Ann Hibert Alton

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What Do I Read Next?

A memo to myself: Don’t tell

anyone that a fiend from hell
bent over you last night and grinned.
Ask why you whimpered, blame the wind.

Here, in miniature, is “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” once again. The sleeping, or sleepless, poet is like the descendents of the Calvinist Puritans who cry out in their sleep in fear; and the grinning “fiend from hell” is another version of their nightmare vision of the Baron.

The nightmare vision is of course self-created. As Hamlet puts it in Shakespeare’s play: “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”; the shadow takes on such a frightening form only because the conscious mind has exerted great effort in fighting it or simply denying its existence. And when an image of this nature does finally well up from the depths of the subconscious, the conscious mind will often go to great lengths to dismiss it or rationalize it away, as the poet does in this example, rather than confront it.

The shadow makes another appearance in Nowlan’s poem, “Footsteps in the Dark,” which was published in Bread, Wine and Salt, the same volume in which “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” appeared.

In “Footsteps in the Dark,” the poet hears footsteps, belonging to an unidentified “he,” approaching in the dark every night. The footsteps then retreat into the “boundless, teeming / darkness of the blind” as the poet strains to hear. He knows that one day the footsteps will reach him and something of great power will be unleashed upon him but he cannot imagine what that might be. All he knows is that when it happens

It will be loud and quick, though you know he will

like Christ with his bleeding hands to the disciples,
who backed away, half-crazed with fear, or like
      Jack the Ripper
falling upon a whore in Whitechapel.

The phrase “you know he will come” recalls the similar fear of the Puritans in “For Jean Vincent”: “lest you come again in the night.” Whatever the ominous footsteps represent, they cannot forever be escaped, for they exist in the mind itself. What they bring may be negative or positive— a mysterious, primal force that destroys, or the transformative experience of the numinous, that is, the awe that comes upon a person in the presence of some divine power or revelation.

What this poem suggests, as does “For Jean Vincent,” is that there is a lot more to human consciousness than a person’s everyday experience might suggest. Nowlan explores this idea in other poems in Bread, Wine and Salt. He is particularly interested in moments when a person is swept up into states of consciousness that are beyond the normal, and which yield moments of ecstasy or freedom. Sometimes this comes close to a mystical vision, as when in “I, Icarus,” the poet imagines he is flying, and his vision of the freed human soul, floating beyond all the restrictions that normally hedge it in, combines the image of an Aeolian harp—which produces music when the wind blows upon it—with a suggestion of the ancient idea of the music of the spheres:

Outside, I rose higher and higher, above the pasture

above the clothesline, above the dark, haunted trees
beyond the pasture.
And, all the time, I heard the music of flutes.
It seemed the wind made this music.
And sometimes there were voices singing.

In similar fashion, “Daughter of Zion” starts with a description of a very ordinary, sad, beaten-down woman who would merit a second look from no one. It ends with a vision of this same woman the previous night, when, under a tent by a river,

God himself, the Old One, seized her in his arms
lifted her up
and danced with her,
* * *
and the Holy Ghost
went into her body and spoke through her mouth
the language they speak in heaven!

Perhaps this is a reminder that, as the poet Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “All truths wait in all things.” It is the task of the poet to squeeze out those truths, and to do so he must delve deep into his own psyche, where all possibilities dwell. As Nowlan points out in “On names and misnomers,” in a conclusion that is very apt for the divided consciousness that is at the heart of “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin”:

Each of us contains multitudes,
every one of whose
personalities is split.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “For Jean Vincent d’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

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