GREAT PLAINS GNOSTIC
The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, Robert Bly
Reviewed by Gene Doty
Note that the poems are printed only on the recto, not the verso. This stratagem makes the book look twice as long as it actually is. So many dollars for so few poems, but then the equation, quantity = quality, has no solution.
Amid the debates over what shape ghazals should take in English, Robert blithely produced this collection of “transmutations” of the ghazal form. The couplet-based form changes to a three-line form. The “disunities” (Agha Shahid Ali) between stanzas remain, along with the “signature” in the last stanza.
Gnostic surrealism. Northern Plains deep image. Abrupt shifts of context. These devices constitute Bly’s poetry since those snowy fields fell into silence. It’s a stochastic technique: out of many random trials, comes the unexpected, poetic hit. Presumably, in this volume, we have the hits from many trials, with the misses carefully edited out. It is thought by procession, association, disassociation of image.
Out of the well of the muddy heart rise lines of poetic non sequitur:
Plato wrote by the light from shark’s teeth. (“Monet’s Haystacks”)
There is no remedy for deep water but listening. (“Listening”)
. . . a dove’s breastbone is a cathedral of desire. (“The Wagon and the Cliff”)
I’m afraid to talk to you about my little toe,
Because I know it will never agree to fasting. (“The Way the Parrot Learns”)
Lines like these resist rational parsing. When they succeed, they sound inevitable; when they don’t succeed, they sound silly. Which lines are which depend, of course, on the reader, and, to this reader, the lines seem to shift categories with each reading.
Gnosis or Wisdom
Bly’s poems shift between gnostic allusions, opaque apothegms, and proverbial sayings. The Wisdom books in the Hebrew scriptures are Western culture’s model for wise sayings. These books are remarkably free from gnostic metaphysics and imagery. Bly’s references ranger from Blake to the early Gnostics. His best phrases, perhaps, are situated somewhere between Gnosis and Sophia.
The title poem sets the parameters of gnosis and wisdom quite clearly. The poet speaks in first person of Abraham’s love and adoration of the stars that set, presumbably in contrast to the metaphysical light that never sets. The poet agrees with Abraham in loving this fallible, failing world. That love is the difference between Bly’s gnosis and the ancient gnosis that simply rejected this muddy realm.
The second poem in the collection, “The Wildebeest,” follows through with the gnostic theme:
“The essence of Reason’s house is confusion.”
The line, “Arithmetic has failed to bring order to our sorrow,” is both proverbial and gnostic; it leads to an exoneration of Newton
Newton is not guilty because the man who
Invents the knife is not responsible for the murder.
Thus, Bly echoes Blake’s condemnation of “Newton’s sleep” while exonerating Newton himself.
Given Bly’s romantic, anti-rational, pro-mythic stance, we should not be surprised by the numerous anthropomorphisms in these poems. Wolves are “sad” while chasing caribou, for instance. Of course, the “sadness” is a feeling Bly wishes to share with the reader and has nothing to do with any notional pack of wolves.
Bly’s anthropomorphisms are, perhaps, intended to fulfill Whitman’s desire to “turn and live with the animals.” But for this reader, they are the least effective, least appealing aspect of these poems. I prefer Thoreau’s admitted impulse to seize a woodchuck and devour it raw. That’s harmony with Nature.
Ghazals? No Ghazals?
How about it? Are these poems in three-line stanzas ghazals in any meaningful sense of the word? Or does the question determine its answer?
In form, no. These are not ghazals. Not entirely. The eight poems in the last section of the book do have radifs. Bly uses these repeated words effectively.
That has to be the individual reader’s judgment. The poems do deal with spiritual issues in a deeply image-driven manner. They leap between units, albeit those units have three rather than two lines. And some of them do have the radif.
Along with poets like James Wright, Bly has been a strong influence in post-WW II American poetry. And his career as a men’s movement guru has made him a well-known figure. He has helped introduce poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir to Western readers. Whether you like Bly’s poetry or his public persona, you should give this collection of “ghazals” due consideration.