Mona Van Duyn | Critical Essay by Lorrie Goldensohn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Mona Van Duyn.
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Critical Essay by Lorrie Goldensohn

SOURCE: "Mona Van Duyn And The Politics of Love," in Ploughshares, Vol. 4, No. 3, March, 1978, pp. 3 1-44.

In the following essay, Goldensohn examines Van Duyn's treatment of love and the female domestic experience in her works.

A long time ago I watched Margaret Mead's film, Four Families, with a bunch of high school kids. While I sat there, wholly mesmerized by the dark flow of those domestic images with their latent and compelling content, the kids' responses had been quite different. "Is that all there is?" one prescient fourteen-year-old demanded: "Eating, sleeping, getting married, having kids and working?" The question is fair. Also a question that the very body of Mona Van Duyn's work tends to answer affirmatively; then, in a hundred fevers of dissatisfaction, ask again. Fortunately, question and answer are never so simple or final that we stop needing her additions and complications, or that large and eloquent garner of wit and good judgment which brings to her registration of ordinary life its extraordinary interest. A poet of both analytic and sensual intelligence, she asks for an alert reader, responsive to a leisurely, unforced diction, but with a fondness for paradigm and complex formal strategies—although her subjects rarely stray from that unhonored kingdom which, by so much, constitutes the heaviest weight of human experience, the domestic. Also, in Mona Van Duyn's care, the definitively female.

Ground clearly taken at her peril! To be firmly domestic in subject is to be seen as denying the heroic; to be concerned with an accommodating, rather than with an imperial impulse: "the earth in its aspect of / quiescence." Because domestic acts are rarely audible in a world of power: God may hear the fall of a sparrow, a peach pickling in a cupboard, or a married couple quarreling, but he does not then convey the sound to a very august audience chamber. Edging into the usual areas of female concern, however, like the "windy oratory of marriage" or "the politics of love—" also tends to neutralize the impact of any artist, male or female. As most artists who deal with the dailiness and private singularities of life discover, in the public beholding, artists belong to an effeminized occupation. They handle the subjective—something always suspiciously allied to the weakly feminine ground of feeling, unless it is clearly the ground of manipulated feeling, and hardened into a communications, or therapeutic industry.

But Mona Van Duyn risks a further de-glorification of her subject, love. Generally, not choosing to focus on the only theme of love traditionally allowed grandezza, the forms of illicit love, she concentrates instead on married love, with its problems of conflicting interests, its sagas of endurance and survival. With the exception of that enigmatic poem, "The Voyeur," and the two Leda Poems, Van Duyn eludes the particular explosiveness, the short-term anarchic disruptions of romantic love, and focuses instead on household; on neighbors and families; and on the gains and losses that people make of long lives spent together.

This is not a world without pain. In "What I want to Say," here is her representation of love:

      What do you think love is, anyway?
      I'll tell you, a harrowing.
      To say I love you is a humiliation.
      It is the absolute narrowing of possibilities,
      and everyone, down to the last man,
      dreads it.

In "The Gardener to His God," even what she conceives as "love's spaciousness" is a dimension of sacred defeat:

     For in every place but love the imagination lies
     in its limits. Even poems draw back from images
     of that one country, on top of whose lunatic stemming
     whoever finds himself there must sway and cling
     until the high cold God takes pity, and it all dies
     down, down into the great world's flowering.

Although here the conception clothes love in a limitless amplitude, rather than in a "narrowing of possibilities," the attribution is generally consistent with the other poem: "flowering" is the culmination of a great sweeping down, of that great crashing and bending of egos that come about through the union of any two loving souls.

