Dignity in Old Age:
Michael A. Weinstein
The Poetical Meditations of Peter Viereck
A review of Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems 1995-1938,
by Peter Viereck. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
xix + 320 pp. $36 cloth. $20 paper.
[From HUMANITAS, Volume
VIII, No. 2, 1995 ©
In Tide and Continuities, Peter Viereck shows himself to be a
formidable philosophical poet of the sort that Santayana had in mind in
Philosophical Poets (Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe). His cosmic drama
is in the form of extended meditative dialogues on death and dying carried
through a series of long and ambitious poems, in which the figures (voices)
of Dionysus, Persephone, and Pluto are metaphors that enlighten, rather
than transmute, the perspective of an uneasily but deeply held belief in
the finitude of individuated human consciousness. Viereck is a civilized
humanist, just like Babbitt, Ortega, and Santayana (writers whom Viereck
likes to cite in his prose works), but he is of a later generation that
was tempered by World War II and turned existentialist. In an important
sense, Peter Viereck is a civilized existentialist.
Now we find him in the first poem in the book, "At My Hospital Window,"
near death and suffering from a critical illness, confined to hospital,
and hooked up to medical contraptions and pumped full of medicines. Yet
he has written long, demanding, and complex philosophical poems in genial
voices that go beyond anything that he has done before in their sustained
concentration and thematic depth. It is as though his illness liberated
poetic powers in Viereck, that it convinced him not to hold back anything,
to go for all he could get before it was too late. In the process, he has
given us a compelling myth structure through which to think through our
own encounters with finitude grasped from within our personal awareness.
There is a poetry of the technological hospital and Viereck has written
it. Viereck, ever audacious, gives us an account of the poet's dying and,
in consequence, of what our own might be if we could pull it off.
Tide and Continuities is more than these remarkable late poems,
which take up half the book (Part I "Mostly Hospital and Old Age" and Part
VI "Tide and Completions"). It also collects many of Viereck's earlier
published poetry and some new short poems, under the categories "Ore,"
"The Planted Poet," "The Green Menagerie," and "Walks." We get a chance
to see what preceded his works of old age, to witness the germination process;
but the late works dominate the book by their gravity and their unforced
In the late poems in Tide and Continuities, Viereck articulates
a mature vision of human existence that tempers rather than subverts the
existentialism of his youth. I will use as my touchstone for understanding
this vision one of Viereck's prose texts—the vignette entitled "Bewildered
Dignity" from Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals—and then will
work through four poems in Tide and Continuities that illuminate
the vision: "Crass Times Redeemed by Dignity of Souls" (1944-46), "Rogue"
(1987), "At My Hospital Window" (1988-95), and "Persephone and Old Poet"
(1995). The latter poem is the last one in the book.
The vignette "Bewildered Dignity" is one of the few outcroppings of
Viereck's poetic concerns with personal existence into his political writings.
It is a meditative text rather than a set piece, and it begins in a mood
of moral proclamation and ends in a mood of mordant doubt.
In a key of cultural politics, Viereck (1965) begins by stating that
there is "no ground for resisting the communazi degradation of man . .
. if the dignity of man is merely an idealistic illusion." In the next
sentence he is already getting off the soapbox: "The credo of these pages,
their tacit impossible assumption, is that man clings—and clings innately—to
some shreds of glory." Comparing the human being to a good sport in a bad
comic strip, who keeps getting hit with undignifying pies in the face,
Viereck concludes the paragraph by saying that man clings to "some bewildered
and inalienable dignity" (37).
"Shreds of glory" and "bewildered dignity" are phrases that unlock Viereck's
philosophical anthropology. He is a thoroughly chastened but unrepentant
idealist. The second paragraph begins: "It matters to cling to glory's
shreds." Even though they are "pathetic" and criticized by modernist skepticism,
they are not illusory: "Self-transcendence is part of self" ends the paragraph
The third paragraph, quoted here in full, reverses the Proposition just
stated: "And self, in turn, is part of all self-transcendence. Self is
the cruel practical joke, the old tin can, tied to the tail of transcendence
by the neighborhood brats and rattling forth a distinctly tinny laugh at
the sublimest moments." With this reversal, idealism modulates to existentialism.
