Thirty Years of Carolyn Kizer’s YIN

Hypatia Death

Death of Hypatia

This year, 2015, shouldn’t come to a close without some mention of the thirtieth anniversary of Carolyn Kizer’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her book Yin (published in 1984).

I was lucky enough to see and hear Kizer read from her work. I didn’t realize until recently that she had died a year or two ago, from Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home. That time I saw her at a writing retreat in Southern California, I was sitting in the audience and she was on a panel about to speak. The event hadn’t started yet when I noticed her focusing on my T-shirt. It had a picture of George W. Bush and it read HE’S NOT MY PRESIDENT. She liked the shirt and mentioned something about her son having one like it (or needing to tell him about it). Well, that was my only direct contact with her. Later that day, she read before a much larger audience, and Gerald Stern was upset by how “mean” one of her poems was.

I didn’t pick her up and read her until this year. Yin is a strange collection. One of the strangest poems is “Running Away From Home,” a lengthy “Howl”-like outpouring comprised of neat quatrains that begins:

 

Most people from Idaho are crazed rednecks

Grown stunted in ugly shadows of brick spires,

Corrupted by fat priests in puberty,

High from the dry altitudes of Catholic towns.

 

Spooked by plaster madonnas, switched by sadistic nuns,

Given sex instruction by dirty old men in skirts,

Recoiling from flesh-colored calendars, bloody goods,

Still we run off at the mouth, we keep on running.

 

It is a big, bold, bald declaration of freedom; it is admirable and provocative, but I have trouble loving it the same way I love the first two poems in the book, especially the first one, “Dixit Insipiens,” so relevant for our times.

The title references Psalm 14, which begins, “The fool has said (dixit insipiens) in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ / All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; / There is none who does any good.” It is a poem about Western civilization’s rejection of faith over the centuries; the cause that the West rejects is now fanatically taken up by those of the East who cry out for armed jihad. The poem contrasts the sophistication of the intelligentsia with the crude, rugged faith of the European masses. God was “swept out” by the enlightened few; science took God’s place. But then, centuries later, the East, which had never lost God, came at the West armed to the teeth with weapons and holy books.

The poem begins:

At first, it was only a trickle

Of eminent men, with their astrolabes and armillae,

Who passed cautious notes to each other, obscurely worded.

Of course, the terrible news leaked out

And the peasants were agitated.

Moans arose from the windowless hovels.

Men, hardly human, shouldering crude farm implements,

Gathered in knots along the roads and raved:

Storm the great houses! Smash the laboratory,

The retorts, the lenses—instruments of Satan.

But the minions of the manors

Lashed them back from the bronze gates,

Back to the foetid darkness, where they scoured their knees,

Praying for us.

 

(“Us” here means the nonbelievers.)

I love the witty ominousness of this voice; and, even more, I love the way the poem gets at truth without a pretense of historical accuracy. Were scientists and intellectuals ever the objects of mass scorn and uprisings in the way this poem describes? The only episode I can think of is the famous death of Hypatia in fifth century Alexandria, depicted beautifully in the film Agora. She represented science and the Hellenistic tradition. As Christianity took over the later Roman Empire, she became isolated, and eventually died at the hands of the Christian mob. Perhaps Kizer had Hypatia in mind when she wrote this poem. In any event, the episode was symbolic of the way that, for the next thousand years, faith reigned unquestionably supreme.

The poem continues, we seem to go from the age of astrolabes to the Enlightenment:

 

The magnificent correspondence between Madame A.

And the more eminent, though less notorious,

Monsieur B. reveals a breathtaking indifference

To you: not even the target of a bilious epigram.

They move intently towards their prime concern:

Which voice, this time, will loose

Its thunderbolt? The straggling troops of revolution

Must be rallied yet again.

In perfect confidence of their powers,

As if they, who after all are people of flesh and bone,

Despite their attainments, had replaced you;

Not by storming the throne-room, nor by those manifestos

They so supremely compose.

You were swept out, and they swept in, that’s all.

 

Here, “you” is introduced and refers to God. This stanza and the rest of the poem are now addressed to the Deity. (Kizer is not afraid of using sentence fragments. For example, the lines that begin with “In perfect confidence.”) This reads like a kind of bloodless palace coup. God is out; nonbelievers are in. It happens quietly, insidiously. And it happens without naming Rousseau or Marx or Nietzsche. The poem recreates the subtle evolution of thought and opinion in an organic, unpedantic way: no dates, no proper nouns (except Satan), no celebrities except the shadowy Madame A. and Monsieur B. Notice they are French: all this Godless thinking is somehow wittily connected with the French, the City of Light, and the lofty Encyclopédistes.

In the last act of the poem, we go from the Enlightenment and Evolution to the late twentieth century of violent religious fanaticism:

Out there, on the edge of the familiar world,

Are knots of men, burned dark as our own peasants

Used to be, but better armed, we know;

We armed them.

From time to time they bang their heads on the sand

And shout, unintelligibly, of you.

Their version of you, of course, quite different

From the blandness you metamorphosed into

Over the centuries, progressively edited.

Holy war! Can they be in earnest?

After all, this isn’t the fourteenth century.

Is it the uneasiness we feel, or the remnants

Of ancestral superstition, which makes us ask ourselves,

Can this be your planned revenge?

 

How can you be vengeful when you don’t exist?

If only the weight of centuries

Wasn’t on your side.

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

The angry ancient and Medieval Christian peasantry have turned into Muslims, with a starker, wilder religiosity than Christendom ever possessed. I initially questioned the phrase “but better armed.” Weren’t the Crusaders well-armed? Weren’t the armies for Fernando and Isabel la Católica very well-armed? Or the armies of Charles V, when Spain brutalized the Low Countries (Christians killing Christians)? But Kizer is referring to the peasantry of the first two stanzas and their “crude farm implements” and is, as we have seen, not concerned with literal history: her poem is getting at larger truths.

Kizer quickly adds, “We armed them.” It’s remarkable that this poem was written in the early 1980s, long before it became tragically clear how Osama Bin Laden got his start! (Of course, by then the Iranian Revolution had given the West its first major taste of Muslim fundamentalism.)

Religious fervor has passed from West to East, and it hits and hurts with its “well planned revenge.” Now in 2015, the religious feeling has gradually declined in the West as a whole; the very notable exception to this rule would be the good old U.S.A., where God is still alive and well, more so, probably, than when Kizer wrote her poem. If by the West we mean Europe and the U.S. coasts, then Kizer’s vision remains valid.

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

The poet flouts strict grammar again here: the fussy, more correct subjunctive “were” in this last sentence is replaced by the more colloquial “was.”

And the “weight of centuries”: this poem beautifully illustrates that weight in just a page and a half. Now, instead of Crusaders, we are confronted by violent jihadists. Our sophisticated unbelief, the unbelief of Madame A. and Monsieur B. is a very brittle thing confined to an ivory tower constantly threatened by the vengeful masses.

Thirty years since Kizer’s Pulitzer Prize: she wrote a poem in the early ‘80s that could have been written today. And many like it are being written (by bad poets posting their hasty thoughts on Facebook and Twitter), but few of them come close to her wit, her sophistication, her prescience, her keen sense of irony and the deep currents of history and belief.