While in these poems submission to love is viewed as a human obligation, in other poems, the gender that bends is usually feminine, because for Mona Van Duyn, the female carries most of the particulars of her message about love and endurance. The male has other errands. Although a transfigured Leda, privileged to see through to the heart of the god, glimpses

     what he had to work through
     as he took, over and over,
     the risk of love,
     the risk of being held,
     and saw to the bare heart
     of his soaring, his journeying

Leda herself, as in the earlier poem bearing her name, contracts in aspiration:

     To love with the whole imagination—
     she had never tried.
     Was there a form for that?
     Deep, in her inmost grubby
     female center
     (how could he know that,
     in his airiness?)
     lay the joy of being used,
     and its heavy peace, perhaps,
     would keep her down.
     To give: women and gods
     are alike in enjoying that ceremony,
     find its smoke filling and sweet.
     But to give up was an offering
     only she could savor,
     simply by covering
     her eyes.

Sounds like the feminine means utter passivity and denial. But, getting Leda closer to that form, "love with the whole imagination—" and, in a specifically female way—Van Duyn continues:

     He was close to some uncommitted
     part of her.
     Her thoughts dissolved and
     fell out of his body like dew
     onto the grass of the bank,
     the small wild flowers,
     as his shadow,
     the first chill of his ghostliness,
     fell on her skin.
     She waited for him so quietly that
     he came on her quietly, almost with tenderness
     not treading her.
     Her hand moved into the dense plumes
     on his breast to touch
     the utter stranger.

In the poem's concluding lines, which I quote in full, Leda's emptying out makes room for divinity; a providential loss of ego so complete that the mystery of otherness can be taken on. It is Leda's utter quietness, her suspension of restless advance, that "almost" disarms the god—neutralizing conquest and transforming submission into assent. In that "almost" lives the specifically feminine achievement, the mid-point which is "past the bird, short of the god"—a feminine celebration of wholly human powers that renounces the "airiness" of masculine sky-storming as vanity. A vanity, however, that Leda meets with the enabling and transformative powers of her submission and consent, thereby reading sexual relations as an almost Taoist, certainly quietist, order of acts and attitudes.

For Leda, there is no attempt to imagine the future as different; no attempt to gain Zeus' knowledge, or put on his power. With a refreshing absence of up-dated rhetoric about the approaching feminine heroic, which amounts, also, to a refusal to add aggressively simple-minded models of self-fulfillment to the vacuum that her dismissal of the conventional heroic has created, it still seems the deepest part of Van Duyn's retelling of the legend of male and female to leave the future, and the option of initiating action, to masculine prerogative:

     The men do it. Making a claim on the future, as love
     makes a claim on the future, grasping.

Although this observation comes from one of her earlier poems, it is matched by re-statements in much later published work, like "A View," and "The Cities of the Plain." In the latter poem, the nameless Lot's Wife declares,

     … My husband
     and our two adolescents kept their faces
     turned to the future, fled to the future.

The only woman who would think this way is crazy Sarah "whose life, / past menopause, into the withered nineties / was one long obsessed attempt to get pregnant, / to establish the future." There is little sympathy here for this unnatural matron's activities. As for the Wife:

     … I stood for nameless women
     whose sense of loss is not statistical,
     stood for a while, then vanished. Men
     are always being turned to stone by something,
     and loom through the ages in some stony
     sense of things they were shocked into.

Once again, like Leda, like the "ungainly, ungodly" Danae, Van Duyn's representative woman refuses a masculine imagination, that stony, power-driven sense of the future's possibilities, which in this retelling of the legend, fixes the male in rigidity, but allows the woman her transfigured motion. Nameless, Lot's Wife disappears into the nameless flux of the natural scene, a mute and mutable portion of its irrepressible vitalities:

     I turned to pure mourning, which ends the personal
     life, then quietly comes to its own end,
     Each time the clouds came and it rained,
     salt tears flowed from my whole being,
     and when that testimony was over
     grass began to grow on the plain.

The Wife's role is to mourn: salt of the earth as she is, death and anonymity become her fortunate flaws, and in her end are all of our beginnings. Like other "low" figures in post-Christian and secularized mythologies, within the symbols of this poetry, the female is granted her exaltation as a pinch of salt, a small wildflower, a blade of grass, a drop of dew; that is, as a bit of divinized nature.

