Category Archives: Reviews
In 1969, Cary Raditz, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, quit his job in advertising and headed to Europe to bum around with his girlfriend. They ended up in Matala, on the island of Crete, where they found a bunch of hippies living in a network of caves. Raditz soon decamped for Afghanistan in a VW bus; when he returned, his girlfriend had bailed, but there was word that a new girl was headed to Matala. Raditz didn’t know much about Joni Mitchell, but “there was buzz” among the hippies, and, soon enough, he found himself watching the sunset with one of the most extraordinary people alive. Raditz and Mitchell shared a cave for a couple of months, travelled around Greece together, and parted ways. That’s where you and I come in, because Mitchell wrote two songs, among her greatest works, about her “redneck on a Grecian isle”: “California” and “Carey.” I’ve been singing along to those songs, or trying to, since I was fifteen. I learned from them what you learn from all of Mitchell’s music, that love is a form of reciprocity, at times even a barter economy: “He gave me back my smile / but he kept my camera to sell.” Mitchell’s songs were the final, clinching trade.
By Dan Chiasson
“One rainy day in the spring of 1960, the San Francisco poet Robert Duncan arrived at my door,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her essay “A Communal Poetry.” Duncan was a daemonic bard with a Homeric attitude, who often wore a black cape and a broad-brimmed hat. Rich made him tea while trying to comfort her sick son, who moved between the high chair and her lap; Duncan, whom Rich cautiously admired, “began speaking almost as soon as he entered the house” and “never ceased.” Later, driving him to Boston in the rain, Rich realized that her car was on empty and pulled into a gas station. Throughout it all, Duncan, the oracle, was still talking about “poetry, the role of the poet, myth.” Apparently, Rich’s “role” was to make tea for him, and to keep things like sick children and empty gas tanks from interrupting the great man’s groove. Rich concluded, generously, that Duncan’s “deep attachment to a mythological Feminine” made it hard for him to manage “so unarchetypal a person as an actual struggling woman caring for a sick child.”
Rich, who died in 2012, had these kinds of run-ins with literary men throughout her life. Her father was an eminent doctor and a professor at the Johns Hopkins medical school, who made her copy out verses from Blake and Keats from an early age, and graded the results; her mother, who had studied in Vienna to be a concert pianist and a composer, put aside her art to raise the family. Rich’s sense that she was the benefactor of her mother’s sacrifice and the object of her father’s fixations never left her. (Her mother died in 2000, at the age of a hundred and three.) Rich’s first book—“A Change of Life” (1951)—was published when she was just out of Radcliffe. It was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets prize by W. H. Auden, who contributed a slightly creepy foreword: the poems are, he said, “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” Rich’s three children were born within a four-year span in the late fifties; in those days, she wrote, “women and poetry were being redomesticated.” Even Randall Jarrell, the best poetry critic of the era, proclaimed her work to be “sweet,” and wrote that Rich seemed “to us” to resemble “a princess in a fairy tale.” An unidentified poet friend, visiting her in the nineteen-eighties for the first time in years, expressed the abandonment felt by many male poets and critics, first-string bonhommes who had admired her early work and had counted on her to add some depth to the literary bench. “You disappeared!” her friend said. “You simply disappeared.” Women could also be unkind. Elizabeth Hardwick, a formidable feminist in a different key, declared, “I don’t know what happened. She got swept too far. She deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.”
What Do We Look For In A Literary Icon?
Sylvia Plath has been on my mind all summer. I first hear about the October publication of never-before-seen Letters of Sylvia Plath (1940-1956) while visiting my hometown in Western Massachusetts and wandering around Smith College. I head to their Special Collections Library and am disappointed to learn it’s closed, for renovations.
Instead I thumb through my dog-eared Unabridged Journals, focusing on her first years at Smith: social anxiety around other women in her dorm; rigorous goals for publications and straight A’s; fears about losing her mind. I return to my own journals from this age and wince. Ambition coupled with strict standards. Self-punishment at any hint of failure. Plath dates often, with confidence in her beauty and anger at society’s double-standards: “hate, hate, hate the boys who can dispel sexual hunger freely, without misgiving, and be whole, while I drag out from date to date in soggy desire, always unfulfilled” (August 1950). A few days later, she writes, and Plath fans know this quote intimately: “If only I can find him . . . the man who will be intelligent, yet physically magnetic and personable. If I can offer that combination, why shouldn’t I expect it in a man?”
Searching for a metaphysic in a fallen, libidinal world, Frank Bidart has, by necessity, made one. His oeuvre, ten books now gathered in one 718-page volume, provides an incisive index of the latter half of the twentieth century, a startlingly truthful mirror of its myths and multiplicities. His characters—dramatic personae, epic subjects, and lyric I’s—live hard up against the realities of empire and domination; the ligatures of filial piety, queerness, and modern marriage; the scandal machines of politics and religion; and the inescapable cruxes of desire. With one ear tuned to Marcus Aurelius, another to Augustus Hare, Bidart’s music of voices weaves allusive echoes and refrains, attending to “something crowded / inside us always craving to become something / glistening outside us.”
Articulating that “something crowded / inside us” has been Bidart’s cynosure from the beginning. In 1971, he wrote a telling letter to his friend Elizabeth Bishop, praising her poem “In the Waiting Room,” which had been published in that week’s New Yorker. The poem describes a six-year-old’s revelations about living in the world as a girl, “an Elizabeth” who is inherently connected to the people sitting with her in a dentist’s waiting room, to the people in Africa she reads about in a National Geographic magazine, and to “the War” raging in Europe in 1918. A heady rush of realizations—“I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was”—leaves the child utterly changed in her sense of the world and her place in it.