by Mark Halliday
Like you and me, Robert Pinsky is scared by the destructions of time. Everything we’ve cared about is dissolving—and we let it happen! No, wait—it has to happen—time equals change equals loss—but we still seem guilty—because we forget, we let go. . . . Yet also many of us (including most poets, arguably all poets) scheme to counteract the passage of time or at least to hang on heroically to traces, traces. . . . But the keepable traces are not the original realities, and anyway they amount to one percent of one percent of one percent of what you cared about.
Pinsky’s poem “The Garden” (History of My Heart, 1984) is one of his efforts to acknowledge the inescapability of letting go. Persons known long ago—and even not so long ago—are led into a shady garden in the mind:
And like statuary of dark metal
Or pale stone around the pond, the living and the dead,
Young and old, gather where they are brought: some nameless;
Some victims and some brazen conquerors; the shamed and the haunters;
The harrowed; the cherished; the banished—or mere background figures,
Old men from a bench, girl with glasses from school—all brought beyond
Even memory’s noises and rages, here in the quiet garden.
Although “the cherished” comprise only one of the many categories cited there, the whole poem is shadowed by the sense that as you live your life, you cherish the perceiving self who notices various other persons, and to lose so many individuals who once focused your attention is to lose some of your life, some of your self. This losing is involuntary— and necessary for sanity (since your mind can’t function if it tries to retain every impression in accessible files). If so, then obsessing about this losing tilts toward neurosis, perhaps. Robert Pinsky’s poetry has helped me think about this, again and again, in poems that I’ve wanted never to forget.
Memory and forgetting are adversaries in an endless contest that forgetting is always winning, by monstrous margins, though memory keeps achieving tiny brief local victories.
Throughout his career Pinsky has wanted to be a poet of heroic unsurrendering memory—not just memory of one’s own personal life, which is the terrain of innumerable good and bad autobiographical poets, but memory of the story of a community, a society, a culture, and even of our entire species. The ambition is consciously superhuman, pressing beyond the capacity of any individual mind—as Walt Whitman had to forget and realize and re-forget and re-realize throughout his decades of adding to Leaves of Grass, that giant work that ultimately could not escape being finite. Like Whitman, though with more ironic coolness than Whitman could tolerate, Pinsky has felt that the effort to see everything, to register everything insightfully, while guaranteed (from a rational vantage point) to fail, is nevertheless a beneficial and needful effort, an effort that may bring to readers some kinds of understanding and relief not provided by poetry that stays within one individual’s experience.
Sustaining this godlike synoptic project through many poems requires (though it need not mushroom into Pound-like madness) a brazen, brash confidence; this spirit is floridly charming in Whitman (for those of us who love him), and is charming in a cooler, less ingratiating way in Pinsky. Whitman, when he was “afoot with his vision,” felt beamingly sure of his huge power to see and appreciate. Pinsky may often have felt something like that sense of power, but in him it is always shadowed by awareness of the foolish hubris into which any visionary is apt to slide. In Pinsky there is a deep and central desire to be nobody’s fool, including a desire not to be duped by the seeming authority of his own connective evocations of patterns in human experience. So the crucial energy in many—maybe most—of Pinsky’s poems flows from the tension between the craving for transpersonal or suprapersonal seeing and the awareness of ways in which that seeing may be mistaken and will not remain intact.
The synoptic perception of countless phenomena which Pinsky temperamentally finds so desirable may be synchronic (wider horizontal seeing of the diverse present) or diachronic (deeper vertical seeing of the striated past)—or, ideally, both. The need for synchronic registering of one’s contemporary social environment is evoked in one of my favorite Pinsky poems, “The Questions” (History of My Heart). He remembers working in his father’s optician business as a boy, and presents a brief catalogue of the customers:
The tall overloud old man with a tilted, ironic smirk
To cover the gaps in his hearing; a woman who hummed one
Prolonged note constantly, we called her “the hummer”—how
Could her white fat husband (he looked like Rev. Peale)
Bear hearing it day and night? And others: a coquettish old lady
In a bandeau, a European. She worked for refugees who ran
Gift shops or booths on the boardwalk in the summer;
She must have lived in winter on Social Security. One man
Always greeted my father in Masonic gestures and codes.
