on Robin Becker's Domain of Perfect Affection

Robin Becker. Domain of Perfect Affection. University of Pittsburgh Press.

In her 1947 essay “The Heart and the Lyre,” Louise Bogan urged “women poets” not to neglect passion in their poetry. “Even the greatly gifted Elizabeth Bishop,” she wrote, “places emphasis more upon anecdote than upon ardor.” The advice is still fresh. Robert Pinsky has emphasized the value of “making distinctions without sacrificing passion” to young poets who may prefer a vague opacity allowing them to “avoid the risk of clumsiness by saying little.” Obscure coolness may usurp the entire range of tones as a result. Apparently passion demands a certain creative management that discomfits poets, tests their talents, and forces the issue: Do I dare speak out? On the other hand, the presence of a dedicated passion may not suffice. A certain spiritual ardor, as heard in recent poetry by Jane Hirshfield and Tess Gallagher, may be notable for its mystical leavening, though in some ears the Zen dilutes the zest.

becker.jpgFor thirty years, Robin Becker has been tracking a passion for something not fully manifest except in moments of uttering its name: perfect affection. Her tones may change dramatically from page to page. This is why with Becker, there are her poems, and then there are her books. She may voice a muted resentment, and a few pages later she may speak of transcendence. Among the caucuses of identity poetics, Becker is celebrated as a poetic triple-threat: feminist, Jewish, lesbian. Her work is noted for its receptivity to the personal, an affectionate attention to the animal world, a long itinerary of locations, and engrossing uses of art and art history. The individual poems reveal her mastery of description, or irony, or form of address, or her unhesitant voicing of endearments, drifting states of mind, crisp assessments, and prickly or pleasant memory. But her books are built on a classic theme: the struggle to sustain the tension of a private, inner life. The intensity of the struggle is evident in the divergent strategies she has developed for managing the passionate. The poems deviate from a tense center – even the assertive, cherishing poems. If Becker has never abandoned the potential of anecdote, she has increasingly supplemented it over the years with a search for ominous forces underlying the memories or moments of close encounters with others. So, you may discover in her previous book, The Horse Fair (2000), “how people are marginalized because of gender,” as one critic put it. But Becker tells us more broadly that “marginalization” results from even the smallest departures from the conventional, namely any perception that requires fresh phrasing to describe it. Becker’s desirous eye more typically settles on a shimmering fact in a defining moment.

Becker’s passion first appeared as an urge to sustain contact with, and often provoke, those who live within her circle. Many of her poems are addressed to specific individuals (or dogs); the “you” is rarely rhetorical. Anecdote spiked with telling detail acting as its own commentary: this was the basic set-up in Backtalk (1982), Giacometti’s Dog (1990), and All-American Girl (1996). In The Horse Fair, Becker enacted a more taut and groping passion. There, the multiplicity of voices, subjects, and forms cast about for undiscovered ways of embodying the inner life. The Jewishness unfolded with its traditional uncertainties: explicit spiritual values coupled to (and sometimes grating on) an understated self-revelation. Becker’s so-called affirmative poems, often finishing with a note of thanks or adoration, have a habit of blocking speculation and diluting the complex, as if she must always have the final word when it comes to emotional gratification. So, I have always been partial to Becker’s more restrained tones where the passion creates difficulties for itself that trigger tension and interest, not to mention a pressure that spills out in startling observation. Louis Simpson said that “the poet’s theme is his true self. It is to be differentiated from the merely personal life.” Becker works best when she tempts us with the personal, then entices us to speculation that dissolves in an ominous space.

becker2.jpgNow comes Domain of Perfect Affection. All the familiar concerns and topics are here: youth recalled, family glimpsed in the wake of present domesticity, amazements and rejoicings, the salve of nature, the necessity of close relations, the utility of art. The book reads as an attempt to gather in and revalidate her obsessions, the mature poet saying: I confirm the necessity of these stories. The tone is ever more controlled, moving, and entertaining. Here’s the opening poem, “The New Egypt”:

I think of my father who believes
a Jew can outwit fate by owning land.
Slave to property now, I mow
and mow, my destiny the new Egypt.
From his father, the tailor, he learned not
to rent but to own; to borrow to buy.
To conform, I disguise myself and drag
the mower into the drive, where I ponder
the silky oil, the plastic casing, the choke.
From my father, I learned the dignity
of exile and the fire of acquisition,
not to live in places lightly, but to plant
the self like an orange tree in the desert
and irrigate, irrigate, irrigate.

The psyche’s many faces appear here all at once: daughter with the father’s peer at the choke, slave and liberator, disguise and unmasking, fate and willfulness, dry and drenched notions, a “new Egypt” combining indenture and freedom. We begin to see that the move from antagonism to integration, with both its costs and pleasures, is Becker’s lifelong preoccupation. Underlying it all, there is an obstinate conviction. For the father, it means “not / to rent but to own.” In Domain of Perfect Affection, Becker shows us what it means “not to live in places lightly.”

Integration is an imaginative act for Becker, a “domain” established in the mind. In “Intersex,” a reminiscence, the girls “all wanted to be / boys then, to serve the power we knew / found delight in our swinging from trees. / We wanted to serve the one god of joy / in the body …” This occurred “in early June when my kind crossed natural borders.” This poem is followed by “The Poconos” in which “My mother joined / the Leni Lenape” at Camp Pine Forest and “fished peaceably for perch and shad,” the daughter imagining her as a combination of artful Indian nymph and playful camper (“short-sheeting the Minisink”) who diminishes, “distinguished / by her compassionate nature, // bartering her freedom / for a modest home on a small tract of land.” There’s the suggestion that this happened because of her compassionate nature. “Irrigate, irrigate, irrigate” of “The New Egypt” resonates as we proceed.

