In short, the book offers the expert work of an expert: it is as if Bly is writing messages against the sky using not a plane but his own flawless wings and capacious vivid breath.
Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, the latest work by Robert Bly, makes for a mellow read, full of a kind of warm remembrance and musing to be found only in the ponderings of a poet of great experience. The sharp insights into socio-political life that have characterized Bly’s writing throughout his career are there, but they are couched in an aesthetic as pleasantly aromatic as vanilla-flavored pipe tobacco.
The theme that drives this book is that life, death, and art are inexorable, unavoidable forces that cannot be fought against. Readers familiar with Bly’s poetry may well be gratified to find expected elements: clear images with just the right hint of mystery, a veritable zoo of signifying animals, constant engagement with the promises and disappointments of the divine. His employment of clean, balanced, powerful tercets is as effective as ever (like the entirety of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, the first section consists of poems of six tercets) while his shorter poems with correspondingly shorter lines (closer to the kind of poems in Meditations on the Insatiable Soul) find equally adroit handling. In short, the book offers the expert work of an expert: it is as if Bly is writing messages against the sky using not a plane but his own flawless wings and capacious vivid breath.
What sets this book apart is Bly’s constant positioning of himself as a poet and man. The opening poem sets the tone. Entitled “Ravens Hiding in a Shoe,” its six stanzas each close with the phrase “a thousand times”: he writes that “We have lived our own deaths”; a loon “Has dipped her head into Rainy Lake”; and “Each time we say, ‘I trust in God,’ it means/God has already abandoned us” all a thousand times. From these broad inexorable happenings, Bly then offers the final stanza
Robert, you’ve wasted so much of your life
Sitting indoors to write poems. Would you
Do that again? I would, a thousand times.
This kind of self-address probing his decisions, accomplishments, and attitudes appears throughout the book in one form or another, whether mimicking a questioning semi-parental voice or taking the form of an unprompted self-insight. A case of the latter is the final stanza of “The Longing” in which the five foregoing stanzas include the word “heaven” and the concluding one says
I write these poems so happily each day.
I guess it means that I’ve had a longing
All morning to write the word “heaven.”
The word “heaven” is significant because as a word attached to a possible place to be after death it seems much on the poet’s mind along with the Judeo-Christian system that furnishes both concept and word. Precious few of the poems in the book fail to reference something biblical. Sometimes the reference assumes a positive tone, such as in “The Housefly” in which Joseph’s humility in slavery resembles the housefly’s small but important role in illuminating the radiance of selflessness in life as that insect
[. . .] bends his
Head down and gives
Up his elegant
Heaven to live with us.
Other times, the references come off more negative—I have already quoted one from “Ravens Hiding in a Shoe” and would cite the following too:
Mothers again and again have knelt in church
In wartime asking God to protect their sons
And their prayers were refused a thousand times.
Lurking about these references is a sense of mortality and helplessness; I do not mean to imply that the book is a religious tract, for it is not. But the biblical notion of a higher power that makes rules affecting a person whether she likes it or not functions as a kind of metaphorical machinery for Bly to vivify the experiences of a finite entity’s struggling to create in the face of personal and global catastrophes, not the least of which is that entity’s end. The book has an almost Keatsian feel as a bid for not necessarily fame but something lasting about the body of work a poet produces.
The titular poem well encapsulates the subtle blend of frustration and hope within this metaphorical system. “I have been talking into the ear of a donkey,” the poem begins. “I have so much to say!” When the poet asks about where youth went, he gets the following reply:
[. . .] “Oh, never mind
About all that,” the donkey
Says. “Just take hold of my mane, so you
Can lift your lips closer to my hairy ears.”
The poem may be seen as referencing an ancient instance of speaking to a donkey and a donkey replying in the biblical case of Balaam’s donkey that followed Yahweh’s bidding and told his rider so even as Balaam cursed him. The reader may also recall Bly’s “Niko and His Donkey” (included in the aforementioned The Night Abraham Called to the Stars) in which “Godseekers” kill Niko’s donkey. When feasting with them, they sing “Compared to God’s, our song is only a bray;/How beautiful is the scent of a thousand hairs!” The poem concludes with the poet observing
The donkey we have loved for years may be killed
And cooked one day while we go on singing.
So don’t write a single poem without gratitude.
In both poems, the donkey speaks as well as listens, acts and is acted upon, all the while being, like a poet and poems themselves, mutable things in the face of a higher immutable force. It is easy to read a tragic gestural futility in Talking into the Ear of a Donkey. The book’s final stanza actually encourages such:
Night after night goes by in the old man’s head.
We try to ask new questions. But whatever
The old poets failed to say will never be said.
But Bly will not go down without a fight, and the book very much lauds the strength and vital importance of poetry. It is the kind of volume a young poet should probably read to find guidance, warning, assurance. It is the kind of volume anyone should read for the exquisite pleasure of encountering poetry completely under its creator’s tremendous control.