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The Lonely Workman

Descartes' Loneliness
By Allen Grossman
(New Directions, 70 pp., $16.95)

At the start of Descartes' Loneliness, the tenth collection of poetry by Allen Grossman, the speaker has posed a question to the world that we, the readers, have arrived too late to hear. The book begins, in the title poem, with the world's response:

Toward evening, the natural light becomes
intelligent and answers, without demur:
"Be assured! You are not alone..."

Perhaps the question expressed solitude, even the fundamental solitude of the uncertain and inconsolable human mind. The poet may have been posing the question all day, waiting until the evening for an answer; or he may have been asking it his whole life. Regardless, the reader is made quickly aware of two central elements of the poetry of Allen Grossman: first, the sense that one has arrived late and is therefore essentially bewildered; and second, the idea that the question, and by extension poetry itself, has accompanied the human mind from the moment it began thinking. These two features are related, in that there is no information, no knowledge that could completely clarify Grossman's poetic project, just as there is no complete explanation as to why the question is there in the first place.

Grossman shares with Wallace Stevens the sense that, for the poet standing out in the backyard, a combination of the evening light's slanting progress, the warbling of a bird obscured within the leaves of a tree, the whiteness of a window, and the darkness of a bough can provide terms sufficient for a radical contemplation encompassing perception, delight, horror of reality, and God's fiat of creation. Born in Minneapolis in 1932, Grossman has been writing and teaching poetry for fifty years, and has created a style in which the high and the low meet and kiss like the poet's older and younger self on the stairs in one of his poems. While his poetic tone conjures up a kind of Lucretius of the lunch counter, an inspired and hectoring edifier, his diction is an agitated synthesis tracking the modulations of a dozen translations of the Bible. ("This is the material Sabbath,/our reprieve ... Our god, our God, the real McCoy--say it/in Dead, philosopher--is ADONAI.") The result is an elaborate structure of griefs and gags to "mount to paradise/By the stairway of surprise," as the angels say in Emerson's "Merlin." And much of the surprise comes from not knowing where or when the steps will fall. "We cross the frame into the poem," Grossman writes, "But the edge may be anywhere like the border of the sacred grove. Often we note only a slight shudder of difference."

How to Do Things With Tears, Grossman's collection of 2001, comes closest to opening the curtain on his wild, boisterous, bookish world-system. In the prefatory poem of that book, the poet sets out a map of landmarks and means, describing the pathway of his love through the narrative, a

story about finding
a hazardous pathway, mountain road, or river walk
hand in hand,
from the accident, throwness, natality which was our
wandering into the world alone (somewhere--ENIGMA, MN?)
to a general state of affairs (significance) which has
a kiss in it (holiness)

The book traverses a remembered landscape, populated with ghosts and ghostly buildings always locked, always taunting the speaker with music, surprise, and sorrow--to fields of Dionysian "illegal night-games," the crowds of friends and family members in the stands chanting, "Nothing is lost, nothing is lost."

All along the road, the poems are ramshackle monuments, makeshift turrets "against our vanishing," built to see the world and to record our presence in it, both telescope and time capsule. For Grossman, building is our ambition, our confirmation, our defense: "Cold, cold are the winds from the unmade world," goes a refrain. One poem describes an incomplete staircase in a scene of "brightening air":

Consider this, dear, how much more beautiful
the unfinished stair. Birdlike it takes wing
at the crack of dawn and is long gone
before the glory empties out and scatters in
the brightening air

Grossman's poetry is intensely personal and dauntingly opaque. If Emily Dickinson enjoined that the poet "tell all the Truth but tell it slant," Grossman has raised the plane almost vertical. The poems are a climb, and the initial jar of entering their constructed mysteries has held off a wider readership for Grossman's work. At the same time, more than any other contemporary poet, Grossman draws his energy from an attempt, explained most eloquently and cryptically in the interviews collected in The Sighted Singer, to link his work to the drive of prophetic expression. In this Grossman's poetry recalls the remark of Allen Ginsberg, his cousin in clairvoyance, that "what prophecy is is not that you know that the bomb will fall in 1942. It's that you know and feel something which somebody knows and feels in a hundred years." Combined with his tendency toward scriptural imagery, this quality lies behind the reader's impression that Grossman's poems feel somehow ancient, age-old, more excavated than composed.

