Archaic Figure, by Amy Clampitt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 113 pp. $15.95 hard cover. $8.95 paperback. Amy Clampitt's poems are sometimes difficult, but never difficult without good cause: The challenge they present is genuine, based upon the complexity of the ideas and emotions expressed and upon the resonance and texture of the language and forms used to express them. Her work is deeply informed by poetic tradition, which means not merely that she has a flair for literary allusions (which she does), but, more important, that she is conscious of drawing upon a vast, various, changing, yet ultimately shared pool of experience, and ways of conceptualizing and writing about experience.
Written in a wide range of forms - terza rimas, sestinas, quatrains, and verse paragraphs - and covering an even wider range of human experience from the archaic world of myth to the chaotic world of our own times, the poems in this latest collection also display Clampitt's remarkable ability to move with swiftness and grace from the self-deprecating mode of colloquialism through the spheres of feminist irony and allusive wit to realms of near-visionary serenity and moments of sublimity in the high style of Milton or Dante.
In the first section, ``Hellas,'' the poet visits Greece, haunted by the ghosts of classical mythology, whose absence - amid hordes of tourists including the poet herself, who keeps thinking of her Iowa birthplace - seems more conspicuous than their presence. But the throngs of tourists, the departed nymphs and satyrs, the all but silenced oracles, the Vale of Tempe imagined by Keats, the legendary tempests of the Aegean and the tornadoes of the American Midwest are gradually fused by the poet, despite her initial feeling of displacement.
Medusa is the key figure of the book's brilliant middle sections, ``The Mirror of the Gorgon'' and ``A Gathering of Shades.'' Clampitt's thought-provoking conception of Medusa takes account of classical, Renaissance, and Romantic versions and revisions of the myth, from Spenser's evil Duessa and Milton's loathsome ``Sin'' to Keats's gentle ``Melancholy,'' not to mention Wallace Stevens's frightening ``Madame La Fleurie.'' Clampitt also views Medusa from the perspective of the suffering woman, ingeniously and illuminatingly bringing to bear upon the central myth such figures as Simone Weil, Margaret Fuller, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth, and George Eliot, who humorously compared herself to the gorgon in a letter.
This is fertile ground, filled with questions: Is the legend of the snaky-locked temptress, whose visage turned all who gazed on it to stone, merely a sexist libel against womanhood by a male-dominated culture fearful of feminine allure? Or does the myth express a more elemental fear - of origins, of nature, of birth and death? There are no easy answers to such questions. Clampitt fulfills the task of the poet - of the artist in general - by presenting such questions in all their complexity in forms that clarify without oversimplifying.
The freedom to ask such questions presumes the force of the analogies. In the final poem, ``A Hermit Thrush,'' Clampitt tests and celebrates the premise of her art. Indeed, it's this ability to forge links and form attachments that heals the divided individual consciousness and enables people to form the relationships that are the basis of personal and public life as we know it.
With consummate skill and quiet conviction, the poet's voice takes us from a moment of intimacy to the sudden ``apprehension'' (a word she has carefully chosen to indicate both comprehension and fear) of solitude and homelessness in a seemingly indifferent universe, and thence, to a renewed belief in the process of binding, healing, and regeneration that can begin with a single thread or tendril.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer who writes frequently for the Monitor.
Excerpt from `A Hermit Thrush' ... Last night you woke me for a look at Jupiter,
that vast cinder wheeled unblinking in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled toward an apprehension all but impossible to be held onto -
that no point is fixed, that there's no foothold but roams untethered save by such snells, such sailor's knots, such stays and guy wires as are
mainly of our own devising. From such an empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us to look down on all attachment, on any bonding, as
in the end untenable. Base as it is, from year to year the earth's sore surface mends and rebinds itself, however and as best it can, with
thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings, mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green bayberry's cool poultice -
and what can't finally be mended, the salt air proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage of the seaward spruce clump weathers lustrous, to wood-silver....