Mona Van Duyn | Critical Review by M. L. Rosenthal

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Mona Van Duyn.
This section contains 843 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by M. L. Rosenthal

Critical Review by M. L. Rosenthal

SOURCE: "A Common Sadness," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 88, March 13, 1983, p. 6.

In the following review, Rosenthal provides a laudatory assessment of Letters from A Father, and Other Poems.

Mona Van Duyn seems a naturally ebullient sort, a humorous love-welcomer who sturdily overbears disgust, resentment and the tears of things. Her style is anecdotal and expansive….

Mona Van Duyn is such an engaging spirit a reader almost forgets the dark awareness with which she copes. Her title poem, "Letters From a Father," starts her book off with an epistolary tale that has a happy ending—that is, for the time being. It consists of six successive "letters" from a small-town, country-bred, octogenarian father to his poet daughter. These highly colloquial letters, compressed and adapted to a loose line of five or six stresses and a pattern of alternating rhymes and half-rhymes, are handled masterfully. They begin as pure complaint, calculated to drive a daughter to distraction, with such details as: 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 …

But they end with joy, brought on by a bird feeder the inspired daughter has given her parents. At first scorning the idea of spending "good money on grain" for the birds, the parents forget their ailments as they become absorbed in the birds' (and squirrels') doings around the feeder: "you would die laughing / to see Redbellied, he hangs on with his head / flat on the board." The poet allows herself but one line in her own voice—the last line: "So the world woos its children back for a final kiss."

The poem is so endearing, and so unusual in its plain humanity, that one is tempted to take it at sentimental face-value and ignore the death-obsession with which it begins and ends. In the sequence of seven poems (called "Last") led off by "Letters From a Father," the comic spirit gains a brief ascendancy, especially in the second piece, "Lives of the Poets." Here the poet tells how her mother once "commissioned" her to write a poem about the activities ("we bake cute cookies" and "make stuffed animals / to give poor Texas kids at Xmas") of her social club—"to be sung to the tune / of Silent Night Holy Night."

In the rest of this family-centered sequence, most of which has to do with her parents' last years, Miss Van Duyn's tone grows grimmer and what emerges is a struggle to forgive their earlier cruelties to her because "they are nobody's children now, or mine perhaps." The climax of the sequence comes in "The Stream," a long account of a visit to her mother's nursing home in which, amid all the scarifyingly funny indignities and pain of such occasions, the daughter receives the endlessly deferred avowal of love she has been seeking all her life-all this not many days before the mother's death. The final poem of "Last" ("The Case of The") is a drastic effort at distancing and encompassment. Here the blows of history, the fated character formation of families, and private suffering are focused within the same impersonal perspective, made vivid in the reported words of a murderer before execution: "The sun done it, coming up every damn morning like it does!"

In a sense, Miss Van Duyn's work parallels Robert Lowell's; she takes the same confessional risks of humiliation and has a similar instinct for projecting hilarious discomfiture, as in the impossibly gross, thoroughly winning poem of married love called "A Winter's Tale, by a Wife." But the extreme egocentrism within which Lowell's genius discovered itself is absent from her work. She can write poems of pure joy, such as the gloriously alive "Moose in the Morning, Northern Maine," and the sweetly amused, femininely sympathetic "The Ballad of Blossom." The former has a genial virtuosity as it mixes pastoral evocation of a morning scene (engulfed in "an immense cow-pie of mist") with a whimsical dismissal of the esthetic view of life, then shifts to the sudden appearance of a moose, "a ton of monarch," at the center of its bucolically delighted meditation. The latter, about a cow in heat, is, as it were, a long-distance companion to A. J. M. Smith's "Ballade un peu banale" and the opening of Basil Bunting's "Briggflatts." Together, these poems would make a charming trilogy of bovine erotica.

But apart from her freedom to be joyful, which is greater than Lowell's, she is also closer than he was to the most telling kind of compassion, detached from self-aggrandizement or self-laceration. See, for instance, her piercing poems "The Hermit of Hudson Pond," "Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey" and "Goya's 'Two Old People Eating Soup.'" Her book holds a world of volatility in fine equilibrium.

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This section contains 843 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by M. L. Rosenthal
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