Mona Van Duyn | Critical Review by Arthur Oberg

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Mona Van Duyn.
This section contains 863 words
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Critical Review by Arthur Oberg

SOURCE: "Deer, Doors, Dark," in Southern Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 243-56.

In the following excerpt, Oberg responds favorably to To See, To Take.

Unlike [Peter] Russell's book, [The Golden Chain,] Mona Van Duyn's To See, To Take takes notice of where modern poetry has been going as much as it succeeds in evolving a style that is unmistakably Miss Van Duyn's.

To See, To Take is full of things to admire—generosity and intelligence, wit and love. Beyond that, it is an outrageous book in ways that only major books, and major writers, can afford to be. Both Shakespeare and Yeats are prominent here, not so much as literary ghosts, but as sensibilities with whom Mona Van Duyn has much to share. The multiplicity of Shakespeare and that perfect control of tone which Yeats displayed in poems like "Leda and the Swan," "Among School Children," and "The Circus Animals' Desertion" find their comparisons in the best poems of this book.

I had read To See, To Take before being invited to review it, and before the major prizes came. It has weathered all that attention in the manner that only important books somehow are able to do.

I have no preference for long poems to short poems, or large books to small ones. But one of the pleasures for me in reading Mona Van Duyn has always been a largeness, and a largesse, which defines her work and which the process and progression explicit in the title, To See, To Take, confirms.

In A Time of Bees (1964), there are poems, or at least parts of poems, that do not work; sometimes an inventiveness of image becomes so self-generating as to threaten a larger unity within a poem. Sometimes a poem takes in so much as to forget when it might best conclude. But these faults not only occur less frequently in To See, To Take, but are forgiven and forgotten in the grand successes of the strongest poems in the volume.

To See, To Take makes out of potential risks—the welter of prose-like experience, in particular—the very substance of its art. When, in the conclusion of the poem for Randall Jarrell, "A Day in Late October," Mona Van Duyn resorts to prose, she insists upon the prose bone of death, Jarrell's and her eventual own:

     Before that happens, I want to say no bright
     or seasonal thing, only that there is too much
     the incorruptible poem refuses to swallow. At
     the end of each line, a clench of teeth and
     something falling away—tasteless memory, irreducible
     hunk of love, unbelievably bitter
     repetition, rancid failure at feeling and
     naming. And the poem's revulsions become a
     lost world, which also contains what cannot be
     imagined: your death, my death.

And, all the while, the prose turns into a poetic prose, uniquely hers. More often, however, Miss Van Duyn is content to transform what she thinks and feels, or sees and takes, into artful verse. Conversely, she makes verse as unflinching as any prose could hope to be. In both cases, the poetry matters. I quote the poem "Homework" in full:

     Lest the fair cheeks begin their shrivelling
     before a keeping eye has lit on their fairness,
     I pluck from the stony world some that can't cling
     to stone, for a homely, transparent form to bless.
     Smothering Elbertas, if not Albertines,
     in the thick, scalding sweetness of my care,
     I add a touch of tart malice, some spicy scenes
     and stirring, and screw the lid on love's breathless jar.
     There in a frieze they stand, and there they can stay
     until, in the fickle world's or the jaded heart's
     hunger for freshness, they are consumed away.
     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.

"Homework" is typical of Mona Van Duyn at her best. "A Sweating Proust of the Pantry Shelves": this is Mona Van Duyn finding her own intimacies, using her own memories, breaking down the old distinctions between poetry and prose in order to form a style recognizably hers. "Homework" uncovers the same strengths—her own savage indignation, her loving care—obvious in the other, longer poems in the book: "Outlandish Agon," "First Flight," the Leda poems, "The Creation," "Into Mexico," "To Poets" Worksheets in the Air-Conditioned Vault of a Library," "The Twins," "Marriage, With Beasts."

Neither the length of the volume nor the poet's ability to work in various poetic modes can disguise the essential lyricism of the book. To See, To Take is lyrical in the compression of form and in the relentless variations on love—its anatomy and chemistry, its relationship to art and neurosis, its power in the face of cold death. Mona Van Duyn fears her capacity to love and knows how love can hallucinate. But she is also one of those few poets who can carry in her poems the convincing impression of a very non-abstract physicality and of that joy before love, and before words, which all important poetry learns to convey. On every count by which I would approach and arraign it, To See, To Take comes out as one of the finest books to appear in American poetry in recent years.

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This section contains 863 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Arthur Oberg
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