Monday, August 01, 2016

`The Soul's Familiar Angel'

“Boys in the wild wind fell
Like autumn leaves in a New England gale,
Or lay in swathes, blue as a Cape Cod pond,
Their fresh young flesh scythed down with ripened wheat
Or plucked unripe in orchards, berry patches,
Their bodies, under dying horses’ hooves,
Crushed like the late June clover their feet crushed
Hastening to Gettysburg.”

The speaker is Herman Melville in “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell,” one of four dramatic monologues spoken by historical figures and collectively titled “Crossing the Pedregal.” The author is Helen Pinkerton, whose life work, consisting of more than seventy years dedicated to writing poetry, is now collected in A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016, just published by Wiseblood Books of Newberg, Ore. The volume includes all of the poems from Taken in Faith (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002) and seven new poems. To get the demographics out of the way, Pinkerton turned eighty-nine this year. She was a student of Yvor Winters and J.V. Cunningham at Stanford in the nineteen-forties. Richard Wilbur is ninety-five. Eric Ormsby is seventy-five. David Middleton is sixty-seven. Our finest American poets are no longer young.

I choose to begin with the Melville poem because the four monologues are my favorites among all of Pinkerton’s poems, and because today, Aug. 1, is Melville’s 197th birthday. Pinkerton is a Melville and Civil War scholar, author of Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850 's (1987) and Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South (2010). Another of her monologues is titled “Lemuel Shaw’s Meditation.” Shaw (1781-1861) was Melville’s father-in-law and chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He opposed slavery but was compelled by law in several cases to order the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Pinkerton’s poem is set in 1861 between Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and the start of the war on April 12. Shaw died on March 31. The poem weaves Shaw’s affection for Melville and admiration for his books with slavery, Lincoln and the looming war. Here is Shaw’s first mention of Lincoln:

“Then I recalled a speech made years ago,
A strong lyceum speech in Illinois
By a young Western lawyer, a Whig like me,
That made my point exactly: the risk we ran
In that mob-ridden time, prelude to this,
That some mad, towering genius, seeking glory,
Through antislavery or its opposite,
Might overturn our laws, for personal fame,
Might break the Union to enhance his name.
The lawyer urged obedience to law
Till laws, if bad, as slavery’s code, be changed.”

Near the end of the poem Lincoln reappears, this time as president. At least in Pinkerton’s retelling of history, Shaw has read Moby-Dick:

“If this young lawyer—no one-idea’d Ahab
Nor coward Starbuck he – can find his way
As President, during the coming conflict
To use his war powers, citing the Union’s need
In mortal danger, for black-soldier power,
Ending the nightmare slavery has been,
Though he’ll not change our human nature’s evil,
He might permit a lessening of the wrong,
A small increase of right.”

Pinkerton takes her  epigraph to the poem from Chapter 132, “The Symphony,” one of Ahab’s great Lear-like rants in Moby-Dick: “Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?” Another act of reverence is found in a new poem, “Coronach for Christopher Drummond”:

“Whether Jonson's grieving prayers,
Or Milton's rich designs,
Or Melville's rugged verse,
Or Winters' densest lines,

“Your mind knew the intent,
Your voice wakened the sound—
The sleeping beauty pent
In chambers underground.”

On the cover of A Journey of the Mind is a drawing of a marble statue created more than four and a half millennia ago, and now in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Only sixteen such sculptures, made in the Cyclades, a group of islands near Crete, are known to exist. The statue is the inspiration for “On an Early Cycladic Harpist (2600-2500 B.C.),” from Pinkerton’s cycle of ekphrastic poems, “Bright Fictions”:

“Oval the sweep, the motion horizontal.
 The arched harp seems the entrance to a world
 Where sunlight falls on singing faces, arms
 Uplifted--instrumental to mused charms.
 He listens. Then, singing, hears his contrapuntal
 New variations on ancestral glories.
 Seeing is hearing, hearing touch, sometimes,
 Some places. Enter where, immemorially,
 Memory holds, sifting, the unlost stories.”

Also on the cover, beneath the drawing, is a line by Robert Bridges that served as the epigraph for Bright Fictions: Poems on Works of Art, a chapbook of twenty-seven poems published by R.L. Barth in 1994: “Beauty that is the soul’s familiar angel.”

1 comment:

James said...

What a marvelous way to commemorate the birth of Herman Melville. Pinkerton deserves to be better known.