Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Robert Storey on Adam and Cain

Dear Michael,

Two weeks is hardly enough time to begin to appreciate poetry like this, but if I wait for a complete grasp and enjoyment of it I’ll be waiting forever.

It’s a painful book to read. Not because it fails to do what you’re attempting, but because it succeeds with such stark and shocking force. You inhabit the cosmos of the poems with such utter existential fullness that it’s impossible (at least for me) to separate M.G. from Adam and from Cain or both from humanity as a whole. It baffles me that anyone should regard these poems as “blasphemous” or forays into outmoded myth. They’re no more “about” the family of Eden than Ghosts is about syphilis or M. Butterfly is about repressed homosexuality. The Garden (as I hope I don’t have to tell you!) is their occasion, not their subject. That subject, as I understand it, is the sum of those questions that agonize—and have always agonized—all thoughtful human beings: How have we arrived at such an impossible conception of divinity (--of that One “who walk[s] in cool evening/To eat of the fruit/Forbidden to us”)? How can life, so measured by that concept, ever be lived without shame (“When my manhood lifts,/ I wish I had never been born”)? Why has the human family been naturally (supernaturally?) plagued by so much strife and self-ignorance and ambiguous desire (“That was the riddle/That puzzled your love,/Especially naked”)? And these questions are only the obvious ones.

I read these poems, and I feel as if a gentle but imperious hand is pushing my head into the waters of the deepest well of being. Maybe that’s pretentious (and the poems themselves are anything but), and yet I can’t express myself without linguistic excess. Odd, when the poems have such a linguistically pared-down purity. Merely the physical experience of moving from word to word here is inexpressibly wonderful. Proper words in proper places: Swift’s dry formulation I’ve always thought a kind of modest recoil from alluding to that special form of worship in which all true poets engage. You’re one of the true ones.

My ecstasy as a reader is at its most intense when these poems (like the majority of “Cain to Eve”) achieve a density and splendor like compacted precious metals under fissionable force. These lines from the second poem of that last section—
I’ve come to find
Where the corpse of Abel has been buried
Because I plan to dig him up and take
His grimy, fractured skull up to the gate
And thrust it like an apple up into the cherub’s sight,
A gift to the God who made us all
And offer it for hanging on
The tree He has forbidden us.
--these lines remind me of some of the finest verse of early Robert Lowell, sweetly heavy with allusiveness, puns, and ambiguity. Surely Eliot’s determinedly exhuming dog in The Waste Land is referenced in the first three lines? And that skull: it’s “fractured” because it’s crushed but also because it contains a myriad of independent pockets of mentation? Which “gate” is being referred to? Heaven’s gate?—or the gate of Eden guarded by cherubs with flaming swords?—or both? (And does it swing open to the cherub’s “sight” or to its “site”—or both?) And O! that ubiquitous apple!—which keeps us “hanging on” (to life) and forever hanged upon the forbidden tree. Finally: happy to catch the smirk of Blake (inflected by Coleridge) behind that “God who made us all.” (And these are only the obvious treasures.)

I have only one complaint. And that’s that this is your first book, not your seventh or eighth. You are highly gifted, Michael. Would that you were prolific as well. Your readers (moi) want more; we thirst in a desert. (I say this after recently finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize-winning The Road, a book as richly instinct with verbal beauty as your poems—but a book that is violated, like McCarthy’s other novels, with a sentimentality that he just can’t seem to escape, something that Adam and Cain shows no traces of.) But life is short and art is long.

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