The Mercy Seat
Collected & New Poems 1967-2001
Copper Canyon Press ($30)
by Joel Weishaus
Norman Dubie was born in Vermont in 1945. He received the usual fellowships for those writers who toil in the fields of Academe (Guggenheim, NEA, etc.), and teaches at Arizona State University. The Mercy Seat, which collects over 30 years of work, including 21 new poems, is his twentieth book.
Although he sometimes writes in the first person, Dubie seems more comfortable assuming a persona, usually an historical revenant. ("Vulnerability is a writer's best defense," he's written; "Why intellectually do I reject this?") In Dubie's hands, Western Theater's tradition of alternating between the twin masks of tragedy and comedy are molded into an irony that borders on the grotesque. In "A True Story of God," for example, Henry Thoreau is "lost in the Maine woods / At the center of the black pond," where he stands in an "Old Town canoe welcoming a moose." The moose is already dying, and Thoreau, of delicate constitution, faints "back into his rented canoe."
The first allusion is of course a nod toward Dante. The poet is lost in the woods, and finds himself in the darkness of his soul. As for Old Town, I think of the Southwestern shops that hawk native pottery and jewelry to tourists in a cavernous semi-darkness created by thick adobe walls. We buy Amerindian trappings to warm souls grown chilly from the excesses of Capitalism's ethos of ownership. Standing in his rented canoe, Thoreau--still one of our most insightful cultural critics--raises his arms and welcomes Nature in the form of a moose. The animal floats toward him, already dying, "drunk with the methane / of bottom grasses." Then the poet faints. His guide--in a Dantean universe, he must have a guide--has "sliced off the upper lip of the creature / As a delicacy for his woman." That night, "The long rubbery hairs of the lip" will be burned in the campfire, while the poet
is brooding, telling
That God is in nature and nature
Is in men; in that order
Lies the salvation of all animals
Who are placed closer to God than to humans.
This is a sophisticated rendering of an idea that the poet Gary Snyder (whom many critics hail as a contemporary Thoreau) introduced in his poem "Long Hair," where he humorously wrote that when we eat deer meat, the animal occupies us. "When enough Deer have occupied enough men, they will strike all at once and everything will change some. This is called takeover from inside.'" While both poems address the spiritual investment humans have in animals, and the karmic opportunities humans give animals to realize a higher consciousness through them, Dubie adds the angst of someone desperately trying to think his way out of an uncomfortable position, while Snyder has created the myth of a man who can astutely handle any situation.
Dubie continues by having Thoreau observe that humans, "knowing they possess a soul," become "useless. Useless and cruel." A bitter commentary, with which I can agree only on the worst of days. Instead, I would say that presumption of a soul is humanity's greatest boon and heaviest burden; it makes us more restless than useless, more arrogant than cruel. But I'm splitting philosophic hairs, just as "Thoreau jumps, / the fat of the lip / snapping from the fire like gunfire."
Another representative poem in this 434-page volume, "The Dun Cow and The Hag," begins: "Beside the river Volga near the valley of Anskijovka, / On a bright summer day // An old woman sat sewing / By the riverbank. If asked she would say // She was lowering the hem of a black dress." This Impressionistic scene--Dubie's imagination flows easily between literature and the visual arts--is filled out with a cow standing beside her; a dun cow, dull grayish brown, dun being also a fishing fly of this color, which ties the woman to the river.
The woman sat all day sewing, while the cow, I suppose, grazed on the succulent summer grasses. When evening came, "a merchant / From Novorod arrived with his family." The family begins to eat "chunks of pink fish." Now, like a flat rock skipping over a placid pond suddenly changes direction, the picnicking family is poisoned by the fish, which was spoiled on their journey, all but the buxom daughter, who had gone bathing, and is now "floundering" in the river, crying for help, with "Just her arms above the water / Working like scissors."
With his knack for turning ordinary events into surreal gestures, the poet has the hag (in the Middle Ages the hazazussa was a woman who straddled the fence separating civilization and wilderness) leave the cow--contently producing the milk of life--and walk to the girl, whose arms, "Working like scissors cut the thread for the old woman."
What are we to make of this? "Various people have held the belief that human life is determined (sometimes at birth) by maternal goddesses or supernatural beings, and that life ends when a cord, or thread, is severed," wrote the anthropologist Geza Roheim. Thus the hag had been sewing the black dress of the girl's death, wanting for her to arrive: "The black water / Ran off her dress like a lowered hem."
Even when disguised as a woman, Dubie's tutelary spirit is Dionysus, whom psychologist James Hillman has identified as a god of "downwardness, darkening, and becoming water." Indeed, though he makes his home in a sun-drenched desert, Dubie's roots are in the moist dark woods of the Northeast. While retaining the artist's necessary connection with the child's imaginal realm, he also nurtures a conscious affinity with his death. However, as many of his poems end in ellipses, and as he is said to practice Tibetan Buddhism, Dubie inscribes death as an exit, rather than an end. As his "Elegy for My Brother," one of the new poems in this volume, puts it, "The requiems are melting back into music."