from Tricks of the Light: New and Selected Poems by Vicki Hearne, edited with an introduction by John Hollander
Vicki Hearne, well known for her remarkable essays on the relation of humans to domestic animals—some of them published in Adam's Task, and Animal Happiness—was a poet of extraordinary gifts and surprising resources. One of the more unusual aspects of her talent is manifested in the way her poetry reflects just how her whole working and thinking life defeats clichés of expectation. A professional trainer of both dogs and horses, she wrote in a way that was always vibrant with direct knowledge of animals wild and tame. But she was also a philosophically oriented thinker concerned with such matters as the "private language" argument in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, or the mythography of Plato's fable of horse and rider, or the ethical implications of Renaissance training manuals, or the folklore of modern handlers, and with how these matters themselves can fall like shadows over actual animals, modeling rather than darkening them.
Her concerns were as theoretical as they were practical. She was a poet of true originality; her poems were intense, passionate, and drenched in thought, engaging major moral and epistemological concerns. She never wrote what is so common in mediocre poetry today: short pieces of exposition or anecdote in rather arbitrarily constructed verse. Rather she explored in late-modern lyrics the boundaries of their own figuration. In her poems "of" horses—and, later, dogs—she was never a sentimental anecdotalist or an editorializer. Instead, Hearne rejoiced in what might be called the Art of Domestication—not merely in the sense of a craft of training, but in the larger, related sense of the way in which the engagement of an unspeaking animal with the constructions of human language and thought is, in itself, a high aesthetic occasion.
Despite her reputation as a dog trainer with unpredictable views, her somewhat iconoclastic speculations in prose, and her store of knowledge of past and present modes of human dealings with domestic animals, Hearne's poetry can give no comfort to the sentimentalizers of the relation between the human Self and the animal Other, nor to sensationalists of expressiveness. The poems give no comfort to Humane Societies, nor, indeed, to other literalists, for her vast respect for the power and dignity of representation itself causes Hearne to release her animal subjects and their human agents out onto fields of metaphor far richer and more varied in their vegetation and contours than the narrow places of mere emblem.
Aware of the traditional philosophical problems of knowing other minds—of how, and even what, we know (and can't know) of others' thoughts and feelings—she writes from a variety of engagements with the simultaneously distant and intimate otherness of domestic animals and of their consciousness. This last, a beautifully hypothetical entity (both, as Wordsworth put it, what we half-create and perceive) that keeps flickering in and out of interest the more we know and are with them, comes up in much of her work, with the pointedness of argument in her prose, but obliquely pointed in her poems. Hearne's poems form a kind of romance in which our worries about how we ought sensibly to talk, and what the skilled experience of training animals leads one to feel and intuitively to say, are engaged in a dialectical sparring-match. In a way, her poems—whatever their palpable "subjects" or rhetorical stances—are often like training exercises for her own language as she brings it to bear on the problems emerging from her own serious contemplation of the everyday and the extraordinary.
Hearne is always attentive to the matter of mimesis—of representation, so that human language and interpretable animal responses to human communication are part of a natural continuum. Her particular poetic world is one framed by a sensitivity to and concern for the mutual interrepresentation of people and domestic animals. And since it is indeed a poetic world, each of the two is capable of being seen as metaphoric of the other. Her feeling for the nuanced power of representativeness confronts the making of sculpture (as in some of her last poems), or philosophical arguments, or other representations, ranging from fictions of the heart and mind to painted images. The poems in her first book, Nervous Horses (1980), largely in supple, modulated, and beautifully controlled syllabic verse, were neither mock training-manuals nor the journal-notes of a self-conscious rider. Rather, they often puzzle and are puzzled themselves. The horses of her title are both sinewy and agitated, as they are both actual and figurative: they are the horses of modernity, and are made up of knowledge and observation of both poetry and animals. In a poem called "Genuine and Poignant" (not included in this volume), Hearne shows that she has learned well Wallace Stevens's first lessons in poetic dressage:
Just that once, not to grieve, and the hill
To stand suddenly bare and pure
Confidently shaking its dust through the warm window.
But she moves in other poems to the more animated subject of her horses, and, subsequently, to her dogs. She treats the otherness of animals as intimate and terrifying. The hypothetical consciousness of these animals is among the realms that this first collection so wonderfully explores.
From the outset, Hearne appears to be particularly concerned to avoid the way in which so much contemporary verse sets up and relates crude concepts of subject and object, experience and image, in an unacknowledged and unexplored realm of thought. The final poem in Nervous Horses, "The Metaphysical Horse," is a fine meditation on coming to terms with one's own metaphors—in that particular case, conceptions are like mirror-images, but which, having been lived with and worked through, allowed her to end like this:
Circling elegantly we
Glimpse the always receding
True proposal in the glass
And join the horses, who dance,
Tremors of exactitude
Flaming, still fresh on their limbs.
