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The Boston Phoenix Laws of Gravity

A poet draws subtle and erudite lessons from the rules we (sometimes) live by.

By Graham Christian

MARCH 30, 1998: 

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, by J.D. McClatchy. Alfred A. Knopf, 104 pages, $21.

Canonization, we are told, requires, in addition to evidence of an exemplary life, at least three well-attested miracles. Harold Bloom, in his famously controversial The Western Canon, elevated poet J.D. McClatchy's previous book, The Rest of the Way, to his own modern literary canon of texts. Though this gesture may seem a little premature -- even the Vatican waits until after the death of a candidate for sainthood before examining the case -- the appearance of a new volume gives us new reason to weigh the high praise that Bloom's inclusion of McClatchy implies.

McClatchy's work has always been characterized by a deep familiarity with the vigorous poetic traditions of the English Renaissance, as well as by a consuming curiosity about the living poetry of his own day. He has been not only a poet but a profoundly sensitive critic of poetry; for the past seven years McClatchy has stood at the editorial helm of the prestigious Yale Review, where he's published the likes of Joseph Brodsky and Ann Beattie, as well as newer or more recherché voices such as Jeffrey Eugenides and William Gass.

The Ten Commandments, McClatchy's fourth book of poetry, is organized by the precepts of the Decalogue of Moses. There can be a certain paint-by-numbers danger in the strictness of such an approach, but we see in McClatchy's treatment that these commandments predict, and encompass, the range of human pleasures and failings. His formal skill is enviable, from the elegiac distichs of "Auden's OED" to the subtle syllabic stanzas that shape the volume's strongest poems.

McClatchy's gift seems, in the maturity he evinces here, Augustan. His natural counterparts are not the Christopher Marlowe he studied in the '60s or the confessional poets he knew in the '70s but John Dryden and Alexander Pope; he has said that "the most seductive sentence in the English language isn't 'I love you' but 'I understand you,' " a notion Johnson or John Gay would have endorsed. With them he shares a belief in the control of experience and memory by the ideas and rigor of a well-stocked mind. In "Dervish," for instance, the God the dervishes celebrate in their ecstatic dances becomes a remote sovereign, more light than heat: "God/is the light of the heavens,/a niche wherein is a lamp./The lamp is in glass./The glass is a high,/brightening, constant star." The search for the truth of the heart or of the senses usually leads to bitterness, disappointment, or self-deceit in McClatchy's world; the faithless lover of "Betrayal" is likened to "the burning bush [that] might have mistaken its flowers/for flames or the rustling in its spindly branches/for the indrawn, unreliable voice of God." Even the deliciously sinful pleasures of adultery, in the beautifully crafted "Dialogue of Desire and Guilt," are curtailed and foreshortened before they begin:

Nothing helps. The cloudy consolations,
The zigzag alibis,
The sodden ache
To be alone.
Look up at the night sky.
It's time to swallow the storm's bitter pearl.

McClatchy's is a cold world, its most convincing logician the Iago of "Honest Iago":

I could swear it was her handkerchief I saw.
Trust me. Everything is under control.
All I want to do is help.

The succor McClatchy rests on at last is not the comfort of philosophy, as he proves in "Descartes' Dream," but the knowledge of the certainty of mortality:

How far must we get away from the earth to see it
Properly? How long must we go without knowing
Before we discover that everything leads back
To something as simple and dreadful as the night?

Johnson or Swift, with their dark piety, would have understood, though they had the additional comfort of a Christian salvation. Even in this context we should not be surprised that McClatchy is capable of the poignant disorders of "Three Dreams About Elizabeth Bishop"; Swift, too, knew the value of mad-seeming, purposeful absurdities. And the lesson McClatchy draws from dream is characteristic:

Love will leave us alone if we let it.
Besides, this world has no time for us,
The tree no questions of the flower,
One more day no help for all this night.

Occasionally McClatchy's need to reason and explicate leads him into strange courses -- it is very curious to attach a four-page train of verse to a miniskirt of a six-word fragment, as he does in "Variations on Lines Cancelled by Dickinson" -- but on the whole his cool control gives rise to striking poetry; the effect is rather like that of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's urban "eclogues." The virtue of his gift, profoundly responsive in its nature, is what it can produce when deep feeling meets a received text, as in "Late Night Ode," which is drawn from a poem by Horace:

It's over, love. Look at me pushing fifty now,
Hair like grave-grass growing in both ears,
The piles and boggy prostate, the crooked penis,
The sour taste of each day's first lie, . . .
So why these stubborn tears? And why do I dream
Almost every night of holding you again,
Or at least of holding you, my long-gone,
Through the bruised unbalanced waves?

This, while not what Horace said, is what Horace meant; it shows us how the original ought to feel. What is astonishing about this poem is how deeply it is informed by the original -- and yet how brilliantly it makes a new poem. This poem is perhaps one of the most successful recreations of classical verse in English, and, for its witty images and rhythmic beauties, one of the best poems of the past decade; Dryden, himself a master of classical "imitations," would have been pleased with it. If this is the direction in which McClatchy's verse points now, Harold Bloom will seem to have been prophetic: perhaps it is the first of the miracles that precede the canonization.

Graham Christian is a writer and independent scholar living in Somerville.

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