Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Essay by Sister Bernetta Quinn, OSF

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
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Critical Essay by Sister Bernetta Quinn, OSF

SOURCE: "Scholar of Wind and Tree: The Early Lyrics of A. R. Ammons," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 236-47.

In the following essay, Quinn discusses the place of the physical world and the figure of Ezra in Ammons's poetry.

Beginning his 1968 Selected Poems "in the middle of the thing," A. R. Ammons as Ezra stands up against the physical universe simply by introducing himself to it: "So I said I am Ezra." The wind whipping his throat captures the words as a hunter might game, then whistles off into the dark night, a temperamental companion, or guide, as he is throughout the book. Rejected by the wind in his attempt to start a conversation, Ezra turns to the ocean but it too will have none of him, crashing surf blotting out his words. Pushed into unsteadiness by the returning wind, he faces the shore and says for the third time, "I am Ezra," then blown inward like a cloud of sand leaves the arrogant sea to splash through clumps of sea-oats frantically digging their fists of roots into dunes built up by forgotten waves. To trace the roles of wind and tree through this Old Testament prophet as "voice," not always Hebraic but often as American as its creator, is a useful way of charting some of the most fascinating poetic landscapes in contemporary letters.

The Biblical persona Ezra the scribe, of interest also to his namesake Pound, comes out of the time of the Babylonian captivity; it contributes the validity of "a local habitation and a name" to the work of Ammons, often disturbing in its formlessness and abstraction. Richard Howard in the essay which begins his Alone in America, finds reason for misgivings about as well as praise of this writer: after praising the fine passages in the first book he quotes eight lines which he calls wordy and shrill and wonders "whose voice it is that utters these hymns to—and against—Earth." Then he goes on to his own view about the choice of the sixth-century B.C. scholar in the Mosaic Law:

In a later book too, 'I Ezra' returns, 'the dying portage of these deathless thoughts,' and we recall that this prophet is generally regarded as responsible for the revision and editing of the earliest books of Scripture and the determination of the canon. The persona appears in Ammons' poems, I think, when he is desperate for an authoritative voice; the nature of his enterprise is so extreme, and the risks he is willing to take with hysterical form and unguarded statement … so parlous, that the need for such authority must be pretty constant.

Here, the word Ezra is not restricted to the Old Testament scribe favored by the Persian king to direct the return to Jerusalem; it includes as well A. R. Ammons speaking in his own voice, an analogous one.

Parallel to the Book of Ezra are the two Books of Esdras (an interchangeable name), classified in the Good News Bible as apocryphal. In the first chapter of the second of these the formula "I, Ezra" appears: "When I, Ezra, was a captive in Media during the reign of Artaxerxes," then after pages of the Lord's instructions to the chosen Israelite recurs as "I, Ezra, was on Mount Sinai," and again "I, Ezra, saw an enormous crowd on Mount Sion." According to an angel in the account of the seven visions with which Ezra is favored, these are persons who have put off their mortal robes and put on immortal ones to be crowned by the Son of God. The next chapter starts: "Thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem, I, Shealtiel (also known as Ezra) was in Babylon." In the initial revelation Ezra is asked by the angel Uriel: "How do you weigh out a pound of fire? How do you measure a bushel of wind? How do you bring back a day that is passed?" and though earlier Ezra has asserted that he can understand the ways of God Most High, he now admits that no human being can answer such questions.

It is easy to see why this part of Scripture would appeal to Ammons: Uriel uses the same conversational technique that the poet periodically adopts throughout Selected Poems, and later, as in Northfield Poems. The angel reports on how he has "heard the trees plotting together. They were saying, 'Let's go to war against the sea and push it back, so that we may have more room.' But the waves of the sea also plotted together and said, 'Let's conquer the woods and extend our territory,'" a passage which reads as if it were an invention of Ammons'. The rest of the visions brim with lively imagery and mystical insights into the same problems the lyrics confront: life/death, finitude/infinity, God/man.

