For the longest time, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Robert Bly. It is beyond question that he is an important figure in American poetry over the last half century. He has written some fine books and some magnificent poetry over the years.
He’s also purveyed some fluff now and again; I guess I should cut him a break but it’s just that often we set our expectations high for authors we enjoy.
Over the years, his career has not been without controversy, particularly when he became a highly visible spokesperson for what at the time was the burgeoning “men’s movement.” His most famous book addressing the subject, Iron John: a Book About Men, was both reviled and praised, depending on the one’s POV. Unfortunately for him, as a poet traipsing in the contentious field of sociological anthropology, it soon became apparent that metaphor should not be one’s weapon of choice. Scarred but not vanquished, Bly gathered up his arsenal of simile and lyric forms and headed back to the no less contentious, but decidedly less high profile, field of poetry.
In recent years, it seemed he was coasting a bit, which frankly he’d earned. However, two of his newest books have ranked with some of his finest work: 2007’s Turkish Pears in August and his latest volume, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey.
Simply stated, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey is the finest volume of poetry I’ve read this year. Long fascinated with the Middle Eastern form known as the ghazal, for which you can find a detailed definition here, Bly has taken the form in an interesting direction for the English language reader. When he uses it in this volume it is with a looser, much more personal approach than he has in the past. Besides the ghazal, Bly also writes in standard free verse, a form for which he is renowned.
Typically, Bly takes the mundane and melds it with a bit of mystery, a bit of folklore, or a bit of lyrical magic. This volume is full of all that and more. Listen to the following and you will hear very clearly something being said you can’t hear with ears:
A friend of mine says that every war
Is some violence in childhood coming closer.
Those whoppings in the shed weren’t a joke.
On the whole, it didn’t turn out well.
This has been going on for thousands
Of years! It doesn’t change. Something
Happened to me, and I can’t tell
Anyone, so it will happen to you.
This plain verse, told in a natural, conversational voice, is very powerful in the universal tale it has to tell. It speaks to us personally as human beings and our behavior on both an individual and a collective level. Its simple truth is devastating no matter how you parse it.
There are over 80 pages of poems here and not one is longer than a single page, a handful with as few as three lines. They all have the alluring appeal of feeling as if you are being spoken to by someone standing beside you. Many of the poems in the opening and closing sections particularly have the feel of a ghazal, yet are concerned with the struggles of modern life. There are so many here that grabbed hold it is hard to choose: “Wanting Sumptuous Heaven,” “The Slim Fir Seeds,” “The Big-Nostrilled Moose,” “What Did We See Today,” and “Something to Do with Aunt Clara.” I could name quite a few more but let me close with one more that deals with one of Bly’s well-known themes: the anomaly of fathers and sons:
My Father at Forty
I loved him so much. I’ve said
That before, so don’t be surprised.
It was a first love. Go ahead, open
your hand. Do scissors beat
Paper? Does rock beat scissors?
It’s just love and can’t be
Explained. Probably it
Happened early. You’re looking
At it. The way I found
Of opening a book I took
From the way he walked into a field.
Yes, you’re looking at it; you’re looking at it, indeed.