Feminized and divinized as she is, however, Van Duyn's version of Dame Nature, Lot's Wife, rejects the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah as "blasphemous, impiety / to the world as it is, to things as they are." She says instead:

     Don't ask me why, for the sake of a Perfect
     Idea, of Love or of Human Community,
     all the innocent-eyed, babies and beasts
     and birds, all growth, both food and flower,
     two whole cities, their fabulous bouquets
     of persons, frivolous, severe, rollicking,
     wry, witty, plain, lusty,
     provident, every single miracle of life
     on the whole plain should be exploded
     to ashes. I looked back, and that's what I saw.

Unlike those future-driven ideologues, the prophecy-ridden men of her family, the Wife rejects the future's unforgiving abuse of the life around her and continues to thrive in the backward face of an ample present.

"Along the Road," another dark and rather beautiful poem really belongs to the same schematization of values, but refines them further, as it puts the drama of the poem outside human dress altogether. In this poem, enacting an Apocalypse in miniature, "They are burning the dump:"

      During the first days there will be
      only an interruption, gorgeous, mutual,
      of the textures and temperature of the world,
      a representation by three of its acres
      of uproar, extravagance, primitivism, seething,
      and our senses will tire from it
      as they tire from any other
      overmastering abundance, yet
      we will use memory and imagination
      to inform ourselves that it is a process
      of reduction. In its center
      something serious is happening.

In its slow, and leisurely language, the poem sketches that "pure mourning, which ends the personal life," as backward-turning memory and imagination; a simultaneously collecting and disbursing aesthetic that allows the transformations of life's "processes of reduction" into these serenely "serious" events:

     … springs and bones
     have been bitten from their fat,
     barrels, cans, cars
     set free from the need to contain.
     All over the area there goes on
     a slow, entranced emergence
     of things out of the ashes of their usefulness.
     There is nothing seasonal here.
     If we have lost sight of comfort,
     of fleshy, vegetable consolations,
     still we have arrived at an entanglement
     of true weight, a landscape of certainties.

If we compare this with the mnemonic orotundities of Eliot's The Waste Land, we may arrive at some exact sense of the originality of this text; of the fairly delicate balance of its ironies of acceptance and detachment; of its definitions of powerful, or significant act. Once again the future is gingerly held in the mind, its grander possibilities of change gently derided:

     … this antic
     tin stretch, that petrified
     moment of rage when something tried
     to ooze out of its own nature,
     eyeful by eyeful the exact, extensive

On the one hand of this poem, "The comic keeps." On the other, "our heavy, / drossless, dark deposit." It is this literally conservative awareness of matter and life-forces, this steady levelling view which is also the antithesis of the romantic. In these asperities, if the human and mortal are given amplitude, and larger significance, they are also given the limit of that largesse as equally real. Another particular quality of the poetry is its insistence that comedy prevail; death itself must be allowed its withering force, without promotion to tragedy. Akin to Lot's Wife's salty dissolution, and Leda's raining-out in "the storm of everyday life," here is a characteristic scene from "A Relative and an Absolute:"

     When she died last winter, several relatives wrote to say
     a kidney stone "as big as a peach pit" took her away.
     Reading the letters, I thought, first of alt, of the irony,
     then, that I myself, though prepared to a certain degree,
     will undoubtedly feel when I lie there, as lone some in death
          as she
     and just as surprised at its trivial, domestic imagery.

Of this easy, deliberate tone, serenely above the intricacies of its rhyme, the quickest word to step to mind is adult: surely this must be the apotheosis of adulthood, in its cool judgments and calm skepticisms. And surely steadiness of view is the other striking characteristic of Mona Van Duyn's poetry. Having published her first collection at around 35, perhaps it is also not remarkable that the poems have changed so little in their basic account of things. This is a poet who began mature: the poems in 1959's Valentines to the Wide World have the same varied pace, the same ripe, sure and intelligent touch as the recent Merciful Disguises. An important index of change, however, registers in the new use of metaphors of flight and motion in relation to the feminine speakers of the poems, as Van Duyn wrestles successfully to keep maturity from hardening into complacency, and to keep active that dense thickness of imaginative engagement which has been one of her chief strengths.