In the first of three sections, Becker gives us “Manifest Destinies,” a surprising and apt inclusion of a found poem from the journals of Lewis and Clark providing a counterpoint to the dire implications of “a small tract of land.” Also, there is “Man of the Year” beginning, “My father tells us the story of his life,” a person who “lived on prescience and cleverness” to make his living, a member of the club of like-minded fellows who run things on the local level and name him “Man of the Year, a title he reveres / for the distinguished / peerage he joins, the lineage of merry men.” Becker’s careful handling of irony here is helped by her understanding that “prescience and cleverness” are also two indispensable elements in her poetry.

In “A Pasture of My Palm,” the speaker recalls filching a porcelain palomino from a store display case – and her own unconventional reaction on returning it the next day with her mother: “but even / then I was really crying for the cheap / horse back in the glass case, my mother, / my foolish and punishable desires, / the future taking shape: corral, stampede.” There is a long view packed into that simple “even / then,” an expected shame canceled by a more profound grief and assessment, and an early experience of a gap in understanding among those closest at hand. “Corral, stampede”: boundary and passion integrated in the phrase embodying the world, but separated in the mind.

Thus, Domain of Perfect Affection is built on a powerful, irresolvable dynamic: deriving sustenance from but also resisting the conventional world. In Becker’s splendid “Salon,” “Vivienne, the manicurist, dispels despair” and soaks the mother’s old hands, as the scene moves us through compassion and sadness. This is the final stanza:

The fine cotton of Michael’s white shirt
brushes against her cheek as they stare
into the mirror at one another.
Ennobled by his gaze, she accepts
her diminishment, she who knows herself
his favorite. In their cryptic language
They confide and converse, his hands busy
in her hair, her hands quiet in her lap.
Barrel-chested, Italian, a lover of opera,
he husbands his money and his lover, Ethan;
only with him may she discuss my lover and me,
and in this way intimacy takes the shape
of the afternoon she passes in the salon,
in the domain of perfect affection.

There are two perfect understandings, realms of affection: the tenderly drawn scene, respectful of the sufficiency there, and the confidences in the salon; and the implied, public, and evidently more perfect relationship with the reader who not only comes to feel affection for Vivienne, Michael and the mother, but also feels the tension of the exclusionary, the persistence of boundaries – a feel for the way things are and perhaps must be. To be brought into Becker’s circle is to be recognized as someone who “gets it” beyond the conventional – though the gestures of Vivienne and Michael seem both familiar and essential. Becker’s signature, for all her supposed backtalk and outside agitation, is the unruined “compassionate nature” of “The Poconos” run through with an attentive impatience.

The book then shifts to poems like “The Dome Fire” and “The Dogs of Santorini,” signaling Becker’s longtime attraction to the visited location (places where the conventional loses some of its grip) and the urge to draw significance from the visible. But we also encounter an orphic voice in “Head of An Old Man,” another found poem in “Qualities Boys Like Best in Girls,” and “Orienteer” and “The Miniaturists,” using artwork as a focal points.

Part Three starts with “Rain,” a fanciful poem about coping with a deluge, telling us that the compensations of the imagination are urgently required (in Becker’s work, a way out of trouble of some sort). “In Mah-Jongg Fantasia,” the fun continues, players transformed into Chinese characters. “Now” energetically lists illusions and assumptions to be sworn off, reeled off to sound both self-mocking and self-assuring: “Now that my neighbor has finished his mowing / I can hear myself think. About death: how it occupies / every living space I can imagine, though I can’t hold the thought.” The seriousness is summed up again in the short lyric “Autumn Measure” in which “tomorrow / my friend will leave the hospital / without her breasts.” But between the imaginative giddiness and the quickness of brief darker messages, the third section never quite gathers around a solid core. Some of the poems just don’t seem to be the right ones to conclude this book, and they cover material and poses that have been treated equally well or better elsewhere by Becker. If lightness of tone, implying a maturing acceptance, was intended here, it is achieved by letting the book’s mounting, complicated spirit leak out. Still, “Birds of Prey” is one of Becker’s most memorable poems of nature, beautifully understated, fearful and plaintive, formally perfect. The first two sections of the book include some of her best work ever.

Robin Becker’s poetry has always taken root in a profound disappointment. In response she has argued passionately with her god. For this reason, the world she has often portrayed is anecdotal, related with restrained, knowing sadness. It’s a world all parties may recognize, and therefore, a locus for negotiations. To shoplift the porcelain pony is to rescue it but also to invite a disheartening response. Becker needs both gestures to make a story. Admired for its affirmations of identity, Becker’s poetry with its bracing, ubiquitous freedom and intimacies would be far less interesting if she were not fascinated with fear and defeat. One must rescue the self, the orange tree in the desert, irrigating constantly, to preclude disaster. In “Angel Supporting St. Sebastian,” the painted figure is “left for dead,” not yet a patron saint; he leans on a seraph. It is in this plagued state where we witness “the human need / to lean against the lusty form, // accept the discourse that assigns / to each of us a winged guardian / whispering into our ringing ears.” Adore the angelic in Becker if you like. She makes my ears ring with other things.

[published in Prairie Schooner, fall 2007]