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"To Disclose That Vision Particular to Dreams"

Roots and Branches , by Robert Duncan. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.

Roots and Branches is characteristic in its title, as in all other respects, of a continuing work which no brief note can report with much accuracy. For one thing, Robert Duncan is of that most rare order of poets for whom the work is not an occasional exercise, nor a demonstration of metrical abilities, nor any other term of partial commitment, however interesting. This book is the eleventh of a sequence, of a life, in fact, which can only be admitted or experienced in that totality.

But I can note, albeit briefly, some of the major insistences of his work as one meets with them in this book as well as in every other which he has written. Most primary is the assertion that what one can say, in any circumstance of poetry, is informed by a "voice" not ours to intend or to decide. So Eve (who is first Erda, "the earth daughter," then Eve, "Imagination's child . . . Womb-man of Adam's life") in answer to Adam's "Now in your eyes I see the tree is fair / in which I lose myself thru you"—

There's a way of speaking that's most like this
where thought and feeling is not our own
but belongs to a voice that would transmute
into a music joy and grief, into one living tree
in which beyond our selves we find release.

Humanist , January–February 1966.


"Rime" the demon calld it and made a wry face
as if it were wrong
where words are obedient to song's measure
            beyond our will.
But the daimon calld it "Melody"
and spoke, again, of our Author's delight
            in various Truth.
(Adam's Way )

Equally, Eve as "Womb-man" and "earth daughter" figures in part a sense of earth met with in "Apprehensions," an extraordinary poem indeed which I would place with those others equally notable in his earlier books, The Venice Poem and "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." Here the earth is sensed complexly as the occasion of births, "pitted with young," "a chain of caves," in a dream which is instruction. Then the last poem in the book, "The Continent," plays variations on the recurring theme:

                 A diary poem
to Day, Gaia, Earth
—murther, murmurer, demurrer.

And this "murther" elsewhere echoes as "But, of that other Great Mother / or metre, of the matter . . ." in "Two Presentations" which confront the circumstances of his own birth and relation to his mother with a deeply moving intimacy.

I am also most interested in Duncan's sense of Adam, who is wakened to Eve by the angel Michael:

The Night is done. From your base elements
you are removed, and Day's your bride . . .
(Adam's Way )

I read a curious parallel then in the opening line of "Apprehensions": "To open Night's eye that sleeps in what we know by Day . . ." Here the need is to disclose that vision particular to dreams so that its orders may take part in that waking life otherwise given to us.

Again, might one manage it in such short space, it would be of great use, and interest, to make explicit the changes rung on these divers themes—and I have by no means noted all those which seem to me relevant. But apropos that sense of "Night's eye," for example, here is the opening verse of "A New Poem (for Jack Spicer)":


You are right. What we call Poetry is the boat.
The first boat, the body—but it was a bed.
           The bed, but it was a car.
And the driver or sandman, the boatman,
           the familiar stranger, first lover,
is not with me.

Or to follow the circumstance of false instructions, as contest of those to be honored, that he makes the issue of in "What Happened: Prelude":

the structures of the poem or play of mind
                    (angelic instructions)
the genii come to life,
       touch fire to ice in the living bone
                               and waken
fearful consequence. They take
        offense who'd promised happiness.

Or to find the various person, Isis, Helen, Eve, Erda, in all her presence here. But there can be no end to it here.

Feeling and motion, impression and expression,
             contend. Drama
is the shape of us. We are
             ourselves tears and gestures of Isis
as she searches for what we are ourselves,

Osiris-Kadmon into many men shatterd,
             torn by passion. She-That-Is,
our Mother, revives ever His legend.
            She remembers. She puts it all together.
So that, in rapture, there is no longer
             the sensory-motor-homunculus
subduing the forces of Nature, Horus contending with Set,

                       but the sistrum

                       sounds through us.

               The Will wherein the gods ride

                       goes forward.
("Osiris and Set")


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