The dignity of the human is problematized and must prevail, if it can,
stripped of any mythological armor (37).
Life on earth will end and "ooze back soggily into the ocean," Viereck
observes in paragraph four. The "last flicker of consciousness will sough":
" 'Anyhow, for a while it was good to have been man' " (38).
Then, in four short and punchy paragraphs, Viereck touches his existentials.
That we are here only "for a while" is our "deep sadness," "the condition
of armorless consciousness," which is counterpointed by a "cry of gladness,"
the "anyhow," "whose prelude is not pleasure but tragedy." The tragedy
is that we are neither stone nor star, but "mortal, aspiring and earth-bound,"
"a muddy and vulnerable glory" (38).
We die. For all that we can redeem from it, the world is finally adverse—a
"firetrap" with no fire escape, "not a `good neighborhood' to settle down
in," "one of the `uninhabitable planets' " in the long run (38).
There may be better universes, Viereck concludes, than this one, but
we are stuck here: "Nobody likes 'blind dates.' Being born is a blind date"
In his gracious spirit, Santayana titled the last volume of his autobiography
Host the World. That is not Viereck's spirit, even less so in old age.
His is a far more restless spirit than Santayana's, one of struggle and,
as Yasmin Lodi (1995) puts it about the philosophical poet Muhammad Iqbal,
noble failure. He is never reconciled with evil; he refuses to place himself
on the side of the world's adversity, even when he acknowledges its necessity—as
when, in "Persephone and Old Poet," he gives Persephone her due as the
perpetual destroyer-renewer, but defies her telluric wisdom to accept death
as a fate.
A blind date is not a host. How he romances and complains to his blind
date is the substance of Viereck's late poetry. There will always be ambivalence
about the world for a being who is caught on a shoreline, doomed to fall
back into the sea and, indeed, tempted to do so, but also aspiring to the
heavens. This is the being who has bewildered dignity, who undertakes risky
adventures, who asserts his own self-transcendence in the face of being
transcended by the world (a "rogue"), who clutches at shreds of glory.
Also, he is the one with the tinny laugh when things get out of control
in a bad way and who is all too aware of how undignified he becomes when
subject to inevitable indignity.
Dignity of Souls
Human dignity is the idea that most amply ties together Viereck's writing,
that unifies his prose and his poetry. Politically, his commitment to human
dignity is articulated through a "humanistic conservatism" that defends
constitutional democracy and freedom of expression against statist tendencies
and movements that force conformity. In his poetry, human dignity is wrested,
precariously, from the struggle to affirm self-transcending life against
both the adversity of the world and the evil of those fellow creatures
who cooperate with that adversity and spread and intensify it. It would
not be farfetched to say that Viereck's humanistic conservatism adumbrates
the political conditions in which fragile bewildered dignity might best
be nurtured and become more confident of itself.
"Crass Times Redeemed by Dignity of Souls" was composed fifty years
before Viereck's late poems on death and dying. It is one of the minority
of Viereck's poems that mixes cultural politics and personal existence.
It is the most existentially cutting yet optimistic of his early productions.
It signals, as its title indicates, redemption.
The poem is divided into four sections, with a decisive break into the
existential in the middle of the second section, followed by an extended
struggling encounter with evil that ends in the triumph of love on a high
note of affirmation of a positive ideal of dignity.
The first section of the poem presents the dignity of souls from the
viewpoint of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the awareness
of creation beyond good and evil. Dawn unrolls an "avalanche of awe" that
identifies the poet with the "old unbaptized night" that "Dreads and/needs
and/looks and/loves the light," and moves him to proclaim: "0 harshness
of the dignity of souls" (204).
