The Trees Win Every Time: Reading Julia Randall
(originally published in Grand Street late 1980s)
In April 1982 I was at Yaddo. It was unseasonably cold and wet: most days the weather precluded the two mile walk to Saratoga Springs’s three bookshops and the bakery-cafŽ whose English-style cream teas would have been my reward for working all morning. I was translating part of the autobiography of a black Brazilian rural worker born in 1910 whose life could not have been more different from mine, except for our both being women and both having the stubborn habit of putting words on paper. I was avoiding poetry as I was avoiding thinking about vacancies, uncertainties, in the city life to which I’d be returning. It snowed past mid-month, a good eight inches. The ten people who gathered in the library for the early, somewhat institutional dinners were increasingly able to predict one another’s conversations. Shipboard nerves.
It was in the midst of this cabin fever that I–probably looking for Rich, Roethke or Rukeyser–fingered The Puritan Carpenter by Julia Randall out of the shelves of books by Yaddo alumni that lined the off-season dining room and opened it to “To William Wordsworth from Virginia”:
I think, old bone, the world’s not with us much.
I think it is difficult to see,
But easy to discuss. Behold the bush.
His seasons out-maneuver Proteus.
This year, because of the drought, the barberry
Is all goldflakes in August, but I’ll still say
To the First Grade next month, “Now it is Fall.
You see the leaves go bright, and then go small.
You see October’s greatcoat. It is gold.
It will lie on the earth to keep the seed’s foot warm.
Then, Andrew Obenchain, what happens in June?”
And Andrew, being mountain-bred, will know
Catawba runs too deep for the bus to get
Across the ford–at least it did last May,
And school was out, and the laundry wouldn’t dry.
Most of what I wanted from a poem at that moment was in those opening lines. There was a firm, unabashed connection with the mental nation of poets and poetry, its history, customs and concerns. There was an equally firm mooring in a present moment, offered and realized (August, Virginia, the barberry bush, a year when there’d been both flood and drought) and an imagined future that fixed the speaker in a profession as well as a habitation, contrasting, in a homely example, things as they should be with things as they are. I was engaged by a speaker who addressed both Wordsworth and farm-bred six-year-olds in her interior dialogue. And I liked the deceptively effortless iambic pentameter that carried its reader from interior monologue to imagined dialogue, from summer to fall, from Wordsworth to the first-graders, hardly calling attention to its own suppleness, rhymes cast off like leaves, lush language.
Was it complacent, all this lushness? It was not. A dialogue with language, with poetry, especially as personified by Wordsworth, does not mean that the poet avoids confronting the prerequisites– and the limitations — of language’s magical potential:
What do they tell the First Grade in Peru,
I wonder? All the story: God is good,
He counts the children, and the sparrow’s wing.
God loved William Wordsworth in the sprimg.
William Wordsworth had enough to eat.
Wye was his broth, Helvellyn was his meat,
And English was his cookstove. And where did words
Come from, Carlyle Rucker? . . .
“William Wordsworth had enough to eat.” The line may be followed and embellished by metaphor, but it stands, too, a simple declarativesentence in mid-poem. Just as the speaker addresses the future (next season, another generation) along with the past, her colloquy with plenitude does not erase her consciousness of privation, implied since the opening lines, picked up at the closing:
. . . But sir, I am tired of living in a lake
Among the watery weeds and weedy blue
Shadows of flowers that Hancock never knew . . .
There is not a god left underneath the sun
To balk, to ride, to suffer, to obey.
Here is the unseasonable barberry.
Here is the black face of a child in need.
Here is the bloody figure of a man.
Run, Great Excursioner. Run if you can.
Because of what has come before, “the black face of a child in need” is not a poster image eliciting liberal guilt; it is one more piece of descriptive information about Andrew Obenchain or Carlyle Rucker, who have told what they know about the changing of the seasons. This is a poem whose created world includes Wordsworth and hungry black schoolchildren, and will not minimize its commitment to either.