We recognize the extremely limited and distanced quality of these momentary sketches; we too remember hundreds of individuals from our past only in such tiny scraps of detail—until eventually most of them are conducted into the Garden of Forgottenness. Pinsky wonders explicitly why his mind worries at remembering his father’s customers and why—decades later—he finds himself wishing for them “to be treated tenderly by the world.”
Why this new superfluous caring?
I want for them not to have died in awful pain, friendless.
Though many of the living are starving, I still pray for these,
Dead, mostly anonymous (but Mr. Monk, Mrs. Rose Vogel)
And barely remembered: that they had a little extra, something
For pleasure, a good meal, a book or a decent television set.
The reason for such “superfluous caring” is not simply an all-inclusive Whitmanic benevolence. The caring is rooted in the mind’s need for a coherent world. Pinsky doesn’t answer his question (“Why this new superfluous caring?”) directly but happens upon an implicit answer in the last part of “The Questions” where he says that “today” he saw a nun at the post office. We take the hint that this tiny encounter today may be what jostled his mind toward wondering about his father’s customers long ago. Today the nun’s bland cheerfulness about doing errands annoyed him, but it also reminded him of the way children have to form an orderly picture of their social environment—as in elementary school:
as a name
And person there, a Mary or John who learns that the janitor
Is Mr. Woodhouse; the principal is Mr. Ringleven; the secretary
In the office is Mrs. Apostolacos; the bus driver is Ray.
A person necessarily develops a constellation of significant presences around the self, and the self attains identity and meaning by its being located and perceptible within that constellation. Of course for most of us (who are not nuns) the crucial social structure conferring meaning is the family; but the mind craves a larger, wider picture, an internet of relations whereby one’s world makes sense. To care about those relations being understandable, worthwhile, even sweet in some way, is to care about oneself.
So “The Questions” is about that world-building activity in the life of an elementary school student and in the life of a teenager working in his father’s shop. But it is also about being an adult with a long past, who has had to realize the drastic tendency of innumerable world-constitutive minutiae to slide toward oblivion. Pinsky’s question at the start of the poem—“What about the people who came to my father’s office / For hearing aids and glasses”—arises from a suspicion that their reality—and therefore part of his reality—is quietly en route to being pulverized by forgetting. The mind hangs on to whatever bits it can retrieve: Mr. Monk, Mrs. Rose Vogel.
I want to look at a handful of poems that exemplify Pinsky’s twin obsessions with memory and forgetting. The examples I’ve gathered may be sorted into two sets: poems that emphasize the inevitability of forgetting (like “The Garden”), and poems that emphasize, or at least guard a tenderness toward, the emotional craving to remember (like “The Questions”). The sorting, though, is artificial, and will not allow me to forget that Pinsky never forgets forgetting: the characteristic stringency of his poetry centers in his refusal to be duped by the romance of clinging; thus any sweet elegiac retentiveness in his poems is bound to be shadowed by a dry hint (or more than hint) that it is delusory. Nevertheless, I detect in myself (with my inveterately romantic personality) a wish to let this essay arrive finally at the idea that (for Pinsky, and for any of us) strenuous efforts of memory and commemoration are not mere folly.
Pinsky’s main action in many poems is to point out to us, or remind us of, a vast web of connections stretching from any present phenomenon outward across the present and backward through history. Each phenomenon—including any physical object on your desk (as in his sequence “First Things to Hand” in Gulf Music, 2007)—is a momentary node or particle in an ever-changing pattern or wave.
