The Centrifugal Eye
May 2008 - Internal-eyes - Fisher
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INTERNAL-eyes: a critical essay
Paul Fisher

                                            Incantation and Sense:
                                              Isabella Gardner’s When a Warlock Dies

        As evidenced by the tribute to Isabella Gardner, held last April (2007) in Boston, renewed appreciation of her poetry is growing. The great-grandniece and namesake of Isabella Stuart Gardner, and a cousin of Robert Lowell, she was an accomplished but under-acknowledged poet, and, for a time, first poetry reader (during the tenure of Karl Shapiro) for Poetry Magazine. Her Collected Poems, published by BOA Editions in 1990, is still in print.

        One of “Bell” Gardner’s finest poems is “When a Warlock Dies,” her incantatory elegy to Dylan Thomas. Written at a time when a multitude of elegies appeared after the poet’s sudden, tragic death, it is actually an anti-elegy or, in the words of the poet and critic, John Logan, an “inverted elegy.” Sweeping upward in a crescendo of praise, it rises to the revelation that, to Thomas, elegies are superfluous. Its musical language and rich vocabulary exude the atmosphere of a wake rather than a funeral — a farewell party for the dead, which she attends on her “Sunday-go-to-funeral broomstick (wreathed with mistletoe).” She is not only in the poem, but also has linked herself with Thomas, he being the warlock, and she being “an apprentice witch, a mere familiar of Familiars.”

        Here, Gardner’s use of lower and uppercase F’s (an example of her careful attention to the scoring of the poem) strengthens the tone of humility and awe in this “I and Thou” apprenticeship to the poetic tradition.

        The poem is filled with a mixture of Christian and pagan imagery and symbols which Gardner balances and binds together with rhyme, alliteration, and the multi-layered richness of her vocabulary. For example, here is the single, long sentence comprising the first stanza:

                “When a warlock dies his rout of lemans, demons, fallen angels
                and Familiars bend to the brewing of elegiac potions, fruity runes
                plummed with their dead's distinctive spells,
                mournful marketable meads composted of his rich remains.”

        The sentence, itself, is a compost of “rich remains.” Gardner has packed it with incantatory diction that performs on many levels, one example of which is the linking of “lemans” and “demons” through rhyme. This serves, on one level, to unite opposites, “leman” being a sweetheart, lover, or mistress, and “demon” usually thought of as an evil spirit, a supernatural being, or devil. Another meaning of “demon,” however, (especially as “daemon” or “daimon”) is “an attendant spirit; a genius,” a meaning it shares in part with “familiar,” one definition of which is “an attendant spirit, often taking animal form.”

        The entire poem yields a bounty of rich and incantatory diction linked by music. Still in the first stanza, we find “fruity runes / plummed with their dead’s distinctive spells.” Gardner’s use of the noun, plum, as a verb (a poetic device known as “anthimeria”) is aptly evocative. It reinforces the richness of “fruity runes,” while conjuring plumb, as in “to test alignment or depth.” This slight altering of spelling also enhances “runes” and “dead’s distinctive spells,” “runes” being not only characters from ancient alphabets but also magic charms, poems, and incantations, with “spells” evoking magic formulas, spelling, and periods of rest.

        “Mournful marketable meads,” though tied together by the alliteration of its soft M’s, is livened with the hard K and T in “marketable,” and given humor by the use of that word. “Mead” can be read either as the drink made from fermented honey, which would tie it in with “the brewing of elegiac potions,” (as well as Thomas’s renowned bouts of drinking) or as a meadow, which is suggested by the “meads” being “composted of his rich remains.” (Gardner, I am sure, was well aware of both of these associations.) One of the many pleasures of her poetry is that it reverberates on so many different levels.

        The longer, middle stanza of “When a Warlock Dies” continues the poem’s energetic music and diction. A string of scattered, alliterative W’s, “witch / wreathed / a’wake-ing / Wichita / Whales / wake / whistles,” help, through their echoes, to tie this stanza together. (The W in “wreathed” is more felt than heard — a faint, whistling expiration as the word begins to form.) The mingling of Christian and pagan images continues with “mistletoe.” Also called the golden bough, mistletoe was considered sacred by the Celts and, in particular, by their druids, and, coupled with “wreathed,” is evocative of Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” The middle stanza’s second sentence is:

                                                            “Surely this deft-dirged over-o-
                ded, buzzard-hungry, heron-lonely, phoenix-hearted, gull-lunged
                hummingbird-pulsed, falcon-winged and lark-tongued
                Chanticleer has crowed his own Farewells and Hails.”

