Literary criticism

Significance, Meaning, and Purpose in Contemporary Biographical Poetry

By: Robert Levine

An interesting but often overlooked subspecies of narrative verse is biographical poetry, relating the life story of a real person; a well-read friend of mine told me he didn’t know such poetry existed. Robert Penn Warren pioneered biographical poetry with the book-length works Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé and Audubon: A Life, applying his equal mastery of fiction and poetry to spinning out his protagonists’ fortunes in verse. Biographical verse, of course, offers the poet the advantage of a ready-made plot. But the poet still must choose which incidents in the protagonist’s life to present and the light in which to cast them. One expects poetry to find a higher or larger significance in the life of its subject than can be gleaned from a prose biography, and it must start from this significance to know how it will tell its tale. A group of contemporary works of biographical poetry—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, Andrew Hudgins’s After the Lost War, Derek Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound, and Douglas Burnet Smith’s Sister Prometheus: Discovering Marie Curie—demonstrate similar approaches to theme and other elements of verse biography, each with its own variations, but their results share similar shortcomings.

Thomas and Beulah chronicles the lives and marriage of Dove’s maternal grandparents in two sections, the first focused on Thomas and the second on Beulah. The book begins with the young Thomas as an itinerant musician on a Mississippi riverboat. He is a self in transit: in the first two poems, we find no trace of the small town in Tennessee he has left, although it will appear in flashbacks later in Thomas’s section, nor any hint of the urban environment of Akron, Ohio where he will soon settle down, work a series of steady jobs, marry Beulah, and raise a family. He becomes something of a different person his new, sedentary life in the North, and his old footloose riverboat self fades into a dead part of him—“… the nights of chaw/and river-bright//had retreated, somehow,/into another’s life” (“Jiving”).

We see Beulah’s childhood in two poems, though like Thomas’s it recurs in memory in subsequent ones. Perhaps Dove portrays Beulah’s beginnings more transparently than Thomas’s because Beulah grows up in Akron, the locus of her life with Thomas; she never has his sense of displacement. The childhood poems also provide insight into the trait of Beulah’s that will make her marriage a challenge. She too is a free spirit, in thrall to the imagination, but with an admixture of ambition:

Practice makes perfect, the old folks said.
So she rehearsed deception
until ice cubes
dangled willingly
from a plain white string
and she could change
an egg into her last nickel.

…………………………………………………………

…. One night she awoke
and on the lawn blazed
a scaffolding strung in lights.
Next morning the Sunday paper
showed the Eiffel Tower
soaring through clouds.
It was a sign
she would make it to Paris one day.

(“Magic”)

She only acquiesces to Thomas’s courtship because, in the attitude of the times, “she is getting on”—in danger of ending up an old maid. She considers him something of a country bumpkin, and thinks as he plays his mandolin for her,

Cigar-box music!
She’d much prefer a pianola
and scent in a sky-colored flask.
Not that scarf, bright as butter.
Not his hands, cool as dimes.

(“Courtship, Diligence”)

Dove employs a similar structure in the two sections. Early on, the sections advance methodically through time, hitting the key events or stages in the narrative. By the middle of the sections, their movement meanders more; having arrived at the domestic relationship that will frame the rest of Thomas’s and Beulah’s lives, the narration slows down time to compile a panorama of what that frame contains. Thomas’s section fittingly lacks a sense of moving toward conclusion, reflecting the suddenness of his death by heart attack. We can see the end approaching in Beulah’s section less because an illness the book barely touches upon precedes her death than because “Wingfoot Lake,” the third-to-last poem, shows that her discomfort with the civil-rights generation’s assertiveness and reconception of identity means she has outlived her time:

Last August she stood alone for hours
in front of the T.V. set
as a crow’s wing moved slowly through
the white streets of government.
That brave swimming

scared her, like Joanna saying
Mother, we’re Afro-Americans now!
What did she know about Africa?

Dove characterizes Thomas and Beulah through a balance of action and reflection: we see what they do, and thanks to the book’s limited third-person narration from each spouse’s perspective within his or her section, we also hear what they think before, while, and after doing it. Others have noted the importance of motifs in Thomas and Beulah, and the motifs mainly contribute by telling us about the characters associated with them. Thomas’s mandolin symbolizes his roving riverboat life and the charm and mystique that being a wandering artist imparts to him (“Jiving” ends, “…. The young ladies/saying He sure plays//that tater bug/like the devil!//sighing their sighs/and dimpling.”). His straw hat that appears in a few early poems speaks to his rural background, his yellow scarf to his flashy and, to Beulah, gaudily gauche sense of style. The primary motif connected to Beulah, her pet canary—“that sun-bleached delicacy/in its house of sticks”—represents her feeling of insufficient outlet for her true self in her family life, although it can’t help seeming like an uninspired imitation of Maya Angelou (“Definition in the Face of Unnamed Fury”). Nonetheless, Thomas and Beulah’s characterization feels somewhat impoverished. It would be unfair to call the title characters two-dimensional, but they are, as it were, foreshortened; this could simply be a result of Dove’s terse style, but she tells us so little about Thomas and Beulah as individuals aside from their relationship to each other that we easily suspect there is more to them that we’re not being shown.

