Friday, July 29, 2016

Bynner’s Poem “Idols” (1929)

I’ve written recently about the overlooked but (more than) worthwhile modernist-era poet Witter Bynner.  I’m again struck by his brilliance and intensity in reading his 1929 collection Indian Earth.  I’m also in some ways ambivalent about it, as it takes as its primary subject “the other” — Mexican and Aztec culture in the first section, and Native American Pueblo culture in the second.  Written around the time of D. H. Lawrence’s visit to New Mexico and his and Bynner’s subsequent trip to Chapala, Mexico, the same material informs both DHL’s The Plumed Serpent (1926) and WB’s Indian Earth (Bynner in fact became a character in the novel).

Without getting into analyzing the whole collection, let me just briefly discuss one poem from it that I think in a way sums it up: “Idols” (pp. 56-57).  Macabre and inspiring at the same time, its first three sections describe the speaker finding an ancient clay figurine at a burial site in Chapala.  It is macabre because the poem’s speaker is essentially grave-robbing, pillaging: “every bone was fibrous like old wood, / And his moony skull came crumbling in my hand / When I removed the god that whispered there” (56).  I do not know whether Bynner was part of some sort of archaeological dig at the time, and whether this was acceptable practice, or whether such an incident ever even really occurred.  For the speaker, the premise of his being there is not in question; he is simply there and this is what he finds.

The incident sparks a meditation on religion and myth — what “surer god” could there be except “This idol made of clay, made of man, / This fantasy, this mute insensate whim / Enduring still beside its maker’s dust” (56-57).  Surely, in a modernist era enthralled with myth, this is the sine qua non of poetry, to romanticize or mythologize what might lie behind the burial?  After all, “this is the living thought / That make[s] man alive and alive again” (57).  Many poets would have ended the poem there, with the conclusion that through a god or perhaps even through the crafting of the religious idol of the god, one can in some sense live on.

But, though he engages in various forms of mythmaking throughout his work, including elsewhere in Indian Earth, Bynner does not do so here (except inasmuch as poetry itself is a form of mythmaking?).  Instead, the moment prompts a further meditation in the fourth and final section in which Bynner realizes that, for him, only poetry is capable of containing the kinds of feelings that others impart to religion or myth:

Lie close to me, my poem, and comfort me,
Console me with substance lovelier than mine,
Breathe me alive a thousand years from now,
Whisper — beside that rim of an empty moon,
Under the earth, the moon I thought with once —
That once to have thought, once to have used the earth,
Is to have made a god more durable
Than flesh and bone. Lie close to me, my poem. (57)
He does not fetishize the image of a pagan god, à la Lawrence; instead there is only the poem that can redeem, only the poem can “breathe me alive.”  The idea that “once to have thought, once to have used the earth” is enough to have made something durable, to become something durable — i.e. that to have lived once or at all means one has become part of the cosmos for all time — collapses time and metaphorically blurs the line between death and life, suggesting a view of death as only one part of something larger (which doesn’t have to be religious per se).  Only this can be comfort for a poet, or for Bynner anyway, that a trace of the act of making a poem, an act of living, can be contained in the words themselves and might survive in the poem.

That is the inspiring part, a view of poetry as enacting something rather than simply describing something, and potentially bringing one to a deeper sense of reality.  It is at the same time troubling that it is premised on the occasion of wresting an antiquity from an ancient corpse’s hands, seemingly randomly (i.e. seemingly not under the direction of a trained archaeologist; but who knows).  Macabre and troubling.  Metaphorically, this act of taking from what must be an Aztec Indian grave gets into the dynamics of colonialism and cultural appropriation that we are still dealing with today.  It speaks to the kinds of assumptions that even a poet with good politics brought to the table at that time in history.  It is not an excuse, but these are the things we confront, not only in Western society, but often throughout the whole world.

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