The Night Abraham Called to the Stars
The Night Abraham Called to the Stars is the work of an experienced writer; Robert Bly is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, essays, and translations (though he might be best known as the men's movement icon who penned the bestseller Iron John). His new collection has moments of real illumination, but the effect is generally darkened by disjointedness and the writer's self-absorption.
These poems are more about love of Self than love of the Other. For example, Bly seeks to justify his own infidelities: In "What Kept Horace Alive, he says, "I know that I wanted more than two years with you./ If my wife had been able to absorb more cruelty . . ." And he argues in "The Eel in the Cave," "That doesn't mean I have done things well./ I have found so many ways to disgrace/ Myself, and throw a dark cloth over my head./ Why is it our fault if we fall into desire?" Isn't this question a bit fatuous? Bly would do well to let confessional poetry rest with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath; we've had enough of it.
Some of Bly's statements simply seem disingenuous and pretentious coming from a National Book Award winner: "Because I've become accustomed to failure,/ Some smoke of sadness blows off these poems" (from "The Wagon and the Cliff"). Just as off-putting is his penchant for sweeping statements that seem profound at first glance, as in this one from "Walking Backward": "Sometimes milk makes us afraid." It does? Or try this, from "Giordano Bruno and the Muddy Footprint": "The crane's foot in the mud is the map of our life." Really? And what is one to make of the final lines of "The Trap-Door"?:
It is because the lovers have been exiled
To the nonexistence of the onion fields
That the pauper wakes up playing the flute of gratitude.
Bly is also given to asking seemingly significant rhetorical questions that yield little: "Tell me why the gazelle grazes so close to the lion?" ("Jerez at Easter"). He might want to leave the rhetorical questions to William Blake and T.S. Eliot, and "Dear Reader" to Charles Dickens.
Some of Bly's would-be profundities are derivative and fall short of the originals. He offers weak echoes of famous phrases from William Butler Yeats and Eliot. Even Bly's quirky titles feel like copies of Wallace Stevens.
The marketing for The Night Abraham Called to the Stars claims that Bly works within the strict guidelines of the Islamic ghazal, an Arabic word that means "love poem." A more precise definition of ghazal, however, is a form that begins with a rhymed couplet, with the rhyme being repeated in each even line. Bly's poems do not conform to this structure.
Still, some of his poems do contain stunning lines and genuine insight into human nature. From "Wanting to Steal Time":
Every noon as the clock hands arrive at twelve,
I want to tie the two arms together,
And walk out of the bank carrying time in bags.
And from "The Battle of Ypres, 1915":
Some greedy part hankers for disaster, for things
To go wrong, for the war to start. Many people
Are disappointed when the bombing is canceled.
And, as annoying confessional as Bly is, he can also be touchingly honest: "When I cry, I want everyone else to cry" (from "The Five Inns"). The specific is indeed the universal.