“TELL ME A STORY,” says the child yearning to delay the darkness and the withdrawal of parental comfort as the dream world draws near, and all the better if the story features recognizable characters and patterns, if something important is imperiled in the narrative, then rescued, and if the tale is, in the end and almost against expectation, soothing. In an era of so much poetry with fractured syntax— fragmented, elliptical, dissonant, cryptic – I sometimes grow restive and wonder who really has a story to tell and who is just feigning it, juking about, confusing obscurity with profundity, but then I recall how startled and frustrated I was on first encountering the shifting planes, altered pitches and bold, jigsawing parallelisms of Robert Penn Warren’s poetic sequence Audubon: A Vision (all its sections together at last in a slim volume from Random House in 1969). And I also remember how spellbound and awe-struck I was, like the child hearing some tale of a dark forest and its shadows, how I could truly say, as Warren’s narrating persona does in the final movement, “I did not know what was happening in my heart.” Forty years after the poem first found me, I am still in awe of it.
Why was the discovery of that poem so word-altering and world-altering for me? Operating by turns as agent of historical narrative, allegory, meditation and lyric – Warren had a song as well as a story – Audubon brought back into relevance the frontier, the haunting natures mortes of the great artist/ornithologist and my own questions about both my source and destiny, as well as a reminder of how – despite all the faux pioneering, adventure vacations, taming and “cultivating” – the Other of the natural world confronted deliberately could provide direction and amplitude to the search for identity, a context for essential epiphany.
The poem is a bench mark for not only Warren’s own vision and work but for Americans willing to admit to shortcomings like pride, greed and pretentiousness always marbling the virtues that lead a person to flee civilization with its (as Merwin puts it) “ruth of the lair” and risk the indigenous perils and destabilizing self-revelations lurking in the wilderness. And the poem dramatizes both Audubon’s and the author’s attempts to reconcile romantic idealism and pragmatism, to outreach both isms and discover one’s own unclassifiable core in a realistic realm both mysterious and flat-iron factual.
The shape of the poem is not simple, yet its seven numbered parts signal to readers that its design is near-symphonic, if rife with elements of fugue and aria, riff and outburst:
I/ Was Not the Lost Dauphin (a lyrical introduction to Audubon in the natural environment, aware both of “How thin is the membrane between himself and the world” and how strong that membrane is.)
II/The Dream He Never Knew the End Of (thirteen subsections – comprising the core of the poem – that recount a gritty and grotesque frontier story of attempted murder, disturbing concupiscence, rough justice and the protagonist’s discoveries of joy and beauty emanating from the central grotesqueness of a murderous and somehow alluring crone.)
III/ We Are Only Ourselves (a brief statement of acceptance, or an attempt at acceptance.)
IV/ The Sign Whereby He Knew (five sections sampling and disclosing Audubon’s forays into civilization and domesticity as he acts and observes, seeking to understand fate and envying the creatures who do not require self-consciousness and the favor of “great men.”)
V/ The Sound of That Wind (a brisk survey of Audubon’s life, conveyed in part by phrases from his journals and rehearsing his struggles with respectability.)
VI/ Love and Knowledge (a page crystallizing the artist’s complex engagement with birds – “he slew them at great distances .. he put them where they are, and there we see them:/ In our imagination,” leading to the revelation that love is knowledge.)
VII/ Tell Me a Story (a memory of the narrator’s boyhood epiphany, as “there being no moon/ And the stars sparse,” he hears “the great geese hoot northward” in “the season before the elderberry blooms.” The poet makes a plea, asks to be told a story “of great distances and starlight,” named Time, but that name unuttered, “a story of deep delight,” a phrase surely enlisted from Coleridge’s interrupted dreamer speculating on “what deep delight ‘twould win me,” if only he could reenter the dream.
The glory of this poem is, in part, its boldness: by turns imagistic and elliptical, in part philosophical, it combines episode, summary and conclusion (as a short story might), but refuses mechanical continuity, employing tonal overlap and emotional resonance instead. One almost wishes the poem were printed on large panels instead of pages, as its scale of cosmic engagement (the dawn is “God’s blood spilt”) invites a three-dimensional apprehension, while its central episode in which the painter/hunter is rescued from goblin-like outlaws who would slit his throat over a gold watch, is riveting in its naturalism, yet offering a troubling chronicle of the inevitability of horror.
