Mona Van Duyn | Critical Review by David Kalstone

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Mona Van Duyn.
This section contains 832 words
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Critical Review by David Kalstone

SOURCE: "Charms to Stave Off the Executioner," in New York Times Book Review, August 2, 1970, pp. 5, 22.

In the following review, Kalstone offers a positive view of To See, To Take.

To See, To Take, Mona Van Duyn's title, like our first verbs, sounds innocent at the outset, fierce and telling later on. Infinitives in certain languages are imperatives as well; and so they are here, in poems where seeing and taking are urgent as well as pleasurable activities:

     And now, how much would she try
     to see, to take,
     of what was not hers, of what
     was not going to be offered?

The subject of these lines is "Leda Reconsidered," the lady trying, in a reflective moment before the swangod takes her, to escape the fate of an earlier Leda in this same book who "married a smaller man with a beaky nose, / and melted away in the storm of everyday life."

Dwindling: it is as if all the poems in this not-so-slim volume were charms—successful ones—against that fate. Like Scheherazade's stories, they are accomplished, never ragged; and their restlessness, their driven quality, is apparent not in any hysteria or lapse in technique, but only in the felt necessity to continue the activity. Every poem staves off the executioner, like the home canning to which she compares her work:

     Oh I know, I know that, great or
       humble, the arts
     in their helplessness can save
       but a few selves
     by such disguises from Time's
       hideous bite,
     and yet, a sweating Proust of
       the pantry shelves,
     I cupboard these pickled peaches
       in Time's despite.

Tart, literary, self-mocking, the lines are typical of one kind of poem in this book: verse which sees with an anthropologist's eye the strangeness of common activities and takes pleasure in our peculiar adaptations to survival. Many of the pieces, obliquely or head-on, concern marriage. They entertain with a certain toughness the notion that intimacy may cloud the vision, be "the absolute narrowing of possibilities." Hence, I think, the pressure to explore landscapes and vantage points which, like Miss Van Duyn's "Colorado," open the half-desired way to "private enterprise," where the poet "washed once and for all / from my lips and eyes / the sexual grimace."

There are travel poems like "Into Mexico" and "Postcards from Cape Split" whose intense clarity allow her to be, really, at home with strangeness. In this last, one of the best pieces in the book, she and her family live "uncentered for three weeks" in a house engulfed by heliotrope and learn to get by on two buckets of water a day. They drive inland through the Blueberry Barrens:

        You almost miss it.
     Suddenly, under that empty space,
        you notice
     the curious color of the ground.
        Blue mile, blue mile,
     and then a little bent-over group
        of Indians
     creeping down string-marked
        aisles. Blue mile, blue mile …

These trips act as an endowment, allowing her fresh vision throughout and fresh returns to the everyday world, wary of its snares and wanting to make it count or rather tell. Among conventionally light subjects there are wild imaginings. "In the Cold Kingdom" describes an orgiastic afternoon with technicolor flavors in an ice cream shop (Zanzibar Cocoa, Mint Julep, Pumpkin), exorcising greed, "the Unconscious, that old hog, / being in charge here of the / creative act." If there is any flaw in these poems, it is the temptation yielded to in that amusing line, or in the book's self-conscious dedicatory page in praise of "poets"; on occasion Miss Van Duyn talks too much of poetry, tells what she has already shown so well, insists on a literary salvation which has obviously worked for her.

Still, it has worked. Verse in a sense restores her humanity. The book as a whole has a special rhythm, swinging out, exploring, detaching itself, and falling back to embrace the troubles it departed from. A final adventure, the long climactic poem "Marriage, with Beasts" is funniest and eeriest of all, making an unsparing tour of a menagerie of appetites and feelings: "Bringing our love to the zoo to see what species / it is, I carry my head under my arm, you cradle yours." Talking about the animals as a way of sharing unsharable instincts, unable to case aside her heady articulate manner, she has a brutal, comic moment facing the mountain lion and a welcome lapse back into the disguises of marriage:

     Now take what you've seen of me home, and let's
     go on with our heady life. And treat me, my pet,
     forever after as what I seem; for it seems,
     and it is, impossible for me to receive,
     under the cagey wedlock of your eyes,
     what I make it impossible for you to give.

This is Mona Van Duyn's third book and should, because of its sustained skill and wisdom, be the one which introduces her to an audience wider than the select one which has prized and praised her work for the past ten years. It is a volume which makes large, painful, powerful connections, and one in which we sense a whole life grasped, in the most urgent and rewarding senses of the word.

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This section contains 832 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by David Kalstone
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