In the second selection the wind takes notice of the scribe, contemptuously, true, but better such notice than nothing:

     The wind whipped at my carcass saying
     How shall I
      coming from these fields
     water the fields of earth

The place is North Carolina, a rural district, the state in which Ammons was born in 1926. The trees there are dying, their branches drooping; in the fields the rye, oats, wheat are suffering the assault of combines, saying "Oh!" and "Oh!" and "Oh!" Wrapped in his own woe, the prophet (undesignated as such by name, but all genuine poets are prophets in the meaning of deeply understanding a present reality) is kin to them; as the wind scolds him he too cries "Oh!" and falls down in the dust. Eloi Leclerc in The Canticle of Creatures Symbols of Union writes appositely: "Francis speaks the language of a man who lives close to material things; who feels things co-existing at his side, mysteriously connected with his own destiny; and in whom these things elicit a genuine feeling of brotherhood."

So interrelated are the elements of landscape in Ammons that dialogue seems as natural as the speeches of the Poverello Francis Bernadone to his brothers and sisters sun, moon, fire, water, stars, wind in those conversations whereby he delivered his thoughts to God: "Creatures are a language expressive of the sacred because they put the soul in touch with itself and its primordial powers. Creatures are the outward form of a discourse that goes on deep within man." Not always, however, does Ammons' "voice" experience the rapport known to the Italian saint. In "I went Out in the Sun," after failing to engage the wind or ocean in talk, tries the sun, as its flames burn above a desert willow under the shade of which the scholar is resting: "It's very hot in this country." But the sun ignores him.

In an attempt to get a rise out of the haughty planet, he continues: "The moon has been talking about you." The ruse works: "Well, what is it this time?" Like a true gossip, the man replies that the moon is denying she owes her light to solar energy. The only fitting answer the sun can think of is a burst of fire, almost scorching the willow. Troublemaker that he is, Ezra mutters: "Well, of course I don't know," at which the sun concludes their discussion by moving away, to the willow's relief. The scribe, having dug for water, hangs his shirt on the willow to dry, indulging in his memorable personification:

      This land where whirlwinds
     walking at noon in tall columns of dust
      take stately turns about the desert
      in a very dry land

He sleeps until, awakened by the cold, he reaches for his shirt and says to the moon, "You make it the desert a pretty sigh," rewarded by her smile (Ammons usually employs the standard gender in relation to landscape figures). But the seeds of ill humor that he has planted have sprouted: the lunar planet sees the sun sulking behind the mountain over the ungrateful comment re her light. In defense of the culprit Ezra calls out, "Why are you angry with the moon?" reminding him that soon they shall all be lost in the emptiness.

In the early lyrics Ammons presents man and Nature as equals, companions even if not particularly congenial ones, "I" being closer to some than to others, closer for instance to the tree since both are organic and earthbound, unlike the heavenly bodies or the ocean. In "The Whaleboat Struck" after being shot in the throat by savages he leaves his body on the shore and walks away; a heavy wind catches his spirit but lets him go at hearing how vultures and flies are even at that moment feasting on his flesh. Days pass, until another wind blows by singing this melodious song:

     lovely and white
     lie on the southern sand
     the ocean has washed bright

Ezra hurries to see his own beautiful bones in the sun; finding them picked clean, he chooses a rib and draws pictures in the sand until the ocean, all its green gone, is silent, and the wind too. Happy to be disembodied, he runs in and out of the waves to the tunes of Devonshire airs. It is in this poem that the participial phrase "Leaving myself on the shore" occurs, a line Howard calls "the first enunciation of the theme, in the crude form of a romantic pantheism" which the critic summarizes as the putting off of flesh and putting on of the universe. Indeed, the following selection, a farewell of the protagonist to the seen and spoken, seems evidence for such an opinion ("Turning a Moment to Say So Long").

Although discrete from wind or tree Ezra finds himself identifying with the later in "With Hopes of Hemp," wherein he binds himself to an oak tree, singing odes to its roots, heart, bark-fiber until he is empowered to sing "oak-songs" in response to "the raucous words of the night-clouds." But he knows that not all his being is earthbound: in the three-part "Doxology," possessed of the wisdom the silent owl acquires near death according to legend, he transplants his soul to the wind, a way of attaining the fluidity he longs for (though concomitantly he desires the kind of survival an ancient amphora's designs afford). In the middle section he is enmeshed in the sleeping landscape, a part not only of wind and tree but of rock, moss, gooseberry hill, swamp, raccoon, crawfish, sun, sea, dawn, plain, seeking together with all of these to "learn the vowels of silence."

