Reviewer: Cindy Hochman
What a mess
There is no question that Diana Pinckney’s richly knit narrative poems are closer in grace and refinement to Elizabeth Bishop’s than William Blake’s, but a case can be made for at least an ideological nexus to the latter. First, there is the matter of their titles. Keep in mind that the full title of Blake’s book is Songs of Innocence and Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, the poems in it containing an anthropomorphic bent. Pinckney’s The Beast and the Innocent embraces and embodies a similar menagerie. Like Blake’s, Pinckney’s poems thrive on the duality of human (and sometimes non-human) nature, in both their benevolent and their evil incarnations. Like Blake, she has an abundance of empathy for the most downtrodden and rough-hewn among us; like Blake, she roots for the underdog. While Blake’s beast of choice is the tyger, Pinckney’s sympathies lie (sometimes literally) with the wolf, and this serves as a fitting meme on how to create a more hospitable environment within the harshness and brutality of a dog-eat-dog world.
Ghost Wolves, for My Grandchildren
You may see one in a zoo
he howl about?
According to Pinckney, there is plenty to howl about, and much of it can be symbolically linked to Canis lupus and its kin. In “Melancholia,” the poet alludes to Churchill’s self-referential “black dog” of depression; in “Straightening Pictures,” she touches on the alcoholism that perhaps dogged her father (“while downstairs Father kept/ company with a glass and the TV”); and then there are the dogs of war unleashed. In “The Coal Bin,” the war she is referring to is WWII (“The President died today … I am seven. It is 1945. A war is/ going on”), but wars of the past merge with those of the present as the poem ends with “It is 2012. War is going on.” As Pinckney states in “Yeats Exhibit: Downstairs National Library, Dublin,” “Who can know/ the present from the past?”
from “Soir Bleu, 1914”:
Even Hopper in prewar
in those ditches and bloated fields, so many that old
Diana Pinckney knows that even her valiant leaps into ekphrasis are not enough to cover a bleak canvas. Of course, she can throw up her hands and yell “goddamnitalltohell” as her friend’s mother does, but Pinckney has a more soothing salve in her arsenal: satire. The poet is at her best when she steps outside her own skin and inhabits someone else’s for a while, speaking in dialectical shifts, in poems full of fire and brimstone (her characters bellowing with all the earnest reverence of snake-oil salesmen), a liberal sprinkling of “Praise the Lords,” and, of course, a wolf on the trail. In a poem reminiscent of e.e. cummings’s ironic poem “next to of course god america i,” Pinckney assumes the voice of a lawmaker giving a speech in favor of the passage of a bill to control predatory animals:
A Senator Celebrates
How good it is to be in the heart
Are your sheep and, yes, even
safe from the killer at the gate? Yes, friends,
Interestingly, the wolves in these persona poems are sometimes the predator and sometimes the prey. In “The Trapper Looks Back,” Pinckney is clearly on the side of the baby wolves as the trapper recounts that the “Little fellas…think you want// to play. They make low yips, whines, rubbing up/ to you. Catch ’em by the throat. Been told they go limp…” but in the very next poem, “Gray Wolf to Dog,” the wolf leaves his canine cousin in a gruesome mess: strings of fur, curls/ of white tinged with pink at the end/ of a chain.”
Thankfully, there is comic relief amid the bones. In “Little Red on YouTube,” a hilarious updated version of Little Red Riding Hood, rendered in prose and even bawdier than Anne Sexton’s reconfigured fairytales, the wolf becomes the lover, caught in flagrante delicto:
(If that’s not bizarre enough for you, there’s the poem “A Spinster Considers Her Options,” which opens with “For a long time now I have tried to think/ of a nice way to kill Papa.”)
Ultimately, however, for all the different bodies the poet dwells in, there is a search for self. In this regard, the epigraphs that begin the two separate chapters of this book are telling.
Yeats: It is myself that I remake.
In “An Artist Speaks to Her Unborn Children,” there is a blurring and blending of two ecstasies: motherhood and art. For Pinckney, children are synonymous with joy (“lovely clatter of voices flooding the days./ Eggs scrambled, boys off to school”)—and thoughts of the muse color her days (“while I dream canvasses stretching/ outlines on ocher-soaked linens,/ earth-dug umber, sienna, yolk yellows,/ wet, oily and waiting to bleed…”). But it is in the title poem that there is finally a kind of utopian redemption:
Of course, dogs and cats go to heaven,
Heaven’s way is,
as we have heard, the lion lying down
flags flutter good fortune for the Chinese.
The Beast and the Innocent gently balances the thin line between human and humane. But whether it is the winds of war or the wolves in the wilderness, under Diana Pinckney’s sage and sophic touch, there is also the warmth of words and womanhood.