Dove makes more than her fair share of thematic faux pas. Beulah’s section of the book beats the theme of her confinement in and dissatisfaction with her marriage to death without tweaking the theme in its repetition. Then, after mocking Thomas’s Southern country ways and resenting his undermining her housekeeping efforts for nearly her whole section of the book, Beulah tells Thomas on his deathbed, “listen: we were good,/though we never believed it” (“Company”). It might be human nature not to appreciate what we have until we lose or come close to losing it, but nothing in the book until this point prepares us for this change of heart, making it seem more a contrived act of pity on her dying spouse than a genuine emotional transformation. Most of Thomas and Beulah’s thematic non-sequiturs, though, occur on the local level—lines or phrases that have nothing to do with the situation or climate of their poem. “Straw Hat” declares that Thomas moved to Ohio when “he learned he wasn’t perfect, that/no one was perfect.” Most people learn that well before the age of twenty-one, when Thomas settled in Akron, and most people don’t change their domicile and lifestyle as a result. “Aurora Borealis” remarks of the Northern Lights as Thomas witnesses them, “What shines is a thought/Which has lost its way.” The reader has no idea what the thought is, how it has lost its way, or why it shines; this beautiful metaphor, as far as he or she can tell, is completely meaningless. Similarly, the reader will likely be mystified by why “Recovery” describes Beulah as “obedient” and why she dreams about salt in “Nightmare.”

Dove commits a few narrative gaffes as well, despite the care she takes with narrative structure and development. Without the chronology of her grandparents’ lives appended at the end of the book, the reader could easily assume that Thomas travels to Ohio intentionally when we meet him on the riverboat at the book’s beginning, when in fact he drifts up and down the Mississippi for two years before settling in Akron. The poem before Thomas’s death, “The Satisfaction Coal Company,” takes place almost thirty years before he dies; no reason presents itself for this only full-poem violation of both sections’ forward chronological progress. Moreover, one wonders how Thomas reacts internally to his introduction to the urban North. Dove tells us that he arrives “in Akron, Ohio/1921, on the dingy beach of a man-made lake” (“Jiving”) and shows him trying to adapt to the circumstances of his first job: “The mattress ticking he shares in the work barracks/is brown and smells/from the sweat of two other men” (“Straw Hat”). But what does Thomas, accustomed to a landscape of spread-out cabins and siloes, make of Akron’s conglomeration of smokestacks and offices when he first sees it?

Thus, Thomas and Beulah proves quite uneven. While the narrative and characterization work overall, they are notably imperfect, and Dove indulges in the common habit in contemporary poetry of passing off obscurity as profundity. Most importantly, it leaves one uncertain of what exactly Dove wants us to get out of her grandparents’ lives from her work. The book’s theme is the narrative itself, how Thomas and Beulah came together and what happened afterward; the lesson that the story of the marriage offers the reader is anybody’s guess. What the theme achieves in pervading the narrative’s length and breadth it misses in depth.

After the Lost War, by Andrew Hudgins, traces most of the life of Nineteenth-Century poet and musician Sidney Lanier, including his service in the Confederate army, his poor years with his wife and growing family in his native Georgia (with stints in Alabama and Texas), his tenure as lead flutist in a Baltimore orchestra, and his final illness and death from tuberculosis. Like Thomas and Beulah, this book is a sequence of independent poems cohering narratively and structurally into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, organized into four sections corresponding to the major phases of Lanier’s life. The narrative drives steadily forward in the first and last sections, punctuated by flashbacks as in the early parts of Thomas and Beulah’s two halves; these sections deal with Lanier’s central traumas, the Civil War and his terminal illness, so Hudgins here makes the chronology of these ordeals paramount. Since the second and third sections concern themselves more with the tone of Lanier’s everyday life, they consist more of sketches and isolated anecdotes of Lanier in the South and Baltimore, similarly to the middle of Thomas and Beulah’s sections, than of successions of consecutive events.

The structure of individual poems also strikes the reader more in After the Lost War than in Thomas and Beulah. Most of the latter’s poems are short and either begin with a workmanlike, unfolding introduction and end in medias res or begin in medias res and end with a workmanlike, finalizing conclusion. The length of Hudgins’s poems varies more, and their structure also varies. Early in the book, many poems begin in medias res and then launch into a leisurely circuit from one aspect of the poem’s subject or theme to another via associative links. Later poems exhibit a “pinball” type of thematic development, the focus bouncing from one topic to another more suddenly—an approach that works especially well in passages where Lanier is delirious from his illness. In longer poems composed of numbered sections, the sections tend to be thematically discrete and combine to create a mosaic effect.