The second section begins with praise of "the tenderness of dignity
of souls," which "conjures and cajoles" us, guiding us to sensitivity to
inner life and to transcendence through art, which "quickens yet controls."
Then the soft and comforting mood is broken by five powerful lines: "The
weight that tortures diamonds out of coals/Is lighter than the frisking
hooves of foals/Compared to one old heaviness our souls/Hoist daily, each
alone, and cannot share:/To be-awake, to sense, to-be-aware" (204-205).
Here, at the point of radical existential individualism, Viereck moves
to conclude the second section by asserting that all of the aspirations
and activities of our lives "Are but man's search for dignity of souls."
The dignity of souls, which was given at the beginning of the poem, is
now problematized. Consciousness is a burden that each one must shoulder
all by himself.
Into the existential vulnerability opened up in section two, the third
and fourth sections introduce evil in the figures of Seth, the Egyptian
donkey god who feeds on souls, and his agents, who today appear in the
guise of purveyors of cheap grace, complacency, commercialized pleasure,
and cowardly noncommitment masquerading as good sense: "The nice, the wholesome,
and the commonplace." Rather than conjuring and cajoling with song as tenderness
did, the voices of evil "cadge and cajole" with shouts. Section four ends
with the agents of mass society telling the poet that the battle is lost,
that he is "The struggling warrior of the lost last war/To vindicate the
dignity of souls" (205, 206).
Section five records the poet's counterattack against his tormentors.
He tells them that he will have nothing to do with their Prince, that all
the gaudy effects of evil are "blackness still." Then the poet gets thrown
back once again into a stark existential moment, proclaiming: "Lap-squeezed
from blackness, soon to choke on black,/Leaning on nothingness before and
back,/Locked tight to lies by veins and nerves and wi11,/My life is darkness."
Yet there is redemption. The poet lives to tell us that love "Frees us
the way the good and daily light/Heals and/shreds and/liberates the night."
Having worked through awe, tenderness, existential solitude, persecution
by banal evil, and finally existential anguish, we are released by love
to love each other: "May every dark and kindled 'I' revere/In every 'you'
that self-same fire-core,/In every soul the soul of all our souls."
Dignity here is a grace, a gift that follows upon struggle that transfigures
the world by alerting us to its "fire-core." The awe-inspiring world that
kept us reluctantly wanting to hide in the shadows has now become, after
encountering the limits of art, confronting radical solitude, and battling
evil, a proper place for us, because we are able to look to each other.
The fire trap is redeemed by the fire-core. This redemption is not present
in the late poems. Dignity there is bewildered, even bewildering.
"Rogue" is the greatest of Viereck's philosophical poems, embodying
in a genial, comi-tragic, naturalistic myth his mature view of the forces
at work in the human condition and their economy. This poem has, as does
all his late poetry, both subtle and sharp shifts of voice, and mixes humor,
irony, and harsh wisdom in a roller-coaster ride of existential tensions.
Viereck informs us that the botanical meaning of "rogue" is "seed spoiled
by mutation." His mutant seed is the lungfish, "the first air-breather,
from whom all land life descended." The predominant voice in the poem is
" 'you' (the reader, modern man)" transformed into the lungfish whom he
has been miming in a parlor game. This voice is joined at one point by
"modern you" and engages in dialogue with " 'father,' here God-Mephisto,
the brutality of reality" from the middle of the poem to its end. Like
"Crass Times Redeemed by Dignity of Souls," "Rogue" is divided into five
sections that parallel the earlier poem in some ways (71).
Just as "Crass Times" occurs at the liminal time of dawn, "Rogue" unfolds
at the point at which the first lungfish has been beached and is not yet
decided on leaving the sea behind for land life. The first section is an
ominous warning issued by the lungfish to contemporary human selves. He
warns us to bolt our doors and hide from the sea, which will claim us and
remains inside us in the form of our blood: "You chose land's height? Undertows/Have
long arms; hide" (71).
