Gustaf Sobin, Collected Poems

Gustaf Sobin, Collected Poems

Gustaf Sobin. Collected Poems, edited by Esther Sobin, Andrew Joron, Andrew Zawacki, and Edward Foster. Talisman House, 2010.

A poet of spectacular deliberateness, Gustaf Sobin transformed the ode into language captured in time-lapse. Reading this carefully assembled Collected Poems, published in 2010 by Talisman House, we come into contact with a mind capable of totally focused attention in which poetic speech unfurls like the fiddlehead of a fern in sunlight. Slowness is a principle expression of beauty in Sobin: “Surrounded today in self-image, we readily forget how slowly we came to represent our own features, to give some kind of graphic form to our own physical presence” (Luminous Debris, 70). That’s Sobin writing about the emergence of representations of the human form in archaic cave paintings in southern France; he could just as easily be writing about poetic form. Surrounded today as we are by the equivalency of self-image with poetic form, we’ve forgotten the elegance formal revelation can bring to the poem, one consonant with a human ergonomics of the poem – the body’s way of voicing language – and with the natural world. As he writes in “The Earth as Air,” a poem he calls “An Ars Poetica”:

            in twos, that
it ribbon    forth,    the
                                    forked idiom’s….

            each thing
eithered to    another, the    this
whatevered to the
                                that, the


            lyre-    propellant:    wind
                and white roses

            wrapt in a    taut, vibratory weave. (CP 236)

Sobin started late, publishing his first book of poetry, Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle, in 1980 with the Montemora Foundation. He was forty-four years old. From that point, he produced work steadily: another book with Montemora, Celebration of the Sound Through, three books with New Directions through the eighties and nineties, and then three books with Talisman House, until his death in 2005. Strains run through the entire body of work, interesting and frequently pleasing to register in this Collected Poems: fixations on certain words, a generative facility with the ode and corresponding modes of praise, an essential minimalism stylistically matched with lavish attention to the natural world, a generally philosophical, specifically phenomenological concern with the qualities of becoming and being that define the human life, and an unusual attention to the process in language and thought of obliteration and negation, something Andrew Joron and Andrew Zawacki, in their lucid introduction to the volume, label in Sobin’s poems “transcriptions of the isn’t—a recurrent word, in his usage, suspended between verb and noun, and caught in the act of contracting against its own negation” (CP 2). But Sobin’s isn’t a poetry of doubt; rather, it’s an exploration of natural and intellectual growth and decay, conducted in repeated affirmations of the sensual realities he observes so meticulously.

There’s a remarkable consistency to Sobin’s poetry from the start of this huge volume to its finish. Poems written in his last years reverberate with elements summoned initially in his earliest poems. His vocabulary is fixated on a cluster of words; in fact, cluster is one of them. Others: Bunched. Blanched. Flaked. Vocable. Word. World. Speech. Wind. Breath. Volute. Air. Earth. Flame. Wave. Rock. Field. Iris. Neither. Nor. While this list doesn’t exhaust the words on which he fixes his work, they describe Sobin’s minimalism, which has an unusual lushness because it so often works in the realm of the natural world: painstaking descriptions of process, of light moving from one place to another, of a flower opening, of a snail moving across a wall.

    wild buds on    their wind-
            ballasted antlers, beasts    struck,
its love belling dumbly in the rain-
                        darkened rose. (CP 174)

As I read through Collected Poems, I began to think of Sobin’s poems – nearly all of which are odes – as analogies to Agnes Martin’s paintings. Just as Martin would make repeated, inexhaustible use of a grid on a pale or creamy background, so Sobin would reach for his velvet bag of words and roll them like dice to combine and recombine his language and images into new poems. Personally, I find this process intoxicating to witness. Compare these two selections, the first from a poem entitled “And Thus Unto” from The Earth as Air, the second from “The Portrait of the Self as Instrument of Its Syllables,” from Voyaging Portraits (both of which books were published by New Directions in the 1980s):

worlds un-
worlds, the

wrought heavens: our blanched
leave, who’d

perched, already, a tribe-in-
flight, at the

edges (CP 171-2)


that air not
end, nor
gutter.        that earth not coil    —ingested —
into those nounal
hoards, but

herded, be
given:    offered forth.    wind unto
wind, foam
unto foam, be pitched, sonorous; through each
meted particle, trans-
mitted. (CP 326)