After the Lost War is thematically complex, encompassing several thematic strands: the majesty and mystery of nature, the horror of war, the power of art, the crossing and dissolution of boundaries, religious uncertainty, and knowledge of impending death. This abundance of themes deepens the characterization of Lanier; because we have many lenses through which to view him and how he views the world, we form a fuller sense of him as a person. But although the approach to and significance of these themes change over the course of the book, they don’t evolve—the changes don’t add up to anything or go anywhere. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that in the nature theme, for example, just the first quarter of the book casts nature in human terms, then casts humans in animal terms, portrays nature as hostile to humanity, meditates on human dissolution into nature after death, reprises nature’s hostility, vaunts the artist’s ability to modify nature, laments humanity’s destructive impact on nature, and depicts nature’s obliviousness to human tragedy. After the Lost War then returns to its early anthropomorphism of nature, celebrates the randomness and spontaneity of its beauty, yet again dwells on nature’s hostility, and yet again repeats the anthropomorphism trope. This series of lateral shifts within the theme continues for the rest of the book, merely exercising the theme rather than developing it, and typifies the book’s other themes as well. Hudgins settles for juggling these manifold aspects of his themes when he could have coordinated them into a progression contributing real import to the book.

In the preface to After the Lost War, Hudgins writes, “Though the poems are all spoken by a character I call Sidney Lanier, the voice of these poems will be unfamiliar to anyone who knows the writings of this historical figure…. I’d like to thank Lanier for allowing me to use the facts of his life—more or less—to see how I might have lived it if it had been mine.” By implication, Hudgins narrates Lanier’s life as if his voice were Lanier’s, and the voice we hear in this biographical ventriloquism is forthright yet measured, simple yet eloquent. In the opening stanza of “The Hornet’s Nest”—

We may have been just nine or ten, but still
we knew it was a stupid thing to do.
The drone drew us. We found it hanging, plump,
beneath a cypress limb, vibrant with risk
and fat with danger.

—the plain, straightforward diction of the first two lines reflecting Lanier’s childhood consciousness manages to evolve seamlessly into the more charged vocabulary of the following lines, a product of his adult recollection as narrator. This voice at times possesses a cheeky humor, as when Lanier remarks that when his young sons complain about the family’s meager, bean-based diet he “send[s] them off to bed, uncomforted,//their stomachs full. But full of such harsh food/that when I tiptoe in their darkened room/I’m scared to light a match” (“Sufficient Witness”). Yet the voice Hudgins gives to Lanier sometimes strikes discordant notes. It’s hard to reconcile the earthy, if tactful, wit of the preceding quote with Lanier’s hyperbolically Romantic address to a firefly he brushes off his hand: “‘Fly thou away and know that once/in midst of summer greenness thou/didst light upon a poet’s hand’” (“Serenades in Virginia”). Hudgins succumbs to triteness in “At Chancellorsville” in describing the Union line breaking “in animal disarray,” and to prosiness as he narrates Lanier’s search for his brother on the battlefield after Chancellorsville:

But I kept tripping over living men
and had to stop and carry them to help
or carry them until they died,
which happened more than once upon my back.
And I got angry with those men because
they kept me from my search …

(“After the Wilderness”)

What’s more, both the phrase “in animal disarray” and the fourth and fifth lines of the above quote are unnecessary.

In addition to such redundancy on the level of particular lines, Hudgins commits redundancy in sketching the mood of the title poem’s setting of Montgomery, Alabama. In the first section, Lanier observes,

The trees stand motionless, like statues,
and even when a breeze steals in,
the leaves flap once, then idly swing
in dull, half-hearted protest of
the least disturbance of their rest.
Our weekday streets are much like Sunday’s,
so business, as you might expect,
sets no one’s heart to fluttering.

In the third section, he inexplicably rehashes this portrayal of Montgomery’s mood: “Our world yawns in a witchery/of laziness. On us is cast/a spell, ‘an exposition of sleep’ …” Narrative redundancy crops up in “War’s End.” In its fourth section Lanier informs us, “When it was not against my lips,/I tucked the flute inside my sleeve/and held the left arm motionless/and stiff,” having already stated in the second section, “I tucked the flute inside my sleeve/and sailed, stiff armed, to prison camp.” Simple repetition also mars the book: after “The Hornet’s Nest,” three other poems contain anecdotes of children playing with wasps or bees. Lacking the significance that would raise them into motifs, these recurrences merely register as wearisome.