The sentence I’ve just written echoes sentences earlier in this essay, and will be echoed by later sentences. The abstraction of such a sweeping statement may feel dry, but Pinsky’s poetry inspires a desire to form such a sweeping statement because we tune in to his effort to register a myriad things all at once—or the pattern implied by the myriad things. What makes his effort succeed as poetry (rather than meta-historical philosophy) is the restless yearning of his obsession. When he contemplates, for instance, the maddening intensity of romantic love, in “Antique” (Gulf Music), his need to affirm that this emotion has a crazily glorious history across many centuries is itself a palpably emotional need, itself a replay of, or latest instance of, passionate acknowledging performed by innumerable lovestruck artists. The lover who speaks “Antique” speaks for all lovers who have desperately loved.
I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
In the river of not having you, we lived
Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms
And we were parted for a thousand years.
Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover
The earth and have forgotten that we existed.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming ephemerality of individual passion acknowledged in those lines, the lover cherishes a representation of the beloved’s face, and he feels the pull of the idea that the representation (photo or painting) will withstand Time’s fell hand. Unlike Shakespeare in sonnets such as “Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws” and “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” Pinsky’s speaker resists the illusory consolation of the permanence of art.
Someday far down that corridor of horror the future
Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame
At a stall in a dwindled city will study your face
And decide to harbor it for a little while longer
From the waters of anonymity, the acids of breath.
The only consolation for this lover is the sternly limited sense of kinship with some future admirer of human beauty who will guard the decontextualized image “for a little while.” By ending at “the acids of breath,” “Antique” may be said to rebuke the fantasy that a particular instance of human beauty can be remembered forever. And yet the poem as a whole comes across as a proud affirmation, a credo, crystallizing the heroism in Orpheus and Mark Antony and all other stubborn tortured lovers.
In another mood, though, Pinsky’s awareness of “the waters of anonymity, the acids of breath” expands and smothers romanticism, crushing all sweetly particular examples of human identity like the Figured Wheel of fate that
rolls unrelentingly over
A cow plodding through car-traffic on a street in Iasi,
And over the haunts of Robert Pinsky’s mother and father
And wife and children and his sweet self
Which he hereby unwillingly and inexpertly gives up, because it is
There, figured and pre-figured in the nothing-transfiguring wheel.
The extreme expression of this fatalistic mood is “Louie Louie” in Gulf Music. This strange poem, not readily recognizable as Pinskyesque, has an air of having insisted on existing against all odds—that is, it seems like something fiercely scribbled in a notebook and not yet tamed into poeticality. (Occasionally we encounter such a poem in a book by a poet who normally seems calmly in control of his or her effects and mindful of the reader’s expectations. Such a poem—call it the surprisingly uncensored or indecorous poem—may not be “a good poem” but it is exciting to come across and can shine a sudden penetrating beam into the poet’s psyche. Think for example of Whitman’s “Respondez!” or Eliot’s “Hysteria” or Stevie Smith’s “Thoughts About the Person from Porlock” or Fearing’s “X Minus X” or Jarrell’s “90 North.”)
What fuels “Louie Louie” is helpless dismay at everyone’s infinite tendency to ignore and to forget.
I have heard of Black Irish but I never
Heard of White Catholic or White Jew.
I have heard of “Is Poetry Popular?” but I
Never heard of Lawrence Welk Drove
Sid Caesar Off Television.
Our ordinary question “Who is the speaker of this poem?” is even less appropriate for “Louie Louie” than for the collective-voiced “Antique.” “Louie Louie” can be thought of as spoken—or murmured—by a chorus of citizens bemused by the randomness of their knowledge and the constant tidal wave of information they’ve barely even focused on, let alone possessed. Published in 2007, “Louie Louie” thus presents in essence a state of mind we mostly can’t escape in the Age of Google. Each sentence of the poem juxtaposes something the I has “heard of” with something he or she has “never heard of.” We naturally try to discern a meaningful pattern in these juxtapositions—for instance, “I have heard of [an ultimately trivial pop culture phenomenon] but I have never heard of [something historically and morally important].” If that pattern were maintained, the poem would neatly shape up as a critique of the pathetic or frightening shallowness of knowledge in capitalist mass culture. This would indeed be a meaning not foreign to Pinsky’s thinking, as we’ll soon see in “The Forgetting”—but “Louie Louie” only gestures toward such an organized pattern of meaning, choosing instead a disorienting unaccountability in its juxtapositions.