In the second section, the lungfish confronts life on earth and takes
positions toward it. Abraded by sand storms, he is not healed by the "good
and daily light" extolled in "Crass Times," but is fried by a "big scorching
Eyeball." He wonders whether the earth is "ambush" (recall the bad blind
date of "Bewildered Dignity"), but then he sees a beach rose, "smells of
growingness rouse" him with "greenish flavor," he takes his first breath,
and vomits (72).
From then on section two is a complaint by the lungfish about his sorry
lot. Most painful is his inability to articulate the pain of the "razor-runged
ladder" of evolution that he is on: "Ache is my echo since climbing rung
one,/A gagged echo straining for voice./My vocal chords, still many an
age upstream,/Lag behind their scream" (72).
Section three begins with an ironical expression of homage to the lungfish
from modern man, praising "the pilgrimage of our race," always liminal
and transitional: "From Argonaut to astronaut, from a puddle/On earth to
a pebble in space." Before the lungfish can reply, the father figure enters
the conversation to engage in struggle with the lungfish, to pull him down,
just as the agents of evil sought the surrender of the poet in "Crass Times."
To the lungfish's assertion of self-transcendence of the individual ("We
shore people,/We'll ripple tide."), God-Mephisto asserts the self-transcendence
of the world ("You're but tide's ripple.") (73).
Knocked back by this reversal, the lungfish curses the vicissitudes
of his DNA that will eventuate in "dodos, hippos, Al Capone, and Christ,"
and allows God-Mephisto to insult him: "You're all rough drafts of the
Weltgeist/Discarded." Life on earth is pain, from the father's viewpoint:
"The die your landing cast,/Writhes all land's pain-to-be, from the gashed/Hare
to the Lear on the heath" (73).
Having absorbed these blows, the lungfish launches into a diatribe aimed
at "modern you," adopting a grisly, bantering tone. He does not accept
the homage offered to him by modern man, but interprets the evolutionary
process mordantly: "The long fuse gets reversed; click—from my hips/Tick
futures ramming fish hooks through my lips" (74).
Section four begins with the lungfish expressing nostalgia for the sea
and a sense of the futility of land life that is taken by God-Mephisto
as an opening for trying to woo the lungfish back into the sea. Yet, just
as when he saw the beach rose and smelled the scent of green, the lungfish
is now drawn to the world by a sound that he takes to be a gull screech,
but which the father says is "only some wind-blown horn." Stimulated and
inspired by the dawning of consciousness, which God-Mephisto calls a "brow
infection," the lungfish resolves to "bulge just one wee rung/Toward brow
that super-lung." The father warns him that "brow," the "super-lung," that
is man, will "blow/Up the show," but the lungfish affirms that, if so,
the cycle will be renewed in "some overlooked puddle, not quite sterile"
The final section replays the lungfish's first glimpse of land, but
now in dialogue with God-Mephisto, who still tries to lure him back into
the sea. Announcing that "Rogue seed stays ornery," the lungfish resolves
to answer the call of the horn, forcing the father to reveal to him that
the horn is an "out-of-time skeleton,/Stripped and hollowed, weathered
and torn": "The stripped beast is you, both your gill-fish bone/Of before
and your loaded brow/Of tomorrow." We chase our future, which is always
already dead. The sublime image (in Nietzsche's sense of sublimity that
Viereck cites in an epigraph to "At My Hospital Window": "The sublime as
the artistic conquest of the horrible.") of the horn composed of the bones
of all the dead encapsulates Viereck's deepest understanding of existence
In response to God-Mephisto's last appeal to return to the sea, the
lungfish proclaims: "I'll always lose. Some losses . . . hone."
And then: "Stripped, I've landed./Make way for man" (76).