Ezra in his Hebrew identity speaks in "Coming to Sumer," where irreverently he rifles the "Innisfree" huts along the river bank for their burial trappings: gold leaves, lapis lazuli beads ornamenting bones. Set in autumn, "When I Set Fire to the Reed Patch" returns the "voice" to interact with the wind as it scatters the burning thorny stems. As wisdom, sweeping a desertscape clean of the "lust prints of the sun," the wind takes the stage as actor again in "A Treeful of Cleavage Flared Branching," the title with more than a hint of a metamorphosis comparable to that in Ezra Pound's "A Tree." It will not leave him alone, where he sits on the sand cradling a gold altarcone:

     The wind
     chantless of rain in the open place
     spun a sifting hum
     in slow circles round my sphere of grief

It will not agree to his staying rooted, the very next piece substantiating Richard Howard's statement in Alone in America: "Here is a man obsessed by Pure Being who must put up with a human incarnation when he would prefer to embody only the wind, the anima of existence itself." In "I Set It My Task" it picks him up bodily after sowing loose dreams in his eyes:

      and telling unknown tongues
     drawn me out beyond the land's end
      and rising in long
     parabolas of bliss
     borne me safety perhaps a misprint
     from all those ungathered stones

Here the natural force has succeeded in making the poet his lyre, even as Shelley begged the West Wind to do. But its sway over him is intermittent. The seventeenth lyric in the 1968 volume goes back to the second Book of Esdras as it opens: "I Ezra the dying / portage of these deathless thoughts,"; the hero stands on a hill beneath a mountain and disclaims the importance of wisdom, represented by wind, to man—it belongs only to the gods, who don't need it ("Whose Timeless Reach").

A description of the selection might well be a travelogue of the mind penetrating the "jungles" of matter. "Driving Through" discloses the veteran traveler crossing a twentieth-century desert at midnight; he takes out a notebook, an appropriate gesture for a poet as also the sharpening of a pencil, and evokes an apocalyptic vision of running mountains that skid over "the icy mirages of the moon," a vision also highlighting "stone mosaics of the flattest / places" and "a brimming smoketree," "a green / tiger with orange eyes." Daylight motorists later will never guess the wonders glorifying the night (who could imagine mountains tumbling down "laughing for breath?"), any more than they will be able to see his lonely house, destined finally to hold "laurel and a friend," one of those succinct Ammons endings which completely satisfy. This poet knows as he travels that he is more than a wayfarer (the wind has told him so) and continues to long for a place of abiding such as the tree-transformation in "Song" provides. Here he merges into a wooded slope, extending his arms to take up "the silence and spare leafage," exposing himself to wind and ice, which work fast at their task of disintegration, a task destined to turn him into a hump beneath the leaves "where chipmunks dig."

The three Hymns which follow addressed to the deity are among A. R. Ammons' triumphs. If Ezra ever finds God, he will have to go out over the sea marshes, the hills of tall hickory, crater lakes, canyons, upward through the diminishing air, past nocturnal clouds into the "empty stark," the missing noun intensifying the loneliness. At the same time, he knows that if he finds God he will have to stay with the earth, down to the least cell: "You are everywhere partial and entire / You are on the inside of everything and on the outside." He is the ant-soul (the name of the first book means "insect eye") running up and down the chasms of the sweetgum bark. The first Hymn ends in an oxymoron, wherein he says to God that if he finds him he will have to "go out deep into your far resolutions" but at the same time "stay here with the separate leaves" of the sweetgum tree in his persona as poet.

In the second Hymn, Ezra tells the Lord about going out to "the naked mountain" to see a single peachflower pushing its way through the ribs of a skeleton, as if in a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, praying with its petals and sepals in the spirit of Francis' Canticle. Startled by "a lost circling bee," he goes at sunset on that late December day "down to the stream / and wading in / lets the Lord's cold water run over his feet. The third Hymn is a prayer for a good death, when he, the "shriven celebrant," chilling, pulse slowing, will reach "home / dead on arrival."

"March Song" is Ezra's address at the approach of spring to the willows and cattails, praising the first as they return gold to their naked limbs and the second, fluffy again, leaving winter in their pale stems. But he does not want to be buried even under the beautiful willow ("Ritual for Eating the World"); coming upon a rope hanging in the bend of the rock he sings three verses of a cowboy song beginning "When I die don't bury me / under no weeping willer tree." With suicidal intent he seizes the rope, which breaks and forces him to re-accept his sordid world.

