Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


I read this little collection of poems and essays for Diane Gilliam’s seminar, “As If the Top of My Head Were Taken Off: Getting More Energy Into Our Poems.” Robert Bly offers his own essays on what he believes poetry should be: that poems should leap, not plod, that they should make wild associations, that they should answer to our animal instincts. He argues that in the Christian world and particularly in “America” (by which I surmise he really means the United States), we have gotten too safe, gotten away from the leap. Alongside his own essays, Bly collects poems he admires (including one of his own), to illustrate his points.

I enjoyed many of the poems, and I found Bly’s commentary interesting, but often problematic. (Here’s where I acknowledge that this book was originally published in 1972, so we can choose to make certain allowances, if we’re so inclined.) For one thing, his assessment of contemporary poetry (more than a generation ago now) is very much defined by national borders. French poets are good; Spanish poets are “much greater”; American poets have “faltered” (in the 1940s and 50s), and are now turning to the South Americans (parse that). I can allow that there is such a thing as a national “school” of poetry or of thought, although I suspect that’s less and less true in the age of swift international communication – which is quite a bit different from 1972, of course, and is still limited by language – one of Bly’s great concerns is that not enough fine Spanish-language poetry has been translated into English (when he says “Spanish,” does he mean coming from Spain? or merely Spanish-language? how concerning). But I think to say that Spanish poets are better than French poets are better than American poets is disturbingly close to racism, or nationalism. It caused me to stumble several times. Was this okay in 1972?

Also, I find myself exasperated that Bly has collected 32 poems (and 2 epigraphs) here, and 31 of those poems (and both epigraphs) were written by men. (Thank you, Marguerite Young, for representing half the world.) I assume that I’m to conclude from this that women just about cannot write good poetry at all… I know, 1970s, but still I’m disgruntled.

As a much smaller point, I wondered at the assertion that “the desert contains almost no mammal images.” This is in the course of a very interesting essay about the “three brains” (reptile, mammal, and ‘new’), and meditation, and accessing different parts of ourselves. This essay was the part of the whole book that I most engaged with. He sets up a desired move from reptile brain to new brain, through the mammal brain, necessitating a journey to “the forest” (he uses quotation marks) and finally to the desert, where an absence of “mammal images” lets us then move to the new brain. Well, I’m intrigued, if not sold. With those quotation marks, “the forest” becomes more archetypal than literal, perhaps, and I can permit that a similarly archetypal desert has fewer mammals than an archetypal forest. But as a lover of a very real desert in particular (that has mammals in it), I stumbled, again.

Leaping Poetry is, at least, an interesting book to engage (and possibly argue) with. I haven’t even touched on his theories of poetry, since I always feel underqualified. As I say every semester about the challenging readings I’m assigned for seminars, I’m looking forward to what Diane Gilliam does with this in her class. I’m sure it will be wonderful.


Rating: 5 stains on a handkerchief.

Violation: Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale

This was a real treat, and an interesting balance between the experience of Many Circles – mind-bending, challenging, slow work – and If You Knew Then What I Know Now, which I read with pleasure in one big gulp. Violation was different from each of those, but fell just between them in its pacing. I was engaged and felt a sense of momentum throughout, but also had to stop and sit with what I was learning, or to react.

These essays span thirty years of Sallie Tisdale’s writing career, and are presented in the order in which they were published, with the final essay previously unpublished. Some of them were in progress for years before publication, but still a chronological order of a sort. While subject matters range quite a bit – elephants, flies, abortion clinics and cancer hospitals, sports, childhood and motherhood – they clearly track the evolution of one mind. Tisdale is a Buddhist, although that doesn’t come up as an explicit fact til late in the collection. She is an artist, passionate, but practically minded. She is concerned with the body, and with feminism, in different ways. I enjoyed very much getting to know her in these essays; but I also have an impression of her as a very private person, and in some ways don’t think I really got to know her very well at all.

The introduction gave me my first moment of aha! simpatico joy: “Long before I knew how to describe it, I liked ambivalence. Certainty has always seemed a bit dishonest to me.” This is so much what I feel, and it’s perhaps something I’m still working on describing, myself. It was my first, early signal that I would get along with this writer.