After the Lost War’s most perplexing fault is its narrative lacunae. We don’t learn about Lanier’s marriage until a poem about his and his wife’s first anniversary. As mentioned, Hudgins recounts Lanier landing the position of an orchestra’s first flutist, but ignores his other Baltimore gig as lecturer in English literature at the newly opened Johns Hopkins University. Most fundamentally and most thematically relevant, his harrowing experience and memories of the war beg the question of why Lanier volunteered for the Confederate army. Hudgins’s postwar Lanier shows little solidarity with the prevailing Southern ethos of the time: he weeps after witnessing a lynching, and in a letter to his brother condemns the valorization of “the lost cause” and calls the Confederates “Ivanhoes of wickedness” (“The Cult of the Lost Cause”). Did Lanier support the Southern cause when he joined the army and become disillusioned with it through the war? Did he always hate the rhetoric of the slave-owning oligarchs but enlist because, like Inman in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, everyone else did? Was he just thirsty for adventure? The book’s themes, much of the narrative, and Lanier’s voice limn a complex and interesting personality, but the motives for the decision that had the most impact on the psychological and emotional tenor of Sidney Lanier’s life remain in the dark. This and the book’s other drawbacks give the impression that, despite its separate poems cohering into a master narrative, Hudgins did not sufficiently consider After the Lost War and its protagonist in their totality. Although he charts the course of Lanier’s life compellingly, events and ideas don’t appear to be weighed for their implications on the work as a whole or in relation to other events and ideas, rendering the work thorough but not comprehensive.

Like Derek Walcott’s previous book-length poem Omeros, Tiepolo’s Hound features a dual narrative. First, Walcott narrates the career of Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, a Sephardic Jew of French background from St. Thomas in what were then the Danish Virgin Islands. In youth he leaves this colonial backwater for Paris, the hub of the art world and the heart of another colonial empire. For him, “St. Thomas meant the clouding of ambition,/its lowered sail a shirt draped on a chair,//its sorrow, the paint stains crusting an apron,/its past the weight of dust on furniture” (VI:2). Nonetheless, Pissarro feels a measure of guilt over leaving his home, imagining other islanders telling him shortly before his departure, “‘We know you going./We is your roots. Without us you weak’” (IV:4). And for all his reveling in his new environs in France, he finds that they sometimes

recalled those Sundays of Charlotte Amalie’s

and the bays of his childhood paradise.
In a straw chair, by the Seine’s blue tablecloth …

he is pierced by the lances of Charlotte Amalie’s wharf,
gulls’ handkerchiefs fluttering against the green.

(VIII:1)

Pissarro feels excluded from the Paris art establishment because of his colonial background: “Museums demean him. Island boy. The eye/of a crazed duke pursues him up the stairs//of the Louvre …//marbles turn their heads away from him …” (VI:1). After all, the masterpieces on view in its museums reflect the Old World’s reality and offer no room to the life of the New World in which he grew up: “There are no Negroes in the pantheon/of bleached albino marbles …” (VI:2). Eventually, he “endorsed the Salon’s by his own rejection,” internalizing the metropolitan assumption of superiority—“what was he but a backward, colonized Jew?” (X:1). Later, the Dreyfus Affair impresses upon Pissarro how precarious his ethnic, not only geographic, origin makes his situation in France.

In the second narrative, the speaker, effectively Walcott himself, recounts his own wrestling with his position as a St. Lucian in relation to the Eurocentric tradition of art. He begins his tale in the present with a belief in the equivalence of beauty as it is found in Europe and in the Caribbean, a belief more deep-seated and vital than the reflexive déjà vu of Pissarro’s homesickness:

… in the saffron of Tiepolo sunsets,

the turbulent paradise of bright rotundas
over aisles of cane, and censer-carried mists,

then, blazing from the ridges of Maracas—
the croton hues of the Impressionists.

(I:3)

He then proceeds to recount how he arrived at this conviction of equivalence. His education, from both library monographs on art and his dead father’s copies of works by British painters, teaches him to look to Europe as the source of artistic value—although he answers his own question of whether his father’s “distant landscapes/which his devotion copied … despise[d] the roots//and roofs of his island as inferior shapes/in the ministry of apprenticeship” with “Learning//did not betray his race if he copied a warship’s/final berth, a cinder in a Turner sunset burning …” (II:3). The speaker and his classmates are so imbued with the Eurocentric mindset regarding art, though, that they are “[f]lattered by any masterful representation/of things we knew, from Rubens’s black faces//devoutly drawn, to the fountaining elation/of feathery palms in an engraving’s stasis”; hence, the speaker develops a reverence for Paul Gauguin, who briefly resided in Martinique: “He, Saint Paul, saw the colour of his Muse/as a glowing ingot, her breasts were bronze//under the palm of a breadfruit’s fleur-de-lys,/his red road to Damascus through our mountains” (III:1).

