from Sewanee Review, Winter 2014
William Logan is not the only writer to breed dogs in order to keep cats. Robert Graves, who liked that phrase, did it all the time, tirelessly whelping popular prose works such as I, Claudius and The Greek Myths to support his long Kattenstoet of slim—and not so slim—poetry books. If only T. S. Eliot, in his lifetime, had kept Cats; the Lloyd Webber musical would have succeeded resoundingly where Pound's Belle Esprit failed in easing Old Possum's financial worries. (The late Valerie Eliot did keep Cats and on a very short leash, as it turns out, Grizabella, Rum Tum Tugger, et alia managing to get their paws on an estimated $100 million dollars for the poet's estate—nothing to grouse about, even if you are offered pheasant.) Eliot's greatest success in the West End, it turns out, came when he wasn't even trying. No doubt James Fenton has mused on this fact, as the gross for Les Mis (of which he retains a percentage) surpasses $3 billion worldwide for the stage show alone. These are heady numbers—and not just for poets.
When Eliot wrote prose for money, it was generally book reviews and lectures, the same for Auden and a long list of poet-critics including Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, and Louise Bogan. Given how little money there is in reviewing (don't ever break it down to an hourly rate!), it's sweetly sad that poets compose reviews just for the dough, though Dr. Johnson was right that without the cash, writing is strictly for blockheads. Logan began work as a critic in his late teens, covering records for a "grimy now forgotten rock magazine," led on, he confesses, by "little except passion and an ornery nature." After landing as a poet at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he turned his critical toolkit to book reviewing and began contributing to the Chicago Tribune. Today he is one of the most accomplished poetry critics of his generation, and a mainstay of the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and an array of other outlets including the Sewanee Review, as well as the New Criterion, where his twice-yearly verse chronicle raises hackles and hosannas in equal measure.
Logan's appearing in the New Criterion has a splendid rightness to it; his essays and reviews vibrate sympathetically with the criticism of the Criterion's founder, Hilton Kramer (to say nothing of the original Criterion's editor, T. S. Eliot). "The most hated man in American poetry": Logan liked Robert McDowell's tagline for him so well he included it as a blurb on his book Night Battle (1999). Kramer, who died at eighty-four in the spring of 2012, had a comparable talent for infuriating the talentless. (Woody Allen once asked Kramer if he was ever embarrassed to run into artists whom he'd criticized. Without missing a beat, Kramer said "No, I expect them to be embarrassed for doing bad work.") A notorious scourge of the trendy and the over-puffed, Logan, like Kramer, is universally read and even relished—often, one imagines, secretly by flashlight. Kramer used to like to quote William Dean Howells, who said "the problem for a critic is not making enemies but keeping them."
Despite their generation gap, the two men share an admiration for modernism and the New Criticism, as well as a deep distaste for academic literary theory. Logan is what one rock-star academic of my acquaintance refers to mockingly as "one of the beauty people"—i.e., one of those benighted souls who still derives aesthetic pleasure from works of art. The New Criticism, Logan writes, "takes as its task to understand how meaning and feeling are invented in language (theory flinches as much from the neural itch of feeling as from aesthetics) and to judge if some poems are better than others—not simply better at kowtowing to the mores and manners of our day, but better in aesthetic terms." Or, as Eliot put it: the critic's job is "the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste." As the New Criticism waned, subsequent generations carried its work forward: from the great mid-century poet-critics like Jarrell (who, along with Eliot and R. P. Blackmur, receives pride of place in Logan's pantheon of modern critics), Lowell, Berryman, and Empson, as well as long-lived contemporary poets such as Geoffrey Hill.
