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Rachel Blau DuPlessis

The Hole:

Death, Sexual Difference, and Gender Contradictions in Creeley’s Poetry

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‘I like to keep the noises as close to the body as possible, so that (I don’t know how you’d express it mathematically) the eye is a function of the ear and the ear of the eye; maybe with that you might feel a sense of smell, of taste even. So much of the word is a physiological thing.’
  — Louis Zukofsky, interview with L.S. Dembo, 1968, 205. [1]


A couple of different beginnings[2]


I didn’t really know Creeley as a deep friend or in a continuous way, though we did have a couple of memorable encounters. In 1986. I was attending the H.D. conference in Orono, Maine with a 2 year old — a pretty bad idea, actually, but there it was. After Koré had been shunted off with a baby-sitter for a few days, I sat with her at the back of the auditorium for the final session. My caution about our position in the hall was pushed aside by Carroll Terrell, who insisted, because I was a speaker, that I sit on the stage with the array of other presenters, plus, of course, Koré, to make further remarks and offer responses.


Emily Wallace had just finished saying something critical that I took to be some slight on feminist biographical interpretive practices, so I got up to the podium to respond. Whereupon Koré also got up, stood on her chair, turned around, and found a bank of switches to play with. Flick, flick, flick. Which is how my child turned out all the lights in the auditorium during the last session of the 1986 H.D. conference.


When we all had somewhat recovered, I returned to the podium to say something face-saving about poetry and motherhood and how that was a good example....Whereupon Allen Ginsberg, in the audience, roused himself and yelled out, in a consummately hostile manner, ‘Get on with it!’


So — no choice really — I picked up Koré and started for the exit. But suddenly there was Bob Creeley, come up to the stage to help me with the infinite falling around stuff you have when there’s a child, and thus it was that we both exited, toddler, stuff and all, to spend some quality time on a nearby playground.


I don’t know now what we talked about, but I will never forget the generous, humane and critical gesture he made by leaving the auditorium with me. To accept a mother with a child as a professional, to help her over a bad moment when these roles clashed — a moment in part caused by masculinist contempt — it was all very moving. And important. Get on with it? There was no further ‘it.’ This was it.


But in order to talk about Creeley, I have to talk ‘on words’; I have to separate the person as once living and writing from the author whose name is signed to particular works with particular effects, a writing man who constructed himself in particular ways. This is actually difficult to do; he has a lot of personal reverberations.


Another beginning


The books Life & Death (1998), Just in Time (2001), and If I were writing this (2003) reveal that Creeley, at around age 72 or so, started thinking hard about the ways it feels to be on the downward side of his life; he would die too soon at 78 years (in 2005). With that consummate spin on colloquialisms for which Creeley is justly famous, just means living precisely, exactly, simply, certainly, come as you are, in time. Poised in time — as Creeley was always poised and in motion in the poetry. Creeley’s meditations on death and its surround involve reiterated questions, extensions of the ethical questions about time that he asked continuously throughout his life — how to use this time, how to be situated in time, how to register time in his particular off-beat way.


In his last years, he articulated feelings about entering the common place, the common experiences, being just like everyone else. He brought to this meditation all the twists and turns in consciousness for which he is justly known, the semantic images, the deictic pointing, his sense of the forthcoming there-ness (which is blank) and the present here-ness (which is full) — affirmation and anxiety, plenitude and suspicion all missed up together. I mean messed up together. There’s


‘I’m here/ I’m still here,”


and there’s


‘he counts his life/ like cash in emptying pockets./ Somebody better help him’ (2001, 141; 1998, 4).


There’s the depression and the acceptance, the reluctance, the foreknowledge, and the jaunty denial


(‘Not me’s going!’) (1998, 73).


Creeley also brought to this task his continuous checking on the body, its placement in time, in space, and in syntax — which were both of these others together — and his intimate account of the body’s functioning and intactness — intactness and vulnerability being his long-standing themes.[3] As always, Creeley was precise, frank and not squeamish about tracking shifts of consciousness and feeling, in the oscillation, pulses and the balance/imbalance of syntax, linebreak, diction and semantic image. Thinking was words, it was not contained in words: he concentrated on substance in the instant and instance of its articulation.[4] Far from being morbid, his proleptic and recursive focus on death is a triumph of secular meditation.


In his last books he wrote many poems to the dead, and many poems using very familiar lines from great poems. He thus links himself via them to the stream of Anglophone poetries, and links us to them by underemphasizing any sense of rupture or break from the past.[5] The great lines — for example, Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ that opens the poem ‘En Famille’ and is in part about human loneliness — are nonetheless like telephone wires strung across an unspeakable gulf that involves our common life, our literary heritage, and our common death (2003, 35 — 38). In dedicating so many poems ‘to’ dead people, speaking precisely ‘to’ them, as if they could hear, Creeley is playing with his own liminality (and ours too). He argues that one can easily, even fluently speak to the dead. The phone lines are being staffed, are being held certainly, perhaps willfully and hopefully, open. Creeley is telling us to keep talking, to him and to each other. This is perhaps the only thing that need be said here.


He is also invoking the definition of the lyric that John Stuart Mill proposed: a private meditation as if overheard. One might propose lyric defined proprioceptively as the posthumous reach of the human hand; this may be why Creeley, like Olson, cites Keats’s ‘The living hand,’ concerning the penetration of the boundary between living and dead, even enacting this uncanny penetration in the poem (2001, 262). [6] The lyric is the poem that continues to sing engaged and thoroughly even while dead — this is, of course, an Orphic image, an orphic hope; it means to sing before death as if one were already posthumous, constructing both the song and the echo of oneself. No coincidence that in Just in Time there are 21 poems with echo/echoes in the title; spurts of memory, afterimages from the past seem to be some meanings of this trope, but it is also proleptic of the posthumous echo.


In this book too, there is a ‘we interrupt this broadcast’ moment which talks of a number of stances in his poetics, but remarks,


‘I had not really understood what the lone boy whistling in the graveyard was in fact of,’ inferentially suggesting (acknowledging — it is not meant reductively) that these works go singing to stave off death (2001, ‘A Note’ 252).


If you are still whistling, you know you’re not dead. One might see these witty, poignant meditations as a version of the ‘commonplace’ that Tom Clark, following Creeley, proposes as a motif in Creeley’s last phase as a poet.[7]


In these late books, too, are many gnomic aphorisms, reminding us that epigram/epigraph/epitaph are strangely related words. He wrote elegiac inscriptions (epitaphs), like the magisterial and Greek Anthology-like ‘Eight Plus’ commissioned for public bollards in Los Angeles (2001, 176–180). These genres call upon a very ‘Creeley-esque’ Greek preposition, epi-, which seems, depending on the root/word it precedes, to mean on, upon, over, above, around, covering, to, toward, close to, next to, beside, in addition, after, and among. That pretty much covers the territory of space and positionality in Creeley.


Often these later works are delivered in a terse telegraphic — not a lot of time — riddling, gnomic style


(‘One grows older,/ gets closer’),


or even in a cackling devil-may-care rhyming, as if throwing doggerel and mockery in the face of the sublime and the poetic (2001, 262). Here, as throughout his career, Creeley plays with the ephemeral, the changeable, the small, unregistered gestures, the anti-monumental, the commonplace — even with the ‘trite, trivial, hackneyed’ — words he happily, challengingly uses (this at New College 1991, in Clark ed., 83 — 84).