Most of the speaker’s story revolves around a white hound in an old Italian painting he saw, evidently in a traveling exhibit, in New York during his youth. This detail has come to fascinate him, but it resides so far back in memory that he’s not sure whether the painting was by Tiepolo or Veronese; he entertains the possibility that he imagined it. The speaker’s obsession leads him to Venice in a fruitless attempt to find the hound and its painting. Throughout the poem, Walcott contrasts the sleek white canine with a starving black mongrel the speaker remembers from St. Lucia. The two dogs’ colors can hardly be coincidental: the well-fed white Venetian hound—the painting the speaker believes it appears in depicts a feast—represents the privilege enjoyed by the one-time imperial and still cultural centers of Europe, while the West Indian dog reflects the disadvantage of their erstwhile colonies populated by descendants of slaves. Toward the end of his search for the hound, the speaker realizes that, unlike his father (although Walcott doesn’t broach the reason for the difference), he has been co-opted into Eurocentrism: “I had followed in the footprints of the hound,/and not the hound my shadow, the hound was white …” Instead of the perhaps imaginary white hound emblematic of a “pure” European ideal, he finds the truth that he belongs to a hybrid Euro-African culture—hybrid like the black mongrel of his home island, or like “a bellowing Minotaur …//this mixed obscenity made by the two//coupling worlds …” (XX:4). Then, in a fantasy sequence, he imagines reproving Pissarro for abandoning, in spirit even more than in body, the West Indies: “I said, ‘You could have been our pioneer./Treacherous Gauguin judged you a second-rater.//Yours could have been his archipelago, where/hues are primal, red trees, green shade, blue water’” (XXIII:2).

Tiepolo’s Hound, too, suffers from many mistakes, the greatest being thematic. As the speaker forsakes his quest for the hound, he announces,

Over the years I abandoned the claim
of a passion which, if it existed, naturally faded

from my island Pissarro …
…. .… his exile dictated

by a fiction that sought from him discipleship
in light and affection for our shacks and ridges

touched by crepuscular orange. No black steamship
roiled in its wake a pain that was ever his;

no loss of St. Thomas.

(XXII:2)

This guilt over leaving St. Thomas, this beholdenness to his origins there, is the central tension of Pissarro’s story and character in the book. Even when Pissarro resents it, he must acknowledge its pull: “… he was determined,/when specters snubbed him in the ashen air,/to erase his island …” (VII:1). Yanking the rug out from under this tension undermines the character Pissarro’s human complexity and makes him no more than a personification of the Eurocentric attitude toward imperialism, race, and culture. Yet Walcott commits thematic inconsistency when, after declaring that Pissarro lost any sense of connection to St. Thomas he might have had, he speculates, “Camille Pissarro must have heard the noise/of loss-lamenting slaves, and if he did,//they tremble in the poplars of Pontoise,/the trembling, elegiac tongues he painted” (XXIV:4). Furthermore, late in the speaker’s hunt for the painted hound, the poem veers off into an extended examination of time, memory, and epistemology unlinked to the main theme of cultural geopolitics.

In the most glaring narrative flaw, the speaker says when the hound is introduced that he saw it at the “Modern”: New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a strange place for a centuries-old canvas. Later in Tiepolo’s Hound, he says it happened at the more likely Metropolitan Museum of Art. If this discrepancy intends to nod to the theme of memory’s unreliability, the speaker’s explicit meditation on that subject amply suffices; the discrepancy’s cost of puncturing the reader’s faith in the narrative, not simply the narrator, far outweighs its dubious benefit of thematic reinforcement. Like Beulah’s disaffection in Dove’s book, Pissarro’s feeling of failure as an artist gets overplayed, and his reaction to it is more than a bit contradictory. Poor and under mounting debt, he refuses to change his style to make his art more sellable, yet anxiously hopes for a banker he meets to buy his work. His wife

… thought of carrying the two children to the river
and drowning them with her, she was that depressed.

But none of this meant anything to their father
whose arrogance did nothing to accommodate

her desperation, which meant he would rather
they perished than pawn his work.

(X:2)

The later death of a young daughter, however, devastates him. Finally, like the tension in his feelings about St. Thomas, Pissarro’s share of the narrative is abandoned rather than resolved. We leave him in Book Three in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, just as self-doubting as ever. He reappears in Book Four only for his imaginary showdown with the speaker and then in a snapshot of him as an old man just before death, where Walcott observes, “To endure affliction with no affection gone/seems to have been the settlement in those eyes …” In the quote preceding this one, Pissarro endures affliction with just about no affection intact. What happens to change him? How does he arrive at the serenity Walcott describes—“the eyes are sunken, but their stare no sadder//under the arched brows than when the family strolled/the Danish stonework of Dronningens Gade” (XXVI:2)?

