Eleanor Wilner

"Moving in memory--" A Reminiscent Appreciation of Julia Randall

eside the dogs who insisted on sharing your bed and lunging at your food as the fork carried it to your mouth, what I recall best about Julie Randall's house in the Green Spring Valley of Maryland, was the music. I remember one night falling to sleep there to sacred music sung by some grand chorus, a blissful experience that, in retrospect, seemed rather like dying beautifully in some operatic religious drama to the singing of the blessed host. And I include this reminiscence partly for the sheer pleasure of remembering it, but more pointedly as introduction to Julie Randall's love of music, and to the essential musicality of her poetry, and to the connection for her between music and the sacred.

      When all the competing arguments about what constitutes the modern lyric poem have wrung each other's necks, there remains the irreducible fact of its music, of language whose cadences echo poetry's origins in melodies sung to the lyre. In the lyric, it is the musical element that is intrinsic to the sensual power of its thought. As one critic put it (though he said he, and I say she): "A [lyric] poet does not compose in order to make of language delightful and exciting music; she composes a delightful and exciting music in language in order to make what she has to say peculiarly efficacious in our minds."

      Given this sense of what a lyric poem most purely is, joining, as Dante put it, "the work of intellect and love," Julia Randall may be not only among our most intelligent and eccentrically devotional poets, but perhaps the purest lyric poet that post-war American poetry of the 20th Century produced. In the words of Mary Kinzie, she writes "a free verse as exact and rhythmic as fugue."
like dying beautifully in some operatic religious drama to the singing of the blessed host
That free verse can be at least as musical as metrical form is a truism that rests on two conditions: the poet must have a fine ear, or like Julie, a pitch-perfect one; and she must be deeply informed by the tradition, having imbibed it in her youth and studied and taught it in her maturity--as Julie had done.

      If free verse gets a bad name these days for its tin ear, it is necessary to recall that open forms of poetry were first propagated by poets already imbued with and informed by older, prescribed forms, while today, as with third or fourth-generation photocopies, younger poets are too far from the original to have but the most blurred image of what deep music the modernist poets were roughing up. I sometimes think of how adamant Denise Levertov was in her opposition to prescribed forms, with her 1958 poem's admonition: "Let's go--much as that dog goes, / intently haphazard…" Of course, what she neglected to consider here was that, before she went to the Black Mountains of N.C., she grew up in England, her dog was first trained in iambic pentameter--so free verse wasn't all feckless instinct, present tense and a good smell in the underbrush.

      Which is to say, that Julie Randall's free verse has a long training of the ear behind it, and her cadenced, contrapuntal music is all the livelier for being free to play without fixed constraints--an aural music accompanied by another: the deep referential music of recurring, emblematic figures whose names send resonant echoes down the otherwise silent corridors of time. For who among us has not, she writes, "praised / that silence with a name, / whatever's handy: Zeus, / or Zoroaster, or Jesus. Some praise / is closer: Stony Face, / Star Maiden, Hungry Bear" ("Silence," 11. 12-17; The Path to Fairview 148).

      For such a music of ear and reference, I'd like to consider the second stanza of "Cumae," set at the temple of the sibyl in the ancient city of Italy:
The temple door, where come
the people out of the punishing sun
of these regions, stands open.
Under a roof of gold
a craftsman, it is told, put off his wings
of wax, the conversation of queens,
old crimes, old voyages, and all the freight
of vengeance in the provinces. Of these
he made, in memory stone images.
But one
he could not master, and his hands dropped down
and emptied, for his son
lay, failing artifice, on the seafloor,
dumb to his hand, deaf to the temple whore.
The craftsman is, of course, Daedalus, and notice how the poem's musical note, the syllable -un (sun, regions, open, under, craftsman, conversation, one, son)--moves from "sun" to "son," the former the undoer of the latter, Icarus; while Daedalus is the father whose grief marks the limit of art.