The wind, which has raced by like a ranch hand in the rope lyric set on the mesa top, becomes quite friendly in "The wide Land," eager to get Ezra's approval. They have the conversation denied the poet in the opening of the book. The wind apologizes for breaking up the desert chaparral ("you know I'm / the result of forces beyond my control," to which the poet says yes, he understands; but the wind continues to explain, persisting in self-justification despite the other's "I know I know," a reassurance concluding with "No, I said you don't have / to explain / It's just the way things are."

Drawn back to a tree-disguise, Ezra in "Mountain Liar" (the title a pun on the lyre he lacks even though he tries to imitate Orpheus) deceives the mountains into thinking they can achieve their wish to fly to interstellar regions for a skating party. When they see him below them, or believe they do since actually they have not moved, only imagined they were gliding about amidst the stars shrieking for joy, they cry out at his deception "You wood." They are no more satisfied with "the way things are" than the wind, or that he is with his own nature. "Gravelly Run," used later to name a collection, raises the supposition that perhaps man's blending in with the cosmos might not be enough; after all the main thing is to know self as "galaxy and cedar cone" know it, cedar cone serving for human person in his tree-role and galaxy for the nonconscious, a great abyss separating these: "the sunlight has never heard of tree," "Gravelly Run" says as it ends in what Howard calls a farewell to the spirit of place.

Reading Ammons correctly is not easy, because of his experimental punctuation, any more than it is clear at first what sense is intended by Williams in "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," five sentences though without periods leading up to "This was / Icarus drowning." The colon is his most used mark, and not always conventionally so. In "Gravelly Run" it appears at the end of the first stanza, consisting of six uneven lines, implying that what precedes is in apposition to stanza two, the same procedure occurring throughout the next four stanzas. The eleventh line according to syntax would seem suitably ended with a period, the first three words of the lyric, "I don't know" forming a meditative comment sufficient unto itself. The third stanza is also a complete sentence, colon-concluded. The most beautiful passage is the next:

     holly grows on the banks in the woods there,
     and the cedars' gothic-clustered
      spires could make
     green religion in winter bones:

The word green is especially effective, slanting both backwards and forwards, as sometimes happens in Robert Creeley ("Kore, Kore"). Five sentences and a fragment complete the piece, the colon last used taking the place of what convention would say called for a comma. Isn't it the sunlight that has never surrendered self among unwelcoming forms?

Ammons' poetry ought to have a marked appeal for children, for instance such a rich fabric of incidents and images as "Prospecting," where the traveler comes to cottonwoods and willows at evening, makes camp, turns his mule loose, and then drowsing over the leaves sends out his loneliness to shake hands with the trees. This poltergeist runs up the black cliff to pull the moon over, howls with the coyotes, tells a night-circle of lizards ghost-stories while the Big Dipper pours out the night. With dawn his alter ego returns to wake him up, and they fit themselves together again for breakfast and the day, nocturnal adventures as forgotten as David's in Randall Jarrell's children's story Fly by Night.

Descendant of Joshua, the revered scribe Ezra, master of the Sacred Word, seems summoned back in "Joshua Tree" (a metamorphically significant title), with its very short lines, the first merely "The wind," which surprises the "I" weeping under this Biblical tree. Ezra gives the reason for his tears thus:

     and Oh I said
     I am mortal all right
     and cannot live,
     by roads
     stopping to wait
     for no one coming,
     moving on
     to dust
     and burned weeds,
     having no liturgy,
     no pilgrim,
     from my throat
     singing news of joy,
     no dome, alabaster wall,
     no eternal city

The wind points out that man is not meant to be a wayfarer, that the prophet should settle right there and make a well. But "I'm not like wind," remonstrates the weeper, "that dies and / never dies." He is destined to go on until some syllable of rain anoints his tongue, like the coal that cleansed the tongue of Isaiah. But in the event that no rain should ever fall he bids the wind "enter angling through / my cage / and let my ribs / sing me out."