He writes poems like nursery rhymes for old age, and by appropriating that ‘simple’ sound — lots of rhyme, marked rhythmic punch, poems skirting doggerel, ‘bad’ poetry — he also plays with what has been culturally coded female or feminine or minor. In doing this, he assumes the mantle of the minor majorly.


Throughout his career, with all the perceptual turns, linebreak hinges, notational intimacies, Creeley tried to articulate the particularities of embodied experience and the intensities of proprioception (bodily awareness in space). With these feelings about time, space, and writing, he thereby practiced an art to ‘undo the alienation of the corporeal sensorium, to restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation’ (Buck-Morss 4).


This is a citation, a pretty apocalyptic one, actually, about Walter Benjamin’s goals in his Artwork essay; it comes from Susan Buck-Morss’s analysis of the misrecognition in the concept of ‘aesthetics’ itself. She argues that this term does not mean the sublime triumvirate of Art-Beauty-Truth, and, in its damaging extension, the self-contained, invulnerable, often male body.


Rather, she produces and affirms the original meaning of the term aesthetic — the sensitive, the suffusion by feeling and sense perception. The return to the sensible/sensitive allows her to propose an aesthetic of receptivity that foregrounds the joining of subject and object (and other deictic locations — inside and outside, perhaps) in an artwork.


This argument can frame three striking features of Creeley’s poetry. First, he returns us to the local sensorium, and in that way he resists the organization of the body in modernity (but particularly in fascist and totalitarian modernity) that makes the body a cog in allover, aestheticized design. This local and sensible is one value of poetry in general, one might argue, and Creeley’s mode resists and rejects the realm of the ‘techno-body’ to which Buck-Morss alludes, the body ‘divorced from vulnerability,’ the ‘statistical body,’ ‘the body enduring without pain,’ all linked to figurations of the male body, theorized as insensitive, unfeeling, armored (Buck-Morss 33).


Second, given phantasmagoria — a world of attractive commodities constructed ideologically to conceal every trace of the labor and socio-economic relations it took to produce them — Buck-Morss’s analysis of Marx’s concept could point to Creeley’s hesitations, his negotiations of syntax, and the simplicities of his word choices as rejecting the blandishments of phantasmagoria (Buck-Morss 25). Creeley unconceals poetic and human labor by tracking the particular; this is his ethical, aesthetic, and political goal.


Third, Creeley attends to smallness, to intimacy, to the little words. He rescales away from monumentality whenever he can, even while his most notable companions — Olson, Duncan — do not, or don’t overtly. He wanted to stay within the pitch of the minor, the trivial, the connection of one to one.


On this topic, Creeley says something quite witty by calling one of his late poems ‘Epic.’ The poem is also a proleptic account of his own death and absence.


‘Save some room/ for my epic,’


the poem begins, and it produces that epic briefly but generously.


Absence makes
a hole.
Any story
begins somewhere

and any other story
begins somewhere else.
(So There 78).


Here is the hole of death. And now we need the story. Or at least part of a story. To be a self is to be a gendered self. Yet what does that mean in practice? And how, as a writer, does one practice this? Elspeth Probyn proposes that


‘a gendered self is constantly reproduced within the changing mutations of difference. While its sex is known, the ways in which it is constantly re-gendered are never fixed or stable’


(Probyn 1993, 1). She is talking exclusively about women, and she does so to construct ‘alternative feminist positions in discourse’ especially in cultural studies, a task with which I have much sympathy. However, here I want to explore the re-gendering of a male poet, and I do so with significant trepidation, which is nonetheless not going to stop me particularly. Because if females are gendered selves that are produced and reproduced and re-gendered, so are males. We need to explore these mechanisms and their cultural outcomes.


However, Probyn’s terminology has its own story. The preposition ‘re-’ (we are back to little words, little parts of words) has two opposite meanings. One points to something happening again, with the implication of its being refreshed, seen anew. Another points to restoration and reiteration. This tension between these alternatives seems particularly apt for the difficulty of really altering gender materials (is the normative restored? is it jostled and seen afresh?). And that tension is quite evident in later Creeley.


Creeley’s ‘trivial’ being etymologically the place where three roads meet, this term evokes the gender-laden ground of oedipalization for him and others of his time. This is going to sound and be pretty brisk, blunt and even manipulative. Whether or not one accepts the full-scale Freudian theory, the oedipal narrative took on ideological status — it was believable as a myth; it had, for a time, a great deal of cultural credibility as a truism, particularly in its more melodramatic starkness. And it functioned as an aura over one’s biography, if not as a proveable reality. Further, this argument has been quite clearly stated by Creeley himself. This oedipal material is a constitutive, conscious mythography for Creeley, not only a set of biographical events, but a site for exploration of the ‘noises close to the body,’ where ‘eye’ and ‘ear’ exist in a network of exchanges.


Creeley paid the ultimate price for whatever oedipal fantasies we must fantasize (following Freud) that small boys have: he got a sliver of glass in, and lost the sight of his left eye (age 2). He thereupon lost his father (to an early death in 1930; he was then 4), and soon after (age 5) suffered that traumatic kind of trickery formerly practiced on children — he was taken to the hospital without knowing why, and ended up with the physical excision of the blind eye in order to save his sighted one (Creeley, in Terrell, ed., 1984, 206). These oedipal narrative punishments occur in somewhat the wrong order — his eye was gone as if twice, his father was dead, but he then lived in the company of women: his mother, Genevieve Jules Creeley (1887 — 1972), a beloved sister, Helen, and a housekeeper, Theresa Turner, who was quite important to him. An aunt (Bernice) who wrote comic poems was another important female figure. (Clark, ed. 28).


In Freud’s striking, frightening formulation, little boys fear the loss of their genitalia (or for Sophocles, their eyes) to punish their desires (Freud calls this castration anxiety); this makes them give up their taboo sexual desires for the mother for potential rights in all other women. Generally this narrative produces a sword of Damocles — nothing actually happens; there is only, for males, a vital patriarchy-producing anxiety. In contrast, little girls have ‘nothing’ in the genital area — or so the story goes–and thus ‘nothing’ whose loss they fear. Hence they escape the punitive regime of castration, because in Freud’s immortal words, they are ‘already’ castrated. Thus they will be haunted by lack, but rather more polymorphous in their attachments.[8]


But for Creeley something did indeed happen; he really lost his eye. That is, because of the blinded eye, the dead father, and the excision, we can argue that Creeley lived within an exaggerated relation to oedipality; he was put in the ‘feminine’ subject position with relation to castration because a symbolic/metonymic loss had been literalized on his body through the empty eye socket.[9] However, because he had paid the ultimate price and had ‘nothing’ more (theoretically speaking) to lose, those losses provoked several intricate outcomes — a sense of freedom, an early fascinated absorption into an exclusively women’s world, a stark compensatory binarist sense of sexual difference along with bouts of gender vulnerability. And a multiplex image: the hole.