     Here's what Julie wrote me once when I asked her (for an entry in a directory of American poets) to describe her own poetics, and those poets whom she considered essential to her own development. It's in her inimitable epistolary style:
I cannot describe my own work. I know only what I do. I wish I were a metaphysical instead of a miscellaneous poet. The Bible, the Greeks, Virgil, Dante, & Milton are always in my referential mind. More immediately ballads, the Hymnal, Herbert, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Dickinson, and after them Rilke, Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, & Thomas. Along, of course, with G. Eliot, Conrad, James, Lawrence, & Woolf. Bach, Schubert, Mozart & Gilbert & Sullivan. I hunt after word, image, shape, cadence. I think poems should sound like poems. I think they should have subjects or point beyond the merely autobiographical, observational, or topical. You know. Since everybody's subject is Time Love Loss Memory, Environment, the Trashing & Violence of the modern world, there is no need to specify these things. "Nature I loved and after nature Art, etc."
      Julie was a fighter, and fought for that nature she loved, fought hard and long for her Maryland valley against the developers. She was born and raised in Baltimore, and her poems, in her words, are "set contextual," but the context inevitably widens, as for her the personal is embedded in the perennial; her poems move seamlessly from back garden to Eden, from corner lot to Camelot; she considers herself, she said once, "a spiritual resident of Amherst and Grasmere." Emily Dickinson and Wordsworth she addresses as intimates, Xenophon's a cousin, the world of nature and imagination, of ancient past and present place is all one gorgeous fall: "bog, wood, and wayside; Adirondack glory; a world upon a word, and it is red, hot Dido's coronet, gray Duncan's bed." The tradition lived in her, and she in it, and made it her own. Her mind is like the heaven she imagines in a poem: "Here side by side / the Roman couches and the Mormons stride / and time is patched." Here is a poem about that co-presence, though written in 1969, sadly, it is topical again--"A Meditation in Time of War" (the Grissom "walking weightless into the sun" towards the end is Gus Grissom, the astronaut who died in the fire when his ship burned on the launching pad):
The Curriculum Committee
is meeting in the Board Room of the Library
deciding whether a familiarity
with Xenophon is essential
to the educated man.

Downstairs in periodicals
the dirty newsprint tells
in half a dozen languages (but all
Greek) how blood still reaches the sea
out of Asia,
Africa, Chicago,
out of the Library window
where the Judas tree
blazes one root,
road rather, out of the heart
of every humanity.

All we can betray
is the facts.

I usually put
History on the kitchen floor, against dog tracks,
boot tracks, sink splashes, and spilled beer.
The tortured children stare
up, and remind me of the dead
no-name of suffering unsuffered
massy creation. I have had
my world as in my time: beer in hotel bed-
room, publication, and promotion.
I have had property, and found it good,
oiling the kneehole desk, and the upright knees.
I have dressed for faculty teas.
I have taught how the poet felt
in Cumberland, the hills about his head,
flat France a memory, and the unwed
partner of his child
paid off. "The weather was mild
on Sunday, so we walked to Gowbarrow." I walked to
     Carvin's Cove
with the dogs. My cousin Xenophon
broke camp, and marched
out of the parched basin
toward the redeeming sea that smacked of home.
The tide for Athens! and the long watch
toward the prophet slain,
and exile over again.

The sun wings downward toward the time to drink.
The sea is very far, and yet I hear
untidy sailors in the stacks
weary from ropes, and swearing. And I think
of Grissom waling weightless into the sun.
And yes, I think
I will vote for Xenophon.
Stubbornly immune to fashion, refusing to seek the attention that her poems deserved, Julie went her own way always; her second book's title--The Puritan Carpenter--describes her well: not that she was a puritan about sex or anything in nature, but rather that there was something intractably uncompromising about her. She was one of those, in her own words, "who keep an undegraded eye / and tongue to tell a master by." Or to tell one off. She had, said her old friend and mentor, Louis Rubin, "pronounced opinions, and was not shy about pronouncing them." She was an acerbic contrarian, who did not beg to disagree. She just did, and unapologetically. In the poem "Moving in Memory" is her disagreement with the "pure reason" of Rene Descartes, whose Cartesian Gap her paean to embodied thought closes, as she writes an ars poetica:
Descartes, you were fortunate to have had
no need of France, no nature to depend
on anything material--so you said. And wouldn't we all
like to believe you? But even before the Fall
fixed us in time articulate
(cousin and calendar, hearth and helpmeet),
our eyes opened on light:
rift valley, tern, fin, feather, fur, and fruit.

