Yale University Press
Saturday, September 11th, 2004
Admission, acquiescence, acknowledgement: I bought my copy of The Cuckoo not because of any familiarity with Peter Streckfus, but because Louise Gluck selected his manuscript for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. There. It’s out, I’ve said it. But having done, let me insist that my capitulation to name-recognition contained no sinister agenda, hidden or otherwise. I have no overwhelming feelings about Gluck’ poetry one way or the other (experience tells me this is a little uncommon: She’s hated with a hate and loved with a love that resembles nothing so much as the reaction inspired by Barbra Streisand in the adult-radio-listening segment of the population), but I do share some of her critical tastes (at least insofar as her essays tell that tale), and so my curiosity about The Cuckoo was akin to a rumor of a recommendation. She likes some stuff I like for some of the reasons I like some of the stuff I like, and she likes this stuff, so maybe I’ll like it too. Okey-dokey. That’s the phoneme of affable interest: okey-dokey.
The Cuckoo begins with Gluck’s foreword, and that begins with the following claim, which bears quoting at length: “The case for nonsense is not the same as the case against meaning. It belongs, in literature, to the holy fool and cryptic sprite; in religion, to the visionary or the seer; in philosophy, to the Sphinx and the Zen master. It is animated not by an objection to meaning, which it intends and reveres, but by a refusal of the restrictive governing of meaning by will and logic. For the tools of reason, it substitutes the resources of magic; against the rigidity of the absolute, it suggests the hypnotic power of the evanescent; for narrative, it offers collage or prism; for conclusion, hypothesis.”
And I swear to God, all I could imagine at the moment of reading these words—words with which, in principle, I agree—was Doug Henning, adorned by rainbows, lisping insistently that Magic Is Everywhere!
The problem here is that while the philosophical bones of Gluck’s claim are sturdy enough, the squishy parts in which she covers them are a bit suspect—if not in their own right, then certainly in Gluck’s suggestion that they are the natural flesh for her argument’s frame. Holy fool and cryptic sprite, visions and magic and hypnotic evanescence. What is it about non-sense that must be so twee?
Now, Streckfus is in no way responsible for what Louise says in the foreword to his book. He’s answerable to his poems alone. But, chicken- or egg-status notwithstanding, Gluck’s superimposition of preciousness on The Cuckoo is not wrong. Consider the following lines from the long poem “Event”:
Trees and mown grass as far as the eye can see,
Or his mother’s hand pointing to the hillscape
As in a painting of the late Gothic period,
which to her love’s an allegorie,
her finger pointing to the hills before Johnson City on Hwy.71,
the hills like the armored heart, armadillo,
or, elsewhere, the bloated limbs of the wuchack (woodchuck)
on the road the hills crowned in fine hair and nails like that,
overrun and dependent on the road for their beauty.
In retired life, the president hears only the birds
Who have eaten his peaches for him.
High winds do not last all morning.
Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.
Inner light relumed. Or livestock sacrificed.
Not seeing desirable things. Or cowing.
Washed. Or unkempt and without hindrance.
The gold-hooped nature. Or this one now aims to kill!
Sky astray, the president’s old foe evades his parry,
But using his lance with difficulty, he halts the monkey’s rod.
Beyond the low bridge, willows
To untangle these in the monkey of the mind.
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing (silence)
And in thirty-six heavens twenty picking monkeys march homeward.
“Allegorie”! That’s very much what “Event” and the main of The Cuckoo reads like, a set of allegories read patiently from the Gnostic texts of a religious tradition with which you, the reader, are almost but not entirely quite unfamiliar. There’s a Just So quality to these poems, if you can imagine a Just So story that is all preamble and no tale, a Just So story told with no regard for whether Effie gets to bed or not.
