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Words that reach what is wounded

Edward Hirsch is the author of the forthcoming "Lay Back the Darkness: Poems," to be published this spring. He is president-elect of the Guggenheim Foundation.

“Talking Cures” is the old name for psychoanalysis in its younger, more halcyon days, and Richard Howard employs it to wonderful effect as the title of his verbally adept, speech-driven and highly performative 12th book of poems. Howard’s winding syntax, his Jamesian way of talking in poetry, of speaking across strictly charted symmetrical stanzas, has always been a difficult pleasure. But now, in the poet’s early 70s, it takes on another, curative, dimension. It is an emphatic staying action -- sometimes tragic, sometimes comical (sometimes tragicomic!) -- against death.

One of the premises of this highly theatrical collection is that speaking becomes a form of necessary action, a process of making, of constructing and reconstructing a self in the face of dissolution. Voicing the unconscious in controlled circumstances is therapeutic, especially when it has been enabled (and chastened) by the artifice of poetic form. We are strangers to ourselves. Talking, which gives insight to experience, sounds the depths of our solitude. It also reaches out to an unseen listener. Wit redresses what is wounded in us. Poetry heals.

Howard is the most unabashedly literary -- the most Wildean -- of contemporary American poets. His massive learning, a full cultural arsenal, has often made him seem suspect to poetry readers who distrust great fanciness and mistakenly equate a plain style and a supposedly unmediated personal voice with “sincerity,” which is a little like saying that vanilla ice cream is more “sincere” than peach gelato. But if it’s true, as Ezra Pound said, that technique is the test of a poet’s sincerity, then Howard certainly qualifies as one of our sincerest makers, since he has been elaborating his structures -- deliberately making something of himself -- for more than 40 years now. This most multitudinous of poets keeps giving himself away, and “Talking Cures” is the latest installment in his book of psychological portraits, dramatic intimacies.

The collection begins characteristically enough with a monologue from the point of view of a fugitive who, the wily traveler tells us, always preferred his Latin name (Ulysses) to his Greek one (Odysseus), at least until a notorious Irish novel “blew” his cover. Now he no longer knows what to call himself, since his story has been so often repeated. He complains against being named and summarized, fastened down, perfected.

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... Everyone knows my history,

complete with goddesses, islands, all those hoary lies!

I have no tales to tell, I have only

echoes. The real Ulysses puts in his appearance

between other men’s lines, the true Odysseus

shows up in unspeakable pauses, the gaps and blanks

where life hasn’t already been turned into

“my” wanderings, “my” homecoming, even “my” dog!

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Thus does the Greek hero become a type of belated or postmodern Emersonian figure -- a representative stand-in for the American poet -- struggling to liberate himself from “ballads, bards, and banned books,” determined to remain in transit, in process, still emergent.

... To hell

with a crown, a conjugal bed, and recognition

by a nurse with Alzheimer’s! All I want

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is to be what I was: mortal, muddled, and myself.

Emerson felt that power “resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim,” a sentiment Howard endorsed in “Alone With America,” an indispensable critical book in which he examined the work of 51 contemporaries, most of whom comprise the third wave of 20th century American poets. It turns out that he was also talking about himself when he concluded about the poets of his own generation: “These then are the children of Midas, who address themselves to the current, to the flux, to the process of experience rather than to its precepts.”

Or, as he puts it in “The Apotropaist” (the word refers to one who wards off evil), a poem in homage to the “unscrupulously prolific” German painter Gerhard Richter, who has gone through so many different styles:

Does it take the pain out of painting,

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all of this unscrupulously prolific

production of his?

Repudiating the said in favor of saying

is all that makes it human,

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this uncertain life of warding off,

of refusing, this life that is not the picture

but the depicting.

Howard’s characteristic modes and obsessions are very much in evidence in “Talking Cures,” in which he repeatedly repudiates the “said” -- the monumental -- in favor of a radical form of “saying.” He likes to propose shocks, to confront the new and despoil the mere proprieties of self. These ironic impulses are very much in evidence in the group of nine poems he calls “Phallacies,” each of which involves a witty, quasi-scandalous anecdote -- a fallacy -- about the male member. (Madame DeGaulle mistakenly says “A penis” when she means to say “Hap-pi-ness”; a female curator opens a trunk labeled “Antiquities. Members Only” and discovers many trays of penises that have been knocked off statues etc.)

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The comic, demystifying impulse in Howard’s work is apparent in a group of poems about our various relations with dogs, as well as in a sequence he titles “The Masters on the Movies” (Henry James views “Now, Voyager” in the year he serially publishes “The Bostonians,” Rudyard Kipling watches “King Kong” during the same year he publishes “The Jungle Book” and so forth). The atmosphere of these poems tends to be relaxed and humorous, though a sense of loss and vulnerability, of extreme exposure, deepens and perhaps even undermines the comedy. The subject is change, which devours and transforms everything, and one can’t help noticing that the poet’s deliciously baroque wit keeps returning to traumas of male sexuality and anxieties about aging.

Howard reaches the pinnacle of his art in the three threshold poems that close the book. In “Infirmities,” a dying Walt Whitman addresses his literary executor Horace Traubel (“No use having an executor,” he says, “unless I can show you what to execute”) and greets Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula.” In “Knowing When to Stop,” a dying Freud confronts the harsh truth that his two beloved chows are avoiding him after multiple operations and secondary infections have eaten a hole in his cheek and caused a dastardly smell. And in “Elementary Principles at Seventy-Two,” the poet meditates in his own voice on the power of the four elements that surround us. He concludes, as we all will, with the earth that accepts us.

In these final poems, these lyrics of finality, Howard returns to elementary principles, to the basics of his imagination in confrontation with change. He demonstrates that his cunning art of conversation, of art as conversation, has evolved into an elegant talking cure, a poetry of deep mortality and humane grace.

“Elementary Principles at Seventy-Two”

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When we consider the stars

(what else can we do with them?) and even

recognize among them sidereal

father-figures (it was our

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consideration that arranged them so),

they will always outshine us, for we change.

When we behold the water

(which cannot be held, for it keeps turning

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into itself), that is how we would move --

but water overruns us.

And when we aspire to be clad in fire

(for who would not put on such apparel?)

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the flames only pass us by --

it is a way they have of passing through.

But earth is another matter. Ask earth

to take us, the last mother --

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one womb we may reassume. Yes indeed,

we can have the earth. Earth will have us.


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