After all, who has never heard of the demographic groups of Caucasian Catholics and Caucasian Jews? A speaker who asserts this ignorance would have to be either disingenuous or absurdly mixed up about demographic categories, and such a speaker might suppose that “Black Irish” refers to Irish people with black skin (rather than white skin and black hair). In its strange casualness the first sentence of “Louie Louie” immediately undermines our impulse to infer a speaker who is a real individual. Moreover, the sentence wants to undermine our confidence that the sociological labels we deploy have reliable significance.
What about a speaker who has heard of “Is Poetry Popular?” We might expect such a speaker to be exposed as a philistine who has never heard of numerous important poets who are less famous than Robert Frost. Instead, this speaker is ignorant of the end of Sid Caesar’s career as a star of TV comedy in the late Fifties. “Lawrence Welk Drove Sid Caesar Off Television” is actually an insight about American cultural history which Pinsky cares about. (He has testified elsewhere to his love of Caesar’s comedy.) But someone could feel serious respect for poetry without caring about and even without encountering an idea about Sid Caesar’s career.
So the juxtapositions in that opening stanza of “Louie Louie” are deliberately askew. In the second stanza, the list of persons utterly unknown to the speaker is a list generated not by pointed ironies but by a game of empty jumping from name to name, like a list offered all-too- promptly by an internet search engine.
I have heard of Kwanzaa but I have
Never heard of Bert Williams.
I have never heard of Will
Rogers or Roger Williams
Or Buck Rogers or Pearl Buck
Or Frank Buck or Frank
Merriwell At Yale.
What emerges is a sense of a mind helplessly engulfed in a flood of unseizable allusions, where all facts and allegedly significant signifiers seem equally atomistic and unimportant. Floundering in that flood, someone might be dimly aware of Kwanzaa (as a well-meaning but unrealistic attempt to import African culture into African-American culture) while remaining oblivious of Bert Williams (a great black American vaudeville entertainer who died in 1922; Pinsky in a note at the end of Gulf Music calls him “an angel of comic song”). In a world of apprehensions so incoherent and unrooted in history, there may be a thin consolation in the thought that evil actions and evil persons will turn out to be as forgettable as whatever you admire. Here’s the third stanza of “Louie Louie”:
I have heard of Yale but I never
Heard of George W. Bush.
I have heard of Harvard but I
Never heard of Numerus Clausus
Which sounds to me like
Some kind of Pig Latin.
In his note at the end of Gulf Music, Pinsky acknowledges the absurdity of someone claiming in 2007 to have never heard of George W. Bush, and considers what justifications come to mind: “That there was a time not long ago when we had not heard of him—a failed oilman rich-boy son fronting for a baseball team? That someday someone, indeed many people, will not have heard of him?” Irritation here has bitterness behind it, and behind the bitterness is helpless dismay at social injustice and at the cluelessness of decent people who don’t pay enough attention to prevent or impede injustice. What is Numerus Clausus? In his note Pinsky specifies that it refers to the quota system whereby universities like Yale and Harvard guarded themselves against admitting too many Jewish students. To have never heard of Numerus Clausus is symptomatic of not having cared enough about bigotry. But who among us cares enough?
Relegating such information to an endnote, Pinsky manages to express his sense of the moral costs of obliviousness and forgetfulness without letting the poem itself escape being an epitome of that obliviousness and forgetfulness. “Louie Louie” wants to be that epitome without alleviating its depressing picture through wisdom or insight. We mostly live distracted, dazed, bedazzled, unable to organize a million impressions. Emerson in his troubled essay “Experience” tries to find a healthy attitude toward our endless unknowing.
