Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bruce Bond on Audubon

The story that sets the poem “Audubon” into motion is true: the night my father died I was miles away in Texas while he, who had suffered for so long in California, accepted the inevitable as it in turn accepted him. Unable to sleep, I set out to write a passage through the difficulty, my heart cast out of its usual place, exposed. It did not matter much to me if I had broken some decorum, if I made selfish use of suffering, his, mine, or that of future readers who knew the man. I was doing what a love of words had prepared me to do, to make something, to transfigure, as tragedies do, pain into meaning, heartbreak into the redemptive and confrontational pleasures of form. So much for emotions recollected in tranquility. I was in the thick of something that seemed not hostile to art, but rather at the core of the unspeakable from which art derives its language. To speak this place into being is both a form of supplication and a violation. It is to attempt the impossible, which seems to me still to be the function of art, to honor silence in its own tongue.

This is not to say I do not understand the objections some folks have to the unabashed and ready rendering of the tragic, though to see this as “exploitation” oddly suggests not only selfish motives but also an act at the expense of another’s well-being. I understand as well that the sudden creative transformation of grief may figure in some contexts as premature or an exercise in bad taste. But I also think a general denial of the paradoxical nature of art’s engagement with the horrible via the aesthetic is common. In her book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixious talks at length about how when your write about something, you kill it off. One interpretation I brought to this was the sense that representation is at once a negation and an affirmation, a barrier and a bridge to that elusive referent beyond our language for it. Thus whatever mastery we might sense in the act of creation is likewise mitigated by a certain helplessness, a knowledge that otherness can never announce itself as purely other.    

All this set the scene for my encounter with Audubon, who clearly loved birds but not enough to spare their lives in the service of his art. His particular form of aesthetic  murder, being literal, exploited his subject in a way that exaggerated the self-interest implicit in the act of creation. By way of his story, the troubling implications of the “detached attachment” of the artist’s gaze come into focus. I admit, I love Audubon’s paintings, and that love disturbs me when I think of the cruelty that made them possible. Part of what I admire is Audubon’s powers of attention, his near religious devotion to the designs of nature, not to mention the paint itself. As such his work, like all art, calls upon a simultaneous control and abandon, a ready hand, an open eye. Where the eye opens, the heart is soon to follow: such is our hope. In my poem “Audubon,” I wanted less to stand above Audubon in moral judgment than to make his tension my own. The only credible affection I know is through a hole in the self not the other direction entirely. I wanted the father now to participate in the writing act, to make of it less a declaration of feeling than an invocation to the unseen; less a testament of will than a collaboration with silence, the thing that dies the moment that it speaks.


  1. I have to admit I am very impressed with the quality of your blog. It is certainly a pleasure to read as I do enjoy your posts.

  2. I know your comment is addressed to the magazine in general, and I agree and feel honored to be in such good company. Funny thing, I showed this blog to Stephen Dunn, and he said my prose would benefit from more awkwardness. Interesting point indeed. There's something moving and humbling in the sense of hesitation, the enactment of emotional difficulty, the feeling of being embedded in it.

  3. Maybe it's because I'm a creature of silence and hesitation that I find the syntactic completeness of both "Audubon" and your essay about it so moving. Reading them over, I feel everywhere a stitching up of broken syntax, broken lives with that fragile "ghost thread" you conclude the poem with.
    When you wrote the poem, did you have in the back of your mind Milosz's account of his fascination with killing and collecting birds in "The Issa Valley"? I see so clearly in those passages the artist in the making.

  4. Thanks, Lee, for the generous comments. What I like in them, among other things, is how they honor the aesthetic act as a making in addition to a mirroring. I am very committed to this idea, the notion that the expressive and mimetic views of art leave something essential out, namely that art, or creative will in general, brings new being into being. If art is in part a mirror, it is a transfiguring one. And the deepening difficulty and mystery there is how it engages the real while nevertheless making a virtue of its failure to capture it. I think Stevens understood well that the aesthetic drive is animated by a love/hate relationship with the real, though another way of thinking of this relationship, in broadly Romantic terms, is that we participate in the aesthetic process as a force of nature. Invention has a nature: ours. Obviously there is a limit to the logic that a violent world requires violent movies, a fragmented world a fragmented poem, etcetera, largely because these justifications leave out the primacy of aesthetic vision. The representation of mere violence or fracture requires no point of view. The role of the best art has always been to resist as well as to engage. That said, obviously one can go too far with eloquence in the context of emotional difficulty. I know that. The best eloquence has speed in it that intensifies emotion rather than a conceptually static stylishness that foregrounds its means.