The very song of very song, at the end
of the world, arises thread-life out of
the nest of sleep in the summer of song.
I see now things are not as I once thought.

The difficulty of Grossman's poems is itself generally consistent, such that once the reader gets the hang of the didactic system, its puzzles and choruses become familiar. In other words, traversing Grossman's poetic landscape of "ENIGMA, MN," you find yourself at a loss so many times that you realize you're getting to know the neighborhood.

Rooted hungrily in human memory, Grossman's work often feels like one extended vision of lost spirits in the Land of the Dead. The environs of life and shadow constantly blur into each other. Often it is as though, digging up a rock in the garden, the poet had unearthed the stairway straight down to the dark. In Descartes' Loneliness, the "famished dead" appear again and again: "To this bloody pit--my heart--they crowd ... I tell them,/'The rule is one at a time.'/But whenever anybody is let in/the rest utter heartbroken cries...." But when they appear, these ghosts speak, in typical Grossman fashion, in the low and tender language of life, as when the poet plays Aeneas to his father's Chrysler Anchises:

Now here is Louis, my fater. He comes
to remind me how
he once sold 500 new cars in one year.
I say to him, "Louis, I wish I'd known."
--"Would that have made a difference, Allen?"
"I think it would have, Louis."

Grossman's project revolves around preservation in the face of our loss of the world, of memory, and even of consciousness. Against the threat of Horace's "long night of oblivion," the fate of the forgotten human, Grossman has said that "poetry is the right means: poetry is the historical enemy of human forgetfulness, the historical agent of the name of man against the obliterative powers of the world--of Nature, as Horace suggested, but now also of man himself."

...When a man dies,
or a woman dies,
the whole world of which
he is the only subject
dies without residue
(or the whole world of which she is the only subject
dies without residue).


This is the mind's sorrowing reflection on the unique value of its own contents, careening toward extinction and preservable only in fragments. A continuous existence is possible only in poems, in made things. This emotion has driven the lyric impulse to protest and to retention, from Keats to Blade Runner. In the latter, the replicant Roy makes his final speech to his pursuer Deckard: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain." Here it is the android, the created thing, that echoes the creator's feeling toward tragedy. Grossman's poems address the reader with their own desperate desire to preserve their world. In this sense, the poet has always aspired to the state of one of his own poems--to the perpetual singing that is neither body nor spirit, "but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make," as described by Yeats in "Sailing to Byzantium," a mechanical bird to be "set upon a golden bough to sing ... Of what is past, or passing, or to come."

Grossman's "frightened poetry," as he calls it, has tracked the threat of oblivion from images of the Holocaust (news of which pervaded his youth) in his early poems through the impending catastrophe of nuclear war (fear of which pervaded his adolescence) and the terrible fate of everything that is being forgotten. Describing how he "heard/Virgil's pastoralist for the first time" while a parade for General MacArthur, "ordered home from Korea by President Truman/for threatening use of nuclear weapons," passed by outside, Grossman writes: "Only Arcadians by their art remember/the magnificent graves of the human heart."

Even a snowfall, with its "covering up of the ordinary marks, the sense of erasure of tracks, of the indications of direction in the world" reminds Grossman of the threat of void. In each case, through violence, carelessness, and forgetfulness, we lose each other, get ourselves lost, and make people disappear. For Grossman, we are like the phantom sailors in Edgar Allan Poe's "MS. In a Bottle," who "will not see" each other or the author, as they press on toward some hoary pole with their eyes fixed on the sextant or on the white distance which reveals and promises nothing.