In "Three Valentines to the Wide World," the necessary perspective seemed quite clear:

     I have never enjoyed those roadside overlooks from which
     you can see the mountains of two states. The view
     keeps generating
     a kind of pure, meaningless exaltation
     that I can't find a use for. It drifts away from things.

And, from the same book, in another meditation urging us away from distant prospects:

     When we eye it, not one bird's worth at a time
     but with eyes like zeppelins, it may be the vista beats us,
     for what crowds quietly even through snowfence metaphors
     is the unexamined life, shifting and lustrous,
     and lands may mellow or chill in that weight of particulars.
     If our largeness of view leaks, does it let out more
     than we mean to waste, minute encounters, tucking,
     tipping the day into an imperceptible contour?

Again, a little later:

     I can stand an outside view of myself, but nothing
     about a bird's eye view elevates or animates me in the slightest.

Soaring views are for the "grasping," thrusting masculine intelligence, blindly greedy for the future. Our Leda, Lot's Wife, and Danae in their unfeathered adornment, don't generally take to a life in the air; even Midas' Wife is conspicuously content to be touched into staying right where she is.

Although some of the most pleasurable and quietly witty of the older poems do come from a lateral traverse of the earth—Maine, for instance, in "The Gentle Snorer," and "Postcards from Cape Split"—other poems, with noticeably feminine speakers, nevertheless begin to make their appearance alongside the walkers and motorists, and start speaking differently about the overviews of the airborne. From 1970's To See, To Take, "First Flight" begins:

     Over forty years, and I haven't left your weather.
     Pocketed like a newborn kangaroo,
     I've sucked the dark particular.

But in spite of this, the risen speaker says to her man:

     So you live here, then, my foreigner …
     And now I can look. Oh Lord, why didn't you tell me,
     you I guessed at, how serious, how beautiful it is,
     that speechlessness below, a sleeping sea,
     where, kissing its frost, endlessly, everywhere,
     fallen, uttering, one angel voice, desire,
     fills the air with light, the perfect blasphemy.

Blasphemous to the female whose recognition of divinities takes place in other elements: nevertheless, for this speaker, the captivation is literal and complete. Once she is up there, though, and turned loose in the visionary precincts, something else shakes loose but the view of the earth, and the view of herself adhering to it. As the poet continues to muse, death dissolves the ground:

     The ghosts of night are joining us, shade by shade,
     walking unscathed over a burning striation
     until it is covered with their cool feet.
     The faces around me turn toward me,
     beaming, incomprehensible lamps
     saying the stranger is the best beloved.
     Oddly and without consequence, I am lighted.
     If the poem were to speak without its syllables,
     and love's spirit step out of its skin of need,
     I would tremble like this.

As the earth clears beneath one's feet, the lines connecting one to particularities of sex, of age and of friendship also dissolve. Up here, one is vulnerable, and finally knowing, as revelation is manifest in the loss of categories; it lives in responsiveness, as the literal entering of a foreign perspective alters and deepens one's own. Neither the feminine nor the masculine are to have exclusive possession of any world, because their individual truths must not be trusted—must be twinned, to some extent at least, to be the poem's whole and human truth. In this poem, the narrator continues:

    The plane, turning from spaciousness,
    will be brought down by whoever believes
    earth's the right place.
    Don't tell me it is I.

But in conclusion:

    When I touch you I know what I'm doing.
    Nothing is inconsequential.
    Gatsby is dead in his swimming pool.
    Stupid children chart the wood with breadcrumbs.
    I believe you in everything except
    the smoothness of this diminishing.
    I look into your hard eyes
    since I am home and all is forgiven,
    but liar, love, I see you against the sky.

Back home on the ground, the woman, still in the throes of her own expanded vision, has a good look at her lover's persistent strangeness. The truths of his gauzy space have had their gaveling moment: she has been forced to redefine the nature of her own level earth, not as a literal, material connection but as connection through love even throughout absence and strangeness. The ones we love keep to their own elements. For Mona Van Duyn, each vault into the Empyrean that we make to join the beloved is rewarded by a recoil into gravity; nevertheless, for such irresistible leaping, room must be made—even by the most reluctant flyers.