If you'd been born in Cody, say,
you'd think, but you'd think differently,
and if you'd been born
no place (which is a contradiction
in terms)--say, issued straight
from the Thinker into this air--
what would you think about?
Your thought would be (precious presumption)
his thought, which may be with us, or may not.
In any case we're only sharecrop
hands and sandy feet. The spirit
moves within memory, and only there. And whither
it may be winged (or not) it words its prayer
"sun," "wilderness," "wind," "breath," and "daily bread,"
"neighbor," and "trespass." We are set
contextual. Lest, brother, we forget.

There is of course Achilles, Moses, Ur,
dodo and dinosaur,
with spiny evidence of being there,
as I have been
carrelled awhile in red-barn Bennington,
or picking fossils on the Goosewing Trail,
or looking forward to the foreign mail--
F. is in Egypt, E. in Israel.
We travel all. My trespassed realm of green
Takes sometimes Arden's shade, or Paestum's sheen.
My life takes light from where the light has fallen,
Darkling I dream, and dream of Eden garden.
How do you dream René, how body out
pure loveless thought?

In words, no doubt, those words
coaxed from our cradle in some foreign tree. We see
by leaflight, and we name the leaf
rock maple, sassafras,
laurel, or blue-eyed grass.
World be my rock.
In unimaginable eternal night,
where no sun shines, if light
breaks on the purblind spirit
gently--and such a light
that some have called it music--how translate
at Lethe, these rank waters of the heart, how tide us over
alive to stranger parts
than ever Gabriel with his country speech
coasted, in love of the world's wish?

I word this in the memory,
Dylan, of your gull-sided grave
and winged words across the spit of Wales;
of Roman nightingales
sickening for Hampstead; of our Greek
sisters that cry
old nursery tales from Daulis, dipping by
their dobe nests low over
polluted Long Green Creek.
How, in another world, shall Adam speak?

So it all adds up: "a vernal wood,"
"the land of spices," "something understood."
Air breathes me, fire warms, fair weather slakes,
earth makes, unmakes;
makes in us most where blooms of the same tree
(dogwood, chokecherry)
come bid to care, and move in memory.

      I want to close with a poem from the New section in the Path to Fairview, her Selected and New of the '90s; it reminds us that she began her career in a biology lab and as a medical student; the poem ends with the question that animates all her poetry, the riddle of faith that science can't solve:
Gray's Anatomy

The lilacs' shadows on the Sandys' shed
are intricate as nerves these winter mornings.
Grandfather had Gray's which I inherited
and studied for the sex. Not much
was useful--glands and ducts
and circulation. But I keep old books
around: The Birds of Britain, Book of Dogs,
and The Blue Book of Poetry for Schools.
These have survived my higher education.

Should I tell
how sex came natural, how genes
bore me, how we have never
got beyond bones, or beat backache
or accident? Not for the present.
Soon stranger shadows may enhance
our light, our lilacs, and our dear nerves' dance.

There are patterns here: the source
of slippery Shenandoah, the long Snake,
the limbs of maples on the winter sky.
There is no asking why.

Ask Cuvier, or Leeuwenhoek,
or lost Lavoisier. They did not know,
nor Gray,
who mapped us like Magellan. But we shift
our shape, our particles, becoming other:
ape, angel, fire-breather.
It is a river
lapping on lands we call our own
some years, and later
years we mark our skeleton
on Sandy's barn.

                 The heart
in Gray is ugly, bloody twist
of muscle with its vulgar shoots
like common roots. How do interiors relate
to summer blossoms, or the slow decay
of leafage with some rot
whose name I forget? I think it is not sin. Darwin
might know, who wove the daisy-chain
of being, accurate
as far as it goes. Like Gray,
he drew a bit, but did not mention art.

                                        My blunt
shadow is of no interest, nor if all be said,
these clamorous guts I feed
on earth and air and water. But they're other
and kinder shadows. This my word is one.
A second is the canvas hung
on the palazzo walls, all saints
and sunflowers and faces. And a third
that music, never in anatomy,
that heartsease, abstract of our pulsing days.
Master of Shadows, do we shadow you?
He does not tell us, Gray.


Eleanor Wilner's most recent books are The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (2004) and Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (1998), both from Copper Canyon. She teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.


Eleanor Wilner
Moira Egan
Julia Hutton Randall
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Therese Chabot creates delicate, ephemeral installations – carpets, dresses and crowns – using flower petals and natural materials to speak of the stages of life and the paths we are given to choose from.
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