In Brief: March 01, 1998
By Jorie Graham
109 pp.; $22
From her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (Princeton University Press, 1980), to her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dream of a Unified Field: Selected Poems (Ecco, 1996), Jorie Graham has drawn the attention of the poetry establishment's opinion makers. (Her honors include being elected to the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets and directing the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.) A prophetess of postmodernism and a cult figure to thousands of young coffeehouse philosophers, she has also gained a degree of celebrity rarely attained by contemporary poets.
Graham's new book, The Errancy, will not, however, add to the luster of her reputation. What electrified the literary world 17 years ago as an inventive approach to the English language has turned into a dialect all Graham's own. Her poetry draws its form primarily from stuttering, dreamlike speech patterns, which she conveys with heavy use of parenthesis, quotation marks, hyphenated phrasal nouns, and "mysterious" pronouns ("thing," "it," etc.). Graham has always italicized words and phrases the reliability of which she doubted or the mystery of which she wished to enhance. But in The Errancy, her italics are cliches. They refer to the canon of Graham's own poetry more than anything else.
Here's an example of several of these effects at once: "the place of disappearance has disappeared, / it cannot be recovered, his eyes darting over the moving waters, / and how a life cannot be lived therefore, as there is no place, / in which the possibility of shapelessness begins to rave, / and the soldiers awakening, of course, to the blazing not-there."
There's not much story to follow in The Errancy. Judging from the title, one might expect reference to some epic mistake—say, the Fall. But Graham is referring instead to what she perceives as a lack of essence at the heart of our experience of the world, confounding the desire for certainty and closure. This intention is signified by an epigraph from Sir Thomas Wyatt ("Since in a net I seek to hold the wind") and allusions to such elements as "the Emperor's coat." In the notes at the end of the book, she identifies the meaning of the title with its etymological root errare, "to wander."
Much like her close friend John Ashbery, Graham depends on the flight and trajectory of thought to carry the reader through the poem. The reading of or listening to a poem should push one back upon the soft soil of consciousness, Graham wrote in her introduction to Best American Poetry 1990. There are specific events, objects, and people mentioned in this kind of poetry—even direct quotes from elsewhere in literature—but the reader comes upon them as one comes upon items for sale at a flea market: many very specific but miscellaneous items.
The fact that Graham is more unrelentingly serious than others who write in this vein also works against her. Part of the attraction of surrealism and its offshoots is a certain levity, a distrust of lofty pretensions. In poetry, Ashbery and James Tate use humor to great advantage. In art, there's Rene Magritte's C'est ne pas une pipe. Without such leavening, Graham's Errancy seems merely self-indulgent. It might be too late in the century to pass this off.
Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen
By Jervis Anderson
418 pp.; $30
Reading this engaging story of a pioneering civil-rights leader was like old home week for me. In the early 1940s, Bayard Rustin and I were field secretaries of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (for), and we both plunged into civil rights because of our religious pacifist convictions, he a Quaker and I a Church of the Brethren theological student. From 1941 to 1945, he roved the country full-time; I did my FOR work along with my college and seminary studies. Rustin and I were also active in the War Registers League, the NAACP, and the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE), founded by him and James Farmer.
With his charm, charisma, and musical talents, Bayard was a star, I a foot soldier. After Pearl Harbor, we and a half-dozen other young FOR staffers redirected our energy into fighting racial injustice, including the treatment of interned Japanese Americans. We marched at British consulates to protest Gandhi's imprisonment. In 1943 in Chicago, we participated in one of the first sit-ins, 17 years before the landmark lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. Thirteen years before Rosa Parks sat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, I had taken a seat in the back of a bus in Virginia and for the same reason—to protest Jim Crow.
Rustin's spiritual and political pilgrimage was similar to mine, except for his brief involvement in the Communist party in the late 1930s. He soon quit when he realized that the party's "primary concern was not with the black masses," but with promoting Moscow's expansionist objectives. We both opposed America's entry into World War II. He refused to accept alternative civilian service and was sentenced to the penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky, where my brother was also serving as a conscientious objector. While there, Rustin fought racial segregation and mail censorship, and taught courses in English and music.
After Hiroshima, our paths separated, but our convictions developed along parallel lines. He resumed his for work, and I spent three years in postwar relief work in Europe. On return, I followed the movement but was not an activist. We both moved away from our earlier utopian views and embraced a just-war approach. Viewing the Soviet Union as a threat to justice, freedom, and peace, we became Niebuhrian anticommunists.
In significant respects, as documented in Jervis Anderson's narrative, Rustin, a black aristocrat and Harvard intellectual, was a trailblazer for, and later a close adviser to, Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the springboard for King's nonviolent crusade. Rustin also organized the 1963 march on Washington where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Anderson sketches a convincing portrait of Rustin as a complex, almost enigmatic man, driven by his ideals of peace and justice and tormented by inner tensions that were almost his undoing. Intelligent, articulate, engaging, and with a fastidious British accent, he appealed more to artists and intellectuals than to the larger public. From youth, he was a promiscuous homosexual, and in 1953 he was arrested and jailed in Pasadena on "a morals charge" after police found him with two young men in a car. His mentor A. J. Muste, head of the for, had been fully aware of Rustin's sexual preference but felt compelled to fire him after the Pasadena incident for publicly embarrassing the organization. In a contrite response, Rustin said that while sex was a very real problem, the deeper issue was his selfishness and pride. He begged for forgiveness.