This symbolic and somatically-evocative image was, to return to the Zukofsky epigraph, ‘close to the body,’ and the ‘noises’ Creeley made with the hole produced, or induced, or supported several dynamic gender contradictions.[10] Creeley self-consciously and knowingly returns to and continually remixes aspects of the powerful oedipal story of coming into male gender; he makes outcomes and elements of this narrative unstable, ambiguous, deepened in odd ways.


One striking site is the four-page ballad called ‘The Finger,’ a work whose emotional and cultural freedom was provoked (but is hardly explained) by an LSD trip (Creeley 1993, 99 — 100). ‘The Finger’ dramatizes the (arguably) oedipal desire of a male figure to see and to touch a female along with the more ambiguous possibility of pleasing her.[11] It also manifests a subplot with a twist on Freud — the vision of women as whole (uncastrated) while males are split and wounded. Thus one may ‘enter’ a woman as into a temple of totality.


To signal male smallness and woundedness, Creeley employs the unusual word ‘manny,’ which means tamed or domesticated creature, and is said in falconry, but has suggestions of ‘manikin’ and little man. This ‘manny’ dances to try to please the great composite Woman in her laughing, overwhelming nakedness. But pleasure is to come, with the deictic finger, the poetic finger, the phallic finger pointing into the composite visionary experience.


This poem in its dynamism folds, combines and alters materials from various parts of the oedipal narrative and from a Gravesean ‘Great Goddess’ mythography. Unlike the taboo sight of nude goddesses punished in much mythology with death, it seems in this poem that naked or exposed goddesses (Aphrodite and Athena) have been viewed recurrently, yet without any punishment at all. Instead the male is ‘the lover’ but not the ‘victim’ of the mother goddess ‘in her poetic or incantatory character’ (Graves 393). This is a poem of escape from punishment into pleasure. The female is protean and auretic, the male is aroused by her labile qualities; he too is many-mythed and metamorphic. The poem’s imagistic shape-shifting represents both the female and male figures and desire itself.


The main character learns, expansively,


‘My/ fate would be timeless” (Pieces [1969]; CP 384).


What is this fate?


‘Had they faced me into/ the light so that my/ eye was blinded?’ (Ibid.).


The punishment had come first; the ‘possession’ of the female comes later, and the epiphany or dazzling ‘light’ of that interaction, its blessing and terror, the necessity for male performance, and orgasmic potential are constant and defining.[12] Oedipality has been trumped — or at least narratively reorganized.


At key moments of intensity, Creeley affirms a vulnerable manhood in the loss of maleness and the gain of something else. In ‘The Finger,’ when the main character says


‘I.../was neither a man nor not one, / all that,’


we have one of the seminal moments of sexual difference in Creeley (CP 386). It is a moment of intensity and exposure, which the speaker evinces both a loss (a fear) and a gain (an advantage) by having more than one should, in having less. Given the aroused, ‘elated,’ metamorphic quality of this poem, one reads this line by naming as many options as possible, given that the points made are relatively unsummarizable or irreducible (luckily).[13]


The line layers the possibility that the speaker is both male and female in an unusually negative, roundabout formulation (neither a man  — i.e. a woman — nor not one — i.e. a man). Has he added another gender with a Tiresean flair? Is he proposing an imaginary intersexed subjectivity? The line may mean the hero is the impotent male, a man, but ‘not a man,’ in sexual failure or sexual anxiety. Not a man may also mean ‘a boy’: the hero visualized as the male boy (there being at least four genders — girl, boy, woman, man). This could be the ‘manny’ precisely  —


‘neither a man nor not one’


 — too small and oedipally forbidden to this luscious maternal, goddess figure whose naked body, whose lust, whose sexual autonomy he witnesses, in desire for both her body and his poetry.[14]


Yet the forbidden resolves by a kind of possession. The whole is an epiphany of double desire to please her body  —


‘let/ me touch you/ there’


(where she pointed with her finger; it’s vague but loosely resolvable) and to please her spirit —


‘let/ me sing’


to and for her (CP 388). So the poem seems to do the forbidden oedipal deed in described fantasy and in the rush of its changes (it is very sexy and sexual) seems to possess that overwhelming goddess-woman. As the aftermath poems in Pieces state (very ambiguously, but interestingly as readings proleptic for a whole career)


One thing
done, the
rest follows.


Not from not
but in in.


This suggests, unmistakably, that the possession of this sublime female has occurred and is defining, despite its being somewhat taboo. Some permission has been given; there is a decisive rejection of ‘not,’ in favor of ‘in.’ This poem is a portal to one major theme in his career, and Creeley knows it:


‘To go on telling the story,/ to go on though no one hears it,/ to the end of my days?’
         (CP 385).[15]


In certain particulars, this argument resembles the observations on the male poetic career that Catherine Maxwell offered about Milton through British Victorian poets. She traces a mythic and ideological topos deep inside the formation of the male poet that ‘co-identifies blindness, castration and feminisation as the necessary loss’ that brings the male poet into being (Maxwell 2001, 1). Feminization is then not a matter of the social history of maleness, nor of biographical particulars, nor of differential and historically formed ideologies of masculinity, or of specific occasions of ‘re-gendering,’ but rather a mythic narrative of wounding or ‘disfigurement,’ a ‘symbolic castration’ in which the male poet experiences a ‘disfiguring sublime, imagined as an aggressive female force which feminises the male’ in a way that is overwhelming, ravishing, penetrating, transforming (Maxwell 2001, 1).[16]


This argument almost corresponds to the rapture of ‘The Finger’; however, this poem argues that the main character, the ‘manny,’ is both overwhelmed by and capable of giving pleasure to the female. So the terms do not entirely match up, for Creeley’s poem concerns a sublime sexual and poetic joy, a new epiphanic seeing via sexuality, and both male vulnerability and power.


Maxwell proposes that gendering processes are vital to the poetic career, and that intricate involvement with ideologies and mythologies of feminine, masculine, maleness, femaleness, gender crossovers, the a-normative and transgressive, sexual difference, along with the fantasy materials of gender and related concepts of power and sublimity, intimacy and inspiration, must be tracked with a full recognition of the gender meanings evoked. This is a position with which I agree. However, her gender processes are, if alluring, also mythopoetic, trans-historical generalizations; in contrast, I would emphasize particular somatic or biographical matrix in which these materials take shape.


If, as Elspeth Probyn argues,


‘a gendered self is constantly reproduced within the changing mutations of difference’


certainly it is not mythic permanence (even if ‘The Finger’ also affirms it is!) but a biographical, historical and social calling forth that allows gender manifestations, performances, and ideas to be reaffirmed and even renegotiated (Probyn 1993, 1). Tropes are never trans-historical; even if they carry over across time, they are always appropriated and reinterpreted in specific matrices.[17] That is, even if this decisive wounding occurs for male poets, it does not do so by the agency of ‘mythoi’ themselves or by the necessity of poetry imagined as a force with its own will, but because poets and aspirants rearticulate certain gendering processes in their own way, perhaps in part by chosen adhesion to poetic tradition and its topoi. In Creeley’s case, he grasped and struggled with some things that actually, literally happened to him, and which, by acts of poetic desire and will — and some bravery — he chose to face within his poetry.


