cover image Descartes' Loneliness

Descartes' Loneliness

Allen Grossman, . . New Directions, $16.95 (64pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1711-8

Grossman once claimed poetry to be “the historical enemy of human forgetfulness.” This interest—or better, faith—in poetry's capacity to perform distinctly human acts of preservation has informed Grossman's writing from the beginning. This most recent book showcases some of Grossman's most affecting and memorable lyrics to date.

Poems like “The Caedmon Room,” “Lost, Lost” and “The Invention of the Night” present poetry as speech made excitable through devotion to its addressee or object, an expression of what Grossman has elsewhere referred to as “the magnanimity of the self toward the other”: “Song is extreme work. Help me, river sister!/ It's getting dark. Hey, sweet water! Flow fresh/ through ocean's salt. Give me some words for him/ I love, so he can give words to someone else.”

Throughout his 50-year career as a poet-critic, Grossman has remained profoundly mindful of lineage, both in terms of poetic tradition as well as of his own family history. Poems such as “The Lending Library” and “Shipfitters,” like so much of Grossman's most compelling later work, perform a marriage of both kinds of lineage by magnifying the image of the beloved (here, as is often the case, the memory of the poet's mother, Beatrice) to the status of Muse or poetic icon. An extraordinary meditation upon making, memory and mortality, “Shipfitters” begins with the observation that “Leonardo's/ angels—who are so beautiful—are inadequately/ provided with wings by the curious master” and then proceeds to contrast the artist's apparent lapse in design to the scrupulous craftsmanship evinced in a small model river boat from China given as a gift to his mother in 1951, “a 'junk'/ ...made by learned felons/ in Nanking prison on the Yangtzee, all dead,/ but in their time they knew how to make a boat.” The poem concludes on a turn at once inevitable and unmistakably Grossmanesque, the poet at 75 more aware of his mortality than ever: “'That will be my death-ship,/ when it comes time,'” he writes, touchingly, especially given the vessel can no more carry his body than Leonardo's angels' wings could carry theirs.

Named in tribute to that 17th-century French philosopher who discovered “the world for the first time”—as “each one of us must,” Grossman tells us—in solitude, Descartes' Loneliness is a splendid addition to one of American poetry's most powerful, aspiring, inimitable and least frivolous bodies of work. (Dec. 28)