Because Paul Blackburn (November 24, 1926 – September 13, 1971) is a poet of immediate observation and spontaneous response, his poetry thrives on particular places. His work, however, is not rooted in a specific geographical location that is transformed into a frame of mind, as is Frost’s New England, or that is elevated to a latter-day myth, as is Williams’s Paterson. Blackburn’s places are the environments in which he happens to be: a town plaza, a boat at sea, a wooded hill, a city street, a subway car, a tavern, a luncheonette, a kitchen, a bedroom. He would often generate a poem by immersing himself in his surroundings until man and place were one, the identification stirring in him a particular thought or emotion, a combination of his mood and the suggestion of that particular rush of outside activity. Although his thematic preoccupations and technical goals remain fairly uniform throughout the course of his work, he did tend to prefer certain themes and to express certain emotions through certain techniques when he was living in European cities, and others when he was living in New York. Perhaps because he could see sheep grazing in the town square in Málaga or burros passing through Bañalbufar, when Blackburn was living in Europe he often considered the relationship between humans and nature through such concepts as freedom, mutability, eternity, and religiosity; love is portrayed as sentiment. Perhaps because his mind was on the troubadours, living with his hands on their manuscripts near Provence, Blackburn’s European poetry tends to be meditative and pensive, the soundplay more melodious, the language more metaphorical. When he was living in New York, in the densely populated modern city, where concrete substituted for grass, Blackburn focused on interpersonal relations, including friendship, complicity, estrangement, and anonymity; love becomes erotic energy. In a city whose traffic rushes and whose subway rumbles and roars, Blackburn’s poetry becomes more immediate and involved, conversational and wtty; sound is orchestrated for dissonance; metaphor, if resorted to at all, is unexpected, shocking; but the occasional use of symbol is retained.
Early Selected y Mas
Blackburn is best read, then, chronologically, according to the place where he was living and writing. The dates given for the poems gathered in Early Selected y Mas, which includes the small, early books of limited circulation, makes such a reading possible for most of the first half of his work. In the poetry written or set in Europe between 1954 and 1958, Blackburn explores the existence of humans as creatures both fundamentally part of nature, with physicality and sensuousness, and separate through consciousness, will, and ephemerality.
In “A Permanence,” Blackburn uses the seven-star constellation the bear to present nature as an eternal force separate from humanity: The bear “is there/ even in the day, when we do not see him.” Nevertheless, humans cannot help responding to nature’s perpetually changing life, being natural themselves. The lovers in “The Hour,” for example, are “hungering” not only for food but also for the first sign of spring after a long winter: They sit “listening to the warm gnawing in their stomach/ the warm wind/ through the blossoms blowing.” These lines exemplify the rich grammatical ambiguity made possible by spatial form: The appetites for food and for seasonal renewal are associated not only by repetition of the adjective “warm” but also by the possibility that “wind” as well as “gnawing” can be the object of the preposition “to,” modifying “listening.”
Separation from and unity with nature are confronted simultaneously in “Light.” Initially, humanity and sea are only linguistically related through a simile; day moves inevitably into night, but an effort of the will is required for human action: “My thought drifts like the sea/ No grip between it and my act.” By the end of the poem, however, the dark, drifting sea complements and then merges with the poet’s gloomy mood. The assertion is metaphoric, but the poet’s mind and his perceptual experience have indeed become one: “The sea flashes up in the night/ to touch and darken my sea.”
Mestrovic and the Trees
From this contemplation of the relationship between humans and nature, a religious sense develops, as expressed in “Mestrovic and the Trees.” For Blackburn, a feeling for the divine is unavoidable: “You never get passed the wood” where “The beginnings of things are shown.” Religion for him is a matter of origins, and this poem is Blackburn’s own version of the cosmological argument. From humanity’s own existence, which cannot be denied—“Yes we are”—he moves back to origins—“Our mother and father,” and by implication, Adam and Eve—to their origin, in nature, through God: “So these trees stand there, our/ image, the god’s image.” The trees “stand there/ naked” just as humans enter the world, their unity with nature now binding them also to the divine. By using the lower case for God and preceding his name with the definite article, Blackburn indicates that his religion is natural rather than orthodox. Although Blackburn is certain of the existence of the divine, its nature remains an enigma.