Hearne's practical experience of horses is at one not only with her interest in their mythologies, but also with her work as a trainer of the elements of discourse. For a poet, language has a kind of life of its own, and the complex "exactitude," both of precision and of elicited exertion, resonates in the concerns of work, art, and moral imagination. Hearne herself has what she calls in the title of one poem "The Fastidiousness of the Musician." Exercise lessons, set problems, and puzzles are often her occasions. The longest poem from Nervous Horses, the penultimate "St. George and the Dragon," has a quasi-narrative line, and yet it records the quest not of the mounted knight but rather of the poet's for him, in the fragmentations of a jigsaw puzzle. The problem (signaled in the subtitle of the poem) of piecing together an imaginative construction that will hold harks back to James Merrill's jigsaw puzzle of memory in his crucial "Lost in Translation." Hearne's poem modulates this into an amusingly domesticated metaphor in which friends and teachers help the poet cope with the epistemological problems, trials, and errors that occupy the whole of this distinguished first book.
Nervous Horses was followed by a more remarkable second book, full of poems capable of both greater rhetorical ease and more complex philosophical meditation, the work of an ear even more finely tuned and a mind more subtly and powerfully engaged. In the Absence of Horses (1983) avowed in its title the kind of metaphorical transcendent revision, or transumption (as some rhetoricians call it), of a previous agenda that is always, for true art, a necessity like breathing. Much of the poetry in this second volume interprets the title to emphasize that tropes are tropes, and that poetic meditation is not the recital of technical commonplaces. A poem called "Our Condition at Twilight" makes clear what remains of some of the Imagination's tasks and predicaments. We see this, too, in an ecphrastic poem, titled "Gauguin's White Horse," wherein taking the act of painting as seriously as she does—not acting like a reductive practical trainer and muttering something about how the horse couldn't be standing in that position . . . etc.—were somehow doing honor to the relations between horses and people; so that,
. . . We with our
Breathing as heavy, as rapid
As paint, reach to pluck the horse,
Letting time back in, and take
Flesh for the trope of the horse,
The horse for a trope of grace,
Perception in place of the
Acts of the heart, for granted. . .
And the fine title sequence introduces manifest questions of love into her pool of poetic reflections. By the end of it, in the final, ninth poem of the sequence, Hearne can make this plain, even as she now subtly—but swervingly—echoes Stevens's "Of Modern Poetry":
Our study is poetry,
Is the art of the horseman
In whose gaze the world dances,
The art of the mind finding
The heart turning in the press
Of the mind. The horse enters
The turn of the heart. The heart
Enters the turn of the poem. . .
It was, finally, in her very powerful third book, The Parts of Light (1994), that the absence of horses began to be refigured by means of the presence of dogs in many of the poems toward the end of the volume, although quite a few others remain concerned with equestrian matters. It also contains a very fine consideration of Roger Van der Weyden's depiction of St. Luke painting the Virgin and—as she wrote later of both the painting and her own poem—the hazards it meditates on, of "being dangerously entranced by divine light." The very beautiful title poem from this third collection introduces an allegory of light that plays over all her subsequent work, and which is most evident in the poetry she herself selected for publication in this new and selected volume.
The thirty-six posthumous poems (including the long, shockingly original five-part title sequence, "Tricks of the Light") explore some of her previously traveled terrain, but with a greater concern for its edges and deceptive contours. The weather, the activity of painting and sculpting, arguments with Plato, a continuing discourse with and of dogs, and always in these poems the array of different kinds of light—different figurations of it, but all somehow heading toward governing tropes of consciousness itself and, ultimately, language. This can be seen even in some of the more casually beautiful short poems like "White Out," "Getting It Right," and "Every Time the Mountain," and in parts of the long poem itself. Running to something like 360 lines in five numbered sections, the sequence starts out with the image of a young girl "hot with light" riding a stallion (returned to briefly later on in the poem) and subsequently moves through its heavily enjambed free-verse tercets with an almost Pindaric profusion of images in complex periodic sentences that, in the course of the poem, seem to be representing rhythms of thought rather than that of archaic eloquence, making of qualification and revision a matter of advance rather than of backtracking. So, for example, this passage from Part IV:
. . . Why the bureaucrat
cannot know the dog with stars
caught up in her teeth
like a song, is a question
for the bureaucrat
or else the high giggling moon,
shamed when an idea leaps
across a shadow, making noon
cavort among the oak leaves
until proof comes round at last
to merge with the leap, no,
confess a history of leaping,
become one with the steadiness
of the sheepdog's eye as the promise
of language flickers
at the edge of vision.
This whole beautiful and difficult poem moves from lyric meditation to analytic questionings to anecdotal and exemplary glimpses of particular dogs, for example these three who appear in the poem shortly after the passage just quoted:
Curry's style is solid
as she snaps up the dumbbell
as if it were an idea. . .
takes one stride in four
when the spirit is in him,
more and more often
in the golden weather.
to the idea of work,
caught up for the nonce
in the reality
that defies moral theory,
though he will slip again.
A strong, sad poem from Hearne's last published volume called 'All of My Beautiful Dogs Are Dying," ends with the following lines, which, as I have observed elsewhere, make for what might seem to be a palinode—a poetic set-piece of retraction or recantation—but which was, in fact, a kind of affirmation:
. . . Without the beautiful dogs
No one dares to attend to desire;
The sky retreats, will intend nothing,
It is a ceiling to rebuke the gaze,
Mock the poetry of knowledge.
