Then voice: commanding, flaring in an ear.I could not speak, only heard and witnessed.The little animals and the big cameTrotting with my teeth-grooved bones in their mouths.They laid the bones, each in its place. SinewsWere cauled around the spars. Glitter-fine, flecksOf skin were strewn and grew whole cloth, seamlessAnd unmarred. The birds brought eyes, so I weptBut knew no why. The voice swelled in my headLike an oracle blown into a shell.The winds were my hammock. I swung the airLike a bell. A Lazarus breath enteredThe gate, my mouth. And I came forth, readyTo quit the ruins and the stained river,Braced to live before I died again.
In The Book of the Red King, Marly Youmans creates a complex poetry cycle set in a mythic kingdom that may exist a thousand years ago, or it may be here now (the cultural references in the city of the Red King run from armies on horseback to dogs on skateboards). The poems seem to grow out of the world's epic myths and legends (Gilgamesh is referenced by name, and the work can seem to be haunted by Spencer, Shakespeare, Malory, and Milton--and also maybe Wordsworth and Coleridge and I will try to stop comparing now), but this is not a reworking of old tales, nor even I think is it so much a new myth as it is an explication of the life and work of the artist (and possibly in this sense, Yeats' spirit also hovers over the book). Youmans is always powerful when she writes about art and artists, and The Book of the Red King strikes me as her most forceful (and possibly most personal) statement about art (and the artist's purpose) yet. Creativity, rebirth and transfiguration are the threads that stitch The Book of the Red King together.
And when, unseen, some Atlas dropped the skies,and
Tumults of stars and feathers rushed, slammed
Against the Fool, air forward-gyrating
With power and a noise like muscled creeks,
While the cloud-buried sun sent fire as pale
As lightning bolts to dazzle snow and mist
And summons him to ends of mystery
Like the wheels within wheels of the whirlwinds.
(from "The Fool Glimpses the City")
Still the Fool kneels in the kitchen midden,
Making a city out of broken china.
By starlight, towers and shard cottages
Of crockery are glowing, luminous
Neighborhoods for the moon: how he trembles
From the chill air, or else from pilfering,
The bringing something out of things that are
Not--like syllables' juggled radiance.
(from "Wild to Make")
yes, that's how it is to be caught by the creative impulse. This is good stuff. This is what Youmans' book is like, and this is not what Youmans' book is like. It's interconnected, but open-ended, hard and specific and mysterious.
I promised myself that I was just going to point to the many ways The Book of the Red King has an attractive surface, how many of its pleasures are easily enjoyed just through the inventiveness of Youmans' characters and the angular, beautiful chemistry of her language. I promised myself that I was not going to, you know, interpret the poems here. The problem with that promise is that as a reader, I spend a lot of energy asking texts what they are about, what they think they are doing below the surface. So maybe we should just get that out of the way first. That's a joke; I've done nothing so far except interpret. I don't know any other way to write about art, because I assume that formal aspects of good art are bound up in meaning. And vice versa. I digress.
The Book of the Red King is a collection of poems and lyrics written by the Fool, a character presented as a jester in the court of the Red King. The Fool writes The Book partly as a gift to the Red King, and partly because this writing is what the Fool does, is compelled to do by the creative impulse. The role of the Fool-as-artist is informed by the role of the Fool-as-fool in a feudal court: he observes, he speaks, he tells the truth. He also creates beauty, points to beauty, loves and points to love, grieves and points to grief, is angry and points to anger, etc, all of this being the work of the artist. The Fool, I am telling you, is Marly Youmans (and Yeats and Shakespeare and Milton and let's say Matthew as well, why not). That's my theory; see the first paragraph of this increasingly-staggering little essay. You'll have to draw your own conclusions about the identity of the Red King. Youmans has said of him, "He is all the things he is at once, it seems."
[. . .] His are the hands that drift
Ever-so-slowly outward in what is
Not-time. Yet in that spaceless, hourless realm,
He weaves the cloth of starts and spins his threads,
Unreeling filaments of energy
That spiral through all people, things, and space.
In trance, he is the King of Paradox;
The universes are a cloak he wears,
Glinting behind him like a moonlit seal...
One distant fleck of stardust knows the trick
Of waking the Red King from gulfs of dream:
His Fool, with bells and baubles on a stick.
I'm only getting at the large-scale framework, and there are a number of other themes running through this cycle of poems, which I will not get into other than to say that redemption, striving for grace, and the fool-like nature of true faith are patterned into the work. A passing theme that caught my attention is that of dust. Adam, as we all know, was formed from "the dust of the ground." The Fool rises, in a way, from the earth itself in the first pages of the book. Draw your own conclusions. But dust is played with across several poems, an image worked to show the possibility of redemption, of grace.
Once was a particle of dustNamed Hob; and one day a big gust[. . .] --the skyOf stars seemed to be asking whyThey were bright fire, when he was dustThat yearned but never would combust.[. . .] A chilly vapor heldHim in its cloud: a mote be-spelledBy cold [. . .]and he slippedInto the white and perfect scriptOf snow: the story of a star,Six-armed, rainbowed, spinning from farRealms of sky; sun rising at night;In midwinter, this birth and light.
I know that it's almost impossible to excerpt a poem without doing it damage, but I am not quite willing to quote wholesale from the book, so this will have to do for you. There is also a lovely poem where dust motes in streaming sunlight are turned to a swimming veil of gold, a striking image.
Because Youmans always writes on a number of levels at once, this essay can only seem to diminish her artistry by so poorly describing it. I know that poetry has, even at the best of times, a limited audience, but The Book of the Red King deserves readers, and plucky Phoenicia Publishing deserves a reward for being brave enough to market collections that require thoughtful readers. A good deal of current American poetry is merely angry, woke, political, and shallow; or else it's merely pretty, saccharine, and shallow. And while Youmans' book could serve as a text for a contemporary course on the uses of beauty and empathy, she writes for the ages, which I think is in the long run a better idea. I don't know why Marly Youmans isn't much better known, for both her poetry and her novels. She always taps into the substrata of art and life. As she says at the end of her poem "Both Sides of the River":
Come closer to me, under
The wind-tossed shadow of leaves,
And listen: I can't whisper how to walk
On both sides of the singing river,
For riddles must be
Learned, earned in long
Mad fairy-tale journeys
Or starlit wrestlings with angels
Or sometimes by accident,
As when an innocent mind tumbles
Into the vertical blue of wells.
And if for one fleck of time
You stand tiptoe on both sides of a river,
You won’t master the mystery.
Always, there’s a residue, something
Hidden in sight,
Brimming with sunshine
Or collecting cloud-shadows
Like the leaf-silt, spell-silt
That fell through golds and ambers
In a fortuneteller’s teacup--
The scribe, the maker
Of resistant, radiant messages
Impossible to read.
"Both Sides of the River" is not from The Book of the Red King, but Red King is filled with resistant, radiant messages. And it's not so impossible to read.