am reading Duncan’s H.D. book for class and was struck by this sentence:
“All that is unjust leaves us restless with time, divorced from the eternal.” (20)
The scene is Duncan reading with two young women, Athelie and Lilli, on the grass. The scene is Edenic, and the two girls become mythologized into a chorus of muses, Duncan “nursed” by them as the young initiate into Poetry. His description of the two girls is romantic and racialized. Lilli (italian) comes to represent “a land and language of saints”, while Athalie (Jewish) evoked “furies and lamentations out of the Songs and Wisdom of Sololmon.” This tendency in Duncan is the same tendency that Levertov objects to in their letters, Levertov being mythologized as Kali in his poem “SANTA CRUZ PROPOSITIONS.”
Her reaction is in letter # 450:
“Because you do have that habit of projection, of setting people up in roles — of mythologizing, as you did for instance when you identified me with Kali. There are in all of us flickering moments when we are representative of this of that archetypal role — but it is wrong I am certain to fix on those moments, to assume that they are more than moments, to build a system out of them. That leads to the deadly abstract, the inhuman, the false.”
Another passage of interest comes from an essay called -A Cold War Correspondence: The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, by Michael Davidson (WHO WAS ON AARON’S MFA COMMITTEE)!:
“An important moment in Duncan’s changing imagination of Levertov occurred in 1968 when he saw her on a news broadcast giving a speech at a protest rally. In a letter that describes the event, he observes, “The person that the demos, the citoyen-mass of an aroused party, awakes is so different from the individual person” (607). Here, he consigns her political principles to an outbreak of the erotic—of “sexual excitement… agonizing in the conflict between the sacrifice of all other functions that Eros or Eris… demand….” By appearing in public, addressing the masses (the event was a women’s protest against the war), Levertov’s “soul is sacrificed to the demotic persona that fires itself from spirit.” Her appearance on television reappears in Duncan’s poem “Santa Cruz Propositions,” where Levertov is compared to the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali:
SHEappears, Kalı dancing, whirling her necklace of skulls,
trampling the despoiling armies and the exploiters of natural resources
under her feet. Revolution or Death!
Wine! The wine of men’s blood in the vat
of the Woman’s anger, whirling,
the crackling— is it of bones? castanets?
tommyguns? fire raging in the ghettos? What
is the wrath of Jehovah to this almost blissful Mother-Righteousness
aroused by the crimes of Presidents?
Duncan’s reference to Levertov as Kali, “whirling her necklace of skulls,” is a projection—as Duncan would admit—of what Levertov was actually doing (delivering a rousing speech of protest), but his reference to her act as specifically female, his calling her “Mother Righteousness” (a reference perhaps to Brecht’s Mother Courage) and later “Madame Outrage of the Central Committee” (the Reign of Terror’s Madame Lafarge and the Stalinist aparatchik), reinforces the idea that it is her female presumption that is unconscionable. Agood deal of Duncan’s projection responds to the importance of television as a public medium during the 1960s—its ability to bring the war and national security into the private sphere.” (551)
The entire poem is worth reading to get the full sense of the projection, but returning to the H.D. book and the eternal, he writes: “A moment of a poem was an eternal thing, from which many phases of itself radiated in time, where we might enter our share in a man’s isolation.” (18) This idea of the eternal reinforces Duncan’s position that the poet is an ascetic, a monastic-hero outside of time, who would not “oppose evil, but imagine it,” and thus by changing himself, he would contribute to changing the world in his own image (projection) — that is a stance that grows out of the idea that Duncan capitalizes in letter #449: “THERE HAS BEEN NO TIME IN HUMAN HISTORY THAT WAS NOT A TIME OF WAR.” [this echoes Tzara’s lecture i quoted in an earlier post: “Why do you want us to be preoccupied with a pictorial, moral, poetic, literary, political, or social renewal? We are well aware that these renewals of means are merely the successive cloaks of the various epochs of history.” both smack of Heraklitus.]
So, returning to the sentence that opens this post: “All that is unjust leaves us restless with time, divorced from the eternal.” (20). This sentence occurs after Athalie and Lilli fall from grace (or fall from Duncan, as Levertov does) — telling enough, the paragraph opens with “In time” (19) — Athalie becomes addicted to chocolate and recieves shock therapy. strange. Lilli works in canneries in the summer and becomes a “Trotskyite partisan.” Duncan goes on to sarcastically critique Lilli’s “imagination of socialism” : “Workers were to be awakened not to the good that was in labor, to the true community that lay in the creation of men’s goods, but to the political power that might lie in organization. To become leaders! To bargain in the market where labor was not a work but a commodity! Not to increase our common share in labor but to monopolize towards power.” This next sentence is the kicker to Duncan’s monastic shortsightedness: “Over dinner tables and in living rooms with Picasso’s Guernica presiding on the wall the flame of inspiration disappeared in the heat of contentions and politcal ambitions.”
Because Athalie and Lilli stepped into time they became divorced from poetry, from the eternal. To me, it is rather disturbing that the injustices caused by America are only formulated here to leave us “restless” and “divorced from the eternal” – this is clearly a privileged position, a position that does not actually suffer from these injustices. Only a privileged position would critique the political efficacy of organization (Chavez, King Jr., Guevara) EVEN IF it becomes “divorced from the eternal.”
I believe that the “flame of inspiration” ALSO comes from working to end injustice, that we are not privileged enough to only “imagine evil” but to BOTH imagine and actively, openly oppose it.