Logan (with Kramer) is among the greatest readers of modernism and its aftermath that we have. What's more, his work as a poet makes plain that old-man modernism still has a great deal of blood in him. I would like to declare that modernism for Logan is a living tradition, except that it's more of a haunting, and no less vibrant for all of that. Hill, perhaps the finest poet now writing (whose poems Logan admires and whose austere criticism he has likened to "a month of cold baths"), once told me that he tries "to write [poems] in such a way that R. P. Blackmur would not despise what I've done." He added that it was reading Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" when he was fifteen that showed him how it might be possible to write modern poetry. ("The most original poetry often builds most obviously on a predecessor," Logan has rightly observed.) The same Symbolist-inflected language that lured Hill is spoken (in different dialects) by early Auden, by Lowell (through Tate), and by Anthony Hecht (again through Tate)—the telltale sign, the shibboleth, being a certain pitch in words, a diamantine pressure exerted on language, lines, and phrases wielded as the precision cutting tools of emotion. Reading Logan's adamant, musical, affecting poems, it strikes me that he, too, might be writing so that Blackmur (or Hill or Hecht) might not despise what he has done.
Logan doesn't go so far as to suggest, as Eliot did (and then later repented), that "the poetic critic is criticizing poetry in order to create poetry." It's more that Logan the poet has taken Logan the critic along for the ride: "I began to write criticism," he told one interviewer, "because I needed the money, but I kept writing because I needed the discipline," admitting elsewhere to "the terrible knowledge that I was a better reader when I read for hire, that I read more intently when driven by necessity." Despite such downplaying, the two projects are clearly related. How could they not be? The poet doesn't black out, only to come to hours later, a review steaming on his desk. As Eliot imagines it in "The Perfect Critic": "The two directions of sensibility [criticism and poetry] are complementary; and as sensibility is rare, unpopular, and desirable, it is to be expected that the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person."
Logan's essays and reviews, the particular dogs he breeds, are often of the scrappy junkyard type. "A critic who does his job must be a good hater if he's to be a good lover," he points out, "because if he likes everything he reads he likes nothing well enough." Having just reread all of Logan's collected criticism, I find that his judgments have worn well. Occasionally a poet under review will take one unfairly on the chin for the sake of an aperςu, but such blows wouldn't smart so much if poets didn't fancy their poems unassailable. As slashing as Logan is at his worst, he cannot hold a candle to some of his fellow poets, whose rumbles in private occasionally erupt into molten vituperations. If mad dogs sun themselves at all hours, they also, when startled, will dash off letters like this one, from Franz Wright: "If there is ever the slightest possibility [Wright wrote to Logan] of our finding ourselves in the same room or general vicinity, I want to advise and plead with you to get away from that place, fast, because if I find out about it, I assure you it is distinctly possible that I will not be able to resist giving you the crippling beating you so clearly masochistically desire. I do not wish to kill you or hurt you, and so I beg you to get away from me, without delay, if you realize we are in the same room somewhere. Best, Franz."
To which Logan replied, with wry and admirable restraint: "If Franz Wright believes such threats will intimidate anyone, he is to be pitied. I assure him that I will come and go as I please, and would be glad to provide him with an itinerary.... Though I would like to gratify his violent fantasies, for a man of his character all I can think to offer is pies at ten paces." Of Wright, Logan has written that he "offers the crude, unprocessed sewage of suffering," which, given this personal outpouring, is putting it mildly.
Christian Wiman, a splendid poet and an independent-minded critic, can always be trusted to cut though the noise. As he hallooed in Poetry magazine: "William Logan is the best practical critic around. I sometimes disagree with his judgments fiercely, but that I so fiercely disagree, that his prose provokes such a response, is what makes him the best. Most criticism is like most poetry: it simply leaves you indifferent. I've seen Logan's name bring bile to the lips of the gentlest spirits. For breadth of intelligence, an incisive style, and pure passion, I don't think he can be matched." Logan writes like an angel, as Donald Hall has said, and sometimes, even better, like a fallen angel. Like Wiman I, too, occasionally want to dash his reviews into the grate (except when it's a copy of the New Criterion: then I restrain myself). Anthony Hecht's longer narratives "lack the stress of structure"!? As John MacEnroe would say: You cannot be serious! Did you read "The Venetian Vespers"!? Yet, no sooner has he written something that I want to quarrel with, than he hits the nail soundly on the head: Hecht in his dramatic monologues "cannot for all his sympathies escape an undertone of condescension." Hmm. I may have to think about that one for a while ...