How to Get Through Reality
This mystery, essential to Blackburn’s religious experience, is in itself sacred for him and not to be violated by forms and formulas that he considers to be ultimately human fabrications, at best mere approximations of the divine. In “How to Get Through Reality,” Blackburn insists on the separation, epistemological despite a metaphysical complicity, between the temporal and the divine, that is, “Those who work with us . . . who create us from our stone.” An impenetrable glass wall separates the two realms, and he celebrates the divine only in the most general of ways, aesthetically: “Our beauty under glass is your reality, unreachable/ sliding our gift to you.” The insistence on the unintelligibility of the divine is portrayed grammatically with a sentence that ends incompletely just at the point God is to be named: “Beauty is the daily renewal in the eyes of.” Feeling, the basis of his perception of beauty, provides his only sense of the divine: “One could kick the glass out, no?/ No./ Pass through.” Breaking the glass, transcending the temporal, for direct communication with and precise knowledge of the supernatural is impossible; only intimations, illuminations, can pass through the transparency of the glass. A similar warning is sounded in “Suspension,” where the poet’s vision of the moon is obscured by tree branches: “—Shall I climb up and get it down?/ —No. Leave it alone.”
As a consequence, Blackburn’s attitude toward orthodox religious forms—language, ceremony, observance—is ambivalent. “Ritual I” presents a religious “Procession,” as it moves “with candles” from the church through the various streets of the Spanish town to the chant of “Ave Maria.” Because the “fiesta” does not “celebrate,” but rather “reenacts” the “event,” “time emerges.” Blackburn is observing that the religious ritual is “a timeless gesture” because its origin cannot be traced or dated, because it has been perpetuated throughout the course of history, and because it creates anew the event each time it is performed. Through this persistence of religion, this infinite renewal, this timelessness, human time is made possible: The participants too are renewed along with the ritual. Blackburn continues, however, to enlarge the concept of ritual to encompass secular as well as religious life. Midway through the poem a “lady tourist/ . . . joined the procession”; she appeared an “anomaly”: “Instead of a rosary, carried/ a white pocketbook.” After this secular irregularity in the religious ceremony, Blackburn immediately introduces what appear to be irregularities of subject in a poem describing a sacred ritual: He tells the reader that he rises everyday “in the dawn light”; he eats “Meat every Thursday/ when the calf/ is killed”; he gets “Mail from the bus at 4:30/ fresh milk at 5.” What Blackburn is implying through these juxtapositions is that our everyday lives are composed of rituals that renew life on a daily basis, that make life itself possible. The “german anthropologist,” then, “her poor self at the end of the line,” is really not at a terminal point; for life, like this yearly ritual, is a perpetual process of renewal, a series of rebirths: “End of a timeless act of the peoples of the earth,” hardly an end at all.
In poetry written after Blackburn’s return to New York in 1957, the religious and the secular merge for him to the point where his rituals consist entirely of various activities repeated on a daily basis. Religion becomes the celebration of life, since the divine is immanent in the world itself. In “Ritual IV,” for example, Blackburn juxtaposes a description of plants growing in his kitchen with a reenactment of a Saturday morning breakfast with his wife, in order to express the unity of all living things. “You sit here smiling at/ me and the young plants,” as the “beams” of sunlight reveal the “dust” that “float[s]” from the plants to them. The poet concludes: “Everything/ grows,/ and rests.”
Lines, Trees, and Words
Having united the sacred and profane to such a degree, Blackburn occasionally grows impatient with orthodox ceremony. In “Lines, Trees, and Words,”walking through a park and overhearing children singing a hymn off-key, a friend observes how they are mutilating “it.” Blackburn, however, willfully misunderstands the referent of the pronoun to be the divine and replies, “Don’twe all.”Any verbal attempt to embody the spiritual will result in such travesty: “Give the child words, give him/ words, he will use them.” Characteristically, the poem ends with the preferred indefinite, natural, religious note: “How the trees hang down from the sky.” At times, Blackburn will even imply that the more Puritanical strain in orthodox religionmight very well obstruct his and others’ more spontaneous celebration of the divine through joyous living, as in “Ash Wednesday, 1965.”