The two aspects of this poem which most haunt me are the grim story which unfolds at dark in Part II; “On the trod mire by the door crackles the night-ice already there forming” provides the threshold of a “dark hovel /In the forest where trees have eyes,” which he (probably Warren here, through Audubon) retains from childhood. The deliberate pace, accumulating suspense, the imagery of dim light, a one-eyed Indian, the “whish of silk” as the grotesque hostess hones her knife on a spat-upon stone – it’s one of the great episodes (mostly extrapolated by Warren from Audubon’s journals) in our literature, but when I first encountered it, despite the meticulous enumeration and arrangement of blocks of text within the poem, I kept wondering if Warren hadn’t led me away from what I wanted poetry to be and back towards a peculiar kind of prose, maybe something William S. Burroughs would approve. I have grown to understand that he had, instead, led me to experience poetry as language sculpture, architecture, without sacrificing the thematic weave, satisfying patterns and echoing, reinforcing sounds, which in Understanding Poetry he had called “the tangled glitter of syllables” and which I went to the well of poetry in quest of. Once I recovered from my shock at the formal appearance of the poem, I began to learn my way around it, weaving through biography, history, metaphysics and folklore. I had not expected any poem to quench and nourish me the way “Audubon: A Vision” had. Although I had long loved “Prufrock,” it was always an objet d’arte, distant from my own central concerns, elegantly foreign, but Warren had diminished the dense allusive component of Eliot’s accomplishment and brought the quest for self-knowledge out of the parlor, away from the pitiful paralyzed man and set moving in my imagination a distinctly American quest accepted by a man who in some vital ways represented our national hardships and achievements, their romantic distractions and their roots in the understory of the forest, where power and access, beauty and apprehensiveness are steadily negotiated. In short, Warren had made it personal in ways I could neither ignore nor deflect.
I was living in Watauga County, N.C., up in the Blue Ridge when I first found a copy of the volume Audubon bound in a slender volume (the poem deployed with liberal spacing on substantial paper, itself an artifact) in the teaching assistants’ bullpen at Appalachian State University, and its words often sent me walking into the woods along Winkler’s Creek or up Howard’s Knob in morning fog and rain, at sunset or mid-day, wrestling with the question of what a man, besides his passion[s], might be. Everything else began to seem secondary, and on good days, I believe this hierarchy is the one I should live by. About twenty-five years ago I actually gave that volume to a friend who loved Warren and kept saying he was going to become a writer but also said he was too ignorant so far to begin. He never did write, and for many years I had the poem only in various versions of selected Warren poems, crowded in, caged. (I did, however, long ago memorize the final section as a talisman, a tune to whistle in the dark.) Recently a good friend found me a copy of the 1st Edition, complete with the dust jacket pictured above, and I won’t be giving it away.
A year and a half after the book came into my hands, Warren visited Appalachian State as a guest writer, and I spent some time conversing with him, sharing a flask of bourbon (but only after five) and sometimes chauffeuring him about. How young was I? One afternoon I asked him, “Mr. Warren, what kinds of things interest you specifically as a poet?” I got the soundest and probably most obvious answer, but in a soothing tone, his eyes twinkling: “Why Rod, only those things which interest me as a man.” I could almost hear “the great geese hooting northward” and knew I had a long climb ahead of me, that it would take a lifetime to become both a poet and a man, to find and taste Coleridge’s “milk of paradise.” Nevertheless, the poem, more than anything else I’ve ever read, still delivers that “deep delight” (now in a gift from another friend, the first edition copy of the board-bound book, including the dust jacket pictured above, a powerful object, almost a fetish). It’s my twenty-third Psalm, a poem (or sequence or suite) which promises that wonders are possible, comfort is accessible, restoration achievable, perhaps even for me, if I keep the blade sharp and learn to cut clean on the joints as, “in this century and moment of mania,” I try to tell a story myself.