Despite his acknowledged flaws, Rustin continued to devote his considerable talents to the cause of justice and freedom, hanging his hat at the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a rights organization named after the man who had organized the sleeping-car porters. In the 1960s, Rustin became increasingly critical of radical pacifists who opposed U.S policy in Vietnam. He was troubled by King's angry 1967 speech at Riverside Church accusing Washington of being "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Joining Ralph Bunch, Roy Wilkins, and other black leaders, he criticized King for linking the civil-rights struggle to the peace movement, to the detriment of both. In 1972, he supported the hawkish Hubert Humphrey over the dovish George McGovern for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Rustin also grew increasingly distrustful of militant and separatist tactics in the civil-rights movement and was critical of Black Power, black nationalism, and Black Studies. Like King at his best, Rustin opposed racial quotas and advocated a colorblind society with equal opportunity for all.
This is a rich and well-documented book, full of quotations and anecdotes. Jervis Anderson is calm, factual, and even-handed, almost too much so; one looks in vain for his own appraisal of the man he worked for as a researcher and obviously admires. (He dedicates the book to Rustin's grandparents.) Nonetheless, Bayard Rustin emerges from these pages as a consequential fighter for human dignity without whose legacy America would be a poorer place.
—Ernest W. Lefever
With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer
By Susannah Clapp
Alfred A. Knopf
Bruce Chatwin was during his lifetime one of the most talked-about writers in Britain, but not usually because of his writing. It is true that his books—especially In Patagonia and The Songlines—were and are widely admired for their stylistic polish and their resourceful blurring of the edges between travel writing and fiction. But Chatwin's vivid personality and eccentric behavior provoked far more conversation. This new memoir, by Chatwin's former editor at Jonathan Cape, explores Chatwin the character, and suggests that the conversation is not likely to end soon. That may be unfortunate.
Chatwin's first career—as a curator at Sotheby's, the famous London auction house—was spectacularly successful, but at age 26 he rather abruptly quit in order to study archaeology. Only gradually did he drift into writing, which was for him an outgrowth of his passion for travel. He was likely to turn up anywhere at any time. He had a small but brilliant collection of art. He was married, but had many sexual affairs with men. He was fascinated by nomads. He became deeply attracted to the Greek Orthodox Church, and when he died—in 1989, at the age of 48, of complications resulting from AIDS—he was buried according to the rites of that church. This perplexed his elegant London friends, who assumed his interest in Orthodoxy to be purely aesthetic and were apparently dismayed by his insistence on pursuing it beyond the grave.
Clapp helps us to understand the appeal of Chatwin to his many friends and admirers, but she is at a loss to explain his Christianity, which probably was far more than merely aesthetic. Perhaps a later biographer will be more attentive. One also looks forward to the day when something of Chatwin's personal sparkle is dimmed by time, so that we may focus our attention on his work, some of which is quite extraordinary. The Songlines in particular, though flawed, is one of the more impressive books to come out of England in recent decades.
Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry
edited by Robert Atwan, George Dardess,
and Peggy Rosenthal
oxford univ. press
580 pp.; $35
The only problem with this splendid book is that sometimes poems translated into English lose the verbal punch that we must assume they possessed in the original. Otherwise, Robert Atwan and his colleagues have brought off the impossible by publishing an even more impressive anthology than the remarkable two-volume collection Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible, brought out by Atwan and Laurence Wieder in 1993 (and also published by Oxford University Press).
The 275 poems collected here illustrate "inspiration" in many different ways, from reverent reenactment to calculated blasphemy. As a whole, the book is overwhelmingly impressive in its testimony to the grip that the life of Christ has exerted on the human imagination—across time, across space, across radically different cultures. And so we have poems from the early and medieval church; from canonical figures like Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Hardy; from poets already known as Christian bards (especially Christopher Smart from the eighteenth century and R. S. Thomas from the twentieth); and from celebrated non-Western authors like the Nigerian Wole Soyinka.
Impressive as the cumulative testimony of the book is, it comes alive through the poems themselves. From modern Haiti, for example, Rene Depestre observes,
For the sneering smile of poverty
on gaping lips
there is no
Baby Jesus Christmas-time.
The seventeenth-century Dutchman Constantin Huygens expresses a different reaction to the same reality:
My soul, cease rhyming without rhyme or reason,
A mute humility is here in season.
Jesus' reaction to the dove at his baptism is the focus of lines from James McAuley, a twentieth-century Australian convert to Roman Catholicism:
He thanked the messenger
and let it go;
Spoke to the dust, the fishes and the twelve
As if they understood him equally,
And told them nothing that they wished to know.
Charles Peguy (1873-1914), who is to modern French poetry what the Christ-haunted Olivier Messiaen is to its music, writes about the burial of Christ:
All was over, that unbelievable adventure
By which I, God, have tied my arms for my eternity,
That adventure by which my Son tied my arms,
For eternally tying the arms of my justice, for eternally untying the arms of my mercy . …
From Ghana, Kofi Awoonor (b. 1935) describes an "Easter Dawn":
the gods are crying, my father's gods are crying
for a burial—for a final ritual—
but they that should build the fallen shrines
have joined the dawn marchers
singing their way toward Gethsemane
where the tear drops of agony still freshen the cactus.
While from Hungary, Bela Csendes (1921-96), who spent most of his life in communist prisons, provides this injunction to "Peter":
Know this: you have been called, and while the tear, shed for your sins,
for your betrayal, daily etches wounds,
falling on your face, it lays down scab on scab,
from wound to wound, providing strength for you,
and also to teach you that Salvation
has been ordained for every sinner . …
Of such numinous testimony to "divine inspiration," there is much, much more. Tolle, lege. Take it and read it.
Aaron Belz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in Saint Louis, where he is an interface designer for Schwa Digital Design. Alan Jacobs is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. Ernest W. Lefever is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The Irony of Virtue: Ethics and American Power (Westview Press). Mark Noll's Seasons of Grace, a collection of poems, was published last fall by Baker Book House.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.