This theme is developed in Descartes' Loneliness in the form of the skeptic's "fearful surmise," in Stanley Cavell's phrase--the ominous hint that the world may not exist at all. Descartes' Loneliness is in large part about the attempt to make the world certain for oneself, assembling scraps of evidence and notes to the self wherever possible, at the very moment that the world is slipping out of one's grasp. Grossman has always been a seeking poet, but his latest volume rings with questions: "But where are you? Missing. Oh! When last seen?/--Now, cold rain. After that, silent in darkness, snow:/Where in the world is the scene of instruction?"

Most urgently, the speaker seeks his muse (Arethusa is a nymph who turned into a fountain when pursued by a river god):

Where are you, sister, world-giver--shining
among that wander-roots, what wet shadows?
Unvisitable source, kiss my mourning man.
Arethusa, kiss me wordless animal,
on his mountain, stone-alone, standing around.
Arethusa, where are you?

Here is the scene of the poet howling for the absent song. In Grossman's work, poetry, time, and light are all rivers, all fluid, and the liquid muse runs in the current of each. For the poet deprived of inspiration, the grass is always greener because it is watered by the muse.

And this returns us to the poet watching the evening light for an answer to his solitary query. Following the light's answer ("Be assured! You are not alone..."), the poet embarks on an extended series of philosophical propositions recognizable as the basic procedure of Descartes' methodological skepticism:

But in fact, toward evening, I am not
convinced there is any other except myself
to whom existence necessarily pertains.

The thought process continues, and threatens to consume itself ceaselessly in a spiraling ratiocination--"Do I really have / sufficient assurance of the existence / of any other being at all?" The world is nearly gone; a murmur of apprehension pulses through the neurons; Doubt gloats.

In Moby-Dick, Melville describes an analogous situation in which the foundations of the mind find themselves, quite literally, at sea: scanning the horizon for the spouts of whales, a young man on the masthead may lose himself in thought contemplating the "inscrutable tides of God" and lulling his mind into a sleep: "But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!" The irony is that Melville is making reference to Descartes' theory of gravity, which held that, because there could be no purely empty space, the air was filled with matter ceaselessly circling in a vortex pattern. In other words, it is the vortex that pulls you down. But the image is also fitting for the experience of tumbling into the groundlessness brought on by skepticism, as the world is reduced to a seemingly endless fall through air and air, with only filaments of thought for handholds.

Yet Grossman's poem ends in an ascendance of surprise. Having followed the loops and the projections of the mind, as though it were about to retreat for good into its own doubtful system, the poem concludes with the inexplicable conviction in the existence of some other consciousness:

After a most careful search, I have been
unable to discover the ground of that
conviction--unless it be imagined a lonely
workman on a dizzy scaffold unfolds
a sign at evening and puts his mark to it.

We are suddenly in a different realm of language, one in which argument and proof have been jettisoned without explanation. Grossman performs the sort of switch to metaphor and then to faith that has perpetually enraged philosophers, in our time notably J.L. Austin, author of a famous work of language philosophy called How to Do Things With Words, a title Grossman played on with his How to Do Things With Tears. Try these things with tears, the poem suggests--throw up the hands during a dispute and call out for companionship, blurt out an ambiguous statement of human loneliness--attempt to preserve what is precious in the person, not the argument.

The poet Boileau is reported to have quipped, "Descartes has cut the throat of poetry." Beyond the implications of murder and voicelessness, there is in Boileau's remark the idea that the philosopher has blocked one of the body's main means of receiving the world. Thinking too much, the poet cannot breathe, cannot take the world in. And it is true: we feel strapped with a speculative and perceptive apparatus that sets us at a distance from the world. If we wish to have any chance with our surroundings, our household god must, as Stevens writes, "be one/That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,/A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass/Of which we are too distantly a part." It remains for humans to look, and to make, to place one stick of mass on top of another.

