The Trim, Crisp Line

reviewing Becker's The Horse Fair

Reading Robin Becker’s latest collection of poems off and on over the course of two weeks, I felt like I was getting to know her, not just to read her, and I felt like I was getting to like her a lot, too. And not just for her poems either, but for the person behind them as well. If, that is, there’s a difference.

Even if I had never come across this prolific poet’s ardent, earthen, and plainly honest poems in magazines before (which I had), I would have liked her well enough from the moment I cracked open The Horse Fair. True, I would not have read one of the last poems in the long book first—”The Triumph of Charlotte Salomon”. I probably would have thought it best to familiarize myself with her voice in the poems at the beginning first, the way I usually do when opening a book by a poet I’ve never read before. But I had seen Becker’s work previously, and I’d just been to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to see the show of Charlotte Salomon’s paintings, too—the quasi-expressionist cartoon frames depicting, in undisguised autobiographical fiction, her and her family’s tribulations during the times of the Third Reich that Salomon did not survive in a German concentration camp. Attracted to the title of the poem in the table of contents, I found the temptation to start reading Becker’s book at the end too strong to resist.

I’m not sure the six-page poem, written in Salomon’s voice, would have kept my interest as much as it did if I hadn’t just seen the show at the MFA. Unlike some people I’ve talked to since seeing the show, I would not have been familiar with the painter and privy to the disturbing details of her personal life—a family tradition of suicide not least among them—and would have needed to do some homework first in order to be moved by the monologue. (Was it T.S. Eliot who said he couldn’t be responsible for his readers’ ignorance anyway?) The same would hold true, of course, for a reading of Frank Bidart’s well-known dramatic monologue on the legendary dancer Nijinsky, though not, presumably, for readings of his equally well-known monologues told from the points of view of an unknown anorexic woman and an infamous mass murdering man. Becker’s dramatic “Salomonologue” works fine if you’ve read into the painter’s life a little, or seen it fictionalized in the paintings. I’d like to hear it read aloud, in fact, so that good lines like these from the opening—”I was eight years old when my mother threw herself from our window at 15 Wielandstrasse”—could be countered by the next lines and their child’s-eye interpretation of the event—”But I knew she really died of influenza and flew from the window an angel like her sister Charlotte Grunwald the angel for whom I am named drowned in 1913″—and unravel from there, tragedy by tragedy, until the painter’s life, hitherto unrelated in poems by established male poets and not much memorialized yet in major museum exhibits, is set, as it were, in monumental cement.

I would have been a little surprised, too, had I not been previously familiar with Becker’s shorter, subdued, disarmingly open lyric poems before, if, on turning back from Charlotte Salomon to the beginning of the book, I had found another poem about another painter. This time the admired artist is the French Jewish landscape artist Rosa Bonheur, maybe best known for her portrait of Wild Bill Hickock, who “sits tall in fringed buckskin/ on playbills and postcards,” and the title of the poem is the title of the book, which in turn is the painting titled The Horse Fair. I might have wondered, seeing a second long condensed free-verse poem about a visual artist, this one written in the third person, if Robin Becker is the feminist descendant of Robert Browning, the Victorian immortalizer of Italian Renaissance painters whose poems were once the fireside favorites of every literate polite-society family. I had read Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” “Fra Lippo Lippi,” and “Andrea del Sarto”—poems about great male masters—and now I was reading about undercelebrated European Jewish women painters. Fair enough. In the tradition, as they say. And where the Salomon poem allows Becker to explore the tragedies of modern Jewish history—urban, psychological, scholarly—The Horse Fair offers her the opportunity to do what she does best: affectionate, wide-eyed-wonderful meditations on personal experience set against, or within, a minutely described natural setting at odds, somehow, with the clumsy surrounding social setting.

Bonheur’s somber, sincere, lovingly detailed paintings of domestic animals—including sheep, oxen, a pet monkey, and a fenced-in elk, as well as the horses that helped to make her name—are the perfect parallel, the apt “objective correlative,” to use T.S. Eliot again, for Becker’s poetry. She must have been wanted when she wrote this poem:

to show the fire that blows
from the horses’ nostrils, and the driven herd, mutinous, rising
and falling along the enclosure of the thresher’s will

into the foundry of weight and motives
where metal melts and pours into horse.

After reading such metaphorically muscular lines as those, “I think I could turn” with Walt Whitman “and live with the animals,” but, to paraphrase Walt again, I can outrun the horse in my imagination and I like to read poetry. So I start turning the pages in search of more animated poems.

I don’t have to go far, either. The animals are waiting just around the bend in poems that would resemble corrals or kennels or cages if they weren’t so interested in celebrating the energy and physical sensitivity rather than the captivity or baseness of the animals. “The snake, alphabet of one glide, swims/ with its keepsake head, periscoping, and then/ we lose it in the pond grass,” Becker announces right away in “Ephemera.” Then “I wanted to see the salmon-man/ who pumps gas at the filling station,/ forced into the human world/ after leaping upriver,” she writes at the end of “Life Forms,” a catalogue of animist, native Alaskan interpretations of ordinary life that have survived Anglo colonization. And in “Phaeton” she gets to know and praise her friend’s horse, a horse of her own personal acquaintance who “trots up the road, ears alert/ to your voice, the encouraging praise, the clucks that urge him/ past laziness when the hill steepens”—lines that blur the line, if you will, between the long-tamed human beast and the less-tamed creatures of the wild.