I really enjoy her style. She is the essayist’s essayist, or these are examples of the classical essay-as-assay: the mind wanders on the page. She is curious. She brings in a huge amount of outside research, sometimes, as when she writes about elephants and moray eels. She reminds me of Annie Dillard in the combination of immediate personal experience with science, but without the raving exuberance that Dillard often brings. Instead, Tisdale remains calm. On the other hand, the title essay is about the memoirist’s famous problem: family responses to one’s work. The nature of memory, and the question of what is ours to write about. More purely personal essays like this one require little or no research.

These essays are concerned with art and creativity, yearning, body image, and what boys and girls were allowed to do (and still are and are not allowed to do)… so many things, but not all at once. They take on really different things. And while most are alike in basic structure – discrete essays, with narrative journeys and mountains to climb and points unto themselves – one of the ones that most struck me was the segmented essay “Scars,” published in 2003, about raising a son. I loved the wordplay (of each segment’s title) and the enormous scope in a small package (just over 7 pages total). It spans a lot of time: sections are labeled with years from 1982 to 1997, and a brief note at the end says that the first section, in its original draft, was one of the first essays Tisdale wrote. I really appreciated seeing the bones of this one a little bit. And then, immediately following, comes “On Being Text,” about what it’s felt like as a writer to be included in anthologies that teach literature or writing: to read what’s said about her and about her methods and intentions. (It’s not all good.) This juxtaposition helped me again to appreciate the range in this collection.

But definitely some of my favorite essays were the two about elephants, “The Only Harmless Great Thing” and “The Birth.” The first, early in the collection (1989), is over 40 pages long, and brings in an enormous amount of scientific and historical information about elephants and zoos, and calls as well on literature and myth. It’s also personal: the narrator feels lucky to have gained back-room access to the elephants at Portland’s Washington Park Zoo. The elephants are magic, and she writes about them beautifully. This was an essay I snuggled into, fascinated and comforted by these strange creatures so loved and respected.

And then “The Birth” (2003), under ten pages, and tender and very much in-the-moment; it handles the same setting and the same (elephant and human) characters, but easily stands alone from the earlier essay too. “Elephants are so outside the size of things.” They “held up the world.” As she later does with the moray eel, Tisdale insists upon a distance from these animals: she acknowledges the temptation to feel close, to anthropomorphize, but holds herself to appreciating their otherness too. These essays are dreamy.

Tisdale is curious, thoughtful, considerate, and honest. I’m so glad that she allows this curiosity and careful consideration to range over the wide, wide world. (I didn’t even get into the lengthy treatise, “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies,” about much-maligned insects and Buddhism.) This was a treat, and I highly recommend it for curious readers of all kinds.


Rating: 8 sheep bot flies.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Another beautiful recommendation by Jeremy Jones. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you Jessie for cuing me to watch this one for its organization. Jessie has not read the book, but she knew that organization of an essay collection is what I need right now and she somehow knew this was the right fit. (Trust in Jeremy, perhaps? What a fascinating, beautiful world.)

This is an essay collection about the narrator’s finding out that he is gay and eventually living as a gay man. These linked essays appear in almost perfectly chronological order, and the bulk of them take place in childhood or young adulthood (while he’s still living at home). The discovery and coming-out processes took time for this individual, and those twenty-three years (I think) therefore take up most of the book. A few essays cover his adult life after coming out; one essay (although a long one) covers an eight-year relationship, which is his first, and this is one of my favorite essays.

These pieces are nicely linked and ordered, with sensible transitions and little repeated information. Each essay within itself tends to feature repeated images or symbolism that work well to make a point, to come to a conclusion–if anything, perhaps a hair more neatly than I’d prefer, but these points are always clear, and maybe that’s the side to err on. As a collection, it’s a beautiful profile of the narrator and a life, tender and thoughtful, and admirably fair to the flawed but loved parents.