In noting this quality, I don’t intend to make an absolute or even harsh criticism. It’s a mild criticism, which suits The Cuckoo, for it is a mild book, and while I know that sounds like addressing a left-handed compliment with the praise of faint damnation, the mildness of The Cuckoo is as much a strength as a weakness. Like any allegory, the book possesses the genuine equanimity that comes from the disinterestedness of foregone conclusions. Allegories are about certain kinds of knowing that are, as Gluck suggests, nested in a kind of trickily disingenuous mystery. And the great virtue of The Cuckoo is the way in which the poems refuse to telegraph their own conclusions:
We’ll eat figs, dried, black figs,
while it rains outside, while it rains
through the doors and windows.
There will be very little speaking
during the meal, mostly tasting and forks
clinking, footsteps going from the table
to the kitchen for more. We’ll say
And when there’s some rice
on the mouth of a mouth-severed fig
we’ll say wasp eggs
“Death and a Fig”
This might as well be “The Parable of Death and a Fig” but the genuinely marvelous thing about it is that the allegorical deliberation (“we’ll eat”, “there will be very little speaking”, “We’ll say”) creates a dull expectation of Wisdom that Streckfus calmly and beautifully refuses. What does it mean that we’ll say wasp eggs? Shut up, Effie, your literal-mindedness bores me. Let’s just say wasp eggs and move on: slow, graceful, and yes, cryptic.
The even tone of The Cuckoo allows Streckfus preoccupations that in a busier and more anxious book would appear forced or precious. He’s got a thing for Ronald Reagan, and for monkeys, and for wee little penises, and for livestock in pasture, glade, and human’s historical traffic. But because Streckfus is so inclined to deposit these items in the poems and then walk away from them, they never become the nuisance they otherwise might. Streckfus’s poem “Water and Earth” concludes with a set of images that neatly describe this effect, this curious turning over of this that & other:
We had garbage bags of clothes hung in the higher branches.
We found occasionally suitcase-sized loaves of bread up there.
Its lowest limb had died and was cut off—The stump was covered
with studs, buttons, broken jewelry and pieces of mirror.
Okey-dokey. I’m happy to leave the poem like this, attention piqued but not abused.
The only poems in The Cuckoo that disturb the level glass of its tonal surface come at the end of the book, and as I read the book through for the first time I was happy to find them, simply as a point of contrast. These poems are “At Eagle Grief Stream the Horse of the Will is Held and Reined” and “Organum,” and as Streckfus’s notes reveal, they are composed wholly of language from Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail and The Journey to the West, a kind of Buddhist road-trip narrative. What’s striking about these poems is the tension between Streckfus’s equanimity and the ornery intransigence of his source texts; the conflict creates the finest and weirdest poems in the book:
A woman crouched beside an open door, beating her head
with a stone and weeping.
Of the voyagers
The dwelling, A dried meat they called pemmican,
A dozen scattered children.
That Indians have been known to ride into the midst of an enemy’s
camp to be rid of a life supposed to lie under the heel of fate.
He mounted and rode round the village of Heaven without regard
For good or ill.
Of faith and of mercy,
Why did you have to use your tricks to harm me?
From “At Eagle Stream . . .”
This is genuinely disturbing, not least because Streckfus’s poise coexists so disconcertingly with the ruin of the source language, its grievous plaintive calm a smoked mirror for the poet’s own tone. And it is here that the signature bird of the title, which deposits its eggs in the nests of others, proves telling and very well chosen.
These final poems strongly suggest Streckfus’s potential for venturing into the more treacherous and sinister alleyways of “magic” and nonsense. He has the self-possession Gluck attributes to him, and if he follows the precedent he sets in the latter poems of The Cuckoo he’ll become something both limpid and lethal. This is the Zen master to whom Gluck incompletely alludes; the master who will beat you if you do not answer his queries on the Buddha-nature and will beat you if you do.
To say nothing of the Sphinx, that other patchwork avian-type. Who, if you met her riddles incorrectly would, with a savage equanimity, fuck your shit right up.