Tiepolo’s Hound is the only book-length poem of the four volumes examined in this essay. Its chapters consist of four sections and are organized into four “books”—Book One about Pissarro’s and the speaker’s early life in the Caribbean; Book Two about Pissarro’s settling in France; Book Three covering Pissarro’s life from the Franco-Prussian War to the Dreyfus Affair, with an interlude in St. Lucia narrated by the speaker; and Book Four relating the speaker’s search for the hound and his confrontation with Pissarro, plus presenting the parting image of the elderly artist. Despite its status as a single full-length work, Tiepolo’s Hound is the least cohesively organized of the books considered. The book opens to structural jaggedness: the first chapter’s first section sets the scene for Pissarro’s youth in St. Thomas, then the rest of the first chapter and the next several chapters detail the speaker’s artistic education before beginning Pissarro’s narrative in earnest in the middle of Book One. Lyrical disquisitions on the West Indies, Spain, and England thrust into the middle of Books Three and Four bear little relevance to the narratives, which end a full three chapters before the book. Tiepolo’s Hound also contains multiple instances of sections unrelated to the rest of a chapter or fitting better in other chapters, opening sections that seem continuations of previous chapters, and long sections with two different themes or subjects better off divided. The four-section chapters often work well in unfolding or pivoting among different aspects of a topic or situation, but in the cases referred to the uniform application of the structure renders it a Procrustean bed.

If the reader is not likely to know what he or she should take away from the lives of Rita Dove’s grandparents, the reader can only assume he or she should take everything from Camille Pissarro’s life, because Walcott tries to make Pissarro everything. He makes Pissarro long for his native St. Thomas and turn his back on it, indifferent toward his Jewishness and haunted by the Dreyfus Affair and by the Inquisition that drove his ancestors from Portugal, a callous father and a grieving father. In Omeros, a work thematically founded on the dialectic of African and European ancestry and culture uniting to form Caribbean identity and culture, the opposing facets of Pissarro’s character probably would have resolved into some kind of synthesis. But Tiepolo’s Hound rests only on the dichotomy of Europe and the Caribbean. Their similar aspects blend into each other, as when the speaker sees the beauty of European paintings in St. Lucia’s landscape and Pissarro sees the beauty of St. Thomas’s landscape in France’s, but neither their similar nor their opposing aspects combine to create a new entity. Tiepolo’s Hound writes off as irretrievable the African heritage that Omeros imaginatively recreates as a component of West Indian identity. Mixture, then, is not the product of a process taking place in the West Indies in Tiepolo’s Hound but its given condition—the “coupling” of the “two … worlds” that produces the speaker’s Minotaur and black dog having happened long before the moment of utterance—and synthesis with Europe would produce only further mixture. Thus, in the thematic microcosm of Pissarro’s character, his contradictions cannot be reconciled, and with no place for synthesis in the book’s thematic schema Pissarro’s contradictory facets merely negate each other instead of complementing each other. Consequently, by meaning everything, Pissarro’s life ends up meaning nothing.

In its most general features, Sister Prometheus: Discovering Marie Curie by Douglas Burnet Smith resembles the other books considered in this essay: a sequence of poems exploring a person’s life, organized into sections corresponding to phases of that life. In a distinguishing difference, Sister Prometheus delves further and more systematically into its subject’s childhood, permitting us to glimpse the origins of the themes that come to predominate her life as a whole. A unique structural touch in Sister Prometheus is the proem that precedes the initial section, spoken by Curie from the afterlife as she assesses her lot as one of the few women among France’s illustrious dead in the Panthéon. After the speaker’s narrative in Tiepolo’s Hound,starting the book at the narrative’s end so that everything else works up to it could have seemed hackneyed, but the originality of Curie’s posthumous, disembodied voice prevents this. Last and certainly not least, Sister Prometheus consists of prose poems, making for both a grounded and a fluid, open-ended style.

As in After the Lost War, a number of themes run through Smith’s book—mercifully fewer than in Hudgins’s. Resistance to domination emerges first. In Curie’s childhood, this takes the form of resistance to Russian occupation of Poland; in the first poem of the first section, Curie describes her parents’ wedding photograph: “In one corner of my father’s smile, there’s the village he’ll be banished to because he won’t practice the Czar’s customs, just to advance himself. The village is wrecked, empty, nameless. Under my mother’s eyes are dark craters a bomb has left in Badusky Street” (“Wedding Photo: Wladyslaw Sklodowski, Bronislawa Boguska, 1860”). Marie (or Maria while she still lives in Poland) participates passively in this resistance herself, dancing for joy as a schoolgirl over the assassination of Czar Alexander II. And even in adolescence, even before the scientific world’s and the press’s subordination of her role to her husband Pierre’s in the scientific work they collaborated on as equals, she transfers this resistance to male dominance:

… Maciej Skiewicz wanted me to play Sweet Desdemona to his Otello, & lie down like a bleating lamb and be grateful for being smothered with his affection into a comfortable dullness, silenced into nullity. Even then I had thought there was a small chance I could love him until … he pronounced all women’s education unnecessary, his strenuous intellect marching his reasons in an impressive column ahead of us, along the trail. When he’d finished … he put a gentle hand to my cheek, & pledged a life’s protection. I thanked him … & splashed a palmful of the pure, perishable water on my face, twice, where his hand had touched it.