Life is a losing proposition, but utilitarian calculation is not the
last word. At the opposite pole from Santayana's contemplation of essences,
but answering the same question, is Viereck's rogue life, in which one
remains ornery and acts counter to the pleasure principle, and gets honed
by loss, when that is possible—a resistance to sinking back that tries
to be indomitable, even though it cannot be; a willingness to risk everything
on a losing proposition; a struggle for affirmation of life, for Nietzschian
fati. Let us next, then, consider the old poet in the hospital and
see how this resistance fares. The lungfish assumes with armorless consciousness
the old heaviness of being awake and aware. This is not hedonism, but comi-tragedy,
reminiscent of Camus's (another of Viereck's favorites) absurd lives. Camus
also affirmed a bewildered dignity.
"At My Hospital Window" bids fair to be the most personally revealing
poem that Viereck has published. Dedicated to Joseph Brodsky, who wrote
a verse introduction to Tide and Continuities, the poem's predominant
voice is not a persona or even "the poet," but Peter Viereck, the aging
man who, it appears, suffers from cancer and cataracts, and is lying in
a hospital bed in springtime, close to death. Composed during the years
after "Rogue" was written, the poem announces that Viereck will write a
book on Dionysus, Pluto, and Persephone if the cures that he is undergoing
do not kill him.
Viereck places "At My Hospital Window" at the very beginning of Tide
and Continuities, allowing it to set the tone of the entire work. It
is a complex poem divided into two parts, with six sections in the first
part, five in the second, and subsections within most of the sections.
The syllables "sac" or "sanct" appear in the titles of all but one section,
indicating not a religious atmosphere, but a sometimes grim play across
the binary of sacred and profane.
In the first section of the poem, "Sacred Wood" (the hospital), Viereck
revisits the issues that he addressed in "Bewildered Dignity," "Crass Times
Redeemed by Dignity of Souls," and "Rogue." Dignity is challenged in extremis
in the hospital and, indeed, does not survive there, at least in any form
that it previously took. Viereck proclaims: "Come praise—more than `the
dignity of man'—/The faced indignity; go clear-eyed down./When even charm
and status face the deadpan/Smirk of the bedpan, indignity/Is the great
leveler." Viereck goes on to say that "loss" is his "leitmotif," as it
was for the lungfish at the end of "Rogue." He maintains that "In the sacred
wood of losers, still some tatter/Of loved-enough loss must stay." Yet
he acknowledges that everything crashes. As once it mattered "to cling
to glory's shreds," now Viereck enjoins: "Share/Leftovers; dregs matter,
The second section of the poem, "Sacroiliac," deepens Viereck's meditation
on death and dying. Hospital is a "nation" where "the buildings inhabit
the people," a "campus" where "Pain is dean," "Angst is flunky prof," and
Viereck "their flunking pupil." Then, as he will do several times in the
poem, Viereck pulls back and criticizes himself for giving in to "Confessional
verse's professional moan." He would hope to "counterclown" instead of
to "blubber" at death. Section two ends with Viereck's reflection that,
sealed up in his hospital room, he will never hear tide again and be honed
by its waves.
Section three, "Sacre de Printemps," and section four, "Sacrilege,"
are the bitterest and most desperate moments of the poem. In the third
section, the greenery of spring, seen through Viereck's hospital window,
is not the rebirth of Dionysus, but a cancer, plague, and case of gangrene.
Inside him there is also growth: "I'm a vase for a poppy of rosier bloom,/My
blood its sap, my meat its loam./A shot of morphine its opium,/Its garden
the surgery room" (6).
In "Sacrilege," Viereck remarks on the cataracts that are blinding him
and then has an encounter with Grim Jack the Reaper in the form of the
clacking dentures of the recently deceased former occupant of his room.