I had the book in my room by then, had reread that poem and gone on to the others. I mention Yaddo, the cold spring, the library, the year, because I had never heard of Julia Randall before then. And yet I read poetry, poetry criticism and book reviews constantly; I had just assumed editorship of a literary journal devoted to women writers, had researched to teach a course on twentieth-century American women poets. I was excited by my “discovery” at the same time as I regretted the communications gap or lag that had made it somehow as difficult for this reader and this writer to find each other as it would have been had Randall been published only in Australia.
In fact, Adam’s Dream, the book that followed The Puritan Carpenter, was published in 1969 in New York by Knopf (who would become “my” publisher in 1976-but Randall’s book was out of print by then). And, now that I was looking, I found two of Randall’s poems in the groundbreaking women’s poetry anthology No More Masks (edited by Florence Howe, published by Doubleday-Anchor in 1974). Between Denise Levertov and Jane Cooper, according to birth dates, are the poem I’ve already discussed and “For a Homecoming,” also from The Puritan Carpenter. This (it could be a companion piece to Mona Van Duyn’s “The Fear of Flying”) is spoken, in loose iambic pentameter couplets and triplets, by a woman awaiting her husband’s return by air, and affirms, most uncharacteristically (for Randall) albeit ironically, that “Man does, woman is”:
Oh, I know
I’d be content in a cave, and I know that some
Incredibly curious germ of evolution
Lets you conceive a rafter and a beam
And a plastic tablecloth. A single name
Is all my woe, whatever was first on the tongue
In the beginning . . .
But who is, in fact, affirming what? Modern American readers are over-accustomed to assuming that the speaker of a poem is, de facto, “the poet” transforming autoographical material, unless the poem is entitled “Antinous: The Diaries” (by Adrienne Rich) or “The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones” (by June Jordan). As far as I know, from discreet biographical notes, Julia Randall has never married, nor taught in an elementary school. Other poems posit children, celibacy, friendships, violence, travel,but this reader soon learned to take each text on its own terms and merit, not to attempt the scrying of one story from their progression. Randall’s dramatic voices are less varied than Randall Jarrell’s, Pamela White Hadas’s or Norman Dubie’s: there are no carnival performers, Russian nobles, GIs or twelve-year-olds. Nonetheless, the locus of perception shifts, and fixing it is a reward for the reader, appreciating another facet of the maker’s skill. The science teacher in colloquy with Wordsworth and rural six-year olds is more fully realized because we are not asked to conflate her with “the poet,” however much of the poet’s information and conviction have informed her interior speech.
When reading Randall’s dramatic monologues (which are not always immediately distinguishable from her lyrics), I am challenged to flesh out the speaker and the speaker’s story from the poem’s clues: language,diction, choice of metaphor. The speaker of “Falling Asleep in Chapel” (from The Farewells) is, I think, a man, a father, possibly a clergyman,meditating alone in church at the dawn of Easter:
It is morning by the clock. Under the dark
where the loose hound bays night
on Dead Man, and the cooped cock
the field-bones crack with spring.
Palm, plume, blade, and tongue
swell in the valley’s skin; waters awake
for Christ’s sake, fools of light
rising, come in a night,
come in a night and gone,
temple and vine,
child after child, and man,
after his swollen stem
has seeded up the sky,
man gone. And I
come to this empty house,
glad of an iron sun
falling on sterile stone,
to listen to what I am.
* * *
The dream dies, and I wake
Adam, in Christ’s name’s sake,
Adam newly begun,
ribbed with creation. See,
my knees pray, my lungs move
mounds of tall air. I stare
into the iron sun. I warm. I walk
into the nightfall spring. . .
Another poem in the same volume, “Outliving,” is the reflection of a woman near seventy on her mother’s death, long past, at a younger age. “A Farewell to History” happens in the wake of a violent lovers’ quarrel and separation:
Broke, bloody, bitter, and bereaved, we departed
the last stand — you to the station (I suppose)
and I to the Emergency Room, where the intern
snickered as he needled my lip and nose.
