I’m sorry to say that time and chance conspired against me writing the extensive reviews I meant to write of the three remarkable books pictured above. There were others I meant to address, but these were so large and rich that I defaulted to my usual practice of flagging passages I might quote in my comments. As you can see, each of these books is festooned as a Renaissance frigate—and for good reason. Each one is layered, subtle, thought-provoking, profound, and profoundly entertaining.
I’m not aware of any reviews of Nazim Hikmet: The Life and Times of Turkey’s World Poet, so I feel especially schmuckish for failing to do it justice. All I can say is that it’s bracing to read about a poet at odds with his government and his early ideologies, a poet who suffered terribly for both by being imprisoned, then exiled, and whose work, though famous, is still effectively suppressed in his native land. It’s frankly hard to imagine an American poet being treated this way, if only because our poets—yours truly included—have been so effectively marginalized. I’m not being paranoid here, because the marginalization has been effected by poets themselves. At heart, like most Americans, we believe that truth is irrelevant to power, and so why bother speaking it? Hikmet’s truth had less to do with politics, which is what got him in trouble with power, than with the people—the ordinary, largely poor people of Turkey. His poems teem with portraits, unlike American poems, which are clogged with arcane theories, verbal games, trivial personal experiences, and grad school wisecracks. I hesitate to say we have no “world poets” like Nazim Hikmet, or Walt Whitman, or Pablo Neruda; they may simply be lost to the system, which has been carefully designed to ignore them. Nevertheless, it’s useful to confront an example of a world poet who—no surprise—has the power to speak across the boundaries of language and culture about the common life of real human beings.
Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge has already been widely reviewed, and frankly I’m not sure if I have anything fresh to say about it. Unlike his last novel, Inherent Vice, this one is closer to Gogol than to the Marx Brothers; its comedy is darker and its final effect—at least for me—deeply disturbing. As many reviewers have pointed out, Pynchon’s paranoia is moderated here through his eminently sane protagonist, a freelance forensic accountant named Maxine Tarnow. The paranoia that in other Pynchon novels presents a zanily comic aspect here presents a “can’t sleep clowns will eat me” shiver that sets in halfway through chapter one and doesn’t let up for a number of days after the reader has finished the book. Maybe it’s the post-Edward Snowden world we’re living in that makes Bleeding Edge so resonant, or maybe it’s the fact that Maxine, at the end, sees that her children’s smart and sunny innocence is doomed to disappointment or worse—which brings fearfully to mind whatever tween or teen you happen to love. As we all increasingly crowd together on the shores of the cyber-Acheron called Facebook or flounder in the fen formed by the River Styx (aka Google), it’s hard to imagine how naked we truly are, how naked we’ve let our children become in a world that really means to do them harm. Bleeding Edge, indeed.
There was a time, if memory serves, when writers (poets included) were expected to offer to a coherent world view, even if the view overlooked a waste land. It’s this expectation that seems to have suffered most from writing workshops, where the focus on linguistic effects, line breaks, arcane theories, and plain old careerism have shaped poets’ ideas of their art. I am not saying that other poets in other times and places did not wrestle with these same forces, which are endemic to the social life of art and artists, but American poets today seem content to exist at the margin.
Let me qualify my use of “American.” I mean “North American.” Poets south of our border, from Mexico to Patagonia, often seem inspired to offer a larger vision. This is exactly what I found in Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal’s Cosmic Canticle. I bought the book, which was published here in translation in 1993, several years back, but as often happens I shelved it and neglected it for long time before deciding to take the plunge. An apt metaphor, since Cosmic Canticle is 484 pages long, and there are depths and currents in it that one must be willing to yield to. It’s an overwhelmingly intelligent, compassionate, erudite, humane work, at once scientific and religious. Cardenal is a Catholic priest, though long on the outs with his Church because of his commitment to “liberation theology”; he is also versed in the cosmological, biological, and physical sciences—and manages, in this masterwork, to unite the two—theology and science—in a vision of spiritual freedom.
Cardenal was intimately involved in Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution, and after its success he served as Minister of Culture for almost a decade. I imagine the revolution has disappointed him, but I also imagine that its failure to achieve all its goals fits right in with his world view. Here’s a taste:
The music of the spheres.
A harmonious universe like a harp.
Rhythm is equal beats repeated.
The beating of the heart.
The coming and going of birds of passage.
Cycle of stars and maize.
Mimosa which unfolds during the day
and at night folds back.
Rhythm of the moon and the tides.
And of crabs who know when the tide is going out
and before it goes out find their burrows.
A single rhythm in the planets, atoms, the sea, apples
that ripen and fall, and Newton’s mind.
Melody, chord, arpeggios.
The harp of the universe.
behind the apparent multiplicity
Difference between music and noise…
The sound of the bell lies in its shape.
Of incidentally, girls’ legs.
Matter is music.
Matter in perpetual motion in space and time.
Rhythmic hearts and stars.
The universe sings and Pythagoras heard it.
The music of the spheres,
a music closer to jazz than to classical music.
The disorderly dance on things.
All accomplished through the play of large numbers.
And between the harmony of the stars and that of atoms
the anatomy of the human body.
With those proportions they must have built the temples
according to Vitruvius. Those of the human body.
And the social order, like that of the sky.
Also within us the dance of the stars.
Observing the movement of the stars
they perceived that there was order in the heavens
and thus one day there could be order among men.
The cosmos sings. But for whom?
Why is the blackbird so musical
when the mating season has passed?
[from Cantiga 20]
The only North American poem I can think of that comes close to Cosmic Canticle is A. R. Ammons’ great meditation, Sphere. But Ammons’ vision is highly individualistic, lacking, as it does, the social dimension that Cardenal returns to repeatedly. Both Ammons and Cardenal have a transcendental world view, but Cardenal’s religious commitment gives his work a very different feel.
That said, Cardenal’s Catholicism, which colors so much of his poem, is more mystical than religious (“religious” in the institutional sense) and hearkens back to “The Spiritual Canticle” of St. John of the Cross and the visionary poems of Blake, although his main modern influences—oddly enough—seem to have come through the Objectivist poets, especially Reznikoff and Williams. The result is a highly specific poetry infused, top to bottom, with a transcendental impulse. This gives Cosmic Canticle its extraordinary coherence—a coherence projected outward in surprising ways, as when, for example, the poet acknowledges that high likelihood that there are millions of other planets where life has taken root, where intelligence and the spirit have developed—”each of them,” he says, “with its own Crucified Man.”
Since I’m not a Christian, Cardenal’s religiosity doesn’t interest me per se, any more than St. John of the Cross’s does. But I do appreciate the energy it allows his poem to build up as it goes along. As Blake put it, “Energy is Eternal Delight,” and I’m grateful to Cardenal for pouring all that delight into his poem and to his translator, John Lyons, for creating a dimension in English where Cardenal’s distinctive voice can resonate.