The Pure Poetry of Desire : David St. John doesn't believe we can live in a world of pure beauty and desire, but he doesn't want to live or make poems without them either : STUDY FOR THE WORLD'S BODY: New and Selected Poems, By David St. John (HarperCollins: $11; 142 pp.)

Robert Hass is the author, most recently, of "The Essential Haiku" (Ecco Press)

David St. John, who teaches at the University of Southern California and whose new book was nominated for the National Book Award, is a gorgeous writer. This has been true of his work from the beginning, but I think even those who have followed him closely will be taken by surprise when they read "Study for the World's Body." It is a selection of poems, and gathers work from St. John's four previous collections, beginning with the stylish and much-praised "Hush" of 1976, adds to it the best of "The Shore" (1980), "No Heaven" (1985), "Terraces of Rain" (1991) and concludes with a final section of newer poems. This last section is called "Merlin," and it is what is likely to surprise St. John's readers, new and old.

Because it is not just gorgeous, it is go-for-broke gorgeous. It is made out of sentences, sweeping through and across his meticulous verse stanzas, that could have been written, for their velvet and intricate suavity, by Henry James. But that doesn't quite describe them, since they are also full, almost past ripeness, of a floating, sometimes painful, sometimes wistful, intense, dark and silvery eroticism that feels like it comes out of some cross between late 19th-Century symbolist lushness--vague and specific at once--and the kind of '60s and '70s European film that talked about eroticism with a wistfulness so intense that it seemed experience and the melancholy recollection of experience were the same thing. Mallarme and Eric Rohmer, perhaps. Or Rilke and Michaelangelo Antonioni.

Here is one such sentence from "A Fan Sketched With Silver Egrets," a poem which bears the subtitle, "Hommage a Mallarme":

As this flights of egrets

Across the silk mask, this fan

Held so softly to your lips,

Seems to break apart as slowly

As blown ash, feathers rippling in the heavy

Weather of evening, you need not speak . . . even here,

Concealed by this soft wing (like a mirror

Trembling, like Narcissus' own breath),

As I lean closer to you, ready to step

Into a future so pure, we will both lose

Our separate ways. . . .

This is of course, mimicry, homage. And as you can give yourself over to it for the pleasure of it, a question is likely to occur to you: What is a well-known American poet, a Southern California poet in the 1990s, doing replicating, even exaggerating--but lovingly, without parody, as if it were a hypnotic tracing of the older hand--the style of the 1880s?

There's not much mistaking this intent. The first of the new poems St. John collects begins with an epigraph from Paul Valery's essay on Mallarme, and reads like--perhaps it is--a translation, not quite a parody, of one of Mallarme's sonnets. Listen to the beginning of it:

I know the moon is troubling.

Its pale eloquence is always such a meddling,

Intrusive lie. I know the pearl sheel of the sheets

Remains the screen I'll draw back against the night.

This moonstruck tone is not only the very atmosphere of that late 19th-Century style known as "the decadence," the "troubling/meddling" rhyme is the very sound of Mallarme. Listen to this, a bit further on in the poem:

I know the orchid smell of your skin

The way I know the blackened path to the marina,

When gathering clouds obscure the summer moon,

Just as I know the chambered heart where I begin.

I know too the lacquered jewel box, its obsidian patina. . . .

Readers who don't know St. John and start this book at the beginning will come to these poems last, of course. And I think the experience will be surprising because of these last poems. It's as if you were watching a movie of the history of modern poetry being run backward. The book begins with the up-to-date, uncannily deft voice of "Hush" with its mid-70s ironies. Almost 20 years ago, the early post-modern phase, when young poets were fascinated with John Ashbery's immaculately impure way of going nowhere in a poem on the plausible theory that there was nowhere to go. In "Hush," St. John found his own version of the non-sequitur narrative.

His second, "The Shore," is all eros and elegy. The poems have let go the shifty, playful postmodern manner and turned to meditative first-person lyrics, something like those of Kenneth Rexroth's of the 1940s and '50s. They are full of coastal imagery, radiant with romantic desolation and with loss.

There is one line that sums up this intense melancholy: "Even the sea sings one octave in the past."

What most marks "No Heaven" and "Terraces of Rain" is the experience of Europe, St. John's love affair with the landscapes of Italy and with Italian modernism. "No Heaven" modulates between the styles of the first two books, and if "The Shore" is obsessed by a woman, "No Heaven" is obsessed by women.

"Terraces of Rain" includes one of his best, and best-known, poems, a complicated, moving, many-voiced elegy for the Italian poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini, murdered, apparently, in a sexual encounter in the poor district of Rome where he grew up and to which he returned late at night to recover some mystery in himself from the boy prostitutes who haunted its streets.

It seems to be these poems, with their ambivalence about fantasy and fascination with desire, that lead St. John back to the idiom of the symbolists, straight back to the otherworldly music of poets sick of this one, permanently fascinated by loss as the romantic condition and by the space between desire and all the objects it finds to spend itself on in the world. Here is another sentence from the final section of the book, from a poem called "Lucifer in Starlight":

And Nico

Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost

Touching my mouth, as she sighed, "Look . . . ,"

And deep within the pupil of her left eye,

Almost like the mirage of a ship's distant, hanging

Lantern rocking with the waves,

I could see, at the most remote end of the receding,

Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,

At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,

A tiny, dangling crucifix--

Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting

In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain. . . .