In this account of oedipality, males have to imagine something potentially cut from them and something already cut from the unfortunate female; what is left is the hole of absence. This may be feminizing, but, narrated in Creeley’s mode, to be a woman is always already to have a hole, and a man, entering that space, somewhat compensates for his own vulnerabilities. Creeley consistently uses his metaphor of ‘the hole’ to indicate the vaginal opening and the birth canal and also death, the loss of the self, the grave.


‘The hole from which we came// isn’t metaphysical./ The one to which we go is real’


(If I were writing this 2003, 42). When the vaginal ‘hole’ is in play, that hole is culturally loaded with absence and lack, something whose potential banality is not avoided in Creeley’s poetry. [18]


When death enters, Eve and the Fall hover in the background. That is, the ‘hole’ of death is a secular version of the conventional fairy-tale of hegemonic theologies in which women are responsible for bringing death into the world. In this evocation of sexual difference in the imagery around death, Creeley is playing with that theology, but he is not making a critique of it. If this set of claims manifests sexual difference at its most binarist, it is nonetheless evident that Creeley found this material staggeringly generative, part of the ontological ground on which he stood.[19]


The title poem in Life & Death compares the boy or youth-situation of not really knowing about the mechanics of (heterosexual) intercourse and thus not understanding life itself to the situation he is in now, not really knowing about death. For example:


The first time couldn’t
even find the hole
it was supposed to go in —
Lonely down here
in simple skin....
          (1998, 69)


Then with an evocative citation from Zukofsky that Creeley uses several times in this book, he explicitly compares the holes of death and sexuality:


Born very young into a world
already very old, Zukofsky’d said.
I heard the jokes
the men told
down by the river, swimming.
What are you
supposed to do
and how do you learn.
I feel the same way now.
          (1998, 71)


The late poem, ‘Conversion to Her’ is a four-part work beginning with the speaker’s birth from the mother, and passing within a few lines to his life in an aging body. Based on a suite of paintings by Francesco Clemente, the imagery evokes materials very fundamental to Creeley about the complex ‘hole’ of oedipal punishment, vaginal entrance and death. In the bulk of life, the part hardly narrated, the speaker asks


‘Who was I then? What man had entered?’


This is a question perhaps about his father (whom he hardly knew and, to his sorrow, barely remembered), about himself (uneasy or vulnerable maleness being a major topic for his work), and perhaps about what one might, stolidly call, ‘a male subject position’ that one faces and introjects.[20]


At any rate, in this poem, the body, now aging within one quick quatrain, is


‘crossing over.’


To death, absolutely, and thus images of physical destruction abound in the next quatrain, but also, startlingly, to being female-ized. The quatrain is about being hurt, cut, wounded, ‘castrated’ and full of desire — to say this luridly, but no more luridly than the poem.


Knife cuts through.
Things stick in holes.
Spit covers body.
Head’s left hanging.

Hole is in middle.
Little boy wants one.
Help him sing here
Helpless and wanting.


(If I were writing this 2003, 41)


A second part of the poem ‘wonders’ at the fact of gender, and responds to the gender binary and its stereotypes:


Being human, one wonders at the others,
men with their beards and anger,

women with their friends and pleasure —


‘Human’ — the common life, and the position of the speaker — seems, importantly, to differ from these strange gendered figures. However,


‘one cannot say. Be as women,/ be peaceful, then,


perhaps because the speaker has a whole history of existing within maleness (If I were writing this 2003, 42). The third part ends with two rhyming couplets announcing proverbial gender wisdom. The rhyme (a formal feature) both mocks and affirms ideology — the statements are simultaneously ‘true’ and ‘truisms’:


Women are told
To let world unfold.

Men, to take it,
Make or break it.


Then the speaker says in italics,


All’s true/ except for you


(If I were writing this 2003, 42). This you could be an addressee who has escaped these banal gender truisms; the statement could be addressed to the self as you. What happens if you don’t really conform to, or confirm these truisms? It appears there is a space — it could be life, it could be the looming of death


‘in which a man still lives/ till he become a woman’


(If I were writing this 2003, 43).


What might this mean? First, that death, like all other insulting losses suffered, is the ultimate hole-creating ‘castrator’ and feminizes a male. (To ask what death might do to a woman is to spoil this clarity of insistence, so I won’t.) Then the poem may be said to rest upon a word in the title ‘Conversion’ and a word at the end ‘become’ — perhaps a subjunctive form of the verb ‘becomes.’ In his 2003 interview with Leonard Schwartz (in Jacket Magazine 25), Creeley makes clear the double direction of ‘Conversion to Her’ — back to sexual difference (men are not women) and forward to some intersection of the two genders into one, as the title of the poem says. Men are, in some sense, converted to women.


Conversion means a change — adopting a new religion, a change of belief or practice.[21] To convert to woman is to change into another form, substance, state or product. Or to change in ways that credits her ideas and notions. So he ‘becomes’ a woman in that hypothetical, subjunctive fashion. But he also might ‘become’ a woman, which means to be appropriate or suitable to, or to show to advantage. If he is an ornament that enhances a woman, he is something small and subordinate to her gloriousness. Although the terms are still couched in the binarist gender words (man, woman), the poem seems, in some part, to propose the human, the common life, as a new path beyond (and a conversion from) polarized genders. A lot hinges on the reading of ‘become.’


Indeed, when Creeley talks about ‘Conversion to Her,’ a number of contradictory ideas about gender are simultaneously proposed. To Leonard Schwartz:


You’re quite right that it [the poem] certainly all goes back to the insistent sense in Graves’ own concerns, the whole White Goddess, and that sense of  — again I will take it from Williams–’the female principle of the world [which] is my appeal in the extremity to which I have come...’ But here I’m actually thinking of the conversion of a male ‘principle’ that would somehow be like that ‘female principle.’


This statement is filled with gender ideas with fundamentally colliding impacts; this is not a consistent ‘position’ — it is a series of semi-contradictory vectors of interest for Creeley’s debates concerning sexual difference. White Goddess is a work in which Robert Graves lavishly discusses the archetypes of female power as represented in myth. This iconization of a Female Principle is hardly inconsistent with the segregation of, rage at, hyper-contemptuous ‘respect’ for, and sense of taboo around women — they are so powerful you have to control them, even violently. But in its best-case scenario, this position maintains spiritual/visceral awe of somewhat mythologized women for their power, aura and force (thus, ‘The Finger’).


In Creeley’s work, a continuous reaffirmation of strong polarized gender binarism (or sexual difference), with an extreme sense of the largeness and hieratic sublimity of women and/or female figures is sometimes coupled with striking images of wounding and loss. This wounding and loss are both exacerbated and cured by repeated addresses to the same sublimity. In this argument, males are ‘converted’ to the female principle by recognizing, as converts or epigones, the Mana (and manna) of these goddesses, and they desire to ‘enter’ them in some way, even together with other men, in order both to be inside their powers and to be protected from those powers by the company of male partners.


It is striking that the word ‘become’ figures as well in the poem at the end of Pieces  — ‘When he and I,/ after drinking and/ talking....’ (CP 445 — 446), a work that has been debated by Ted Pearson and Libbie Rifkin. At stake is, first off, whether one reads the figure in this poem as a goddess or a woman — indeed a ‘goddess or woman/ become her’ (CP 445 — 446). If the poem concerns an actual woman, and the men who both ‘enter’ her, the ‘delight’ experienced might be judged negatively, as Pearson does with a good deal of frankness and some tough talk:


‘Now if it is a “woman” who is “entered,” whatever else that may imply, it does imply that they fuck her....And if her use is not a form of rape, it very well might be.....This connection between rape and (male self-) knowledge is, of course, one of literature’s most durable tropes’


(Pearson 1991, 162). I cannot stop here for a long time but will simply observe the glissade from ‘enter’ to ‘fuck’ to ‘rape’ structures this argument.


Having acknowledged the full literariness of this as well as rather forcefully beginning to explore maleness and socio-cultural praxis, Pearson seems angry in two directions — one involves a chivalrous defense of a character in a poem (a somewhat naïve, but not inexplicable position) and the other involves Creeley. Pearson is upset that Creeley continues at least one major trope of literature and cannot see his way to any revision of it.[22] It is plausible that Pearson is expressing his hopes for a major transformation of cultural praxis around gender and is disappointed that Creeley is not taking a leadership role.


Rifkin makes her comments in the context of a groundbreaking argument about


‘the gendered relations of power’


in the poetry cohorts that she studies (Rifkin 2000, 7). One of the implications is precisely her building a version, for poetry in general and for this poem particularly, of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s and Michael Davidson’s ‘homosocial’ thesis in which the


‘fantasy of immediacy’


in the merger of men is


‘achieved through the mediation of a woman,’


and in which the female figure is found


‘stabilizing and completing’ the poem’s “I”‘


(Rifkin 2000, 70). She cites the Pearson passage, but is more concerned in general with cohort practices and with the symptomatic poems that reveal a lack of coequality between male and female figures.


Like Rifkin, I see this merger-of-men-via-a-woman and the


‘stabilizing and completing’


function of female figures as reiterated data of collective poetic culture. These are very familiar topoi in male self-fashioning; to point to their repetitive continuities is not to be exculpatory of the topoi and their effects, but to recognize only that all the multiple instances create hegemonic saturation incredibly difficult to remove. (Even, sometimes, to see.) Creeley is the bearer of these materials, and like any significant bearer, he has also given them further propulsion; however, later in his career, he is not entirely unconscious about them.


Creeley seems, given the opaque but palpable argument in his later work, to have come to some slightly changed relation to these topoi and to the female figures who populate his work. He addresses this material and Pearson’s critique haltingly in the (1991) interview with Charles Bernstein, acknowledging so far as I can tell, the generally comfortable habitus of a man of his generation — to see women as not really equal. It is quite difficult for Creeley to talk about this, judging from the interview.[23]


Yet for me the tone of the poem (‘When he and I,/ after drinking...’) is pure wonder at sexuality (including a very late 60s vision of an orgy) and before that, the ‘meeting’ with a ‘goddess’ or woman in her guise. That the work does not honor, acknowledge or ask questions about the female’s experience is true; that the poem joins two male figures, and through the pursuit of an act of heterosexual intercourse gives a visionary experience to at least one male figure in the poem seems to say only: it is a lyric — and interestingly, a lyric that splits its affect between the homosocial and the heterosexual materials.


Lyrics in general occlude the question of depicting the speech or reactions of the all-too-female ‘other’ even when they flirt with that possibility.[24] One might then note that ‘Conversion to Her’ is the poem in which Creeley tries to make some kind of halting amends for the position articulated at the end of Pieces (though surely not making amends for the poem!), a position in which women are not co-equal humans, although they may be auretic goddesses.


The Williams citation in the interview of Creeley by Schwartz about ‘Conversion to Her’ might say women or goddesses (embodying ‘the female principle’) will rescue men; it even appeals for that rescue. Like the role of African-Americans in many Africanist representations (in Toni Morrison’s and parallel analyses) the favored narrative role for Blacks is to save some white person. Similarly, Women are not ‘for themselves’ in existential terms, but ‘for another.’ Clearly this sentence returns to female bigness and male vulnerability.


The salvationist role, the role of offering care to someone in ‘extremity’ or need is presumably a human function. Hence when faced with the notion that this ethics of care is based solely the ‘female principle,’ I think one must refuse and critique these blandishments: of conceptualizing such excellence as exclusively female; of seeing females as without aggression and irresponsibility; and of assuming care is given only by males who have affirmed a female aspect.


Finally, Creeley and Schwartz continue by evoking a sense of androgyny or an increase in the sense that any person is two genders. (Binary gender remains structuring — this is not a queer position.)


RC: But here I’m actually thinking of the conversion of a male ‘principle’ that would somehow be like that ‘female principle.’

LS: Virginia Woolf did suggest early on that the good writer has to have an androgynous mind, so certainly, for us [i.e. men], it would have to be a question of becoming women in order to write.[25]

RC: Yes, I feel that.
          (Jacket 25, 2003)


Here we see the potential for a ‘recognition’ (to evoke Carolyn Heilbrun’s now long-ago term) of the androgynous self, gender multiplicity, a position that seems to leave interesting spaces for females as well as males to undo gender binarism.


One response of Creeley to male vulnerability and male power is the continuing affirmation for himself, and appropriation to himself, of elements of a feminine subject position. This is also quite familiar to his poetry, and rather fascinating as at least double-crossing gender binarism by playing with a certain bi-ness (we will see this in ‘The Hole’).


His interest in a feminine position sometimes led Creeley to some empathetic identifications. For instance, in his intellectual and emotional frankness, in his care at anatomizing inner and outer, memorable yet generally unmentionable body parts (like the bowel and the prostate), in his sensitive attention to the pulsations of thinking inside real time, and in his selectively framing colloquial and spoken language, Creeley dissolves certain binary formulations that have often been mapped onto gender stereotype.


Particularly he tried to erase and flatten the force for male subjectivity of the mind-body ‘split’ which has served our culture so notably as ideology, and which usually maps on woman as body, man as mind. Creeley appropriates the female materials to himself, as we know from his intimate depictions of the male body, and denies, by his own malehood, the hegemonic force of that particular gender binary. In this he can be (but is not always) critical of cultural clichés about gender and revisionary about manhood.


For if males take femaleness into themselves, making it part of themselves as men, this produces the potential for appropriation. Men now possess all the standard available genders in their psyche. More is better than just one, and this claim may certainly make males more powerful. Barbara Johnson has proposed that a male poet (Baudelaire is her example), entering a feminine subject position, has a good deal of cultural privilege; he has ‘both’ gender positions, and can negotiate them, in part imperially (Johnson 1998). Baudelaire is hardly the only example one might adduce of this culturally powerful move. To ask what the corresponding move is for the female poet, how she may appropriate maleness (hint: it is rather more taboo, scandalous and punished) is to again see the toils and webs of gender inequality in the cultures of poetry as a practice.


Yet the arguments about the common life and human person-ness that Creeley makes continuously from 1990 on cannot encourage very fervent binarist thinking about Men and Women. So finally, there is a possibility that the ‘common life,’ the sheer human about which Creeley talked, offers a position beyond gender polarization.[26] Thus among the thoughts Creeley entertained about gender materials, there are some that involve a few attempts to undo sexual difference, to critique gender binarism, to identify with a wounded woman. In these attempts, he also entertains ‘another’ rather more human and common hole. Creeley is particularly memorable in at least two poems about the anus.