Most often—in any given paragraph, in fact—I am brought up short by a dazzling phrase or passage. Felicities occur with such frequency one can perform Sortes Loganianae. Plop your finger down anywhere and you will come up with something like this:
Whitman, though suited to buckskin, was born in rural Long Island and lived mostly in cities like Brooklyn and Washington. His is a poetry of the city that dreams of the country .... [He] had seen the West only once, having worked briefly as a newspaperman in New Orleans, traveling by side-wheeler down the Mississippi and, a few months later, back up the river and across the Great Lakes. That is the power of sublimated myth, of pastoral itself—when the city begins to dream of the country, the country is doomed. After Whitman, our poetry broke from its English root and became open to influences elsewhere, as well as available as an influence. It became the model of its own difference.
I could have as easily quoted the lines above or below or had as much luck on the preceding or succeeding pages. Criticism may not be an autotelic activity, but when it's written this well it comes very close.
The achievements of style for which Logan's criticism is famous are not its primary purpose (perhaps we could say tertiary). Logan likes to quote Blackmur's description of criticism as "the formal discourse of an amateur"—the critic considers the poem seriously out of love. ''When I think poetry, or the reviewing of poetry, might no longer be a high calling," Logan writes in the preface to Our Savage Art (2009), "I try to remember A. N. Wilson's report of his dinner conversation with the Queen Mother, the widowed consort of George VI. Speaking of a stranger's visit to the royal family, she said, 'Then we had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem ... I think it was called "The Desert." And first the girls got the giggles, and then I did and then even the King.' The poem was The Waste Land. 'Such a gloomy man, looked as though he worked in a bank, and we didn't understand a word.' These reviews are for those giggling young princesses."
Remarks are not literature, and remarks about literature are not literature. Like the poet-critics who preceded him, Logan is a poet first; he also writes about poetry. (On the strength of Blackmur's poetry, or rather on the strength of its weakness, it is clear that he got it the other way around.) "My own imaginative life's lived almost entirely in poetry," Logan has said. "I'm merely a poet who has opinions and has sometimes been paid to publish them." Logan's poems do not serve at the pleasure of his criticism, but the separate activities are related in that both involve judgment. The aesthetic discriminations honed in reviewing will sometimes but not always inform the aesthetic choices made when writing poems. Having said that, the poet is less conscious than the critic. He is a musician at heart, more ready than not to break the rules to please his ear. Sense for the poet can have much to do with sound! (The title of this essay riffs on a title of Logan's "Ambasssador of Imperfect Mood," which puns on the system of time used in medieval music.)
In Logan's first several collections—Sad-Faced Men (1982), Difficulty (1985), and Sullen Weedy Lakes (1988)—he presses his weedy phrases toward difficulty. The flinty clicks and squibs of language often constitute his early poems' emotional sense as much as (and sometimes more than) any discernible narrative scaffold. ("Imagine someone thinking contemporary poetry obscure," Logan scoffs at one point, "when it isn't half obscure enough!") Logan's austere musicianship, his Hardyesque countryside and seaside monodies, content themselves among their losses, while challenging the obscene emphasis on content in contemporary poetry, content at the expense of facture, the very textures of making. "We are a content-minded country," he warns, "where language is a McCormick reaper, an old manual typewriter, a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Ashbery writes as if language were a medium.... His poetry reminds us [by contrast] that the soiled, complacent manner of our poetry—its do-it-yourself Romantic style—is slavery of our own invention."