The Purse Seine
Most of the poetry that Blackburn wrote between 1958 and 1967 had New York City for its setting and focused intimately on human psychology: the ways in which people relate to one another, how they react to the world in which they find themselves, and how they regard their own personalities and bodies. In Blackburn’s love poems of this period, two symbols, fishing nets and the sea, continually recur, helping him to express his vision of love as unavoidable and overwhelming, as the persistent tide of the sea, and therefore frightening, threatening, as the confining fishing net, at first unnoticed. Love for Blackburn is a force that one can resist only for so long; then one gives in wholeheartedly, though with trepidation. “The Purse Seine” accumulates a number of aquatic images that express this ambivalence: what “gulls” “do that looks so beautiful, is/ hunt”; at once they are “crying freedom, crying carrion”; the eye of the gull, merging with that of his lover, “frightens,” for both are the “beautiful killer”; “the net/ is tight,” and then “The purse closes” and “we drown/ in sight of/ I love you and you love me.” In “Park Poem,” the poet reels from “the first shock of leaves their alliance with love”—the complicity of nature in romance. “How to Get up off It” is a contemporaneous poem that juxtaposes several random events ultimately related to the persistence of love in nature, and thus in human beings. The poet begins the poem by recalling a mountain climber’s words: “Am I ready for this mountain?” As “they go up,” so does the poet climb love’s mountain, sitting with his second wife in front of the Public Library, next to a girl writing a letter to her boyfriend; they are passed by a couple holding hands who wave to them and then witness a mating dance: “The pigeons never seem to tire/ of the game,” and neither do people, as the events recorded in the poem demonstrate. “Call It the Net” and
The Net of Moon
Depending on his mood, Blackburn can portray love as simply the drive of blind passion that results in a loss of freedom through its satisfaction. In such poems as “Call It the Net,” love is a “silken trap . . . the net of lust.” In “The Sea and the Shadow,” that “damned sea” of sexuality will drive him back to his lover despite his anger at her; the waves become the rhythm of the sexual act: “I will come into your belly and make it a sea rolling against me.” At other times, however, sexual love will be a joyous occasion, as in “lower case poem”: “of that spring tide i sing/ clutched to one another.” At such times, as Blackburn explains in “The Net of Moon,” the lovers have achieved a union of the physical and the spiritual, “a just balance be-/ tween the emotion and the motion of the wave on the bay,” lust being transformed into love. What Blackburn finds most striking, in the end, is the inevitable nature of both sexuality and love. On seeing a pretty girl on the street in “The Tides,” the poet exclaims: “Terrible indeed is the house of heaven in the mind.” After recalling the act of love, “its flood/ its ebb,” the poet can only conclude: “What the man must do/ what the woman must do.”
Blackburn accepts, as a natural dimension of human relations, this constant attraction between men and women, which exists as much on the physical as on the emotional level. Rather than trying to resist or repress the erotic impulse, Blackburn celebrates it in a series of erotic poems unique in the language. Never vulgar, tawdry, or exhibitionistic, they involve a drama of emotion as well as of desire, for Blackburn portrays the woman as well as the man being caught in the erotic moment and enjoying it with equal relish. This mutual, if often covert, complicity results in a sense of the erotic as all-pervasive and joyous rather than predatory or compromising. These poems are usually contemporaneous with the events and feelings they describe and involve witty shifts of tone through incongruous diction, ranging from colloquial (“all very chummy”) to tabloid cliché (“the hotbed of assignation”) to scientific jargon (“hypotenuse,” “trajectory”).
Two of his best erotic poems appear in Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, for the subway is one of the more likely places to afford the modern troubadour an opportunity to admire the feminine. In “The Once-Over,” a pretty blond woman is being appreciated by the poet and the other riders of the car. According to the poet, however, she is deliberately inviting their admiration: She is “standing/ tho there are seats”; “Only a stolid young man . . . does not know he is being assaulted”; “She has us and we her.” In “Clickety-Clack,” Blackburn is reading out loud a blatantly erotic passage from one of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poems on the subway car, much to the amusement (and arousal) of a young lady, despite her frown, as the negative prefix split by the line ending from the rest of its root word indicates: She “began to stare dis-/ approvingly and wiggle.” “The Slogan” records the provocative stroll of a “wellknit blonde in a blue knit dress” past a group of utility workers, Blackburn describing her walk with terms borrowed from physics. “Hands” portrays a girl entering her room and going to open a window with her boyfriend in pursuit, “bringing/ one thing up, & another down.” Even in “The Assassination of President McKinley,” the opportunistic proprietor of the drapery shop is not the only one who enjoys “the last rite/ for the assassinated Mr. McKinley.”
h3 style=”text-align: justify;”>Against the Silences
Blackburn’s one long cycle of poems on love, published posthumously as Against the Silences, was written between 1963 and 1967, and deals with the dissolution of his second marriage. The cycle moves from uneasy marital contentment (“knowing we love one another/ sometime,” from “The Second Message”), to the beginning of estrangement (“the thought dissolves & only/ fact remains,” from “Slippers, Anyone?”), to argument resulting from a misunderstanding of the husband’s deepest personal allegiances (“The Value”), to the wife’s infidelity (“What Is It, Love?”), and finally to divorce (“Scenario for a Walk-On,” in which the poet depicts the separation as the ending of a film). The sequence recalls George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862), a series of fifty sixteen-line sonnets portraying the psychological dilemmas of an unhappy married couple through dramatic monologue or silent rumination, written the year after Meredith’s divorce from his first wife. Because Blackburn’s poems focus specifically on the intimate details of his own marriage, automatically recorded in the contemporaneous open-form poem of immediate experience, his cycle has somewhat greater emotional range and depth than Meredith’s, which is a more conscious attempt to generalize from personal experience about the condition of romantic love in the modern world, as the title suggests.