I had a few favorites, of course. The opening piece, “First,” is lovely, and I remember it – I assume Jeremy sent it to me during our semester of working together, because I don’t know where else it would have come from. It’s a quick scene, riding in the car as a small boy, and an early (anti-gay) lesson given by his mother. This is a perfect capsule: scene, scrap of dialog, reflection, and back out again. The final line of the essay reads, “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road–the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” Van Meter is really good at final lines. This is one that I’d say approaches the too-neat conclusion, but doesn’t quite go there. Instead, it’s a perfect summing up and cue to the reader of the meaning of this painful scene we’ve just witnessed. It inspires a sigh, a murmur of recognition.

While most essays feature narrative storytelling, with their points subtly made in the narrator’s reflection, one essay was different. “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot'” is much more an assaying essay, with the narrator musing on a particular nasty word, its etymology and uses and effects in history and in his own life. There are anecdotes, but the essay concentrates on a concept and not a story. While I loved the storytelling style throughout, I thought this essay was both well-written and well-executed, and well placed in the collection. It is the one, I think, that comes out of chronological order–but that’s appropriate because it’s not nearly so rooted in the chronology of the writer’s life. It showcases a different kind of writing skill, and zooms out to give the reader a different perspective on his life. It cues us to a more zoomed-out view of that life, too: from here on the essays will cover much more time compressed in each one. Childhood has ended and adulthood has fully begun. From here, the narrator is no longer struggling to know that he is gay and come out, and begin his life; now he is living.

I think my clear-favorite essay is the one that follows. “The Goldfish History” is one of the longest in the collection, and it’s the one that compresses that eight-year relationship, using as vehicle a pet goldfish. We learn about the narrator’s best friend and that relationship, which has its troubles over the years in question. We meet the first real boyfriend and follow their romance and break-up. Through it all it is the goldfish that holds the threads together and in some very real ways, the people as well. While every essay in this collection has something to teach and much to admire, this is the one I most climbed inside of and loved.

Very readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, heartfelt, generous, brave portrayal of finding one’s way. As sometimes happens when we read personal essays, I feel like I want to be friends with the man who wrote these words.


Rating: 7 stilt-walkers.

Many Circles: New and Selected Essays by Albert Goldbarth

My word. This is a complicated one.

I admire Albert Goldbarth very much. I’ve read his essay “Fuller” several times now, but I think that’s the only work of his that I’d read before this book. As an overall impression, I am deeply impressed, and challenged. These essays are beautiful and complicated. They are braids of many strands, often organized around an abstract concept, and Goldbarth makes it his job to help us see the connections, which can as well be pretty abstract. In other words, classic essayistic thinking-on-the-page. I’m thinking of the masterful braiding in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I so love, but even more complexly. And long: these essays are 20, 30, 40 and 50 pages long, which can make their braiding quite an organizational feat, and a feat for the reader as well.

They tend to focus on dualities or multiplicities, and profiles of people in history as well as in the present. The amount of information presented in each–scientific, historical–is boggling, and yet each essay makes sense in the end almost despite itself. I want to call the subject matter often obscure, but that’s an issue for each reader to decide, isn’t it; I am not the most well-read person I know, but I am not the least, either, and I certainly found some of the historical figures new to me. (I was fine with Yeats, and Einstein, and the Greek myths, of course; but the archaeologists John Lloyd Stephens* and Augustus Le Plongeon? Millionaire astronomer Pecival Lowell?) Goldbarth himself: extremely well-read and wide-ranging. Reading him is an education.** And I really, really enjoyed reading these essays and learning so much; but they must be taken slowly, to follow and parse all those threads.

Goldbarth is a poet to boot, and adds lyricism and whimsy in where we least expect it, expanding the ways in which he makes connections–imagistic and figurative ones, and wordplay–which make his work so much more beautiful but also that much more complex to follow in his meanings. His images and sentences as well as his essays are surprising, gorgeous, complicated, and rich.

I find his clearest obsession to be the concept of a “sympathy of souls” (the title of an earlier essay collection, many of whose essays reappear here), the interlinking of concepts and images, yes, but also of people. My two favorite examples of this type of essay are “Fuller,” which I’ve read repeatedly and finally begin to grasp, and “After Yitzl.”