Up to this point in Selected Poems, if Ezra is present he and "I" are fused, but in "The Wind Coming Down From" such is not the case: they are separate individuals, the Hebrew scholar taking the third person singular. The first four words of the poem, "summit and blue air," complete the prepositional phrase in the title, the only time in the book Ammons uses this device. The wind feels compassion for le moi of Ammons, only dust and completely at his mercy though an "instrument of miracle," and regrets his own volitionless role: "not air or motion / but the motion of air." He praises Ezra at the expense of the poet for his immortality and goes off to engage in erosion, the carving of monuments, "while Ezra / listens from terraces of mind" unreachable because immaterial, safe from being cracked or shivered, the word used here, by the roots among which the poet feeds.

Sometimes the landscape elements speak only in indirect discourse, as in "Close-up" and "Bourn," the latter title apparently taken from Hamlet's "undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns." It is instructive, if one wishes a familiarity with Ammons' art, to meditate on his craft in the second, where sea shores and willows sing and weep their unheeded warnings, he begins with the customary trait (in him) of surprising with an abstraction in the Auden manner instead of using the expected concrete word: "When I got past relevance." A study of the whole lyric reveals that his position in regard to the sea is with his back towards it and its willowedges, moving towards an "outward gray" he mistakes for a "foreign light," just the right adjective here. The shores sing to him to turn back from eternity, towards which like Emily in the chariot accompanied by Death he did not realize he was heading. Looking over his shoulder, he sees the "dancing" emblems of grief between him and the waves. Why shores is in the plural is not evident.

So he comes to "the decimal of being," the darkness of Dylan Thomas's waterbead in "Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London." The reason for the title becomes clearer: "What light there / no tongue turns to tell / to willow and calling shore," the shore now singular, though the final stanza, one line only, pluralizes it again: "though willows sweep and shores sing always." Nature is volitionless, bound in this case to weep, and to sing always, whereas Ezra must bear the dreadful responsibility of choice.

"Mansion" puts him back into commerce once more with the wind, to whom he has decided to will his body. Grateful, eager to show appreciation, the wind asks how he can say thanks, and the "I" replies he desires nothing other than for the wind to swirl his dust around so that he can see what after the bequest is happening with the ocotillo, saguarowren, sky at sunset or dawn. More than once the sorrow of wind at its invisibility comes through in the poetry ("The wind was glad / and said it needed all / the body / it could get / to show its motions with"). (Later in the book "Interference" will show the sand materializing wind). The wind-resurrected skeleton of the poet's body as it will be offers a variation of the transformation to tree used earlier: "the tree of my bones."

Critic Richard Howard considers "Guide" one of the saddest of A. R. Ammons' lyrics, "an astonishing meditation." Since the noun reflects the mentor-relationship of wind and poet, there is an irony about the former's lament re "having / given up everything to eternal being but direction." East, West, North, South are all that is left of wind, as could be concluded from the nomenclature of the mythological figures in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. The most central of the wind's "words to live by" is the sentence "You cannot come to unity and remain material," another way of putting Wallace Stevens' "Death is the mother of beauty." When Ezra tries to understand opposites within him or the uniqueness of a peachblossom, "the wind was gone and there was no more knowledge then."

The whole book might be called Ammons' Consolations of Philosophy, one chapter being "The Golden Mean," advice by the wind, if it stands for wisdom concerning sexual love, care not to go too far: "withhold / enough to weather loss." Interestingly enough, the piece occupies the center of Selected Poems. Ammons takes three of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, knowledge) and discusses them at some length. In the entire lyric, the only word which suggests an image is dime, not a total abstraction characteristic of Ammons' approach to poetry; apart from its line-divisions and lack of rhyme, also its cadences, "The Golden Mean" could conceivably be likened to "The Vanity of Human Wishes." "Risks and Possibilities," which directly follows, redeems this "bodiless" effect by beginning with four pretty things which the poet has selected for a specific if unspecified addressee.

The examples are put in the form of numbered propositions, each heightening the attractiveness of the objects that the speaker has picked for the pleasure of his friend by a comparison: thunder like water "down the sky's eaves" to locusts in dogfennel; the yellow daisy to dawn; the constellations as somehow mirrored in a willow-slip, frog "language" as equated with daisy silences. This method is a good entrance into the theme of the poem: the sacramental unity of the universe. Each thing influences every other, not only on earth ("Never send to know …") but throughout creation: "the crawl of a slug / on the sea's floor / quivers the moon to a new dimension." One part of Nature echoes another: the leaves of a tree, the gills of a fish, a variant of Stevens' theory of "resemblances."

