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To say anything about a poet one reads in translation is sketchy. But there are things one can say and things worth saying. The overall arc of his style still carries through, I’m sure, and what marks it out is how it builds on voids and absences. The significance of his topics emerges from the accumulation of what remains unsaid about them, or rather what he says around them. It may be a consequence of his persistent concern for the limitations of language. Like other poets who take up language and it limitations as a subject, a poet like George Oppen, Lihn is somewhat experimental in his approach, though not so syntactically complex as Oppen. For Lihn “style sure isn’t the man/but a summary of all his uncertainties.” Uncertainties accumulate in Lihn’s sparsely punctuated poems in an attempt, it seems, to create a context for those uncertainties, a kind of linguistic net.
When he traveled the United States and Canada, his observations always picked out the odd and alienated, the homeless who were rendered otherworldly by the extremity of their destitute living. The genderless “Brooklyn Monster,” the woman in Toronto who stared at the dying youth with her eyes of snow. Lihn sees these homeless people not as mere figures of economic failure but as something of the repressed specters of our society’s apparent success. As he says elsewhere, “we’re overrun by inhuman times.”
In another place he says, “all our ways of meaning things are contaminated.” Thus the darker sides of our society are closest to purity, or at least, to accuracy in depicting the soul of our society. In the poem “The Age of Data,” he puts his finger on the spiritual failure of mid-to-late 20th century thinking: the failure of pure analysis, our god of information, for
Instead of joining, we separateSeparation and information are confounded
and data is just the opposite of God.
It’s no wonder that his poems have the force of a Prokofiev sonata and the power of a Turner painting. Their ability to suggest or conjure an impression are what stir the deepest response and engage the harshest emotions, much as the way Robert Lowell’s best poems do with their images and tone. This is a rather strange thing considering that Lihn first attempted to be a painter in college, but after turning to writing he produced, instead of a poetry of dense meticulous imagery, a poetry of limpid images that disclose a depth of subtler thematic implications. So his poem on Turner concludes with something that might describe his poetics,
the moment that consumes the substanceand leaves only the embers of Being
that conflagration that comes from clouds and wind
and burns—spread out on the waters—its image.
In the last weeks of Lihn’s life, he composed poems confronting the impossible enigma of death in the most personal terms. These are possibly the least interesting poems of the collection as they court those truisms more often than elsewhere. But they have their moments. Certainly, facing the end, he is looking farther into those dark places, those voids to discover the defining spaces around them. For him, his poetry had become
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .death,
the dream of writing where all discomfort has its place
the prison of your being that deprived you of the other name of love. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . written silently upon the wall.
In his final weeks—dying just months shy of his 60th birthday in 1988—Lihn writing, revising, even correcting proofs of his final collection the night before his death, he was connecting the limitations of the self with the limitations of language and life. These final poems seem less elaborate, sometimes pointed and powerful, at others not fully engaged. Yet they mark the closer of a life devoted to poetry. If art imitates life and we are “works of art momentarily alive,” there is in connecting the limitations of life and language an insight into the nature of the self, the constructed ego and how its grammar breaks down at the edges or in the face of what is hard or impossible to define. Perhaps lying in bed he realized
Facing death he resists the giving ineven though touched by it he’s a shadow
but a shadow of something, clinging
to the imitation of life.
His life had become a work of art, a painted representation of the patterns he had followed, sketched into his poems and other writings. Of course, this calls to mind Wallace Stevens who traced a similar trajectory in the imagination. Certainly, Lihn stakes as much in the imagination as Stevens, though with less insistence. Lihn also had the grit of the quotidian in his poetry, the hard, troubled reality that life in a politically volatile place as Chile would produce in others of his generation. His voice never stops insisting on the negative spaces that define the apparent truth; much like a Taoist insists there is no mountain without a valley.