Joron and Zawacki refer to Sobin’s peculiar prosody as “vertical tracking,” following Sobin’s own description of his process, pointing to its “impetus to spill, in thrall to gravity’s pull” (CP 5). The first quotation above captures for me one of the keenest pleasures of reading Sobin: the poem works like a heliotropic vine trained to a post – as we move our eyes downward through the poem, the poem moves upward into the air to arrive at a surprise, here “breath’s flaked edges.” Though hard to know exactly what this means, it feels like a release from the lines that lead us to this moment, suggesting decay as much as freedom. The second quotation works similar terrain, shifting the eye from earth to air, from wind to heaven. Here, the slightly longer lines densify Sobin’s music, ingraining the words with sound and rhyme. (The visual/sonic pairing of “meted” and “-mitted” is particularly illustrative of Sobin’s slow-cured skills.)

Sobin, working privately and obscurely in Provence, where he moved as a young man to stay for the rest of his life, removed from the American scene but belonging not merely to its peripheries as one of its dedicated language cultivators, beholden to the work of a cluster of masters, many of whom he names in “Portrait of the Self as Instrument of Its Syllables” (they include Blake, René Char, Sappho, Pindar, Anacreon, Catullus, Isaiah, Parmenides, Dante, Ibn Arabi, Tang dynasty poets, Mallarmé (“that / rush // of crushed / shadow”), Shakespeare, Traherne, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Williams, Duncan, Oppen, and the linguists Whorf and Sapir), growing his poems and ideas from a handful of seeds, was an archetypal Orphic poet. In this sense, his poetry belongs, among his near contemporaries, with Robert Duncan’s and Ronald Johnson’s, the former to whom Sobin dedicated work, the latter to whom he appears never to have made reference. (They were born the same year.) Among older poets in the tradition, besides those he names in his autobiographical poem, you’d also want to include Rilke, Shelley, Emerson, and Goethe. Elizabeth Sewell begins her treatment of poetry and natural history, The Orphic Voice, with this provocation: “Poetry is a form of power. It fell to early thought to make that power visible and human, and the story of Orpheus is that vision and that mortality” (Orphic Voice 3). She insists that the Orpheus myth permits humankind to frame an essential question: What power and place has poetry in the living universe? Answers to Sewell’s question are everywhere sought out in Sobin’s poetry. What makes his questing for these answers distinctive is Sobin’s sense that power, such as it exhibits itself in poetry, is perceived organismically, like growth, rather than as epiphany or revelation. As a flower opening its buds. From “Irises”:

    way that they ruffle    in
that rock    windcell (that their buds    un-
                        scroll and open: opened,

    asking myself only for what I see….). (CP 214)

There are four kinds of Orphic poet, each distinguished by a stage of Orpheus’ life. First, there’s the poet who subdues the natural world in the singing of poems. There’s the poet of unbridled eros and loss, singing his love for Eurydice. There’s the poet who journeys to the underworld, where secrets are revealed. And, finally, there’s the poet sacrificed to death but resurrected to prophesy to the end of time. Ronald Johnson was an Orphic poet of the first, third, and fourth kinds; Sobin was an Orphic poet of the first and second kinds. Robert Duncan’s Orphism embraced all four kinds. So did Rilke’s. No matter which kind, the Orphic poet finds power in song and vision, language and mind:

            what brought me, then,

over the low

ledges.    brought that I
bring: impelled that I urge, herd, drive the
words    into

luminous salvage.    and stand, there, in those
linked shadows, thus
lit. (CP 331)