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. . . . Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand. . . . We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.
A lot of our experience is like listening to the 1963 pop hit “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, a song whose lyrics famously seem to mean something but we can’t decipher the words.
However, the obliquity of Pinsky’s “Louie Louie” is, I should admit, mitigated for a reader reading along in Gulf Music by the poem that precedes it. “The Forgetting” is a Pinsky-esque teacherly essayistic poem, saved from being flatly essayistic by deft shifts of tone and jumps from example to example. He muses on the way one’s memory (especially if one is over fifty, say) is always a chaotic junkshop where meanings and non-meanings seem randomly heaped together: “Memory of so much crap, jumbled with so much that seems to matter.” In the three two-line stanzas I’m about to quote, we hear Pinsky shift from an American boy’s version of Horace’s lament for unsung ancient heroes to an aging man’s justifiably cantankerous smack at younger generations who neglect monuments of unaging intellect without sensing the weightlessness of their own preferences:
I used to wonder, what if the Baseball Hall of Fame overflowed
With too many thousands of greats all in time unremembered?
Hardly anybody can name all eight of their great-grandparents.
Can you? Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?
You’ll see, you little young jerks: your favorite music and your political
Furors, too, will need to get sorted in dusty electronic corridors.
That last phrase forces us to notice the particular twist on the question of memory invoked by digital technology in the past twenty years: we are more and more willing to trust electronic devices to do our remembering for us, while we float in the haze between clicks.
Our collective forgetfulness can be disgusting when the moral cost of it comes into focus (Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, names we try not to forget), and Pinsky ends “The Forgetting” with an account of the desolating collective unseriousness of an audience at the Dodge Poetry Festival hearing Amiri Baraka read “Somebody Blew Up America” in 2002.
I was in the big tent when the guy read his poem about how the Jews
Were warned to get out of the Twin Towers before the planes hit.
The crowd was applauding and screaming, they were happy—it isn’t
That they were anti-Semitic, or anything. They just weren’t listening.
The not-listening described here could be seen as trivial, perhaps, if it were not a banal epitome of non-thinking pervasive in our culture—a non-thinking which endorses, and becomes indistinguishable from, forgetting. Pinsky reaches this point by qualifying his assertion that the festival crowd “just weren’t listening.” He says:
No, they were listening, but that certain way. In it comes, you hear it, and
That selfsame second you swallow it or expel it: an ecstasy of forgetting.
An ecstasy of forgetting—the phrase recognizes the attraction of surrender to the sort of cheery blather dished up by the song “Louie Louie.” Thus to turn the page in Gulf Music from “The Forgetting” to “Louie Louie” is to hear a poet experimenting (like Yeats in “Lines Written in Dejection” or Stevens in “Gubbinal”) with a temporary surrender to a state of mind he actually finds repulsive.
The victories of obliviousness are so ubiquitous that some experiments with surrender—or call it acceptance—must be necessary for sanity; you can’t be constantly raging against the tide of erasures. We heard in “The Garden” an acceptance that felt calm, not only calm but even awed and grateful. But such calm acceptance can only be rare and brief for a person like Pinsky so fascinated by the claims of memory and the tracing of the past in the present. A poem in At the Foundling Hospital (2016) called “The Orphan Quadrille” wants to be another expression of acceptance, but it manages this in an uneasy, edgy way, mixing tones ambivalently, with a quality of compression different from the discursiveness of “The Forgetting.” “The Orphan Quadrille” offers dance as a metaphor for our survival on the infinite dance floor of culture littered with the discarded achievements and dissolved understandings of previous generations. Each of the poem’s six stanzas has a fourth line in parentheses and italics, reminding us that we have to participate in the dance—“(Step and turn, step to me darling)” is the first of these. The poem’s tension involves the way these dance instructions counterpoint lines that exemplify Pinsky’s deep temperamental impulse to refuse forgetting. Here I will quote nine and a half lines omitting the dance-instruction refrains, so as to focus on the very Pinsky-esque montage of examples whose near-randomness—as in Whitman’s catalogues—tries to imply a panoptic awareness that could notice everything and miss nothing.