This is something more complicated than mimicry. You can't quite tell who the speaker is--a melancholy man who has an apartment in Rome; he drives a red Lancia--why not?--so it's the 20th Century--but it is the same tone of stylized desire, stylized longing, beautifully rendered.

Los Angeles is also that territory in "Los Angeles, 1954," a poem whose language has the effect of making the idiom of Raymond Chandler, or Walter Mosely passed through Raymond Chandler, sound like another smokier, bluesier version of the poetry of longing, which, of course, it was. The speaker recalls a woman from "the old days,/When she used to hang out at a place/Called Club Zombie,/A black cabaret that the police liked/To raid now and then," and the black singer who wanted her, and like all the characters in this poems, had her and didn't have her.

Even when the setting--and the sexual repertoire--is distinctly contemporary and American and the tone is ironic, the long sentences are tinged with a European, bittersweet, retrospective lushness.

So what's going on? What's going on, I think, is that partly from pure, addictive pleasure, partly with analytic cunning, St. John found himself drawn back through various modernist and postmodern idioms to their place of origin in the pure poetry of romantic desire and its most theatrical idiom. That's why he's quoting Valery on Mallarme: "The definition of beauty is easy; it is what leads us to desperation." And it is true. The writing all through these last poems in the book is gorgeous and more gorgeous, and the place it seems to leave writer and reader is pretty desperate. Even the move to that style, as if he were tracing with his hand the poems of Mallarme to see if, written again, they'd turn out differently, seems desperate. As if he were testing to see if his instinct was true: that a century after the decadents the poetry of desire is right back where it started from, trapped in an idiom that wants to stay as long as it can in fantasy, memory, erotic longing, erotic regret.

It occurs to me to say that this is a theme not uncommon among Los Angeles poets. If all of contemporary poetry has had to do with the space that desire makes and how we fill it, it seems that a number of Los Angeles writers and poets--Wanda Coleman, Amy Gerstler, James McMichael, Dennis Cooper, Killarney Clarey, Arthur Vogelsang, Carol Muske, to name some of the very good and very different writers who come to mind--have taken up the subject and given it an edge and nervous or lush sexual content that might have to do with proximity to a major center of the desire-representing industry. When William Butler Yeats rejected the poetry of his symbolist youth, he pronounced a judgment on it: "We have fed our hearts on fantasy, and our hearts grew brutal on the fare." St. John's recent poems seem to move us back into the space before that judgment, to look again at its sources, its natural environment of languorous deferral in great, sensuous, world-devouring sentences.

In the last poem in the book, St. John makes what seems a diagnostic gesture. Actually, the last poem is two poems set side by side, making a pair of columns down the page. The first of them, "The Body of Desire," is over-the-top in a book already full of high romantic rhetoric. It is a kind of exquisite erotic reverie and meditation, complete with a mysterious woman named Seven who lives in a chateau and wears her boots to bed, written in a style as dense and lushly beautiful as anything in the book. Next to it, across from it, is a second poem, "Of Time & the Body," which is an elegy to a friend of the poet, written in a much airier, simpler contemporary idiom, perhaps out of William Carlos Williams, that thinks bleakly, clearly, and movingly about the death of a man, a dance critic in love with Balanchine, and about time and the body, and the limits both impose, and about the way dance is a pure expression of these things: body, movement, limit, time, and death.

Here is one passage from the first poem:


Turns to me, lips

Lit in the reddish dawn light--

Wild mouth of a fallen poppy--

Ash-scarlet, brash. Naked

Beneath the sky's low dome

Of shadow. Her fingers solemnly

Tunnelling my hair, my own mouth

Working the hymn of her ribs.

A few lines later:

There, as

I knelt before her, those pearls

Gathering like white mustard seeds

At each red ridge. Some nights she'd rub

My body raw with limes, with myrrh.

The first few lines seem right at the edge of pornographic cliche, and last line and a half--very memorable in its way: "Some nights she'd rub my body raw with limes"--are at once deeply silly and somehow committed to the fantasy. All through the poem--it is several pages long--gorgeous writing, rich musicality, haunting images of desire so fantastic that they rise toward bathos, go over the edge, and then return again to sheer romantic intensity. You really have to read the poem to get the effect.

Next to it, across from it, a straightforward, mostly plain-spoken meditative elegy that occasionally looks ironically at the language on the other side of the page:

The presence of a death

So much our own

It wears a lover's face,

The landscape of the lover's

Worldly body; where even

The sunlight, as they say,

Dances along the water

Of the fountain . . . .

I think the point of putting these two poems together is to end the book at a cul-de-sac, at a sense of the absolute split between, or at least the permanently parallel tracks of, the dream life of desire and the life of mind and body in the world. A split, flat out, unresolved.

It's a gesture at once supremely confident and desperate by a writer who can't quite give up pure beauty, the pure fix of desire, and doesn't believe you can live there, and who also doesn't want to live in a world, or make poems about a world, without it. A very nervy summing-up. And a beautiful, strange, dubious, elegant, enormously skillful, self-mocking book.

It will be extremely interesting to see where David St. John goes from here.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World