Mona Van Duyn | Critical Review by Robert Hass

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Mona Van Duyn.
This section contains 873 words
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Critical Review by Robert Hass

SOURCE: A review of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 12, No. 36, September 5, 1982, pp. 6-7.

In the following review, Hass commends Letters from a Father, and Other Poems.

Duyn was born in Iowa and lives in St. Louis. Her selected poems, Merciful Disguises, was published in 1973, and has been reissued in paperback this summer by Atheneum. Letters from a Father, and Other Poems is her first book since that gathering. How to convey the flavor of the title poem and the others about her elderly parents? A friend of mine, a pacifist, vegetarian ecologist, from Seattle who works for the Forest Service and lives on tofu, alfalfa sprouts, and the idea of wild rivers, married a woman from a Dutch farming family in Nebraska. Last summer he went back there to meet his in-laws. When he returned, he looked shellshocked. I asked him what had happened. "It was awful," he said. "They ate these huge meat and potato meals starting at about two in the afternoon and then they just kicked back and set around for hours talking about goiters." This is the world that Van Duyn gives us in a suite of salty, baleful and weirdly tender poems.

"Letters from a Father" purports to be just that, six letters from a father to his daughter. The first of them begins with a front-line report from the was between time and the body. There is a tinge of self-pity in its, but also a sort of Brueghelesque gusto:

     Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is
     such pain, would have to go to the hospital to have
     it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners,
     but can't leave Mother, she falls and forgets her salve
     and her tranquilizers, her ankles swell so and her bowels
     are so bad, she almost had a stoppage and sometimes
     what she passes is green as grass …

It continues—heart, prostate, bladder. The only diversion is his response to his daughter's expressed pleasure in her bird feeder. "I don't see why / you want to spend good money on grain for birds / and you say you have a hundred sparrows, I'd buy / poison and get rid of their diseases and turds."

The bird feeder, it turns out, is the key to the poem. The daughter gives one to her parents. It is not an immediate success:

            I used to like to hunt
     and we had many a good meal from pigeons
     and quail and pheasant but these birds won't
     be good for nothing and are dirty to have so near
     the house. Mother likes the redbirds though

But eventually this old couple, with very a few imaginative resources (and who can say just how useful imaginative resources are at incontinent 85) and nothing to think about but their bodies, begins to take an interest in the quick little creatures outside their window:

     Some of them I can't identify
     for sure, I guess they're females, the Latin words
     I just skip over. Bet you'd never guess.
     the sparrows I've got here, House Sparrows you wrote,
     but I have Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows,
     Pine woods and Tree and Chipping and White Throat
     and White Crowned Sparrows, I have six Cardinals,
     three pairs, they come at early morning and night …

By the end of the poem there is very little information about physical debility, the note of self-pity is gone, and there are long reports on the birds. My favorite line comes from a report on Mother. "Has a scale she thinks is going to turn to a wart." The detail is potentially gruesome, the story potentially sentimental, but there is something in the implied attitude of the daughter—her clear eye, amusement, repugnance, fidelity—that complicates the whole poem and brings it alive, and it gets at an area of human experience that literature—outside of Samuel Beckett—has hardly touched.

Two of the poems are remarkable. In "Photographs" the daughter is going through boxes of them that the parents want to get rid of. The occasion permits Van Duyn to lift a whole world into view in a matter of five pages. It is the ordinariness of it, the frontal banality hewed to so closely, that fascinates. Here is a portrait of the father:

     Small eyes that never saw another's pain
     or point of view ("Your mother's always com plaining.
     I've fed and clothed her all her life. What more
     does she want?") Full lips that laid down the law for us.
     Big feeder before his heart attack his Santa.
     belly swells in the gas station uniform.
     "You'll have to feed him good," his mother told
     his bride. "If dinner's late just hurry and set
     the table. He'll think the food is almost ready."

"The Stream" I won't attempt to represent by quotation. It deals with the mother's dwindled disoriented life in a nursing home after the father's death, and then with her death. It is in this poem that the daughter, the poet, comes to terms with her parents. The end of the poem is very affecting, but what is riveting is Van Duyn's description of a confused old woman dressing up, on the wrong day, for a lunch she is looking forward to. The whole sequence is very strong work, it is very close to the grain, and there is a kind of ferocity in its plainness.

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This section contains 873 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert Hass
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