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Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays (The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan)
Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays (The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan)
Robert Duncan
University of California Press, 2012
875 pp., $49.95

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Micah Mattix


Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays

Style and revelation.

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I endeavor in delivering to deliver the speech from all truth spoken into its true form. I strive in inscribing in its different lengths the lengths of description, the lasts of all passages of literal understandings. I arrive in the reiteration of all the relations at lengthy vacations of ordinary prose in poses of poetry.

Compare this with O'Hara's remark in "Personism" that "You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.' "

Yet, if Duncan's poetics lead him to indulge in too much self-aggrandizement, The Collected Early Poems and Plays reminds us that he also wrote some of the most stunningly beautiful lines in postwar American poetry.

Like Wallace Stevens, who was (perhaps surprisingly) a model for Duncan, he had a gift for metaphor and cadence. We have, for example, "the beckoning intimation of a love / in which the days like swallows flew, / one by one, from the heart's dim grove / to trace in their flight the lineaments of truth" (from "I Am a Most Fleshy Man") and these lines from "An Elegiac Fragment":

The women in the many chambered dawn
lean their sorrowing heads up their arms
and gaze.
They wait in quiet rooms.
Women I have loved and in the flower of fear
touchd and gazed upon.
They burn at the dream's windows.
My far away brides.
my heart asks for you, asks for you,
and my eyes
seek the deep waters in those wan smiles

The consonant /m/ captures the quiet sorrow and the quiet desire of both the women and the speaker. The comingled hope and despair are expressed wonderfully in images of openings and closings ("many chambered dawn" and "dream's windows"), compounded by alliteration ("flower of fear" and "deep waters in those wan smiles") and repetition that create a sort of crescendo, ending in despair, not exultation. "I have been doomd," he writes in the final stanza, "Woman, / the Egyptian night surrounds you."

This is Duncan at his best. Unfortunately, he was not always this good. He lacked Stevens' logical rigor and interest in the material world, though Peter Quartermain reminds us that Duncan was "an inveterate and at times obsessive reviser of his work." He is Stevens without the blackbirds, oranges, or scenes from Key West. His work too often is nothing but style and form, which, unlike the above lines, simply bores.

Because it is limited to a concrete subject, some of the best work in the volume is from the early chapbook Medieval Scenes. Here Duncan limits his free associations and metaphorical play to objects and scenes of Christian devotion and the medieval period. (He had taken a class on "Civilization in the Middle Ages" in 1948.) In "The Helmet of Goliath," Duncan writes, Goliath "heard his armour creak / and grow alive with its increasing weight / and felt a cooling night creep on the land," and in "The Mirror," he muses on the invention of the mirror, describing the reflection of a woman's smile as "a rose of broken teeth." And in "The Adoration of the Virgin," a poem on a statue of Mary, Duncan writes:

She is not innocent. But, virgin,
she has known God. Her draperies
fly up, unfurl, and are caught,
at war with the surrounding air,
carved in a wonder and brushed with gold.

The volume also contains two plays by Duncan, which are too ponderous to be emotionally compelling, as well as much of his uncollected work. Duncan did not always publish his work directly following its composition, and one great contribution of the volume is a helpful chart of the dates of composition and the dates of publication of all of Duncan's work. Quartermain does an admirable job of introducing Duncan's work and providing helpful contextual notes for all the works included here.

This is the second volume in the superbly produced Collected Writings of Robert Duncan from the University of California Press, following the 2011 publication of The H. D. Book, edited by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman. The Collected Later Poems and Plays, also edited by Peter Quartermain, and Collected Essays and Other Prose, edited by James Maynard, are scheduled for 2014.

Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature and review editor of The City at Houston Baptist University. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, First Things, National Review, and other publications. He recently launched Prufrock: The Books, Art, and Ideas Newsletter.

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