The first links Marie Curie with the dancer Loie Fuller. They were contemporaries, and the historical record shows that they met; but much of their touching, close relationship as Goldbarth writes it here is born in his imagination. It’s a stunning piece, first in its portrayal of Marie and Pierre Curie’s passion for their research (and the starry brightness it yielded), and then in its, yes, sympathy between the two women. The narrator’s present life and relationship with his wife sneak in, too. I admired in many essays that the narrator was present as a writer and researcher: this line of poetry he was struggling with and its relationship to the apparently unconnected essay draft, etc.

“After Yitzl” is also a sort of dream sequence, which opens this collection and the earlier Sympathy of Souls. It is about the narrator’s ancestor, his ancestral connections to Jewish immigrants to the United States. It’s brief, and lovely, and as much imagination as anything else, but also research-heavy…

And then there are the longer essays: “Many Circles,” “Worlds,” and “Ellen’s,” which I could read a dozen times and still not grasp all of. It’s about the narrator’s friend Ellen, who is both a genius and mentally ill, and her deep relationship with James Joyce; it’s about Leonardo da Vinci, Dorothy in Oz, and spirals in architecture and nature and imagination. Whew.

Do I recommend this collection? Wholeheartedly, I do; but be ready for a challenge and some slow page-turning, and take notes. I’ll be studying this one for a long time.


Rating: 9 thimbling netsukes, if you’re up for the challenge.

*But then it turned out I did know the archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens: when Goldbarth got to the part about his two-volume work Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, I looked up and yes, spotted those two volumes on my to-be-read shelf. (Thank you Fil for that perfectly appropriate gift.)


**Stay tuned for a vocabulary lessons post to come on Friday.

guest review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

I originally reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works in two parts. I also sent a copy to my Pops, because I felt he needed it. I’m glad to have heard back from him now.

Thanks for the book! A few weeks ago I finally dabbled my way through the whole thing. At first I expected to read only those essays that were new to me; but I found the continuous approach irresistible.

As did I, on both counts, actually. A well-organized collection, then!

I blame summer rather than Sanders for taking this long, but Sanders deserves some credit for all the time I took in contemplation and consideration. This collection is indeed challenging in its range and subject matter, but mostly for Sanders’ unguarded candor and intimacy. He is quite simply baring his soul; whether we choose to appreciate what he has to say is up to us. In other words, I had to remember ‘how’ to read him, accepting the variety of both subject matter, and the responses he may arouse for the reader. The wide range of those things is central to the attraction, I think. He is boldly and humbly naked in his writing.

Which is why I wanted to respond to your ‘part one’ blog comments here, because I got as far as “The Men we Carry…” and wish to rise, not to defend him, but explain my reading of it.

Actually, there is no defending, and you did an excellent job of explicating that. And we still don’t know if he has reconsidered his words here. But as I read the essay, his Preface words were fresh in my mind; you quoted those briefly, but here a bit more complete, with my emphasis: “I have refrained from making significant revisions, allowing the essays to remain, for better or worse, essentially as they were when they appeared in print.”

As I suggested earlier, this candor, with all its risk and embarrassment so well exposed, is part of the masala, the potpourri – and the challenge – of reading Sanders essays. In some others earlier, he has already disappointed, frustrated and angered me; I am now unsurprised. I have resolved to consider time and place and context, accept it as material helping me understand this complicated and flawed person (as are we all), whose thoughts I am now invested in.

It’s the difference, if you will, between reading to examine what’s inside an author’s head, versus critique or enjoyment of content only. Increasingly, as my reading has become more intentional, it seems to lean towards the former, while I still enjoy the latter.

Mostly, I appreciate how such dissonance inspires me to better understand my own thoughts and values – for better or worse. Your own thoughtful response to his mansplaining is perhaps an example, with your values now in print with such clarity.

Pleasantly, with Sanders his best are still very rewarding.