Lost arts of cochineal enamel and earthen bell foundry.
Shelling of the Parthenon, flooding of Sioux burials.
Let’s caper in memory of our mothers and fathers.
Faith-based razing of Buddhas, Torahs, Ikons
To obey Clerics, Committees, Scholars, Inquisitions.
Lost art of snake-handling, of speaking in tongues.
Lost arts of the poor, the Barrio Gotico overwhelmed
By galleries and bars. Let’s rattle castanets to celebrate
A Thai restaurant and jazz club—we are not purists,
Our ancient glittering eyes grieve gaily.
The voice that says “Let’s caper” and “Let’s rattle castanets” actually does not sound cheerful or festive; and the allusion to the famous ending of Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” actually has the effect of making us notice that the mind behind “The Orphan Quadrille” has not arrived at the Taoist wisdom Yeats attributed to his elderly Chinese sages who gaze out across a landscape of ceaseless change. We have to dance on, up to our knees in the detritus of “lost arts,” but the dancing can’t be blissful if we notice the losses.
Pushed to an extreme, such a vision of irresistible loss of the past inspires passivity, whether melancholic or gay; Yeats’s Chinese sages don’t do anything except watch the world and listen to music. Yet on most days, Pinsky (and I, and you if you’ve bothered to read an essay about poems about memory) can’t help feeling that strenuous efforts to remember and commemorate are not mere folly. Mr. Monk, Mrs. Rose Vogel . . .
Unable to sleep, the mind forages through the past: “in the ordinary plight / Of insomnia reciting memorized / Avenues through the expanses / Of loss.” Those lines in “The Foundling Tokens” (in At the Foundling Hospital) recall the long prose poem in Jersey Rain (2000) “An Alphabet of My Dead,” in which Pinsky copes with insomnia by alphabetically listing persons who have vanished from his life: “I tell them over not as a memorial comfort, and not for the souls of the dead, but as evidence that I may be real.” The poem—like our lives—is moving because of its details, its vagaries, digressions, surprising flashes of poignancy, its not being just an orderly list. We glimpse the humanness of obscure persons such as Harry Antonucci, Henry Dumas, Army Ippolito, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Butch Voorhies, Yetta of Yetta’s Market on Rockwell Avenue . . . along with several of Pinsky’s relatives and friends. The inventory, of course, must always be colossally incomplete; and the weary mind, exhausted by quiddities, will sometimes drift from details to generalities—as in the J-K-L section of Pinsky’s Alphabet:
A drowsy spell: it is working. Plural dead in categories like counting sheep, the exterminated Jews of Europe, the obliviated Kallikaks of New Jersey, the dead Laborers who framed and plastered these bedroom walls threaded by other dead hands with snaking electrical wires and the dendritic systems of pipes and ducts, audible.
Like Whitman, who resorted to generalities when his zest for particulars flagged, Pinsky conveys the difficulty of elegy not only when he strives to inscribe a figure but also when he relinquishes that striving and admits the supremacy of the Figured Wheel and of sleep.
We all seek rituals and ceremonies and institutional forms of honoring that will preserve the lineaments of persons we love or admire beyond the fleeting present, beyond “the dazzle / Where all things shift, glitter or swim” (the phrase is from “The Living” in History of My Heart). Baseball’s Hall of Fame is one such attempt. In the short poem “Glory” (in At the Foundling Hospital) Pinsky contemplates the athletic renown not of Sandy Koufax or Jackie Robinson (ballplayers he has honored elsewhere) but of an ancient Olympic discus thrower named Nikeus, known to us now only through an ode by Pindar. “Glory is greater than success.” This opening line of “Glory” gestures toward a poem that will affirm the worth of public honoring. But the poem turns out to be bleakly equivocal about the solidity of glory, and it finds this same doubt in Pindar himself:
And when Nikeus grunting whirled the stone
Into the air, it flew past the marks of
All competitors and Nikeus’s countrymen
Yelled his name, Nikeus after the stone.