        In his review of Gardner’s first collection, Birthdays from the Ocean, John Logan called this passage “one of the finest crescendos anyplace in modern verse.” Its string of hyphenated words begins with “deft-dirged,” referring to the witch-like skill and elegiac qualities of Thomas’s poetry, the “dirged” echoing “cortege” in the previous line. The reader is forced to pause at the clever line-break in the middle of “over-o- / ded.” Here, Gardner wrings meanings from the word that it would not have had in any other setting. We hear dead in “ded,” and an implication of an excess of O’s as well as too many odes; perhaps od’d (overdosed) is also suggested. (She employs a similar strategy in the previous sentence with “a’wake-ing.”) The energy of the passage builds in the litany of multisyllabic bird images that follow, culminating in “Chanticleer,” and decelerating to a sudden stop with the single syllable, “Hails.” Each bird is coupled by a hyphen to a quality that is associated with that bird, as in “heron-lonely,” and “hummingbird-pulsed.” “Heron-lonely” harks back to the book’s opening poem, “That ‘Craning of the Neck;’” and it is interesting that she includes the buzzard and the phoenix, two opposite but balancing images of death and rebirth. Indeed, all these bird images recall Thomas’s “The fire of birds in / the world’s turning wood,” from the Prologue to his Collected Poems. They are employed as modifiers for “Chanticleer” (Thomas) who, through his poetry, has “crowed his own Farewells and Hails.” The capitalization of F and H emphasizes this direct reference to “ave atque vale” from Catullus’ “101,” in which that poet, questioning the purpose of his own elegy, speaks “in vain” to his brother’s “unspeaking ashes.” Again Gardner uses balancing opposites, this time Thomas’s own goodbyes and greetings, which make all elegies to him superfluous.

        She continues to strengthen the spell of her language with the glue of words, such as “ink / drink / spunk,” and “Wichita to Wales.” Besides the obvious play of “Wichita,” sounding so much like “witch,” and linking the American Gardner to the Welsh Thomas, the noun, “spunk” has sexual connotations, one of its slang meanings being “ejaculated semen,” tying it in with the double meaning of both “wake” and “cock” in the following line.

        Thomas’s villanelle to his father, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” is evoked with “The homage of our elegies whistles against the night…,” a turning upside down of “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” for, instead of rage, Gardner gives us a faint, fearful whistling in the dark, another jab at superfluous elegies. This whistling is “against the night / that looms too close for comfort.” Here, “looms” has a double meaning also. The night not only comes into view as a massive, distorted image, it also, like a clothmaker’s loom, weaves strands together in a magic spell, just as Gardner has woven her own strands together to form a (multilayered) tapestry.

        The final stanza, like the first, is a single sentence, with no let-up in the incantatory diction. It begins with “The roaring riming of this most mourned Merlin,” where we hear the “rage against the dying of the light” in “roaring riming,” and in which Gardner has employed her own “distinctive” spelling by choosing “rime” over rhyme, “rime” also meaning “frost,” suggesting the body grown cold in death. The three M’s of “most mourned Merlin” echo the “mournful marketable meads” in the first stanza, and serve to enhance the framing effect of the short first stanza and closing couplet. “Canticles” (songs or chants) sounds somewhat like a rooster’s crow, and echoes “Chanticleer,” which contains the word “chant.”

        As in the first stanza, Gardner uses an anthimeria in the brilliant final line, “and Jerichos the walls of heaven with a surfing shout of love, and blasts of flowers.” “Jericho” of course reverberates with associations. In the biblical narrative of Joshua, the walls of the city fell before the shouts and trumpet blasts of the Israelites. The city of Jericho is one of the oldest-known, permanently-inhabited cities in the world, and its name echoes the biblical connotations of “canticles” from the previous line. Only here it is the “walls of heaven,” rather than a city, that are flattened by the “roaring riming” of Thomas. Gardner brings other parallels to this narrative into her poem with “a surfing shout of love” with its soft S’s, soft L and one hard T in the onomatopoetic “shout,” suggesting the rhythmic power of the ocean, and paying tribute to Thomas’s “bellowing ark” riding above the waves. The emotional curve, itself like a “wave” mounting higher and higher throughout the poem, climaxes in this stanza where the rich diction, alliterative passages, and imagery combine to create a surge of joyfulness which counteracts the gravity of a traditional elegy. Thomas’s poetry, his “bellowing ark,” has indeed risen above the waves.

        The final image, “blasts of flowers,” juxtaposing the powerful with the frail in both sound and meaning, also performs on many levels. Again, as in “surfing shout of love,” there is the contrast of sound with the hard B and the soft F. “Blasts” evokes trumpets, explosions, and gusts of wind, but “flowers” makes a delicate sound, though it suggests the shapes of trumpets. What makes this image a perfect finale for Gardner’s poem, however, is its direct reference to “The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower,” a Thomas poem that is a type of elegy or “farewell” to himself. In his poem, the “blast” comes through the “green fuse” of the flower’s stem which burns toward death. In contrast to the downward pull of the Thomas poem’s ending, “How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm,” Gardner’s tribute to him is buoyed by the character of her diction and sound work. There is a definite ring of triumph in the “walls of heaven” being Jerichoed, and in the “surfing shout of love, and blasts of flowers.”

        The more acquainted one becomes with Gardner’s poetry, the sadder it is to contemplate that she is not widely anthologized, read, or taught today. Changing poetic fashions during the late 50s and 60s explain a part of it. A poet whose work ranged the formal gamut from rhymed iambics and strict and loose syllabics to the sonnet, villanelle and terza rima, would, to some critics of the time, appear old-fashioned. Her relatively small output, cut short by ill health and self-confinement in her later years, may be a factor as well; but when has quantity ever equaled quality? Of course, the winds of poetic fashion continue to blow. Today’s climate is hospitable to the flowering of both traditional and open forms, and Gardner’s poetry is worthy of a wider audience. Modest and monumental at the same time, it deserves a permanent place in our literary pantheon.

Medieval Device, ca. 1400s

Paul Fisher is this issue's Featured Poet.
Read more about Paul on his Poems page and in our Interview.

“Death comes to all, but great achievements build a monument which shall endure until the sun grows cold.”     ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


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