    As for your question about Milosz, no, I did not have "The Issa Valley" in mind. I did however have in mind a poem by Stephen Dunn which I paraphrase from no doubt unreliable memory as stating, When my mother died, I thought to myself, good, now I have my dead mother poem." Wow. What dark and tough territory. I love how Stephen negotiates problems like this with a simplicity of means and great emotional precision, a wisdom, yes, but with a bit of necessary vulnerability.

  5. Hi Bruce,

    I've been reading your work for a few years now, and I can't think of a better gift this Christmas morning than the opportunity to write to you about this stirring poem. I think this is in part what Lee is noticing in the poem, too, but there is definitely a strong sense, especially in the first section, of dichotomy. "Neither man nor the shape of his absence." I'm fascinated by pairings like this, but also by the repetitions in the poem, which are really another kind of pairing. There's even a great deal of this accomplished in the line breaks, where the speaker, in the first line for example, is both burying himself in language. There's something about dichotomy, repetition, and this kind of duality brought about by clever lineation that fit so well with the elegy. I wonder, could you illuminate how you see these choices reflecting the intent of the work?

  6. Thanks, Matthew, for the wonderful comment. The choices you mention, the pairings and their animating tensions, arise from a general instinct that I associate with the particular strengths of poetry, particularly the lyric--that is, the longing to assert two contraries at the same time, to send down a depth charge of meaning that gives the lyric gesture its distinctive resonance, its verticality, its intensity, yes, but also a sense of relief from the linearity that is the logic of noncontradiction.

    In this sense a poem is a little myth, as Levi-Strass conceived of myth. It would reconcile imaginatively what logic cannot. Therein we intuit an emotional truth in the form of imaginative will. I would add that the power of myth is as much in the failure of reconciliation as it is in the persuasiveness of the forged affinities.

    Elegies are compelling in part because of the healing power of song, but also because there remains some fundamental problem and mystery beyond the pale of song, some remainder to give energy to desire as an expression of the will to life. Another tension I would like to explore more is how fear of death is the other side of a fear of life. My mother's daily heartbreak brings this dichotomy into focus for me. An elegy can be, among other things, a confrontation with grief, true, but also with the anxiety of non-being and its kindred will to create, to participate in the fullness of being.

    The will to life, in all its awareness, implies an abiding awareness of and encounter with non-being, how it is with us at every moment, how we might face it with courage. Poetry is logos in love. That is, it seeks the intimacy implicit in amorous longing and the ferocity of differentiation implicit in logos. The thinking heart, the feeling brain: two more instances of dichotomy of course, two more ways of conceiving the reunification of our parts after the fall (thank you, William Blake). We fall, and poetry picks up the pieces. Eden is lost. What we have instead is a world of dichotomies held together by the amorous imagination. This, our fond and terrible paradise.

  7. Bruce,

    There are so many things I admire about your poem: how the man who writes in part 1 and the father who writes in part 3 flank the man who makes art of what he loves and murders in part 2, for example. The 'nib' of the piegon's beak that includes in one deft syllable, the made thing, itself feeding its offspring (us?).

    I love also the image of the father called up through the window/eye of the bird, seen down the long hall, coming to terms with his own mortality as he writes his own testament, expressing his immortality in that act as Audubon's birds watch from the study walls.

    I, too, have pondered the uses of loss, the 'selfish use of suffering' in my own writing and find it illuminating to read both your poem (which is by no means in bad taste, but rather tenderly compassionate and honest) and your discussion of this tension.

    As a hospisce volunteer, I am quietly gathering poems that offer wisdom and solace to the dying and to their caretakers and survivors. Your poem will join my little collection and take a place of pride there.

    Thank you for this wise, complex and beautiful poem.

  8. Thanks so much, Bonnie. It means a lot to me, not only that you find the poem illuminating but also useful. That is my greatest hope. As for the notion of "the selfish use of suffering," I admit a tender spot for Emerson and Whitman and their identification of a central problem--that of self-hatred. It is the shadow of a reverence (no, a rage) for purity. No insight seems to me more useful than that of the reciprocity of self-love and charitable possibility.

    I learned once Freud was appalled by the notion that one should "love they neighbor as thyself," because most people hate themselves. Ha! I love that. The other way to look at this call to compassion however is simply its recognition of the critical reciprocity. It summons us to relent from the self-cruelty which would alienate us from the fullness of our nature. I believe strongly too that we need to reclaim this concept, nature, as credible and critical to a more sensitive conversation to who we are and who we can be.

    Bonnie, i admire hugely the work that you are doing. Thank you for that. No doubt you experience a lot that is beyond me, but I imagine solace can come partly in the form of just being there. Maybe poems, when they speak to your experience, can have a presence in the room that makes death feel, for the moment at least, a little less solitary. Non-being is horrifying, yes. But is it worse than the thought of being absolutely alone?