Places of Memory and Longing : SELECTED POEMS, <i> By Daniel Halpern (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 220 pp.)</i>
One of the pleasures of reading a volume of selected poems is the way readers can participate in the development of a poet; before our eyes, as it were, a writer creates an unmistakable voice, an identify. But often if seems that the qualities that define character have been there all along: Is “becoming oneself” a matter of getting better at being the person we’ve always been?
Daniel Halpern’s new volume of selected poems--which has been handsomely produced by Knopf, with an old-fashioned attention to details such as typeface, dust jacket and quality of paper--culls work from six books published since 1972. From the very beginning, Halpern’s twin obsessions are boldly clear.
He’s first off a poet of travel, a roamer who loves to describe foreign scenes. He’s a connoisseur of landscapes, telling us, in the very first poem here, “I’ve been after the exotic/for years” (“The Ethnic Life”). These poems takes us swiftly and vividly to Holland:
In wood along canals, the water
Creeping from street to street where
old men talk
Herring days. The breath of every
Hangs a scent on the air like laun
dry . . . .
You would notice the humor:
At work in the fields collecting seeds,
the pointed tips of djellabas
that stick up at odd angles --
closer to God, perhaps.
--"Letter to the Midwest”
to anywhere along the rocky North Atlantic coast, where a storm
. . . picks out the white boats
in the gay and fires them
with a luminist’s white,
igniting everything. . . .
--"Summer Storm” He’s equally at home in a seedy bar in Tangier, or on the Santa Monica pier, where Halpern locates a moving, understated description of the lives of the fishermen who gather in the dark, fishing both for food and for something to heal their broken hearts. (“Night Food,” which evokes this scene vividly and tenderly, is one of this volume’s prose poems, a form which Halpern uses masterfully. I wish he’d write more of them.)
If travel is one pole around which Halpern’s world revolves, the other is love. The urge to journey, of course, calls us away from the familiar; love binds us to one place, at least for a time. The tension between connection and isolation, between staying on and continuing to move, provides a large part of the energy of Halpern’s work.
It’s interesting--particularly heartening to those of us who write--to notice the way Halpern’s themes mature and intertwine during the 20-some years of work excerpted here. In the early poems, simply noting what he observes seems enough for this traveler; his impulse is to record, not to attempt to make meaning of what he sees. In “Night Scene,” two friends ride an Italian train past fires burning in the dark in Umbrian wine country. The poet wonders if they will remember the flames as . . .
the deep red of Tuscan wines.
But this is something no longer
The train passed late in the night
wine fields that held two perfect
of fire, and we two, friends and
silent, watched it pass and at the
time said nothing.
It was enough.
This time, the poem’s simple observation makes for an affecting comment about friendship and memory, and the nature of remembering shared experience. Sometimes, though, Halpern’s earlier poems suffer from a kind of tourist syndrome, in which the surface of a foreign world is merely recorded. In his earlier love poems, likewise, he can seem like a tourist in the realm of the passions, passing through but not entering deeply into his subject.
This may be in part a reflection of the poetics of the times. Halpern’s first books were published in the ‘70s, and they share with the work of W. S. Merwin and Mark Strand, among other poets of the period, a taste for lifting experience out of context. For those poets, the image rendered pure and timeless was more important than the complicated web of story.
But the ‘80s brought an interest in more narrative work, and as Halpern’s career has continued, he’s become more and more interested in giving us experiences in their full contexts. His poems have deepened and enlarged. Especially in his last two books, “Tango” and “Foreign Neon,” the exotic landscapes and romantic relationships these poems evoke seem more fully inhabited.
To love, to have loved, is an encounter with otherness as surely as a trip to Venice or Umbria or Vermont. In his more recent poems, Halpern’s double obsessions seem to fuse. A haunting prose poem called “Coffee,” for instance, recalls across a distance of 25 years a love affair with a woman in Laurel Canyon--a memory both passionate and strangely distant. The writer’s own past seems itself to become a foreign country, a place where memory and longing allow him to travel, if only for a while.
Halpern’s mature poems wrestle with the notion of how we’re to live with that otherness, and with conflicting desires. How are we to reconcile our longings, when we want both to wander and to remain attached? The title poem of “Foreign Neon,” for instance, shows us a settled-down speaker who’s hungry for . . .
distance, other locations, other
to high contrast cities
lit up at night in foreign neon.
But this speaker acknowledges that he also dreams “the habitable
. . . the dream of cohabitation,
one good woman, one address,
a life worth repeating day by day.
These contrasting claims on the spirit may be irreconcilable, but for the radiant moment which comprises the end of this poem, they’re brought together in a single, breathtaking image. The woman’s face is suddenly touched by light.
Perhaps the speaker’s conflicting impulses can’t ever be resolved, finally, but this beautifully shaped image shows us the way that clashing desires can learn to coexist. That may be in itself the hallmark of maturity; that we can want mutually exclusive things and learn to live in the dialogue between them. This selection from a life’s work thus far allows us to track the progress of a writer’s struggling dialogue between connection and detachment, a process that marks the evolution of the heart.