Monday, May 07, 2018

`Not Whom One Would Hire as a Sitter Twice'

For a writer with a strong sensibility, the passages he chooses to quote from other writers, particularly those used as epigraphs, are uniquely identifiable as the quoter’s, or at least as identifiable as his own words. Here’s an example. If I tell you an American poet used the following passage from Ivy Compton-Burnett’s 1944 novel Elders and Betters as the epigraph to one of his collections, who would you guess it was?:

“It is so shocking for cruelty to be unconscious. It makes it seem so deep and ingrained, as if it might lead to anything. And I believe it does. I once read a wicked book, called a school story.”

Campiness mingles with provocation. Readers familiar with Compton-Burnett’s fiction will recognize the witty misanthropy. Families are savage, insular tribes. In this case, the family is named Donne, which may or may not be significant. No one has written funnier dialogue in fiction, though not every ear is attuned to hear it. So, which poet heard it and placed it at the front of his book? Work backwards: Not Roethke or Hugo. Not Ammons or Wilbur. Merrill, maybe? Close. In a Houston bookstore I found a paperback copy of Turner Cassity’s Hurricane Lamp (University of Chicago Press, 1986) priced at four dollars. Put bluntly, reading Cassity makes me happy. A wayward former student of Yvor Winters, his poems are metrically perfect and usually even funnier than Compton-Burnett’s novels. Is it light verse? Cassity blurs that already blurry phrase. Can light verse be not only dark but nasty? Sure, look at Martial and Swift. Cassity belongs to the same club. Here is the first poem in Hurricane Lamp, “Do Not Judge by Appearance. Or Do”:

“The children of the crossing bear their sleep
Still with them, like another instrument
To weight them down; a shadow of the French horn,
Say; a heavy nimbus of the trombone.
Their cases miss the concrete of the walk
Exactly, as their noses the exact
Height of their turned-up collars. Now two more
Have joined them. Athletes, on the evidence
Of ditty bags and shoes, and wide awake.
The crossing guard is Ilse Koch, or if
She isn’t ought to be: a leather cap
And body of a lampshade. Competent,
But not whom one would hire as a sitter twice.
Will it always be their perception that,
Bold, safety wears the garb of violence?
Or will they learn in these too guarded streets
That pretty is as pretty does, but evil
May in fact be just as evil looks?
The final irresponsibility
Is never to impute, and all they know,
For now, is that the holster is a case
And what it holds is merely instrument,
No agent in the fight they fight. The trombone
Has attacked the ditty duo. Ilse,
In a world she both enjoys and knows,
Stops traffic and moves in to separate.”

No comments: