As we stood filling the ashtray, a whey-faced seminarian dispensed advice about the forthcoming term at Rome’s Gregorian University. I forget the lecturer’s name, but he’d made quite an impression on my friend, who struggled through the laughter as he related how this nutty priest regarded dance (dance!) as the highest form of expression. As the kind of young man who preferred a Marlboro to a mazurka, I was inclined to agree, but there I was, staring down the barrel of celibacy, with my mind and body set against one another, secure in the knowledge that, when it came down to it, the confessional was going to side with the catechism’s chilly dogma, and not with my breathing, pulsing flesh. These days, terrible a dancer as I am, I’m inclined to side with that nutty priest: how marvellous to see mind and body as one, whirling elementally, transcending language. Cogito ergo sum? I think not.
In the poem, Mind-Body Problem, Katha Pollitt offers us an ironic subversion of Descartes: ‘When I think of my youth I feel sorry not for myself / but for my body. It was so direct / and simple, so rational in its desires, / wanting to be touched the way an otter / loves water.’ Even now, the speaker is unable to reconcile the two, and the word ‘myself,’ shoved to the end of the line, sits all alone and contemplating space, while the body, irreconcilably banished, sits on the next line like a child on the naughty step. It was the body, we learn, that was ‘so rational in its desires,’ which subverts our usual attitude to what we see as rational within us. Pollitt’s poem sees the petty tyranny of this, as the body is patronised by ‘an ambitious / English-professor husband ashamed of his wife – / her love of sad movies, her budget casseroles / and regional vowels.’ The poem momentarily lifts us with an image of solidarity: ‘Tony Curtis / and Sidney Poitier fleeing handcuffed together,’ but our minds are only heading in one direction, and they’re not in the driving seat, as ‘I find I am being reluctantly / dragged along by my body as though by some / swift and powerful dog.’ Pollitt keeps herself on the tightrope, as her poem is at once cruel, funny, ridiculous – tragic.
Aere Perennius, with its list of small people and their small lives, evokes W.H. Auden‘s The Fall of Rome, as we meet ‘The mugger leaping out with his quick knife, / the waitress who does porno on the side, even the stray dog, methodically marking // the acidulated saplings one by one.’ The mugger and waitress are little more than items in a list, highlighting their utter inconsequentiality. There’s a sense of futility to it all too, as ‘Clouds give birth to themselves in the windy sky’ in an endless cycle in which everything and nothing changes and our desperation to matter achieves nothing but the most horrific of excesses. Suddenly Pollitt’s title, a borrowing from Horace’s third book of odes, slides into its ironic position: a monument more lasting than bronze.
This ability to switch between times and places makes Pollitt feel like a Modernist of the old school, and the results are memorable. Take Night Subway, which closes the first part of the collection. It evokes Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, where the surge of metropolitan humanity amounts to little more than petals, nothing more physical, or lasting, than an apparition. Again, Pollitt utilizes a list, populating the crowded carriage: ‘The nurse coming off her shift at the psychiatric ward / nodding over the Post, her surprisingly delicate legs / shining darkly through the white hospital stockings, / and the Puerto Rican teens, nuzzling, excited / after heavy dates in Times Square, the girl with green hair, / the Hasid from the camera store, who mumbles / over his prayerbook the nameless name of God.’ The voyeuristic details rehearse our fascination with, and wonder at, humanity, as our eyes flit between advertisements for travel insurance and those ‘surprisingly delicate legs’ in a feigned display of disinterest. Pollitt’s stanza break is positively Stygian, as we tunnel deeper into the darkness: ‘How not think of Xerxes, how he reviewed his troops / and wept,’ and, as Pollitt pulls the rug of time from under our feet, the scale of our smallness, measured against the index of Xerxes’ deceased greatness, reminds us of how little we are.
The collection’s central section, After the Bible, offers topsy-turvy reworkings of key moments from the Old and the New Testaments. Martha’s rhetorical indignation cuts to the heart of The Mind-Body Problem: ‘Well, did he think the food would cook itself? / Naturally, he preferred the sexy one, / the one who leaned forward with velvet eyes and asked // clever questions that showed she’d done the reading.’ There’s an extra layer of irony here as, reading from Luke chapter 10, this episode in the home of Mary and Martha follows hot on the heels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand in chapter 9, and we wonder whether to interpret Martha’s first comment as ignorance, or sarcasm. Either way, the mind-body problem is less cut and dried than it first appeared, as the marginalized Martha sees the power of Mary’s ‘velvet eyes’ all too clearly and the adjective ‘velvet’ keeps physical sensation pleasurable, while the reading casts Jesus’ relationship with the doe-eyed Mary as something from a campus drama.
In The Mind-Body Problem, Katha Pollitt offers her readers a meaty, metaphysical experience and, like Donne and Auden, life and love are never more than a heartbeat from tragedy. Pollitt shys away from nothing here, but she handles her material with care, and sees life’s light and humour, as well as the darkness.