Like William Carlos Williams (Garrett Mountain as woman, the city of Paterson as man) Ammons likes to conceive of the human being anthropomorphically. In "Terrain":

     The soul is a region without definite boundaries
      it is not certain a prairie
     can exhaust it
       or a range enclose it
     it floats (self-adjusting) like the continental mass

Besides the above features, the soul has its hills, river-systems (complete with runs, such as Gravelly, and branches, lakes, marshes) for visualizing which the poet imagines winter tree-shadows, has deserts ('barren spots') and peat-bogs; and also its own weather, irrefutably, as the sciences of psychology and psychiatry will testify to. Like any continent, the soul is subject to natural disasters: floods, whirlwinds. It even has its own moon, perhaps here a conventional emblem for the imagination.

"Raft" summons back the wind, so that he and Ezra can go off like two boys who want to play near the sea on a nice day: "… we stayed around for a while / trying to think / what to do." Just before dark, the wind stops, "breathless (a clever adjective) from playing." While the wind sleeps, the poet makes a round raft of rushes, then slips away from his companion ("I did not wake it to say goodbye"). At that hour the night is moonless. He waits for the sun to rise to ascertain direction, though when day comes he passes it without progress, not really sure which way he wants to go. As the sun goes down, along comes the wind "rushing before dark to catch (him)," truly his guide as in the lyric so named.

It would be a mistake in a discussion of landscape elements in Ammons to omit the marvelous configuration of sight and sound images in "River," silver willows, forsythia, moonwaters, hidden bird. Its repetitions add a melancholy music. "I shall / go down" becomes "shall I / go down" in the third stanza, followed by the same nine lines as at the opening:

     to the deep river, to the moonwaters,
     where the silver
     willows are and the bay blossoms,
     to the songs
       of dark birds
         to the great wooded silence
     of flowing
     forever down the dark river
     silvered at the moon-singing of hidden birds.

Because of this identity, the lyric is little more than a sigh of ecstasy at the beauty of a particular twenty-seventh of March, when spring blossoms trailed their yellow fragrance through the air, "alive" as amoebae in clear water.

"Expressions of Sea Level" calls for a Francis of Assisi, whom legend credits with an ability to read in the Book of the Creatures, in fact to speak its language. Changeless itself though capable of eroding and building, the ocean speaks without words, renders itself in silence, speaks at its edges instead of from its core through "wind and water, spray / swells, whitecaps, moans" as if in a dream. After two pages in the indicative mood comes a series of unanswered questions, ending:

     that is the
      expression of sea level,
     the talk of giants,
     of ocean, moon, sun, of everything,
     spoken in a dampened grain of sand.

The passage, reminiscent of Blake, prepares well for "Still," the next lyric, where Ammons can find nothing lowly in the universe, not even the grain of sand, with which to identify himself. Like Whitman, he can only step back and marvel at "moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent / with being!"

"Motion" combines what A. R. Ammons means by his manipulation of wind and tree images. In very short lines, three consisting of only two letters (is, to), he meditates on what semanticists call "the triangle of reference," the relation between a verbal symbol and what it points to, or, as the poet here adds, captures as in a net. The only likeness between a word and the thing it distinguishes occurs if onomatopoeia is present (whir). As Robert Penn Warren has remarked, however, sound-structures in the artifact itself go beyond this:

     but the music
     in poems
     is different,
     points to nothing,
     traps no
     realities, takes
     no game, but
     by the motion of
     its motion
     what, moving, is—
     the wind
     underleaf white against
     the tree.

The long "Saliences" develops this thought.

In Ammons' rarified language, "Saliences" is a philosopher's hymn to the wind, its key word variable, applied first to geography, then (with the prefix multi-) to scope, next, elevated to noun, associated directly with the wind:

     a variable of wind
     among the dunes,
     making variables
     of position and direction and sound
     of every reed leaf
     and bloom

This variable also dominates sand, shells as they undergo weathering, grass, bayberry bushes, spiders knocked about on the bench "from footing to footing / hard across the dry even crust / toward the surf." It changes from soft breeze to hard, steady gale; takes form from trees that harbor it briefly, or sandcrab trails, or reeds blown seaward. Overhead, it forces the gull to fly according to its formula, which determines the dropping of clam as well as the direction of flight. As Ezra the prophet traces its moods, paraphrase seems a legitimate means of keeping up with their rapid shifts.