Characteristics, always there to see and hear in the individual books become amplified in Collected Poems, defining a style. Sobin’s principle prosodic technique is enjambment, a brokenness practiced to the point of cutting words in half. Similarly, he avoids typical orthography, rarely capitalizing, punctuating eccentrically, and making use of frequent caesurae. He avails four “forms” in these poems, a word I use with caution only because to say form (or four) suggests an easily recognized distinction that just isn’t here. Nevertheless, Sobin writes in an attenuated verse paragraph with fairly long lines, as in the selection from “Irises” above, these paragraphs usually linked in sections (often separated by lines across the page); he writes in long strings of heavily enjambed, short-lined poetry, often serially, as in the selection from “And Thus Unto” above; and he writes in a hybrid of these two forms, moving in and out of longer lines into more atomic, tensely positioned short lines, as in the selections from “A Portrait of the Self as Instrument of Its Syllables.” These three forms pervade throughout his writing. The fourth form is the most unusual in his work: it’s an oracular, axiomatic, horizontal line of proverb/poetry, typically center justified. In his earlier work, this line tends more toward proverb and can, at times, sound like Kahlil Gibran: “Deep down, the kisses dream.” Or: “The lover is the beauty of the beloved.” Fortunately for his work, Sobin subverted his instinct for aphorism into poetry. Beginning in the late 1970s, he began to collect scraps and unused fragments from his poetry into a running annual list he called “Transparent Itineraries.” In these, Sobin explored a lateral adding of sense and meaning to complement the vertical tracking of his other poems. The last set of these, from 2002/3, demonstrates the gnomic freedom this form permitted him. Less cast-offs of thought, these phrases suggest the poetics that made his poems grow:

wherein the body, in pursuit of its lost etiology, would be seen as nothing more,
finally, than expedient.

than conduit.

than a flexed assemblage in the service of its own transgression.

grappling as it went for glints, intimations, radiant insignia.

For me, the apex of Sobin’s achievement is the period enclosing the three books he published with New Directions: The Earth as Air (1982), Voyaging Portraits (1986), and Breaths’ Burials (1994). These are books of a grand accomplishment, in particular Voyaging Portraits, which includes at its core the poem from which I’ve quoted most in this review, “A Portrait of the Self as Instrument of Its Syllables,” Sobin’s finest poem by my estimation, a serial, autobiographical poem that deserves to be studied alongside Bunting’s “Briggflatts,” Johnson’s Book of the Green Man, and parts of Zukofsky’s “A” (“A”-12 in particular).

Where the earlier work suggests at times apprenticeship, Sobin’s later work reveals repeated concern with the archaic realities that captured his attention, in prose as well in poetry. (Sobin’s study of antiquity in Provence and Languedoc, Luminous Debris, is a masterpiece of observational thinking.) One of the best of his later sequences, “Late Bronze, Early Iron: a Journey Book,” written in his aphoristic form, is as much an essay as poem. (Another later poem, “Reading Sarcophagi,” is actually subtitled “An Essay,” and includes footnotes.) In his late work, Sobin seems mainly to have extended the poetic discoveries made during the eighties and early nineties; his concern seems to have been more new growth than new varieties. But he enriches in this work his study of the possibilities of the ode, which he uses as a vessel for his lapidary reflections and questions, themselves a kind of praise – of language and mind. Consider the beginning of “Prelude IV” from The Places as Preludes, from 2005, Sobin’s last complete book of poetry:

… went on resonating, the
myriad fragments of
that dec-
imated mirror.    wasn’t it that that you heard, now,
rather than

saw? yes, heard: heard the
gaze and the gracious vault of the brows as, ob-

edient to
number, the limbs, as
if accorded, entered, now, the full scales of that

singular fugue. (CP 661)

So much of the poetry I most value was or is published by small presses, or, after the poet is apotheosized, by university presses that collect the work in legacy editions. Anymore, with funding uncertainties and editorial confusion, university presses aren’t reliable to pick up overlooked work and preserve it for the future in decently edited editions. Sobin’s work might easily have fallen into benign negligence if it weren’t for the dedication of the editors of this volume or for the commitment of the publisher to keep Sobin’s work in print. Hats off, then, to Esther Sobin, Andrew Joron, Andrew Zawacki, and Edward Foster, and to Talisman House, for publishing one of the genuinely great books of recent years.

Peter O'Leary (© 2012)