Logan has unlocked the virtues of difficulty in others, and the same virtues may be found in his own poems, most prominently and knottily up through his sixth collection, Macbeth in Venice (2003). "The beauty of poetry is in the difficulty," he reminds us, "in the refusal of the words to make the plain sense immediately plain, in the dark magic and profound mistrust of words themselves." Here is a passage from part two of "Hard Waters" from his second book, appropriately named Difficulty:
have laced the valley and the morning dust
chills a whitish garden. Men measure themselves
for their beds. There is no flat comfort
when what is gone cannot reprove us:
in this land or any other there comes
a reminiscent weather, menacing the kindness
we hold for ourselves.
Not since Hecht (who learned from Hardy) has a poet looked so long at a bleak landscape and painted the portrait of a man. Hecht shares Hardy's flair for the pathetic fallacy, which he describes this way: "as mise en scène it becomes the destiny and fate, tragic in character, of all who there inhabit." Hecht adds, in defense of nature as metaphor: "When Socrates tries to say what the Good is, the nearest he can come is to say it is like Light." The next section of Logan's poem shows his mastery of this misunderstood strategy:
Slow light wastes the colors of the ridge
where fire finds no hold. When the seed grass
blows indifferently, the rains ruin months
of farming, and drive the hiker upland
to observe the light sliding off toward the sea.
The solvent species exist under the gaze
of a blank eye.
Some of the most beautiful passages in Hill's poetry are similarly composed of emotionally suggestive natural description such as this. Occasionally the thinned air breathed in the high passes of abstraction can make for rough going, though Logan's consummate musicianship carries the day. Only a poet who is not afraid of difficulty will ever arrive at such somber coiled utterances. "If we demand that poetry be so plain that plain readers can drink it he whole plain day," Logan argues, "we will have lost whatever makes poetry poetry."
In Logan's middle three books (so far)—Vain Empires (1998), Night Battle (1999), and Macbeth in Venice (2003)—his landscapes begin to mobilize, like Birnam Wood, across distances of geography and time. As they move, from England (where he lives part-time), to Turkey, Venice, the South Seas, Rome, back ) England, Paris, England again, India—the poems bring the weight of history to bear on Logan's modern and antique settings. Historical figures range from the familiar (Pliny, Keats, Van Gogh, Darwin, King James) to the less-so, including Joachim of Fiore and the Dresden glassmakers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. (One is grateful for the introduction of endnotes, beginning with Vain Empires, since one may search in vain via Google's empire for some of Logan's more arcane sources.) In "The Secession of Science from Christian Europe" (a Geoffrey Hill-nodding title if ever were was one!), Logan gives us observations by Joseph Banks, the eighteenth-century English naturalist, who witnesses the transit of Venus with Captain Cook in Tahiti:
One might in youth concede to investigate
such practices of the cod as require the French
to creep within their bark-lined suits
and split the fish in wooden gloves,
not touching the violet entrails,
or take ship to observe the transit of Venus,
to crawl along a caterpillar of coast
where among the fray of moral appetites
vast cabinets might be filled with skins
as rare as scrolls, and eggs whose translucences
were not inferior to the morning star.
This is Crane without the hooch or the Ravel. Logan charges the historic with the sensual, even, at times, the morbidly erotic, Eros also takes hold in a series of portraits of women—reclining on couches, or, like Bonnard's wife, in the bath—as well as poems for ex-girlfriends, whose loss (some no longer living) is still keenly felt. A poet who writes this beautifully about an eighteenth-century voyage (Logan's mastery of nautical language and imagery is unrivaled in contemporary poetry) would succeed never having done anything else, but Logan tirelessly moves through a range of modes and styles. Here, from Night Battle, is a poem about the oldest European hotel in Istanbul, Pera Palas, in which description becomes infused with the tang of history:
The clouds were Turkish, frothy, cracked,
Tiepolo's angelic hangers-on just pigeons now,
veering shadows across the skylight's filthy glass,
The grand, or grand-no-more, hotel
looked down on the steam-wreathed Golden Horn,
glazing the seven hills of ancient Istanbul.