Becker’s affectionate intelligence and attention to natural detail, refreshingly free of the high-minded irony and aesthetic snobbery common to a good deal of contemporary poetry, do owe something to the trends of the times. To some indeterminate degree these are poetic conceits conceived, let’s say, by baby-boom American poets who were eager to take William Carlos Williams’ love of the American grain to its farthest and most daring limits, even at the risk of sentimentality. She clearly (and ardently and urgently) is interested in salvaging her existence, as it were, inspiring good feeling in her readers, and affirming a spiritual “tenderness toward existence” like that proposed way back in about 1970 by the now-elder American-grained poet Galway Kinnell. She also seems to take some of that ethical inspiration from Adrienne Rich, a contemporary of Kinnell whose trailblazing feminist poetics have informed the solemn, notational, free-verse—or terse verse, if you will—lines like those quoted from the Salomon poem. Becker does not exclude friends from her sphere of abundant affections. One poem, “The Wood Lot,” she dedicates to “an hour stacking wood,/ a companionable chore, good for two,/ you tell me, never one alone,” noting how her friend with great care will “shim/ unsteady places as we go, selecting/ pieces for the trim, crisp line/ that gives us room for another row”—implicitly comparing the stacking of her own poetic lines to the stacking of wood, and to the poetic act of making something of her life that someone else can use, if only to keep warm. “By your example,” she writes, “I understand/ the artfulness of love’s responsibilities.”

If that isn’t proof enough of Becker’s earnest and admirable devotion to earthly life, as well as of her skill at articulating it, the last poem of the first section, “The Donor,” will seal it. It’s an unexpectedly sympathetic poem about a conservative white male philanthropist whose heart and mind were changed for good by the witnessing of his son’s death, perhaps (one guesses) from AIDS. Pledging a donation in his son’s name to a group of fundraisers visiting him in his office, the businessman, “shot through with love and grief,/ secured his son’s ordeal in us, transfusion/ of words.” A poem honoring a wealthy male in a “plush D.C. office,/ where we sat rapt before his story,” is not the sort of thing you’d expect, necessarily, from the poetry editor of the Women’s Review of Books, the winner of the 1996 Lambda Literature Award for Lesbian Poetry, and a recent visiting scholar at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City University of New York. The poem traces skillfully her own surprise at her sympathy for the man, leading her by the poem’s end to ask the question she might ask of her fellow poets in the face of any bittersweet story worth retelling: “And what shall we do with his fearful/ story of one man’s suffering but shine and polish it/ with our own additions and subtractions?”

Shows of mature compassion, it might be safe to say, are surprising coming from anyone these days. Becker’s poem suggests that we’ve got to have that old-time “negative capability” to get inside the skin of other living things that Keats suggested to be the most valuable talent of the poet. Such shows of compassion are abundant in this book, and they are driven less by the will to be wonderful than by the skill to explore and exploit her own experience for the cause of tragic beauty. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t formulaic poems in the book that to the habitual reader of American poetry seem too much like a lot of other fairly successful poems of their ilk. There are. And yet even the predictable poems earn their keep in the book. “Raccoon,” for example, looks like yet another cloyingly noble poem to a dead wild animal until, on the second or third reading, the comparison between the raccoon “covering his two eyes” with his two hands as he “prays in the middle of the road” and her grandfather “in the synagogue/ two decades ago/ ashamed for his poverty,” gains sympathy, especially in the final lines of apostrophe to the nocturnal creature “dragging your black-ringed tail/ across the collaborating streets at dawn/ where the local truckers/ in their shiny rigs stop at nothing.” The narrative about “The Keeper” of chickens having to shoot a rabid intruder spreads its sorrow everywhere as well—over the “country woman,” the rabid killer (porcupine? raccoon again? fox?), and the surviving chickens who had to be done away with. Becker expresses her tenderness toward existence in the memoir “Dog-God” as well, ending with a stray collie and “the sound of her lapping” that “excited a new desire/ to master what is beautiful and guileless and mute.” In “The Abandoned Meander,” set in the desert of the southwestern U.S. (which shares this widely traveled volume with Alaska, New England, New York City, and a little bit of Cambridge), she remembers how she “ran in the mornings, shouting to the prairie dogs/ …/ free/ as the stray dogs I fed before they crossed the sandbars/ or bathed in the Rio Grande.” She concludes the second section, in “Mid-Life,” with a final urge to merge with the natural world, saying that “it will grow so quiet/ in this glade of light and leaves that I might/ mistake myself for a bear, a deer.”

After an elegy for Becker’s sister, The Horse Fair continues with “In the Days of Awe,” a long “personal prayer” that, borrowing from traditional Hebrew blessings, admits all sorts of tragic modern inconvenience into its furiously condensed lines. It is a cryptic and energetic beginning to the end of a book that will finish with two final series of short poems that are separated by the “Salomonologue”, like two phrases in a line of poetry paused by caesura. The good reputation of The Horse Fair has been well established by this point, and I have gotten to know Becker and her book, if there’s a difference, pretty well. So I scan the long, unpunctuated, dythrambic passages of “In the Days of Awe” for the lines that ring truest and are most representative. Lines like these:

We believe that God abides in mystery    in a diaspora of dust
in the obsessive    the compulsive    the disordered    in the lonely
in the bosses    in the unendurable    in the technological
and pharmaceutical failures    in the very old
in the newborn    in memory    in kindness    in acts of lovingkindness