FYI: By the numbers:
There are 30 essays here, covering 3 decades;
21 were published in other collections, the others only in periodicals;
I marked 12 favorites out of the lot, including 7 that I had already read elsewhere (including 3 of the 4 from Staying Put.)
But I read every single one, for a complete journey. Favorites tended to be most personal about family and father; nature and its human impacts; existential questioning. Interestingly, the ‘others’ tended to be similar ground but pursued in excess, taking me a bit over the edge, and often simply too personal and intimate – or dissonant.

I love a good numbers round-up, so thanks for that last section!

Glad that my comments made sense to you (I’m not the least bit surprised). From a distance now of nine or ten months, I remember this collection as a whole and as a reading experience, rather than in its particulars, and that overall impression is positive: I would say I like Sanders very much. But I do remember the essay that upset me, too.

The point you make in quoting the Preface is well taken, and I’m glad he made that statement. But I guess the distress and anger I felt in reading that essay was strong enough that I think it should have warranted a response from him – maybe let the essay stand as originally published but write an addendum, letting us know how wrong he got it and how much he’s grown and learned. If Sanders were reading this, that would be my request of him: republish; but now respond to your own writing, too. Well, I won’t hold my breath, but as you said, I’m glad I have gotten my own response out there, however small my platform.

I think there is an ongoing question of how to handle writings that seem wise in many ways but require of us that we make allowances for attitudes like racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc. and on and on. To what extent do we accept that something is “dated” and still find a way to enjoy it or to find value? I keep reminding myself that in every era somebody has been enlightened enough to see past the values of the time. It’s something I’m still doing battle with, myself. (Stay tuned, one of these days, for my troubles with Wendell Berry.)

Thanks for yet another thoughtful guest review, Pops.

On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura

I felt I might be tested on the things I saw.

Lia Purpura’s On Looking is an collection of essays that are unrelated, but for their preoccupation with looking and seeing. It’s an interesting look at collecting essays: some of these do not make obvious their obsession, except by proximity with the others. It’s an effect that builds. I like it.

Purpura’s language is lyric, which is often difficult to make clear meaning of – words go together that we don’t expect, which slows down this literal-minded reader. There is undeniable music and rhythm to the language, but also meaning available, if one slows down.

The opening essay, “Autopsy Report,” I’ve read before. It’s beautiful. It is absolutely about looking – a fine way to begin this collection – about really seeing when so many would turn away. (Some readers may wish to turn away. It gives the fine details of bodies literally split open.) This is definitely one of my favorites of the book, and a representative sample, although I suppose it is also clearer in its language than some that follow, and therefore a bit more accessible.

Another favorite was “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie,” which identifies itself as a list essay.

(A list, after all, is an incantation. In a list of likenesses, each element, each peculiarity gathers, leans into and flicks on the light in the room of the next one. The elements loop and knot forth like a net, band as a colony of frost or coral reaching, suggesting not so much a progression as a collective tendency toward. And taken together, the elements offer the assurance of a stance: here is a way to speak of this lightest, barely perceptible–in this case–space. From here I can count and collect that which stirs, and has always stirred me.)

A list inches one closer. Hints along.

Recognize my lists-and-things obsession here, which is of course related to a looking-and-seeing obsession. What follows is a series of spaces and things considered for whether they can count or cannot count as sugar eggs. Sugar eggs for the narrator are sacred spaces… “a space that makes a place for thought, an air considerably pure in which objects–say, sugar bushes, sugar trees–grown precise in their stilled distance.” The specialness of sugar eggs is hard to pin down: Purpura has spent a beautiful essay working on it, and I’m not sure I can sum it up. I’m not even sure I entirely understand it; but I had a lovely time following her parsing of what does and does not qualify.

Another favorite essay was “Coming to See,” which turns out to be a memorial. It’s a series of fragments, about looking through a window and wanting a better, clearer frame for the view (subjects I have played with too); only on the essay’s third page do we learn that the narrator has a friend who is dying. This friend is scarcely mentioned throughout, but it becomes clear that she is what the narrator’s anxiety of seeing is all about. Again, the memorial is something I’ve attempted, but it’s hard to get it right. This is an unusual, touching take on it. By almost entirely eliding the true subject, Purpura gets at the emotional heart without predictable sentimentality or cliché.