This is a point which continues to be made in "The Fear of Flying." Mere the narrator's reluctance to leave familiar ground is seen not as a fear of death, but as a stubborn, persistent and irrational need to cling to the loved familiar, in the old ways of relation. As Lot's Wife again, in a sophisticated permutation of that role, the narrator rehearses with wry acrimoniousness all of the weary disguises that age and familiarity have imposed on long marriage. Here though, instead of the eternal aspirant, the husband is seen by the speaker as the master of revels, the supreme masquer who will not relinquish his right to assume endlessly and unvaryingly his limited repertoire of roles, most of them now rarely performed for his wife's pleasure of amusement. Although in this version of the Passion of Lot, futurity for the male seems little more than a need to ignore the cumulative past, and a continuous striving to enlarge the present, rather than to entertain the future, the wife's terms still stand unaltered: she remembers, and won't move. She says:

      And we know, don't we, the last
      of your roles? Remember, my dear, I played it for you
      for long bountiful seasons?
      We bathed, we melted down to the bone in the
      blue air, the ripe suns
      of ourselves, stretched and vined together all over,
      it seemed, sweltered, grew
      lush undergrowth, weeds, flowers, groundcover.
      I played and played with you,
      day after burning day, the part of our lives
      truest, perhaps, best,
      and still can play it briefly if someone believes
      I can: the sensualist.

Once again, doubting and uncertain, Lot's Wife's refusal to move on is a crisis in the history of faith; paralyzed by nostalgia for the old religion as carried on in the old temple, her feet stall, and finally root where they are:

     … Darling,
     my world, my senses' home, familiar monster,
     it would seem that I still love you,
     and, like a schoolgirl deep in her first despair,
     I hate to go above you.

There is an enormously moving prayer here, that death—the cooling of lust, increasing age, and time's multiplication of all our preoccupations with self—not isolate, or destroy our fidelities to the human focal points of love. I know of few other poets who write so well and fully about married love.

Similarly, about friendship: each of several elegies, including "The Creation" and "A Goodbye," as well as the more general poem, "Open Letter, Personal," trace the same complex verities, the same difficult balancing acts of perception, penetration and discovery. This fact of extending relationship is as important in the later poems of Merciful Disguises as the development of the flight metaphor, a development which appears to correct the potentially inert, or negatively quietist bent of earlier poems. With this metaphor, the poems literally move to make a place for the visionary and idealistic imagination in a female life, and accomplish their difficult ascent, as the emotional commitment to subject deepens and intensifies many of these increasingly personal poems of the later collections. This expansive movement, up and out, is complemented by another change in language and subject, which laterally extends the poet's range, this time temporally as well as spatially. This movement, a circling back to include a more remote past, allows her to retrieve her own relatively unexplored childhood.

In 1970s "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," Mona Van Duyn relies on the pace of most of her other long narrative poems—there is the same unhastening novelistic inclusiveness, the same appetite for paradigmatic structures of exploration displayed in all of the objects and persons of its concern. But the scraps of dialogue, the mother's diatribes included here, betray an interest in the actual transcription of the speech of others that is a new element. Later, that plentiful sprinkling of quotation marks which peppers the surface of "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," and also, implicitly, the surface of poems like "Billing and Cooings from the Berkeley Barb," gives way, as orthography bows to the creation of a new voice—manifestly neither the author's voice nor an author substitute—in a series of poems entitled Bedtime Stories, first published in 1972.

These fourteen poems, framed with a head-piece and a tailpiece in the author's own voice, are spoken by the poet's grandmother: looking back, they continue the threads of an agrarian domesticity in another, foreign-accented English, of another class, and of another generation. Anonymous, and egalitarian in style and intention, these and other poems appearing after Merciful Disguises take the same tack, thereby continuing what appears to be a necessary event in the larger life of these poems: the subversion of their maturities and finish into new vitalities; new ranges of feeling; new subject.

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