More powerful in some ways than the ocean, the wind controls both surf and the coastal temperature: "wind, from the sea, high surf / and cool weather." It is "a factor in millions of events / leaves no two moments / on the dunes the same," those shapes (omnipresent in this poet) so convenient for use as transient outlines, a sign of metamorphosis as limestone is in Auden. "Saliences" affirms the existence of dunes of mind as well as of sand. How dull for the physical dunes without wind, for interior dunes without the wind of poetic imagination! In "Dunes," Ammons the poet as tree confesses that "Taking root in windy sand / is not an easy / way / to go about / finding a place to stay," but this life requires the attempt, since as the last line says: "Firm ground is not available ground."

At this point in "Saliences" Ammons addresses the reader through the imperative mode: "keep / free to these events." As he has innumerable times before, he demands resistance to imprisonment, even what the world in general takes for granted: boundaries, fixed identities, any kind of stability. What wind is on a given day is no prediction. As the poem reaches its last section, Ammons mercifully deviates from abstraction to bring in details congruent to memories but not replicas: the way the waves look from a dune-rise, pink periwinkles edging a tidal pool, a bunch of deep-blue weeds, minnows and fiddler crabs filtering through thin water. Here he begins to lament rather than praise change, mourning the fled swallows of yesterday. By means of end-rhyme he emphasizes the though: "where not a single single thing endures / the overall reassures": though the earth brings to grief "much in an hour that sang, leaped, swirled" (verbs descriptive of wind), it keeps on quietly turning, "beyond loss or gain"—not really beyond, but seeming so.

In the series of dizzy changes that comprise "Configurations," the poet in five grammatically correct sentences proclaims that he is a bush, next, bird, wind, egg, then switches into an "I is" construction to repeat these, adding "I is a leaf." These disguises lose their grip on location: leaves fall, birds fly, nests tumble down spilling out eggs. The only hope for survival is to put down roots, like a shrub: "there is some relationship between proximity / to the earth and permanence." Yet wind and ice will break down even the shrub—but then, after all, the only existence any of these had was in his song. This lyric, like "prospecting," has the charm of children's literature, a charm which shines through in the chain of cockbird longing for henbird, it for nest, nest for earth, earth for sun, sun for—here, Ammons snaps off the list to conclude with his tree-metaphor, this time a talking tree: "please please / let me put on my leaves / let me let the sap go," to which the prudent bark answers "hush, hush / the time is not right." "Halfway" brights into focus in a minimum of words the autobiographical relationship between artist and art, its setting October:

      … the
      pools of themselves,
      the yellow
      leaves reflecting
      those on
      the tree that
      mirror the ground.

The subject of "Portrait" is the poet's life depicted as a leaf, tossed about by the autumn wind, facing destinies as different as being blown up a rise gay as a "spring catkin" or being flattened into the darkness of a stream-bottom. Like Randall Jarrell, who so feared loss of the ability to write, Ammons pleads: "come, // wind, away from / water and let / song spring & // leap with this / paper-life's / lively show."

Seldom does Ammons depart completely from realism, as he does in "Winter Scene," the fantasy of which corresponds to James Wright's translation of Vallejo in "The Jewel": "If I stood upright in the wind / My bones would turn to dark emerald." In it a cherry tree, stripped by the season, holds up naked boughs except for those intervals when a jay swoops down into it: "then every branch // quivers and / breaks out in blue leaves," probably just an impressionistic passage but able also to represent the poetic process, the imagined foliage like gold spun from straw.

Selected Poems, which started in dialogues between the poet and one or another elements in landscape, closes the same way. In the penultimate lyric, "Kind," the giant redwood, miffed because passed over for the so-temporary weeds, half-hidden among stones, complains and is answered thus:

      O redwood I said in this matter
     I may not be able to argue from reason
     but preference sends me stopping seeking
      the least,
      as finished as you
      and with a flower

Here, again, is Tennyson's enigmatic blossom growing obscurely in its wall. The Book of the Creatures has a great deal to teach that apt scholar, A. R. Ammons, and he in turn is well-qualified to instruct with delight an evergrowing body of readers.

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Critical Essay by Sister Bernetta Quinn, OSF from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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