(“The Cascade, Mount Rysy, 1888”)

Science as an avenue to the sublime and the magical constitutes another major theme, which the book predicates on loss of religious faith. In another of the childhood poems, the elder brother of one of Curie’s classmates is arrested and executed for plotting against the Russians. Before the day of the hanging, Curie and her friends “‘kept watch’ all night with Léonie. At dawn we fell on our knees and prayed. Léonie said there was no use praying, & cursed because she knew there was no one listening …” (“The Chapel of the Visitation, 1887”). The pursuit of empirical knowledge from then on takes on a sacred character as a substitute for religion to Curie. Books on science sent from her sister, who preceded her to France, she calls “manna from Paris,” and she reminisces about “the barometer Papa hung like a crucifix in his study” (“Floating Academy, 1889”; “Millennium Eclogue, L’An 2000”). Most sharply, the religious article used and the timeline in the narration of Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity echoes the Resurrection:

Becquerel thought it was sunlight causing Uranium salts to phosphoresce, to penetrate that photographic plate. So he took a thin copper cross, slid it between some black paper taped to the photographic plate & the Uranium salts. He expected sunlight to ‘photograph’ a pattern of the cross on the plate. The sun disappeared for two days, being the sun, in February, in Paris. In the gray light of the third morning, Becquerel developed the plate, expecting to find nothing…. But he saw a hazy image of the cross, stark white against the black plate.

(“Henri Becquerel, 1896”)

Science even takes on occult qualities, as it uses hidden forces built into the universe to work wonders that defy our everyday notions of the universe’s operation: “… arcs of equations I copied, baroque proof on the page that the sun can be levered from the earth with a column of tiny numbers” (“‘I Take the Sun and Throw It …’”). Curie depicts herself in this magian role as she works to isolate radium: “I must have looked like a sorceress, stirring a huge pot over a fire all winter in the courtyard, adding more Pitcheblende, stirring …” (“Henri Becquerel, 1896”).

Death and loss are the other major theme of Sister Prometheus: Curie’s mother and sister die in her girlhood, Pierre is killed by an overturning horse-drawn wagon in the street, and she X-rays wounded soldiers amid the carnage of World War I. Throughout the book, death and loss are closely tied with her life’s work. As her mother lays dying, Curie remarks, “She would always wake the moment I looked up from my book, & then, with the wearied beauty of habit, quietly tell me to go back to my studies, that the task I had before me was sacred: to make Poland proud of my achievements” (“Tuberculosis, 1876”). Those achievements look like they might be able to keep death at bay when Pierre demonstrates radioactivity’s potential to treat cancer. But radioactivity cannot prevent Pierre’s own death, and can only diagnose rather than heal the injuries of the butchered soldiers of the war; ultimately, Curie realizes that it also brings death nearer:

Look at my fingers, scarred and gnarled. How could I have known?—I was so proud of my Emanation Service, Radium ampoules at the Front…. I do remember reading about Edison’s assistant—the cancer—but how could I have known? Then Demalander & Deminitroux, dead within four days of each other, buried with Thorium X coating their lungs. Nine dead American women, luminous watch-dial painters from New Jersey, ‘pointing’ their brushes with their moist lips—this made of me a dubious martyr, “Our Lady of Radioactivity.”

(“Radium Necrosis, 1925”)

Indeed, late in the book, half-life becomes a motif as Curie imaginatively links an element’s diminution in radioactivity with her own gradual, inexorable decline in physical power in old age. Joie de vivre animates Sister Prometheus throughout, however. Grieve though she must, the world enchants Curie far too much for her to yield to despair or morbidity. In “The Solvay Conference, Brussels, 1911,” recounting a meeting with Max Planck and Albert Einstein, Planck proclaims dourly, “‘“Life” is, was, & always will be a quite literal matter of rampant disintegration.’” But Curie tacitly concurs instead with Einstein’s perspective at the end of the poem: “‘“Life”’ could be, he said, ‘the continual revision of a gorgeous elegy.’”

Of the group of biographical poetry books covered, Sister Prometheus has the most cohesive thematic development and organization. It strikes a happy medium between the plain, subtextless thematics of Thomas and Beulah and the all too protean shifts of theme in After the Lost War and Tiepolo’s Hound. Smith balances an array of themes, but just as many as can be balanced. He connects one to another—Curie’s career in science both resisting male domination of that field and attempting to resist death—deftly and subtly, and threads them through the book with a light touch. Although the astute reader can tell Smith’s themes are the book’s guiding force, they seem to run under the surface of the narrative like subterranean streams until welling up just often enough to keep the reader in mind of them.