Even here, he explores this material with two different emphases. One important poem concerns the question of penetration and forced receptivity and it has a nervous, scatty quality. The other, more recent poem discusses the anus as a ‘common’ hole, that is, one held in common by the genders.


‘The Hole’ (from Words, 1967) contains set of frank images–in which the speaker identifies with a girl (anally?) raped by her boyfriend with a coke bottle, feeling this situation on and in himself:


felt there,


          (CP 344).


‘There’ is a complex place hard to identify precisely because of the minimalist, allusive syntax; it is most likely the anus, but possibly a vaginal opening. ‘The Hole’ is a poem in which intimate openings cross and where there is a lot of unease about one’s position in this array of sexual possibilities.


Is the speaker the subject perpetuating something upon another person —


‘opened [it]/ myself’?


Is the speaker the object of another’s sexual act or of an act of intimate self-exploration —


‘opened myself’?


It is Creeley’s brilliance to produce, in the four lines and five words cited above, just those words that propose both these alternative positions simultaneously and undecidably. What would it feel like to be raped (for a male, anally penetrated) is half-considered, and what might a woman feel who was raped anally, or vaginally, but who also (according to the poem) semi-consented?


The work seems to consider or to confess a scene or scenes of sexual penetration that involve somewhat taboo acts, rape perhaps, semi-consensual sexual intercourse, or perhaps anal penetration. The very equivalence and relationship of these possibilities in the poem’s repertoire might need further discussion. It is a scattered, uneasy poem, empathetically contemplating these materials as well as (with some relief?) evoking the penis, for the poem is book-ended with two penises both revealed while their possessors are swimming.


‘The Hole’ might also be construed as a mental meditation before orgasm:


’I want/ to, now I/ can’t wait any/ longer’ (CP 345).


Certainly with the imagery of the ‘hole’ in Creeley that involves anality, the intimacies, uneasiness, and frankness are mobile and polymorphous. Binarist sexual difference, although never absent, is somewhat eroded in this poem in the exploration of desire and penetration.


In at least one key late poem, the equation of vaginal sheath (‘hole’ in Creeley’s terms) and death modulates into the unambiguous consideration of the anus, human aging, and the continuum between insideness and outsideness, substance and emptiness. Zukofsky’s ‘Keep the noises as close to the body as possible’ might well be the motto of Creeley’s poem ‘Age’ in Just in Time that turns to the hole of common humanness, the anus, with a terrific pun on annus, the word year in Latin (2001, 146 — 149).


‘Age’ is a meditation as if during a colonoscopy, a diagnostic examination that goes with a light and a camera at the end of a tube up the back end of a sedated, but possibly twilight-awake person. Written in 34 couplets, in several self-interrupting parts, looping, with very subtle transitions, it is a pretty anti-poetic poem. The unflattering, fond mention of the snoring lover, the colonoscopy, the use of the word anus, plus other terms in the realm of ass all challenge elevation and sublimity.


The main figure, a patient, is isolated and fears the diagnostic outcome of the procedure, finding it difficult to wrap himself around the ‘other side’ — illness, death, old age, common humanness. He appeals to a ‘you’ for loyalty and empathy during these bad moments, the ‘whimpering’ times in which a person feels thoroughly isolated. The poem ends with an ethical proposition that to be listened to and heard is crucial, but the self will, in any case, keep talking.


Many semantic images concern the discomfort of being in the wrong position. All those words (implosion, prolapsed) have a secret bottom in the thing that this poem tries to avoid saying — death. The poem travels a distance, then jumps a bit, but keeps returning to the same general topic. It begins with the wedged self, in a narrowing tube of time itself, precisely not (the choice is striking) in a hole, but explicitly in a narrowing cone. The wedged trap is the possible path to death — no one knows where or when....


This idea of death is then avoided with a jump to the word ‘quite’ pronounced variously. There is an interplay between the American, British (and/or New Zealand) pronunciation of a word — quite, which is one of those phatic terms indicating a general agreement. By sound association, this word links to quiet but also, as a crypt term, to quietus. Since that culturally evocative word concerns the deathblow, we haven’t avoided the hidden topic at all.


It is very odd to be scrutinized from behind and from inside — it is not one’s best face, so to speak, yet Creeley makes the most of this strange (not totally uncommon, but usually unspoken) position, showing again how positionality has always been crucial to him and what brilliant use he made of it.


Now you see the
two doctors, behind

you, in mind’s eye,
probe into your anus,

or ass, or bottom,
behind you, the roto-

rooter-like device
sees all up....

          (Just in Time 2001, 147)


The anus is associated with the eye, but as the subject of scrutiny: see, eye and sees alternate with the words ass, anus, bottom, and the preposition behind (by extension, another ass word) repeated twice. Later, with punning exactitude, the poem proposes:


‘The world is a round but/ diminishing ball’


and butt is wittily palpable. Here, there, and where, now, then, and when, inside and outside are all ‘sites’ deictically variable, powerful locations in which the paradox of meditating on one’s insides goes forward, but so does the power of forward pulsing time.


And the noises are close to the body. A colonoscopy shouldn’t be painful, but it used to be uncomfortable, to use that euphemism (if there is too little sedation administered — something less common now in the procedure). And, if one reads the medical release form carefully, one will find that there is always the slight danger of a puncture. This discomfort enters the poem in its sound, through the two vowels (o and oo) of the key word, the simile/descriptor of the long tube with a camera: ‘roto-rooter.’ For those readers not suburban homeowners, this is not a medical term, but the brand name of a plumbing device used to clean out pipes, such as sewer connections blocked by tree roots.


‘Roto-rooter’ is a pool-word that condenses and focuses many of the vowel sounds of the poem. In this context, these are sounds of pain/discomfort and emotional vulnerability, and a lot of the poem’s words emit them. The o sound is heard in narrowing, cone, probe, no, old, prose, joke, echo, alone, close, over, glowing, approaching, retro; the oo sound occurs in into, whom, you, two, concludes, cube, do, crucial. This is a poem in the related keys of o and oo. Another repeated sound comes in the key of J. These are age, wedge, gesture, joke, reach, touch, approach, judgmental and just, and these words function as reiterations of the title sound — the ultimate reductio — ‘age.’ This sound functions as well, perhaps, as a bit of commiserating sympathy: tch, tch, tch.[27]


The poem finally names its hidden topic, but only gingerly. The allusion to Keats is torqued, not speaking about fears when I may cease to be (as in the great sonnet), but


....the approaching

fears when I may
cease to be me, all

lost or rather lumped
here is a retrograded,

dislocating, imploding
self, a uselessness


           (Just in Time 2001, 148 — 49)


The three emphatic adjectives at the end of this poem all emphasize major shifts in positionality of that ‘self.’ Retrograded means moving or tending backward, retreating, opposed, contrary, and opposite to earth (in motion). Dislocating means shifted out of the usual position, and thrown into confusion, disorder, upset. And imploding means a violent collapse inward. All speak to common fears of the common human. A similar descriptor ‘prose prolapsed’ in the middle of the poem refers to the ordinary, commonplace, proversus, to turn forward — a description of the intestine, poetry, the linebreak, life, and this poem. Prolapsed is a slippage or falling out of place, said particularly of an organ. It also contains the fears of one’s lapsing past one’s shelf life. Not only is death a fear, but so too is really bad disability, where one is precisely ‘not oneself.’