What I most resented, I didn’t understand
then: you broke my glasses. Dark ones on,
I curse you down the passes, across the wide
apple and cow valley, by the North Fork,
the Maury, Buffalo Creek-all the way to work.
Much more domestic female personae are created in “Recipes” and “A Dream of Reunion” (both from Moving in Memory), two poems that rise from quotidian language and concerns to wider speculations, presenting traditionally female preoccupations as springboards to the metaphysical:
Of course I give my recipes away.
Last night I gave Esterlee
the zucchini casserole, and she’ll give it to Jessie,
and so it goes. No keeping a secret. I may revert
to Maryland chicken and angel cake. The fit survive
and the raw materials
don’t change much in a lifetime, but they change:
there was no tea at Stonehenge.
I poach the flounder in my mother’s dish.
The scholars say my mother was a fish.
The strict constructionists say man
strutted around on two legs of his own
all around Eden. Maybe he did,
sharing his recipe with only God, and his spare rib
She found apples
good eating. Naturally she shared.
She discovered blood,
guts, seasonings; how to make stock; how best to grow
salads and sesames; and how to raise
bread. One son discovered how to raise the dead
but he never told.
These monologues are united, despite their disparate voices, by the sense of place. Most of the poems are very specifically located in Maryland or Virginia, by place names, by descriptions of landscape, foliage and seasonal change, by reference to local history. Other places and times are evoked, but whatever personae Randall creates evoke them from a realized, localized present. Like those of Robert Frost, while Randall’s speakers ought not to be confused with the auctorial presence, they are mostly citizens of the same county, neighbors: the landscape itself becomes an agent in the poems. Randall’s personae differ too strongly from one another to make of her mid-Atlantic states a paysage moralisŽ, corresponding to or inducing human behavior and attitudes. (The speakers quoted might disagree on everything from foreign policy to breakfast food.) But landscape is more than backdrop to Randall, no more interchangeable than people are, or ideas. The opening poem of Moving in Memory states:
I am Piedmont born and bred
between far hills and sea,
great hardwoods overhead,
and waters gently
falling down to the Bay.
(“Middle Age, Middle East”)
while, in the same volume, a concert commentator’s remark invites the speculation:
. . . the lake and the mountains will do
as well as anything. The mere suggestion
conjures Whiteface and Winnisquam
and all things Appalachian. Equally well
it conjures Buttermere and Furness Fell.
But not Naivasha. It’s a bracken hill,
snowy in season; pine is sentinel. The level
lake may ship a hero or a gull;
( “Translation” )
Julia Randall is currently the author of four book-length collections: The Puritan Carpenter ( University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill, 1965); Adam’s Dream (Knopf, New York, 1969); The Farewells (Elpenor Press, Chicago, 1981); and, most recently, Moving in Memory (Louisiana State University Press, 1987). The assortment of presses may partially explain why I hadn’t known of her work earlier. Because most books of poetry disappear from circulation so quickly, it seems barely reasonable to discuss a collection published a dozen years ago, while fiction of that vintage is regularly assigned reading in seminars and secondary schools. A poet’s latest book does not erase or supersede previous ones; it stands beside them, ought to bring new readers to them as surely as (say) Toni Morrison’s Beloved renews interest in — and sales of– The Bluest Eye; might do so if they were easily available to be read.
Randall’s books lend themselves to a unified discussion because her work is of a piece: it has evolved and changed stylistically, but without rupture, and its concerns remain constant. Some of those concerns have already been discussed or touched upon here: the sense of place, and its influence on lives lived in that place; the nature of memory and the memory of nature; the more than seven types of solitude; the conscient individual’s relationship to what she or he defines as God; the sense of the past, of human history (and literature) as it influences, or is severed from, the future. She does not write, by and large, about: romantic thralldom; class, race, ethnic or gender identity; family relationships; national or international politics; yet her poems are often as illuminating or illuminated on these subjects as are more confrontational texts:
The Curriculum Committee
is meeting in the Board Room of the Library
deciding whether a familiarity
with Xenophon is essential
to the educated man.
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
messy creation. I have had
my world as in my time: beer in the hotel bed-
room, publication and promotion.