Sister Prometheus is far from free of flaws, but they are fewer and more minor than those in the other books. In terms of narrative, chronology poses a major issue. For no discernible reason, narrative or thematic, “Sceaux, 1905” is placed in the middle of a string of poems set in 1903; the poems in the last section up to Curie’s death (more poems spoken from beyond the grave ensue) are completely jumbled chronologically. Moreover, this section is labeled with the dates “1918-1937” but contains poems dated 1911 and 1912, and two of the poems set after Curie’s death are dated 1995 and 2000. As the poem devoted to the event indicates, Curie died in 1934—no event in the section, in fact, occurs in 1937. The dates of events hold much less weight in the book than the events themselves, but Smith’s handling of them can’t avoid giving the impression of an addled grasp of his narrative. Also, background information on the “Floating Academy,” the unofficial college in Warsaw for women barred from universities where Curie studied before the Sorbonne, would have made the book all the more colorful.

Smith’s style achieves the perfect balance of incisive exactness and lyric profusion for the voice of someone enchanted by the rational apprehension of invisible, matter-defying forces. Nonetheless, like Dove, every so often Smith betrays a penchant for the turn of phrase whose abstruseness lends it a veneer of runic wisdom masking its utter senselessness. When the lover Curie takes in her widowhood, physicist Paul Langevin, participates in a duel, Smith writes, “But I had to come home & read this account of … how ‘France barely missed being deprived of a precious brain.’ I’d had enough of brains, & the loss of brains. I wanted the vast, empty gray brain of the sea” (“The Duel, 11:00 a.m., 26 November 1911, Bois de Vincennes”). The image of the sea enters the poem completely out of left field. Secondly, Smith leaves unclear whether the figurative brain is part of the sea, an imagined organ of it, or whether Curie calls the sea itself a “brain”; both possibilities are equally outlandish. In another poor stylistic choice, Smith overloads the poems with run-on sentences (a fault Walcott also commits, but less heavily). He probably wants to convey the rapture of Curie’s love affair with science in his unbounded syntax, but I have a hard time imagining that a woman whose career required great deliberateness and precision would cram two or three grammatically complete sentences into one, unseparated by semicolons. In addition, picayune though they might seem, Smith’s tics of capitalizing the first letter of common nouns like the names of chemical elements and plants—as if Curie spoke German instead of Polish and French—and of substituting ampersands for “and” at almost every opportunity quickly grow grating.

Most disconcerting, Sister Prometheus includes a few outright errors. Smith dates the poem in which Curie celebrates Czar Alexander II’s death 1879, but he was killed in 1881. He spells the name of the familiar small, long-bodied dog breed “Daschund” instead of “dachshund” (granted, the book’s editor might bear more guilt for this mistake than Smith himself). Some poems, though not consecutive, share the same title with Roman numerals appended to mark their order; the title “Pierre VI” repeats on page 69 and page 76, and the “Observations” sequence skips from IV to VI with no V. A table of contents that lists each poem’s title, rather than only the sections’ titles, could have prevented this. As with Smith’s problem with self-prescribed date ranges, these blunders in numerical sequencing intimate that for all of his narrative’s skill, interest, and delight, he hasn’t entered into it, and thus into the reality of his poems, fully.

Given theme’s primacy in biographical poetry, why do most of the books treated here fumble with their themes—underdeveloping them, overworking them, undercutting them, destabilizing them? Clearly they do want to find significance in their protagonists’ lives; that’s why theme, which conveys this significance, plays so prominent a part in them. The answer might lie in that they pursue the wrong kind of significance: meaning, not purpose. Things have meaning, but actions have purpose, and a life as it is lived is a large, continual action. Sister Prometheus proves the one gratifying book among them when all is said and done most likely because it focuses on the purpose of Curie’s life in bringing the unseen mysteries of the physical universe to light, and on her awareness and pursuit of that purpose. Tiepolo’s Hound concerns itself with what Pissarro and the speaker mean in terms of the relationship between Europe and its former colonies, instead of with the purpose of their lives and art. After the Lost War sometimes tackles, sometimes skirts the meaning of individual incidents in its story and hints at all too many purposes for Lanier’s life, writing, and music without dwelling on them, andThomas and Beulah offers little in the way of meaning and less of purpose. To what extent these works’ disregard of purpose in life reflects our society and culture viewing the self as a project to cultivate and life as an experience to enjoy independently from one’s relationship with others, rather than a mission to fulfill and a contribution to other selves and lives, and thereby indicts it and their authors, is beyond this essay’s scope and a judgment I would hesitate to venture. But to the extent that it impairs their treatment of their subjects’ significance, confusing meaning for purpose constitutes an aesthetic fault on the part of most of these poets.

###

Works Cited

  • Dove, Rita. Thomas and Beulah. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon U. Press, 1986.
  • Hudgins, Andrew. After the Lost War: A Narrative. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988.
  • Smith, Douglas Burnet. Sister Prometheus: Discovering Marie Curie. Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn, 2008.
  • Walcott, Derek. Tiepolo’s Hound. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Categories: Literary criticism, Poetry

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