Alongside these Rough Guide poems—the rougher the better (a few of the dustier travel-inspired poems could have stayed in Logan's Moleskin)—Logan includes affecting poems of family and childhood. His ear for hard-edged speech, developed in his early books, here combines with narrative and even snippets of biography to form some of his most replete and forceful expressions. "My Father as Madame Butterfly" (a brilliant title!) unfolds in the coastal village of Westport, Massachusetts, where Logan lived as a boy:
The dark blue satin across the river
staggers under the lightning.
The radio plays Puccini.
He turns back to the mirror with his razor,
my father, holding it like a dowsing rod.
When it comes he will be ready—
the main chance, the ship coming in.
Happy families are all alike.
That's what they tell other families.
Out the window, the little town is rousing,
a flock of grackles
blackening the sky like construction paper.
The figures of Logan's parents, to whom Difficulty is dedicated, reappear throughout Logan's work, sometimes as period pieces in a lost world of Packards, nylons, and the G.I. Bill, sometimes as ghosts still haunting the speaker.
The ghost of place haunts Logan as well, both at home and abroad. His book Macbeth in Venice comprises three long sequences, each variously (even fancifully) connected to the canal-scored queen of the Adriatic. Where else would a history-besotted poet, who grew up near water, be drawn? By way of contrast with the Old World, Florida, where he currently teaches, "was nearly uninhabitable before air conditioning, so its traditions are as thin as pie crust." In the title sequence Logan returns to an unsettling leitmotif that has dogged him from the beginning, the absent daughter. Sad-Faced Men takes up the subject in "Children" ("All night, though dead, they stir" and "You are angered that we have no children. We have / An impossible genealogy, each of us a child / To the other"), and it returns in "Totenlieder," in which a daughter is drowned, and "Maelstrom," with the line "The man I sleep with wants no child." The title sequence from Difficulty revolves around a couple's "phantom daughter." The critic Richard Flynn believes that the couple's daughter "has been lost either through abortion or miscarriage .... The image of the phantom daughter, kept deliberately enigmatic for most of the poem, is made concrete in the closing lines, before which the speaker lashes out at the lover, saying that 'ten years ago' she had deceived him." The poem ends on a note of melancholy acceptance:
I understand that now. I understand the love
That twists us into lives we never meant.
One long night, before you were pregnant,
You held a wet cloth to my head and hour
after hour whispered love into my ear.
I know better what those whispers meant.
Or tell myself I know. The clock has stopped,
whose hour comes by accident. The carpet's
in the attic. You're never coming back.
The subject reenters like the ghost of Banquo into the sequence "Macbeth in Venice," which imagines a version of the play presented by James I to the doge. Like Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror," Logan's poem gives voice to characters and events from the Scottish play. (Hecht attempts something similar, mingled with the music of Hayden, in his masque "A Love for Four Voices.") Among the forms that Logan employs are a pair of villanelles—one right-side-up, the other upside-down—spoken by the enigmatic character of Macbeth's daughter:
A broken mirror is the soul's veneer,
and plays are full of daughters—Hamlet, Lear—
though most have paid a death to silence me.
I'm most appealing when I disappear.
How could a daughter hope to interfere
against the tidal groaning of the sea?
A broken mirror is the soul's veneer.
I'm most unchanging when I disappear.
