Robert Bly is a classic American poet. This new compilation of his selected poems, Stealing Sugar From The Castle, is representative of not just the times in which he wrote, but they speak to his character as an unflinchingly strong poet who evolved at his own pace as the world around him changed quickly.
From poems such as “Late at Night During a Visit of Friends,” where Bly writes
The human face shines as it speaks of things
to the poem where I first discovered him, “After Drinking All Night with a Friend, We Go Out in a Boat at Dawn to See Who Can Write the Best Poem,” where Robert Bly delicately states
This morning, also, drifting in the dawn wind,
I sense my hands, and my shoes, and this ink–
Drifting, as all of the body drifts,
Above the clouds of the flesh and the stone.
I am reminded of his poetry as poems of feeling, if not a general feeling which persists throughout the deeply connected thread of his telling of the moment.
In “After Working,” he delivers lines so generously yet with an almost retrospective power, as if to sneak them past the reader :
The sound of the deaf hearing through the bones of their heads.
I miss these kinds of works, pieces in relationships with trees, the moon, stars, snow, human instances of connection. Like Frost and Millay, there is a blanket of respect over all of his poems when it comes to nature and emotion. I again go back to saying it is delicate, and appropriately so. A gentle experience in life has to be put down well by someone not first aiming to convince an audience. It has to be for the poet beforehand. Bly is a master of this.
Generally speaking, his titles versus the content of the poems give him freedom to wander around the room of his poetry. Depression is more directly married to subject when he concludes with the line
I want to go down and rest in the black earth of silence.
But in other poems, such as “Sleet Storm on the Merritt Parkway,” he takes the reader elsewhere during his push toward finale, artfully so, rendering title as superfluous when it comes to impact:
Last night we argued about the Marines invading Guatemala in 1947,
The United Fruit Company had one water spigot for two hundred
And the ideals of America, our freedom to criticize,
The slave systems of Rome and Greece, and no one agreed.
“The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is an incredible poem of country and war. I won’t do much more here than recommend this brilliant work. Bly writes:
These lies mean we have a longing to die.
What is there now to hold us on earth?
It is the longing for someone to come and take us by the hand to
where they are all sleeping:
This poem stands beside epic pieces of our last hundred years, not because of length but because it has such intensity and such control, such targeted presence that to dismiss it as merely a long a poem is to deny the self of a work that can and should be studied for years. It is incredibly difficult for many to write a poem of such length and sustain impact, power, story and poetic ability.
In The Point Reyes Poems Bly changes the presentation of his poems on the page, which I feel gives a break to new readers of poems by demonstrating how they can be anything, in any form. In “August Rain,” both “stanzas” are paragraphs, and the last section could easily be broken into a more traditional (whatever that means anymore) format and still not lose an ounce of power. He begins his ending with this remarkable line:
The older we get the more we fail, but the more we fail the more we feel a part of the dead straw of the universe, the corners of barns with cow dung twenty years old, the belts left hanging over the chairback after the bachelor has died in the ambulance on the way to the city.
By the poem “Walking Swiftly,” from This Body Is Made Of Camphor And Gopherwood, I recognized that a current exists of life at various vertical levels interrupted by sky and water as Robert Bly writes. He maintains a nearness to his subject, but also manages to look at it from the ground up and vice-versa. I admire this in a poet, this ability to be both close and distant.
The heat inside the human body
grows, it does not know where to throw itself—for a while it knots
into will, heavy, burning, sweet, then into generosity, that longs
to take on the burdens of others, and then into mad love.
And in “The Cry Going Out Over Pastures,” he ends with a flawless line:
…for we cannot remain in love with what we
In my estimation, this is the exhibition of fearlessness when it comes to tempting the reader into both romance and argument in a line like this.
Stealing Sugar From The Castle by Robert Bly is overall a tribute to his work but also to poetry across the spectrum. It is rare that a faithful audience of this genre, this niche, can witness both evolution and steadiness in the hands of a writer who tells his own story, shares his own perception and humanity with an equal faithfulness. While some poems contain abstractions that won’t always connect, as with “Words Rising,”
Fierceness enters me, stars
Begin to revolve, and pick up
Alligator dust from under the ocean.
Writing and writing, I feel the bushy
Tail of the Great Bear
Reach down and brush the seafloor.
it is my only critique in that I am defending, as ever, newcomers to poetry who have their guards up against something they may have been conditioned to not understand. And, as much as I will indefinitely love the epic poem mentioned earlier, my favorite poem of this collection (as a devoted fan of both Neruda and Bly) is Mourning Pablo Neruda. It is gorgeous, like this necessary poet and book of poems.