What is someone? the chorus chants
In Pindar’s victory ode, What is a nobody?—
Both creatures of a day. At the Games,
Nikeus his friends yelled, Nikeus,
And the syllables, say the lines Pindar
Composed for the chorus, echoed
From the cold mirror of the moon.
The chilliness of that ending might suggest that “Glory” should be sorted with Pinsky’s bleakest poems about the inevitability of oblivion, like “Louie Louie” and “The Forgetting.” Is glory a sheer chimera? Nikeus is dust, or scattered atoms, and we can’t really say we honor him. Nevertheless—and here I realize I am grasping for comfort as I did when I called “Antique” a proud affirmation and a credo—there is a lastingness of art that is somewhat stronger than the acclaim of crowds; Pinsky’s “Glory” reminds us that Pindar’s ode (along with “Glory” itself) has, at least into 2017, survived the waters of anonymity and the acids of breath.
Nice to think so! But most remembering will fail and dissolve, as all the poems I’ve discussed acknowledge in one mood or another, angrily or mournfully or resignedly or despairingly. Despair looms as a possibility in “In the Coma” (At the Foundling Hospital) when Pinsky describes visiting a friend who is in a coma and trying to use the language of shared memories to stir consciousness in his friend. The effort, probably doomed in any case, becomes troubling in a further way when Pinsky finds that he cannot summon various particulars in language—song lyrics, lines of verse, pop culture facts—that he assumed himself to possess. The thought arises that we too, we the functional and conscious, exist in a condition not entirely unlike a coma, adrift amid unconnections. The most startling stanza in this eerie poem is this:
I struggled to tell things back from decades gone.
The mournful American soldier testifying
About My Lai: I shot the older lady.
What is that soldier doing in the poem? He figures as a person desperately out of his depth, or rather immersed in depths he has not been able (at least not in a crisis, at My Lai) to plumb, to see through. He helplessly followed a course of action that seemed inescapable. But when he reports on committing murder, the word “lady” comes to his lips as his mother tongue tries to remind him of civilized values which were too lightly inscribed in his mind to govern his behavior.
Helpless, helpless . . . the next line of “In the Coma” is this: “Viola Liuzzo, Spiro Agnew, Jim Jones.” Is there any ordering here? Someone, and a corrupt politician, and a maniacal cult leader. Who is Viola Liuzzo, is she a villain less famous than Agnew or Jones? No, Wikipedia says she was a white civil rights activist shot dead by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965 in Alabama. She doesn’t belong in a line with Spiro Agnew and Jim Jones—unless the point of the line is to evoke in microcosm the chaos of human remembering, where tidbits bob up into focus in unchosen and all-but-useless sequence. Helpless are we, conscious but not in control of consciousness; and so “In the Coma” ends thus: “Quiet of the deep, / Our mouths are open but we cannot sing.”
Viola Liuzzo, Spiro Agnew, Jim Jones. The line is a brief instance of a signature move in Pinsky’s poetry: presenting a series or montage of nouns or nominal phrases without verbs. This move, though almost entirely absent from the poems I’ve discussed, happens often enough in Pinsky’s other poems to prompt reflection. One suspicion that comes to mind is that Pinsky’s impulse to omit verbs comes from wariness about statement—he senses that his panoptic impersonal long-view visions of culture and history risk coalescing too obviously and too abstractly into august bardic declarations; handfuls of nominal phrases invite the reader to infer a linking statement, without nailing it down for us, thus partially concealing, or qualifying, the fact that the poems do approach us essentially as wisdom statements, saying in effect, “Here is a large truth for all of us.” (“The living, the unfallen lords of life, / Move heavily through the dazzle / Where all things shift, glitter or swim. . . . Our mouths are open but we cannot sing.”)