"How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?": that's the question L. C. Knights posed in his provocatively entitled essay. Carol Chillington Rutter gives a crisp account of the famous incident in Shakespeare Survey 57: Macbeth and Its Afterlife, edited by Peter Holland (Cambridge University Press, 2004):
'When L. C. Knights, prepped by F. R. Leavis, innocently dropped his question on an unsuspecting audience at a meeting of the Shakespeare Association in 1932, "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?," he didn't expect an answer. He expected a revolution. Comically self-deprecating, thirty years later he recalled the occasion, remembering himself as "a comparatively young man, dissatisfied with the prevailing academic approach to Shakespeare," specifically, Bradley-ite character criticism, the kind of criticism that observed the discrepancy between Lady Macbeth's act I assertion, "I have given suck and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me" (1.7.54-55), Macbeth's traumatized meditation on his childlessness in act III (3.1.60-73), and Macduff's desolate cry in act IV, "He has no children" (4.3.217) and, worried by apparent inconsistencies, tried to account for Macbeth's missing babies.
Before Knights's salvo, Eliot and G. Wilson Knight had begun reading the plays as "imaginative constructions mediated through the poetry"—in other words as dramatic poems. Rutter characterizes this approach as musical in nature, with leitmotifs and themes, as opposed to character-driven readings with imagined biographies and discernible motives. Knights's term was "the logic of imaginative correspondence," which beautifully describes the organizing principle of Logan's capacious sequence.
As a technical tour de force, Logan's poem rivals and possibly even surpasses Auden's. After introducing the character of Macbeth's vanished daughter in perhaps his finest villanelle (there's another good one, on Punchinello, earlier in the collection), Logan upends the entire poem, presenting it back to front, with only slight adjustments to punctuation. It works brilliantly:
I'm most appealing when I disappear,
though most have paid a death to silence me.
The plays are full of daughters—Hamlet, Lear—
but broken mirrors are the soul's veneer
plunged deep into the blown glass of the sea.
The poems written since Macbeth in Venice are Logan's most accomplished to date, composed of The Whispering Gallery (2005), Strange Flesh (2008), and Madame X (2012). If W. D. Snodgrass wrote his best book first, then Logan seems to be getting stronger with each collection. Having mastered drum-tight language and ionized diction, he has increasingly warmed to narrative (albeit, at times, suggestive or opaque). The ghosts that peeked out from behind historical personae and that wandered shadowy landscapes now take center stage. I can't think of a contemporary poet who dwells as obsessively and unsentimentally (even bitterly at times) on the lost locales of childhood—a childhood of estrangement and exile, marked by unnerving premonitions, such as the one in "The Rotting Stars":
I did not have the courage, that year,
to explore the nature of what I had seen.
A winter sun ignited the dry fronds,
but I sat at the prow of the old rowboat,
the cold river lapping hard rosettes
of barnacles along the rotting wharf.
They were like a drowned field of flowers.
The water eased in and out of the pilings.
Someone more sensitive might have heard it
This last line comes down almost whole cloth from Logan's essay "The Long Vacations," as does the introduction late in the poem of a shocking narrative incident—like the daughter's drowning in "Totenlieder"—that stands what's come before on its head or snaps it into place. The speaker's premonition comes with a jolt:
I knew then that my mother was dead.
Yet she wasn't dead.
She was living on the northern coast,
still the center of her bridge club,
still taking lunch each Tuesday at the marina.
I could see, in that empty, faded glow
even then leaving the river,
the irritated waves edged with silver tinfoil,
glinting, then a rich, dead India ink,
while across the waters, wavering at first,
came faint lanterns from the district houses,
like sunken, unreachable stars—
I could see everything that was to come.
Logan relives another premonition of his mother's death in "The Farm," from Strange Flesh, which recounts a terrible dream:
Fireflies took the fields like sparks,
the hay fumes rising in the half-light.
Then, still in the dream, but after coming in from the barn:
I climbed past the framed photographs,
our ancestors fragile and grim even in youth,
and opened the door to the bedroom.
My mother lay there, windows open,
lace curtains spreading and closing
with a wave of an invisible hand.
The kerosene lamp had gone out.
There was a ragged Bible in this dream,
open to Isaiah. Somehow I knew it was Isaiah.
A softened burr rattled the window screen . . .
a house wasp battering to get out.
