a voice and alternates them. So "There" ends with the writer

    locked in doubt

    between all this
    only myself
    and that too again.
    trying to get out

Much of Life and Death concerns Creeley's shifting sense of the place he is in. Sometimes that place is home, sometimes it is his "figuring mind," and sometime, for him and for all of us, it will be death. "Perhaps," he writes of the world, "the whole place is a giant pier out/ into nothing, or into all that is other, all else." In the poem "Credo," this image of life's pier is transformed into "A plank to walk out on," one which will not, he realizes, "so continue." The time is coming when that pirate, Death, will say "Jump!" What place then? And how prepare for it? The crescendo to Creeley's meditation on place comes at the end of "Histoire de Florida" when he laces his own lines around lines from Wallace Stevens' "Anectdote of the Jar," finding in Stevens' meditation on the way imagination gives form to the world, a singular example of a means of being. Creeley may be thinking again of Stevens when, further along in the book, he finds himself wishing for

    just one moment, a place
    I could be in where all imagination would fade
    to a center, wondrous, beyond any way
    one had come there, any sense

Life and Death is a boney, moving, exigent book bearing on the essential experiences of a particular life, on an endlessly interesting consciousness. In their technical precision and in their lovely compacting, Creeley's poems engage the past and the present with a sustained attentiveness, even as they engage us as readers. Welling with emotion while they eschew sentimentality, the poems are self-contained. But they admit themselves also a part of a company and a conversation. Privileged are we who lend our ears. Life and Death is a marvelous and important reading of the meanings of a life.

Previously published in The Boston Review.

    Forrest Gander is the author of several books of which Science & Steepleflower (New Directions, 1998) is best and most recent. This year he is Visiting Writer at Brown University.

    Production work by John Carle.