These physical meditations on a body acknowledge unheroic humanness in all its poignancy. This is a poem in which maleness is simply unmentioned — the work concerns the worn-down human. Taking this poem and its hole as a key late work, one might venture that male subjectivity is a little more mobile and critical in later Creeley than in earlier Creeley. One may well see, in poems and their discussion, the affirmation of gender binarism yet again, but sometimes in Creeley’s thinking and his work another position emerges: that both male and female dissolve into the human, the common place.


The force of any one poem doesn’t do away with socio-political power or cultural assumptions. Nonetheless, a poem may jostle assumptions and may destabilize deeply embedded gender materials. Some of these cultural explorations of gender occasion powerful debates in Creeley’s later work. This is a magisterial and poignant part of his oeuvre, whose contradictions and dilemmas carry forward into our time and place, a time and place which we so recently shared with him.


Bernstein, Charles. ‘Hero of the Local: Robert Creeley and the Persistence of American Poetry.’ Textual Practice 19. 3 (2005): 373 — 377.

Buck-Morss, Susan. ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.’ October 62 (Autumn 1992): 3 — 41. Accessed through J-STOR.

Clark, Tom, ed. Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place. New York: New Directions, 1993. Creeley, Robert. The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945 — 1975. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Cited as CP in the text.

———. ‘Dove Sta Memoria,’ In Terrell, ed., 1984: 199 — 222.

———. [Note regarding the anthologized poem, ‘For my Mother’; transcription from a taped commentary in answer to the questions May 1983]. 45 Contemporary Poems: The Creative Process, ed. Alberta T. Turner. Longman, 1985: 38 — 43.

———. Tales Out of School. Selected Interviews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

———. So There: Poems 1976 — 1983. New York: New Directions, 1998.

———. Life & Death. New York: New Directions, 1998. (Contains the poem ‘Life & Death’).

———. Just In Time, Poems 1984 — 1994. New York: New Directions, 2001. (Contains the poem ‘Age.’)

———. If I Were Writing This. New York: New Directions, 2003. (Contains the poems ‘Memory’ and ‘Conversion to Her.’)

———. On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

———. “Creeley talks to Charles Bernstein’s Poetics Seminar; The focus is on gender issues.” SUNY-Buffalo, Feb. 28, 1991. PennSound.

———. Interview with Leonard Schwartz (conducted November 24, 2003) Jacket 25 (Feb. 2004).

Davidson, Michael. Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Tabula Rosa. Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1987. (Contains the poem ‘Writing.’)

———. Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘The Passing of the Oedipus-Complex’ (1924), Collected Papers, Vol. Two. London: The Hogarth Press, 1957.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). New York: Octagon Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. Toward a Recognition of Androgyny. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Johnson, Barbara. The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Maxwell, Catherine. The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Pearson, Ted. ‘“A Form of Assumptions.”‘ Poetics Journal 9 (June 1991): 159 — 164.

Probyn, Elspeth. Sexing the Self: Gendered Positions in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1993.

Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Columbia University Press, 1985.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. N.Y.: Routledge, 1993.

Terrell, Carroll F., ed. Robert Creeley: The Poet’s Workshop. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1984.

Watten, Barrett, ‘The Lost America of Love: A Genealogy.’ Genre XXXIII (Fall-Winter 2000): 278 — 318.

Zukofsky, Louis. ‘Louis Zukofsky interviewed by L.S. Dembo (1968).’ Contemporary Literature 10.2 (Spring 1969): 203 — 219.


[1] Creeley has cited ‘I like to keep the noises as close to the body as possible’ so often that I once thought he had written it; my 1985 poem ‘Writing’ cites this phrase, and attributes it wrongly. DuPlessis 1987, 68, 105.

[2] This paper was originally delivered at the October 2006 conference at SUNY-Buffalo on Creeley’s work; it was also delivered at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia in July 2008. I would like to acknowledge the original invitation from conference organizer Steve McCaffery, helpful (and not yet always absorbed) comments by Forrest Gander, Clayton Eshleman, and Peter Middleton made to me after the event, and the generous reception of this paper by Penelope Creeley. I would also like to acknowledge the scholarly work on maleness and poetry by Michael Davidson and Libbie Rifkin, and the specific work on Creeley and maleness by Charles Bernstein and Barrett Watten.

[3] Creeley speaks for example about voiding the bowels and really being in that moment, one often unspoken, if certainly important (Clark, ed. 110). In If I were writing this, a poem beginning with a dream of Allen Ginsberg, Creeley gives an intimate description of exactly how to get all the urine out of an aging penis and bladder — informational, sympathetic, and exacting, with a extra meditation on the quondam difficulties of urinating in a public facility (2003, 46).

[4] I am using words from the essay on Whitman in On Earth, and from the poem ‘Shimmer’ (26, 27).

[5] In his last book, On Earth, he seems to torque a Shakespeare sonnet (‘When I consider how my life...’) and something like a cross between Thomas Nashe’s ‘A Litany in Time of Plague’ and William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makaris (in ‘When I think,’ 2006, 3 and ‘A Full Cup,’ 2006, 47 — 48). He uses the Shakespeare line ‘Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang’ as the title of a poem for Don (Donald Allen); the Whitman line and title ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ as the title of a poem for Allen Ginsberg (If I Were Writing This 2003, 31 and 28 — 30).

[6] Creeley in Just in Time, 262:

‘Was this the loved hand, the/ mortal “hand still capable of grasping...”/ Who could speak/ to make death listen? // One grows older,/ gets closer./ It’s a long way home,/ this last walking.’

Olson in The Maximus Poems


‘This living hand, now warm, now capable/ of earnest grasping...’

is the full poem on 506 (or III, 177), only slightly modified from Keats’ first lines. The Keats poem, dated 1819 (?), an uncanny unfinished fragment:

‘This living hand, now warm and capable/ Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold/ And in the icy silence of the tomb,/ So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights/ That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood/ So in my veins red life might stream again,/ And thou be conscience-calmed — see here it is  — / I hold it towards you.

[7] The last phase, then from 1991 on, or somewhat before. Creeley meditates on “common” notably in the immediate zone of the first Iraq War (in the discussion at New College from February 1991 that completes Tom Clark’s collection).

[8] To bring those little girl escapees into line, incidentally, ideology (including narrative) and domination are used insistently instead. Thus their normative gender identity as being brought under the regime of patriarchy is actually more unstable than that (theorized; projected) for little boys.