I thought, Oh, no, not yet. Not yet.
The strands that Logan has woven together from the beginning are all there: landscape, family, history. Among the standouts in The Whispering Gallery are "The Dunes," "After the War," "Odalisque," "Achilles," "After Easter," and the extraordinary "Ashbryn," one of a number of disappointed portraits of a father:
We always thought you secretly rich
behind your clouds of Lucky Strikes.
One year you were president of a yacht club,
but the balding manager flew to Rio
with a suitcase full of membership dues.
One by one we left the house on Private Road,
whose crooked, weeping chestnuts
spilled their spiked seedcases like harbor mines.
A summer's worth of paint peeled from the clapboards.
Oak stumps anchored the slanting lawn.
You sold Ashbryn the year before the market roared.
The title means "ash hill," and one hears "ash heap" like the historical one to which forgotten things are consigned. In "The Ghost" from Strange Flesh, a question that has been nagging at the reader is posed directly:
Why, now, recall the vain, bearlike man
who, one winter morning, waltzed into the kitchen
to demand breakfast from my mother, and perhaps more,
though he had died three years before?
It took the rest of her life to settle the score.
Logan's poems drive home how hard it can be to lay the past to rest.
As Logan puts it in "Four or Five Motions toward a Poetics," from Desperate Measures (2002), bad poetry is signaled by the collapse of the reader's trust. Logan lays them all out even as he acknowledges that good poets occasionally commit blunders, but contends that a reader whose trust is otherwise kept may choose to overlook them: "Failures of trust must include provision of irrelevant matter, missed opportunities, lapel-pulling, comedies of tone, corruptions of diction, solecisms, redundancy, tediousness, inconsistency, sentiment, cliché, pointless obscurity, the whole panoply of which bad poetry is composed and the abyss good poetry tries to avoid and into which it occasionally descends." Madame X holds the reader's trust with complete assurance, leading him through one knockout poem after another with their perfect moods: "London: High Summer," "Trespassing," "Along the Autumn River," "The Old Story," and "A Death in Badenweiler," based on the story of Chekhov's last moments as the doctor calls for champagne—as was the custom for the dying.
"The Eels of the Lagoon" combines in a single long poem Logan's various strengths. He is most affecting when he risks the personal, which, in his hands, never sours into solipsism:
I am not sure, even now, what troubled me
about the eels. Fifty years ago, I was forced
to leave a whaling village whose saltbox houses
shored against the salt-hay fields
in beached, frigid, miserable emptiness . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I was still a stranger to Venice then.
The first time I viewed that floating world,
the Grand Canal was plumed in frozen mist
a curtain of fog aslant the corrugated waters
as if closing on an old, rarely applauded play.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What ransoms
must they require, childhood and its losses?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That morning, all came into view:
the placid tuna hacked into agate slabs;
the warty, demonic bottom fish slumped in mortal piles;
an upended crab flailing a stiffened claw.
Off to one side, in a stainless-steel tray, for sale
like the rest, like glistening bejeweled intestines,
lay man's first tempter and antagonist,
Here, in this unlikely spot, is another of Logan's moral landscapes, this one complete with serpent. In his essay "Of Glory" (which Logan quotes), Montaigne identifies the mundane as man's most serious testing grounds: "A man ... is taken by surprise between the hedge and the ditch; he must tempt fortune against a hen roost; he must root out four paltry musketeers from a barn.... The least brilliant occasions happen to be the most dangerous; and ... more good men have been lost on trivial and unimportant occasions and in fighting over some shack than in worthy and honorable places."
As Auden knew, such remarkable things take place "while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." In poetry—what Logan refers to with light mockery as this "minor art"—there is a seriousness of purpose and a responsibility to human experience, of getting things exactly right. To invert a line from Larkin, something, like nothing, happens anywhere.
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University of the South
Editor: George Core
Managing Editor: Leigh Anne Couch