Grossman's poetry has always been in danger of wrapping itself too tightly in its own cerebration, of obscuring its paths to the light we might share. His studies of obscurity are haunted by the threat of becoming obscure. But here the poem concludes with the mysterious image of the workman on the scaffold, an image that resists parsing and eludes logic, but which is evocative and maybe even satisfying to the searching and exhausted mind. As an image for a poem, the banner suggests welcome, salutation, a homecoming or a festival--at the very least a message that is itself a gift. And the "dizzy scaffold" suggests an unfinished structure, possibly a Tower of Babel that you build after the fall of the Tower of Babel, that is, by yourself.

The workman is both the creator and the stooge, the poet and the installation team, the embodiment of faith in communication and the figure on the edge of verbal expression. Grossman suggests that as long as someone--anyone--is making something, he is not alone. At the same time, if the workman is the poet himself, his proof of existence is his own making, impelled by the belief in its reception. Or the workman is the human who puts the final touches on God's creation, his "mark" being his signature, the "X" of the illiterate, the "Kilroy was here" of temporary presence--the completion by the ill and the unlucky of the final letters of a Torah scroll left, as was the custom, unfinished by the scribe. Or the image of the workman putting up the banner and marking it could be a sly metaphor for the sunset as seen by the poet in nature--the banner is the sky, the mark the color. In this case, the very existence of the created world and the beauty in it provide enough "ground" for the poet's faith. The great affirmation of Grossman's book, which he both endorses and doubts himself, is the possibility of introducing, by means of creation, faith into the skeptic's position.

Toward the end of Descartes' Loneliness, a voice commands the poet,

Build a house for the sun,
with a winding stair
for the wandering light to go up and
rest before labor.

It is the "winding stair" of Yeats' Thoor Ballylee, the sixteenth-century tower on the Cloon River which Yeats restored with "old mill boards and sea-green slates,/And smithy work from the Gort forge," lived in for twelve summers, and memorialized in his book The Tower: the "narrow winding stair" of "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory," and the "winding ancient stair" of "A Dialogue of Self and Soul." "I declare this tower is my symbol," Yeats wrote. "I declare/ This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair." And Grossman's house will also symbolize his work: a place for the sun to rest before labor, in anticipation of a greater building, the illumination of what we have made, the infusion of it with life and visibility. "The final girlfriend of the western world," Grossman writes, "is light." In one of the last poems in his book, the poet receives a vision of mystical construction: "But now/on the/horizon/the ocean/ thrusts up/a black tower." The tower is a kind of last structure in Grossman's series of scaffolds and staircases, as the book is a coda to Grossman's poetic project, an ultimate song: "No more. I'm at the end of all of it./'Allen, what is it like to be at the end?'"

The skyline of twentieth-century poetry has been pierced by numerous towers: Yeats' Thoor Ballylee; Hart Crane's last poem, "The Broken Tower"; the towers of Eliot's Waste Land, "upside down in air" and "tolling reminiscent bells." But the image that seems most fitting for Grossman is that of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Over the course of decades, from 1921 to 1954, Rodia, an immigrant from southern Italy, built a complex of structures, two of which are almost a hundred feet tall, in a small lot along the Pacific Electric Car Railway Red Car tracks. He used hand tools, and decorated his structures with fragments of colored glass, chips of ceramic tile from the Malibu Pottery factory, and shells from the beach nearby. Rodia designed his towers so that the structure itself, steel pipes and rods wrapped with wire mesh and chicken wire, all of it coated in mortar, served as the scaffold for the next addition. The towers are said to be the tallest structures ever built by one man alone. Submitted to a stress test by the city in order to establish their safety, the towers not only withstood the pressure, they bent the testing instrument. "I had in mind to do something big and I did it," was Rodia's explanation. There is something of the poet, too, in the image of Rodia, laboring out back in the mornings and evenings, gripped by a vision that is incommunicable until realized and inexplicable when done, but which at the same time leaps centuries and echoes our moments of sway, pulling us up off the ground.

Alexander Nemser's poems have been published in The New York Times and The Atlantic.

This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.