[9] Creeley is very clear about the difficulty (he repeats this in several interviews) of thereupon learning how to be a man (see the 1973 interview with Lewis MacAdams, 1993, 81). Sometimes this sense of the company of women is an enormous power in Creeley; sometimes he felt, or claimed to have felt, bereft of the knowledge of his own gender, a situation with which he played sometimes, as in this gnomic late quatrain called ‘Sign’ that begins with and is generated by puns on the name of a diversified world-wide corporation (originally heavy manufacturing, and now including electronics):

semen’s, and I don’t
see men’s — and I don’t
know what it means.
          (So There 55)

[10] In a poem such as ‘Anger’ this ‘hole’ is reserved ‘for anger’; it is filled with the self, and the couple in the poem is also trapped in it (CP 305 — 09).

[11] Creeley claimed strong identification with, and even dominance by females. He said this in answer to a question I asked him when he visited an undergraduate class in creative writing that I was teaching at Temple University in Fall 1984. He was being filmed at the time, and a scene from this class appears in the film Creeley, made by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian (59 minutes, released in 1988). I was the off-camera voice asking him something about his biographical? cultural? poetic? relationships with women. What I remember (and managed also to take few notes about) is his answer   — quite parallel to the argument of ‘The Finger’: that he was raised by women, he was nurtured by women, he was, in effect overwhelmed by women, he identified with them to a degree that seemed defining for him, and he could never be as large and encompassing as they were, never have that power. Therefore he couldn’t possibly be sexist or exclusionary in his attitudes   — something that does not and did not logically follow, though it may follow emotionally or affirmatively.

[12] Creeley reflected on this experience and the poem (in 1973) filtered through Graves’ archetypalist thinking: ‘this beautiful primordial experience of woman’ from girl to crone (‘all the guises of woman’) with the visceral delight that ‘man is form and woman is essence’ (Creeley 1993, 100). The pleasure is evident; one might not want to puncture it with any information about the archaic, now non-scientific Aristotlean gender narrative that insists that males are form and females are only inchoate essence, nor any modernist observations about such uneven gender narratives that reserve historicity for males and archetypal dissolve for females. One might argue that the poems bring us to pleasurable, sexually heightened space in which, beyond all that picky gender binarism, gender doesn’t matter. Perhaps ‘the pleasure is how the world comes to that point’; ‘it’s the delight of thought as a possibility of forms’ (Creeley 1993, 100).

[13] Creeley uses the word ‘elation’ while discussing this poem in a 1991 New College talk (Clark, ed. 1993, 111).

[14] Without ruining the poem with clumsy identifications, let me raise the possibility that the poem depicts a teasing scene of female masturbation which had the effect of a promissory note for the speaker’s own curiosity and desire: a ‘there’ he wants to get to and an act he wants to ‘follow’ (CP 387, 388). It is also plausible that the poem depicts a mutual act of proto-intercourse between a boy and a woman.

[15] Creeley criticizes this poem a little in 1991 — he says ‘I suddenly realized I had changed in my experience of the world. At sixty-four, I no longer believed that the significant disposition of humanness was willed. I’d written, “The choice is simply,/ I will — as mind is a finger,/ pointing, as wonder/ a place to be” (Clark, ed., 111). It’s significant that his critique is about the force of will, not about the sexual and sublime mythic narrative.

[16] The agent of the oedipal threat here is a female figure, not, as in the Freudian account, the paternal figure of the law. Of course, if all men undergo oedipal crises, then, in this reading, all men should be poets. If only male poets undergo this enhanced crisis, then the argument is circular — one is proving that male poets become male poets.

[17] There may also be processes and tropes to which we no longer have access; these have not been carried forward in historical time.

[18] The vaginal opening is one into which some men may go, or come, in sexual intercourse, into which women may go, too, and certainly into which various things besides penises might be put, seeking pleasure or out of necessity — dildos, fingers, tongues, tampaxes, and so forth. My amused description wants to begin by registering serious resistance to the metaphor of ‘hole’ in the first place. I don’t like it, I’ve never liked it, and it doesn’t seem fully accurate to me, mainly because the next step from hole is emptiness or lack. And then we are in the realm of ideology. As usual.

[19] As Charles Bernstein has pointed out, Creeley ‘explored regions of male sexuality, aggression, anger, frustration, futility, loss and disorientation (as well as tenderness and love) in a way rarely, if ever, articulated in American poetry’ (Bernstein 374).

[20] After all, men don’t have to like ideologies of masculinity and manhood any better than women like ideologies of femininity and womanhood. It’s just that those male, or male-er stances may (though don’t automatically) generate more social benefit   — even to very nice men who try personally to repudiate that benefit.

[21] In U.S. football, conversion means to add a point to one’s original six-point touchdown.

[22] For example, the only hint of ‘rape’ is ‘by my/ insistence entered/ her’ which could mean that the male friend was unwilling to have this doubled sexual experience of having intercourse with the same woman as the ‘I,’ not that the female figure was. Since the female figure is given no response at all, precisely Rifkin’s point, it’s hard to reconstruct how this figure ‘felt.’

[23] Creeley also states explicitly that this poem is not ‘about’ rape. This referencing of the actual incident on which this poem was based is a curiosity to me   — it is good to know where the material comes from, but it does not gainsay some of the resonance of his words.

[24] On this, see the argument in “Marble Paper” in Blue Studios 104 — 07, about the difficulty the lyric has in animating the voices of the ‘other.’ At the end of Pieces, I/her is the central relation, and it occurs as much in fantasy as in reality. ‘I could fashion another/ were I to lose her./ Such is thought.’ (Pieces, CP 445). This may be chilling, but it is not less honest than the material about ‘entering’ the woman to which Pearson and Rifkin point.

[25] Readers undoubtedly know this Woolf material in A Room of One’s Own.

[26] Interest in woman, yes; in feminism, no. Creeley voiced his discontent and annoyance with the phenomenon of ‘the feminist proposal’ as not accounting for ‘the functioning substantive fact of a male in a society which males equally, I presume, would like to alter’   — the fact of violence, for example. The question ‘how do males now find a place in a common world of men and women’ is unanswered, but it haunts, and not just Creeley (Clark, ed. 68). His discomfort is accentuated by the contemporaneous lesbian separatist proposal. His particular discontent seems to focus on Adrienne Rich’s work from her separatist phase, her strategic separatism, to echo Gayatri Spivak (Spivak 1993, 5). He is annoyed that her title The Dream of a Common Language is really gender-exclusive, and thus an inadequate use of the word ‘common.’ As we’ve seen, this term was singularly evocative for Creeley, and he did not much like Rich’s claim on it (Clark, ed., 97 — 98).

[27] As for intentionality, about this oo/o and the J sound, one can simply note what Creeley stated: that the echoing of sound is something he simply does in poetry, not necessarily ‘literally conscious’ but by habit, as one might drive a car, as a ‘resource, in my own abilities now as a poet, to be able to do [this echoing of sound] without thinking twice’ (Turner, ed. 1985, 43).

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

This essay, like [»»] “Manhood and its Poetic Projects” in Jacket 31, will be part of a book of critical studies of contemporary poetry by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Her recent work in poetry on-line appears in [»»] Conjunctions, [then go to 09.13.07], in [»»] alligatorzine, in [»»] HOW2, as well as in [»»] Jacket 35, and again in [»»] Jacket 35. Recordings of her reading from the far past and more recently appear on [»»] PENNsound. CAConrad interviews Rachel Blau DuPlessis for [»»] PhillySound, March 2008.

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