Friday, March 02, 2012

`Artifice Far Beyond Any We Understand'

A stray remark by Eric Ormsby in “Fine Incisions: Reflections on Reviewing,” an essay collected in Fine Incisions (Porcupine’s Quill, 2011), led me for the first time to a poet who was almost my neighbor for twenty years:

“When Brad Leithauser devotes a long essay to the virtually unknown American poet Peter Kane Dufault and brings his work to a wide public…[he is] enacting a form of justice.”

Dufault turns eighty-nine this year and lives in a cabin he built in Hillsdale, N.Y., about fifty miles southeast of Albany, in Columbia County, a beautiful setting of horse farms, apple orchards and second homes for part-time Manhattanites. Moses, Samuel and Jerome Horwitz, better known as Moe, Shemp, and Curly Howard, grew up nearby in Chatham, Washington Irving lived in Kinderhook and Martin Van Buren was born there. I once interviewed Sonny Rollins at his home down the road in Germantown.

Politics and poetry, like Drano and black coffee, don’t mix, and from the looks of it Dufault is something of a crank, but I was intrigued enough by Ormsby’s mention to find three of Dufault’s books in the library: Angel of Accidence (1954), For Some Stringed Instrument (1957) and Looking in All Directions: Selected Poems (2000). Many of the early poems are devoted to the natural world, especially birds, trees and weather. Dufault has a good eye for detail but the power of his poems is too often blunted by his fatal attraction to rhapsody, to singing his heart song like a moony teenager: “Ah, / trees are still in Eden.” Leithauser usefully orients us to Dufault’s sense of form:

“I would place Dufault, or at least a good many of his poems, in a twentieth-century constellation whose earliest-emerging star was Marianne Moore, and which includes Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Amy Clampitt. These are all hybrid poets, blenders of formal and free techniques, and the landscape of their prosody might be likened to a marsh during a thaw: a mixture of the formal, in the lacy regimentation of the ice crystal, and the free, in the surge and sweep of snowmelt.”

Dufault is at his best when he’s neither preaching nor emoting, when he sticks largely to the facts.  Here is “A Downed Butterfly” (Looking in All Directions):

“Yet here it is. This is meant
and is no accident. (How
speak of `design-by-
accident’ and not stultify
English?) One can allow

“being whacked by a windshield
in mid-hover and killed. That
is accident. But not this,
every index of artifice
in its mesmeric format,

“and artifice far beyond
any we understand: Two
red-orange smouldering
discs on each dun wing
like planets, one in full view

“the other occluded.—What
on earth do we make of it? I
already imagine things—
like harp-shaped shadowy wings
wide as the night sky

“and rimmed in such blues
and ivories and rainbows, such
astronomies!—and that sure-
ly God looks a lot more
like this than like us.”

The gratuitous beauty of a butterfly’s wing surely exceeds its evolutionary function: “and artifice far beyond / any we understand.” Leithauser says, “He’s as fine an `animal poet’ (a designation I imagine he’d wear with pride) as any American now going.”  At his best, when he’s not channeling Walt Whitman or some Occupy twit, Dufault is a fine poet of the objective world, and we can never have enough of them.

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