My death is my last acquiescence;
Theirs is the sky's renunciation,
Proof that the world is a scattered shame
Littering the heavens. The new dogs
Start to arise, but the sky must go
Deeply dark before the stars appear.
This seems sadly prophetic, of course; but it frames a central moment of vision for Hearne, emerging in the intellectual—and what some might want to call the spiritual—clarity that deep and knowledgeable love of darkness can afford.
* * *
Victoria Elizabeth Hearne was born in Austin, Texas, in 1946, grew up in that state, and, later, in California. She took a B.A. (1969) at the University of California at Riverside, majoring in English, and spent a good many years as a trainer of horses and dogs. Writing poetry during this time as well, she received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, where she studied with the poet and critic Donald Davie in 1976-77. She had already published two books of poems when her important and celebrated prose work, Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name, appeared in 1986. It was for this book, as well as for her poetry, that the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in giving her one of their awards in literature, cited her as writing "in a unique and powerful way of the relations between people and animals, and with a special regard for the rights of the imagination, and for the connections between work and love."
Hearne had taught in the creative writing program at the University of California, Riverside (1981-84), then later moved to Westbrook, Connecticut, with her second husband, Robert Tragesser, and taught in the Department of English at Yale University from 1984 to 1986, after which she remained a Visiting Fellow of Yale's Institute for Social and Policy Studies from 1989 to 1995. Her daughter, Colleen Mendelsohn, is a veterinarian living in California. Aside from Hearne's three books of poetry, Hearne's prose works also include the novel The White German Shepherd (1988), Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog (1991), and Animal Happiness (1994). She died in Connecticut in August of 2001.
* * *
I first got to know Vicki Hearne some time before I was even aware that she wrote poetry. She had written me about a possible reading in California more than thirty years ago, and we continued corresponding about matters of poetry thereafter. I only came to meet her on a visit to the University of California at Riverside a few years later. When I asked her what it was she worked at, she replied that she trained dogs and horses, to which I may have responded in a less than fascinated way. But within a very few minutes she had elicited my complete absorption. She spoke right away of her interest in the relation between psychologists' behavioristic accounts of what an animal was doing when it was learning to respond to a command or signal, and the very different kinds of stories that trainers would tell each other—and themselves—about what was going on. When she began to meditate on why it was that believing those stories helped the trainers work immeasurably better, I hesitantly mentioned that more general concerns of just that nature had been of interest to twentieth-century philosophers.
Before I could finish she was discussing particular passages of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, followed by her consideration of the history of observations on horse-training from Xenophon on through some Renaissance humanists. This was followed by all sorts of other historical accounts of such matters as the relation between humane societies and Tory politics in England, the cultural construction of breeds, together with such exemplary stories as that of the demonization of the Dobermann in the later 1930's as a Nazi dog, and a host of other tales, issues, problems, questions, and enigmas.
It was a good many months after this meeting and some subsequent correspondence that she sent me a few poems to read, being too intelligent and mannerly to have thrust them upon me at the time. I found them most authoritative in their strongly controlled diction and their lyrical adaptation of the rhythms of thought. Unusually impressive, too, was the way they framed those profound connections between form and fable that all true poetry must exhibit.
Over the next few years, her work began to show how much she had learned from that wonderful poet, critic, and teacher Donald Davie at Stanford. But it also continued to speak of the passionate knowledge and wonder of The Compleat Trainer (as I have thought of her), to whom I had listened with such fascination, and whose expertise in the training of animals and philosophical concerns for the epistemologies and moral overtones born of its theory and practice, would thereafter continue to inform—rather than crudely shape—her work. She was a distinguished member of a poetic generation in North America that included Debora Greger, Anne Carson, J. D. McClatchy, Louise Gluck, John Koethe, Rachel Hadas, Alfred Corn, Marilyn Hacker, and A. F. Moritz (to name some of those who, for me, speak both to the intellect and the sensibility of their readership); it was also, in my experience, the first such poetic generation (all born within three or four years of Hearne) that numbered as many equally strong, thoughtful female poets as male (as has indeed remained the case since).
During the final months of her life, Vicki Hearne, in conjunction with the University of Chicago Press, was working on a volume of new and selected poetry, including the long, still unpublished poem "Tricks of the Light." The book you now have in hand, then, contains the author's own selections from her three published books, in addition to a considerable number of poems unpublished in any form at the time of her passing. In the weeks before her death, she sent the final manuscript of the book to the editor who secured periodical publication of most of the unpublished poems. The editor subsequently consulted with professors Susan Stewart and Colin (Joan) Dayan, collating it with earlier drafts of the selection. The present text departs from the author's manuscript only in placing the long poem at the end of the section of previously unpublished ones, and in some typographical corrections of erratic punctuation, spacing, capitalization, etc. In some instances, changes are recorded in the endnotes in this volume. To the rare occasional glossorial footnotes that Hearne provided, I have added a few notes of my own.
Tricks of the Light: New and Selected Poems
The University of Chicago Press