There is more, much more; it is so dense. From here I will give you a few favorite lines.

The epigraph, by Goethe:

Every object, well contemplated, creates an organ for its perception.

From “The Pin”:

But while we stayed, we stayed because we were protected by a curiosity so certain of its task, that things–boots, mail, pots, our bodies–offered themselves, first tentatively and then with urgency, as if for us alone, solicitous as all objects of adoration, as all objects in stories lure us, irresistible and catalytic.

All objects in stories lure us. My thesis, if you will.

And finally, from “On Looking Away: A Panoramic,”

I believe in the circle.

It’s funny the things that resonate with us. Another reader would have read this book and marked entirely different lines, I’m sure.

Perhaps this book should be read alongside Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, for its attention to attention. And in fact perhaps that comparison is useful: I had to read Doty’s book twice (and repeatedly after that) to begin to get it. These are dense, rich texts, about abstract things even while they’re about very literal, physical things as well.

Worth your time.


Rating: 8 ships in bottles.

The Prairie in Her Eyes by Ann Daum

This is an extraordinary book, one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far. I took it slowly, out of pure pleasure. Thanks once more to Jessie.

Ann Daum is from a farm-and-ranch in South Dakota’s White River Valley. She left to go to college, but returned every harvest season, and came back after college. She grew up as a ranch hand; her father was the farmer, but her sister and she were ‘cattlemen’ and handlers of horses. As her parents age, and circumstances work against cattle ranching, that part of the family business shrinks and crumbles; they sell off much of their four thousand acres. But Ann’s horse breeding operation does well, and she continues on the family property.

Against this backdrop, The Prairie in Her Eyes is an essay collection and something of a memoir-in-essays. It begins with Ann listening to sandhill cranes passing over her family’s homeplace, in an essay titled “The Habit of Return,” and ends with “The Last Crane,” in which she watches the last sandhill of the season worry itself along. In between, essays consider the history of South Dakota and its farming and ranching cultures; the region’s wildlife; “Silence and Spaces” and “Predators and Prey,” and more. I admire Daum’s titles, which often cue me to follow her subtle braid, as in the essay “Fences,” which deals with boundaries of different sorts, and the variety of effects of literal fences in her region of South Dakota, for good and for ill, and the evolution within her own life of how she sees fences, which is a matter of both her own growth and of changes in the place itself.

Some of this content is hard to take. An account of a difficult foaling had me in tears; the animals (not people!) who hurt and died wrenched me. There is human trauma, as well, that can be difficult to read; interestingly, the human trauma is written about with some distance, less graphically, while the animals’ is more viscerally portrayed. But it’s shown with so much love and grace, and beautiful prose. I’d recommend this book 1,000 times.

These lines open “Silence and Spaces”:

Rain never falls in the South Dakota of my childhood. Wind blows down the valley with the force of locomotives, clouds pile on the horizon, thunder growls from the west. Once, sometimes twice, a summer, lightning sparks prairie fires that crackle and spit, swallow brown summer grasses without tasting. The flames cough embers up like glowing stars and the smoke hangs in cloud. But there is no rain.

This paragraph is about the weather. Fairly dramatic weather, sure. It’s about a lack: no rain. Weather, and an absence. It does not sound like a good recipe for gripping prose. But the fires swallow brown grasses without tasting? Amazing.

Obviously the themes and subject matter of this book spoke to me. It’s about home, what it means to be attached to a place, and how complicated, multifaceted, and imperfect our connections are. I love how deeply the flora, fauna, and history (natural and otherwise) of her region have contributed to making Daum who she is. At the pinnacle of this concept is the essay “Why We Return – The Prairie in Her Eyes,” in which an old woman comes to visit the Daum family property. This woman had never lived there; she’d never seen it before; but her parents had homesteaded there, and an older sibling had been born there. Just like the cranes in “The Habit of Return” (and, obviously, Daum herself), she felt the pull of the place, even though she’d never set foot. “Gertie grew up missing a place she never knew.”

I’m enchanted. I’ll be referring back to this one.


Readalikes: Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Evelyn Funda’s Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament.


Rating: 9 fading trails.
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