Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Carl Phillips on Randall Jarrell and the childhood that never leaves us

Carl Phillips, whose eleventh collection of poems, Double Shadow, was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, joins our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, history, and essays about works that have influenced them. He finds that where you discover a Randall Jarrell poem can change its meaning.

As a child, one of my favorite books—still a favorite, actually—was Randall Jarrell’s book for children, The Bat-Poet, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Partly, the book is about a bat who wants to be a poet. Because of this, he doesn’t exactly fit in with the other bats, and this idea of not belonging, of desiring communion in a world that one is forever outside of—simply because of being who one can’t help being—is very much Jarrell’s subject. It’s also about the longing for an audience, which the bat eventually finds in a poetry-appreciating chipmunk. And as we watch the bat encounter an owl, then write about that encounter, observe a mockingbird and then put what he’s seen into words, we find that the book is also about the ability of poetry to capture experience in a way that allows us to return to that experience once it’s over.

I was five when that book came out, and of course I just loved the book for its immediate story, for the animal drawings, for how the bat eventually finds out that he can be who he is, and find something like a home in the world. Some time in my thirties, I finally read the adult poetry of Randall Jarrell, and when I did, I was shocked to see—in his collection The Lost World—three of the four poems from The Bat-Poet. How could children’s rhymes have a place in an adult book of poems?

It’s an instance where context makes every difference. The Lost World opens with one of Jarrell’s most famous poems, “Next Day,” told by a woman who, in middle age, while shopping for groceries, suddenly understands that she’s past her prime, that she looked for happiness in the wrong places, and that

              As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
The poem ends by opening out to an understanding, more broadly, of the human condition itself:
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything. I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.
The poem that immediately follows this poem is “The Mockingbird,” which had appeared in The Bat-Poet, though without a title. It’s straightforward enough: a description of the mockingbird’s habits (as observed by our bat poet), as he goes around “imitating life.” We see him waxing territorial, driving all the other birds from the yard, even a cat, stealing everyone else’s songs. Finally, at day’s end, the poem also ends:
A mockingbird can sound like anything.
He imitates the world he drove away
So well that for a minute, in the moonlight,
Which one’s the mockingbird? which one’s the world?
That confusion between the world and the imitation of it—to a child, to this particular child—spoke to the magic of a bird who could copy sounds so exactly. But reading those lines in the wake of the lines with which “Next Day” concludes, I understand something very different from magic, something more about how frightening it can be to no longer know for sure what reality is or has ever been. Is this my life? Was the life I remember having lived ever really like that? Did I really have certain ambitions, and have I truly ended up somewhere very different? Or, as I once put it in one of my own poems, “Would-Be Everlasting,”

                     How much
was true? Not native to it, how much has from that country been my own
rough translation?

So much of Jarrell’s poetry concerns a desire to return to childhood, to the specific image of a mother holding her child in her arms. Such a desire returns us to a time when to want or need anything was to have it provided, a time before we became shaped by the complications that make us adult human beings. Jarrell believes—correctly—that we never really lose something of the innocence of childhood, or at least of the memory of it, and a consequent longing for it. We still, as adults, want to be held, and to be able to trust unthinkingly, in spite of what we know of the world.

The final poem—again, untitled—that the bat composes, before succumbing to hibernation, appears in The Lost World as “Bats.” It’s about the vulnerability of a bat at birth, and the mother’s instinct to feed and protect her young. As the poem closes, the mother returns, with the baby bat clinging to her, to the rafters where all the other bats live:

Their sharp ears, their sharp teeth, their quick sharp faces
Are dull and slow and mild.
All the bright day, as the mother sleeps,
She folds her wings about her sleeping child.
As a child, of course, I saw this scene simply for what it is: comforting, safe, a way of thinking about mothers that resonated with my own experience. The Bat-Poet ends shortly after this poem, with the bat returning to the company of the other bats, who have already begun hibernating: “he yawned, and screwed his face up, and snuggled closer to the others.” The End. The instinct to recreate that embrace of the mother here gets expressed in more general communing.

Again, it’s intriguing to see the poem appear in an adult collection. In the context of The Lost World, “Bats” becomes a poem about the inner child. It speaks to the world of fairy tale that characterized childhood and somehow continues to haunt us. A few poems after “Bats,” Jarrell offers us “The House in the Wood,” which revisits fairy tale, what he calls “the story // We make of life.” In the poem, an adult speaker returns to a sort of fractured Hansel and Gretel scene—it’s hard to say if it’s a dream, or a way of looking at the subconscious:

                                        If I walk into the wood

As far as I can walk, I come to my own door,
The door of the House in the Wood. It opens silently:

On the bed is something covered, something humped
Asleep there, awake there—but what?
Where are we, exactly? “We are far under the surface of the night,” and “It is only a nightmare. No one wakes up, nothing happens,” Jarrell says, before concluding his poem:
Here at the bottom of the world, what was before the world
And will be after, holds me to its black

Breasts and rocks me: the oven is cold, the cage is empty,
In the House in the Wood, the witch and her child sleep.
It’s the same scene with which “Bats” ended, the mother replaced by a witch, but a witch who has abandoned her desire to cage children and cook them, in favor of the maternal gesture of sleeping protectively with the child. This is the lost world. “A bat is born / naked and blind and pale”—those are the opening two lines of “Bats.” When I read those lines in the context of The Lost World, I understand Jarrell to mean more than that. He seems to speak to our metaphysical blindness and nakedness, the vulnerability that never quite leaves us, despite adulthood. More disturbingly, that vulnerability only increases, the further we get from anything like a protecting adult figure. We’re left, as adults, to protect ourselves and, with luck, each other.

The Lost World came out one year after The Bat-Poet. For Jarrell, childhood gets left behind, and it never leaves us. He seems to have understood that there’s something poignantly adult about childhood, and that we adults are not so far from the children who believed in magic—talking chipmunks, poetry-reciting bats; indeed, our belief in that world can continue to sustain us, even as it soberingly reminds us of all that we’ve lost.

Writing about From the Devotions (1998), a previous National Book Award finalist, J. D. McClatchy observed that “Carl Phillips has done what few of his contemporaries have dared or managed with as much elegant authority. He has plotted the romantic landscape of desire . . . His tone is at once erotic and mystical, hushed and compelling. The book is a blessing, a ravishing, a haunting.” In Newsday, John Palattella called another NBA finalist, The Rest of Love (2004) “the scintillating record of a poet struggling to understand desire and to find a pattern of understanding within the struggle itself.” Phillips’s many honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Award, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry. In 2006, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He is a Professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Poets of World War II (includes five poems by Randall Jarrell); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes the poem “The Lost World”)

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