In Against the Silences, the complexity of the beleaguered husband’s feelings is captured in poems that often portray several conflicting emotions at once: confusion, frustration, pain, humiliation, anger, disgust, fear, loneliness. The subtle role that sexual passion assumes in the relationship is also treated. In the early “So Deep We Never Got,” the poet wishes his wife to make love to him as a reassurance of her affection: Resorting to a favorite symbol, he needs to be with her “chest-deep in the surf/ and those waves coming and coming.” In “Monday, Monday,” however, the husband uses an offer of sex in an attempt to keep his wife from meeting her lover, but the response remains the same throughout the poem: “away,/ her body pushed me away.” In this sequence, Blackburn’s idea of love as a net to which one deliberately surrenders oneself attains its most explicit statement. Although staying with his wife was always an “act of will” (“The Second Message”), “reasons of choice” are “so obscure” that the process of choice can never ensure happiness; he can only “choose and fear and live it thru” (“Accident”). The result is equally ironic: The possessor of another in love becomes “possessed” by that very love (“The Price”).
If Blackburn adds a new genre to English-language verse, or revives one long defunct, through his erotic poems he contributes to an ongoing tradition with his elegies, which he composed throughout his career. In “The Mint Quality” (1961), the poet attempts to “Sing/ straight as I can” about the death of a vivacious young woman by first giving the details of her automobile accident in France and then presenting her monologue to her friends from the other side of death. The poem becomes ironic when Christiane assures them that “next time” she will “wait til the middle of life/ know what you know/ just to understand.” The poem began with the poet, at middle age, professing his complete incomprehension of the cycle of life and death: “two friends’ wives/ are near their term and large./ . . . One/ girl is dead. No choice.”
The Reardon Poems
The Reardon Poems is a sequence of seven poems written in memory of Blackburn’s friend Robert Reardon: “Bluegrass” presents the unsuccessful operation to save his life; “The Writer” tells of Reardon’s vocation, novelist; “The Husband” treats his relationship with his wife and presents her disorientation and loneliness; “Sixteen Sloppy Haiku” are brief glimpses or thoughts of Reardon’s last days of life; “The List” consists of Reardon’s last rites, as specified by him before his death; and “St. Mark’s-inthe- Bouwerie” is an elegy proper on death, its inexplicability amidst life (“When there’s nothing anyone can do,/ reality/ comes on fast or slow”). “Seventeen Nights Later at McSorley’s” is the epilogue, employing recorded conversation with great thematic effect; Blackburn is speaking to Reardon’s former roommate in the hospital:
You won’t see him again, sez I
You’re well again? Mazeltov.
Perhaps Blackburn’s finest elegy is “December Journal: 1968,” on the death of his third wife’s father, in which practically all his formal poetic resources come into play. The poem begins with the telephone call informing them of the death and moves through grief and tears to the wake and funeral in a passage in which breakfast and the Eucharist are superimposed; to a meditation on the mystery of life and death, creation and destruction, inspired by an open journal on alchemy lying before the poet; and finally to lovemaking and a renewal of domestic patterns (“‘You have to get up and move the car.’/ I existed again, I/ was married to my wife!”). Inspired by his alchemical reading, the poet realizes that life mysteriously renews itself within materials that compose rock; that is, life dwells in and is sustained by essentially inanimate matter, a theme first heard in “How to Get Through Reality.” This miracle, and the miracle of the living child in his wife’s womb, has by the end of the poem put him at ease.
Nonfiction: “Das Kennerbuch,” 1953; “Writing for the Ear,” 1960; “The American Duende,” 1962; “The Grinding Down,” 1963.
Translations: Proensa, 1953; Poem of the Cid, 1966; End of the Game, and Other Stories, 1967 (of Julio Cortázar); Hunk of Skin, 1968 (of Pablo Picasso); Cronopios and Famas, 1969 (of Cortázar); Peire Vidal, 1972; The Treasure of the Muleteer, and Other Spanish Tales, 1974 (of Antonio Jimenez-Landi); Guillem De Poitu: His Eleven Extant Poems, 1976; Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry, 1978; Lorca/Blackburn: Poems of Federico García Lorca Chosen and Translated by Paul Blackburn, 1979.
Malkoff, Karl. Crowell’s Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.
Marowski, Daniel G., and Roger Matuz, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 43. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
Rosenthal, M. L. Review of The Cities. Poetry 114 (May, 1969): 129-130.
Stephens, Michael. “Common Speech and Complex Forms.” The Nation 223 (September 4, 1976): 189-190.