However, this essay’s focus on remembering vs. forgetting has led me to detect a deeper cause behind Pinsky’s verbless passages, namely his wish honestly to acknowledge and depict the way our minds constantly generate a flotsam of tidbits (facts, factoids, names, memories, perceptions) which we will never coordinate into ideas. Wisdom is endlessly undermined by forgetfulness, which is sped by disconnection. And yet, at least to glance caringly at many kinds of things is better, Pinsky feels, than only seeing the life in one’s own little autobiographical groove—even if the multiple diverse glimpses may fail to add up.
Disconnection from the past, from unifying meanings, from a sense of being at home in life, is metaphorically a kind of orphanhood (as in “The Orphan Quadrille”)—this metaphor shadows the quasi-title poem of At the Foundling Hospital, “The Foundling Tokens.” The poem explains that desperate indigent mothers who abandoned their babies at the Foundling Hospital (in 18th-century London) tended to leave the infant with some item betokening unique individuality.
At the Foundling Hospital
For each abandoned
Baby a duly recorded token:
Bit of lace or a pewter brooch,
Identifying coin, button
Or bangle. One crushed thimble,
Noted at admission.
The mothers’ tiny efforts to mitigate their babies’ sheer lostness include bits of verse.
If Fortune should her favours give
That I in better plight may Live
I’d try to have my Boy again
And train him up the best of Men.
We glimpse a mother wishing that the time-defying, mutability-defying powers of rhyme and meter will somehow forge a lasting link (however slight!) between herself and her child; or at least, a lasting proof of her own unique caring. In her pathetic and stubborn hope she is a sister to the lover in “Antique”—and to you and me as we cherish our slim volumes of poetry. And, as Pinsky’s poem explicitly says, she is like slaves and prisoners in innumerable awful lives who have sought some inscription, some betokening, of their individuality and their meaningful origin.
“The Foundling Tokens” is a heartrending poem. It achieves this effect without appeasing our wish to be comforted. Whitman in “To Think of Time” can’t bear his awareness of time’s ravages, so he resorts to cloudy reassurance:
It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother and father, it is to identify you,
It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be decided,
Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you,
You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.
Pinsky, though, does not end “The Foundling Tokens” with an unlikely-but-possible reunion of mother and child, reunion made possible by a cherished bit of lace or scrap of verse, as if in a Dickens novel. The last sentence of the poem comes abruptly, without softening: “Although almost never was / A foundling reclaimed, ever.” A high priority for Pinsky, here and throughout his poetry, is his refusal to deceive and to be deceived. He is determined not to be a sucker, or to make suckers of us. This determination fuels his insistence on seeing each human experience in a context of a thousand comparable experiences across continents and epochs. At the same time, it prompts his many rueful or grim acknowledgments of confusion, dazedness (“Louie Louie”) and forgetting. Moreover, this determination is deeply involved in the distance between Pinsky’s style and the chummy verbose discursiveness of elegiac poets such as Albert Goldbarth or David Kirby. Each pervasive pattern of truth Pinsky perceives tends to be a bitter pill, and he provides little of the sugar of affability. Pinsky’s core style, next to that of Goldbarth or Kirby (or Philip Levine or Robert Hass) seems uncomforting, cool, stark, even thorny. (This has, one suspects, alarmed many high school teachers who wanted to teach poems by a Poet Laureate.) The effect of a clean sharp edge, in Pinsky’s style, is a choice with a cost (like all choices); it is one aesthetic value among many possible values. It is valuable to me, in something like the way I value Thomas Hardy, another poet who never stopped brooding on what is not retrievable. Like Hardy, Pinsky never forgets forgetting—an obsession causing them both to write poems I find unforgettable.