I have had property and found it good,
oiling the knee-hole 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 umwed
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.
(“A Meditation in Time of War”: Adam’s Dream)
“And yes, I think / I will vote for Xenophon,” the poem concludes: not a foregone conclusion, in the nineteen-sixties, among poets thus conscious of man’s inhumanity to man, and woman. But Randall’s world view is a conservative one, in the word’s radical sense: Xenophon is her cousin, Wordsworth (as elsewhere Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf) her correspondent: flawed, yes; limited, perhaps, but vital participants in the human conversation.
From the vantage point of her chosen local habitation, Randall has written of being, as well, a mental inhabitant of Grasmere and Amherst. Yeatsian cadences echoed in her earlier music too. They sounded clear in the title poem of The Puritan Carpenter:
Come, build a cage for the mind.
Set it water and meat.
That else would rage through the night
With honey and gall to eat,
And bruise its travelling feet
On the mountain-tracks of desire.
But, in each succeeding volume, Randall’s language and rhythms become more individual. The Farewells is an elegiac book; Moving in Memory is, of the four, the most immediate. With undiminished linguistic precision and formal elegance, the poet creates, in this newest collection, deceptively transparent and demotic voices, evoking homely things and familiar landscapes that become numinous precisely through their ordinariness. I’ve already cited the collector of recipes; in “Thunder,” dogs indoors in a storm lead to an exploration of the nature of trust and of fear: the timor mortis that is (perhaps) uniquely human and the terror mundi that we share with other creatures. A poem entitled “Video Games” can begin:
In Claude Lorrain, the trees win every time
The violent spots of color are a game.
and move from the painter’s bright, incidental foreground figures to:
Sue’s ship’s in bits and Bill has all the castles.
But Brother Dragon wings the upper air . . .
Space-fox! Sue yawns into her coke,
and Sally’s boyfriend, bored, begins to stroke
Sally, but Bill is dead-set now to win.
Dad, blasted, ambles toward another gin . . .
then back to “Claude’s careless creatures,” coming to resolution with the speaker, hitherto absent:
I exist from the beltway, overviewed by
Channel 13’s copter, where right lane
must turn right . . .
finding in the “poor three-times cut-over woodlot” where she walks her dogs, the diminished image of the trees that triumphed over the tohu-bohu of events in Claude Lorrain’s paintings.
The newer poems extend and develop Randall’s synthetic ability. As the first-graders followed Wordsworth and the burning bush, the title poem, “Moving in Memory,” goes from a local exasperation:
Moving within memory, I can count
Virginia, Maine, Vermont,
and to a wild extent
Wyoming. I am sick
of my blasted county: Albert Lacey’s truck
ten times a day; beltway; industrial park; high density
housing; and Hartline’s oak
sickened, that might have seen
Calvert’s lieutenants dickering with red men.
to an argument with (this time) Descartes:
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 thin air-
what would you think about?
and ends with a paean to language as means to “body out/ pure loveless thought,” praising, as it goes, Dylan Thomas, and Keats, who also cared for trees:
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.
I have read few contemporary poets whose love and attention for the natural world so clearly integrated and included the thinking human creature, and human artifact, especially language, with that world. For Randall, there is no dichotomy between Descartes and dogwood, Channel 13, Claude Lorrain and tulip poplar, Maryland chicken and resurrection. Randall’s ideal reader is participating, I believe, in the same conversation, between nature and namer, between knowledge received and solace sought, between Wordsworth and Carlyle Rucker; he or she shares the supposition that origins and effects bear observation, that poetry is both a kind of, and spur to, interior examination, and an ongoing exchange with the past and with the future. Randall does not propagandize, even for poetry; she does not manipulate readers’ appetites or emotions; neither does she seem to hold that a structure of words is an object of v’rtu in its own right, to be revered because we are told it is Art. Her poems please in their verbal beauty and balance, but always, also, incite speculation. They do not plead “Weep!” or exhort “Arise!”; they say, plainly and in all complexity: ÒThink.”