Trying to face down this grisly and farcical vision with the power of poetry
to effect "a poise that no longer panics, " he is thrown back when the
vision declares his poetic defenses to be "duds" and tells him that it
is sacrilege to hide from death, which is now upon him. At this juncture
the imperiled poet invokes the female "life-core of ocean" to save her
Sections five through eight record the poet's romance and struggle with
the sea, pursued most likely in a morphine dream. In the fifth section,
"Sanctuary," he plays erotically with the sea, praising the liminal states
of land and sea ("These sand-pebbled bays, these salt-probed beaches").
He culminates with the assertion that "Fleshed mutualness, each reached
by what it reaches, Shares Holy Land" (8).
In section six, "Sacred Ode, " Viereck proposes to "eke real-life theater
from farce/By love's sheer force," but then draws back from "poesie mush"
and implores the sea to shield him from the Reaper until his ode to her
is finished, to which "Sea's voice (or is it my echo?) answers, 'Finish!'
" This section ends with the poet's intent to go back behind his "lungfish-ancestor's
beachhead to birth's first arena." He hungers to return to the womb: "Then,
vulva of Unda Marina, sway me the tide of the dead" (8-9).
Part One concludes here, and Part Two begins with the seventh section,
"Sacred Code," in which the poet senses that the sea is sending him an
urgent message in an indecipherable code. Blocked in his effort to connect,
he turns in section eight, "Unsacrosanct, " to convert the sea into a "sea
trope" of his own devising, attempting to assert once again the power of
poetry and even flirting with the idealist speculation of physicist John
Archibald Wheeler that perhaps the "universe required the future observer
to empower past genesis." He declares: "Parental worldsea, you're my oversized/Baby,
anthropomorphized by these very lines" (11).
Section nine, "Safe Inland," finds Viereck back in the hospital contemplating
"spring's rampage" again, until he lapses into dream and is pelted by brine
and must surrender to a powerful current that hurtles him in an uncertain
direction. In section ten, "Sacerdotal," the poet after another shot of
morphine again confronts the clacking dentures, which drive home the indignity
of life: "Gold was brow's goal, gut's rot has made it dross." The poet
answers bravely: "Watch me shape shapely silver from gold's loss" (13).
That promise will not be fulfilled, at least in this poem. In the second
part of section ten, Viereck has returned to his bed, unable to remember
what he is supposed to write (his sacred ode to the sea). He observes that
"We differently-abled golden agers/Are mnemonically-challenged underachievers,
" and then promises himself that "Tomorrow I'll shape, not shed. The best
is ahead" (13).
That will not be either. His memory does not return. In the final section,
"Sacrament, " he suggests a "new Sacrament" for lovers—"The sharing of
leftovers/The unholy communion of the unfulfilled." Returning to the theme
sounded at the beginning of the poem, Viereck observes that once he "willed
to go down clear-eyed. "Now that no longer seems to matter. He has lost
the sea and a sea trope will not save him. With pathetic irony he concludes:
"Where's sea? My only tide/Is my catheter bag and my I.V. pouch:/My two
ebb-flow machines./Plugged into gimmicks of expensive ouch,/I squint gray
cataracts at what regreens" (13).
Is there dignity here or even faced indignity? Only sad, but no longer
bitter, irony—perhaps that is still a form of dignity.
Viereck survived to write his poetic meditations on the Dionysus-Persephone-Pluto
relation. These long poems constitute a masterwork of philosophical poetry,
a reflection on cosmology from an existentialist viewpoint that instantiates
Greek mythology vividly, cogently, appropriately, imaginatively, and compellingly
right into the life of the late twentieth century. The work is as actual
as a visit to a postmodern technological hospital, and it is also for the
ages. It faces and refuses to deny—this has always been Viereck's greatest
strength—the sway of contemporary tides, but has redirected them so that
they fuse with nearly archetypal myth structures: the Dionysus-Persephone-Pluto
dialogues and monologues incarnate Tide and Continuities in a remarkably
credible synthesis. In these poems, Viereck has left us proof that his
cultural ideal of a fusion of the thoroughly modern with the permanently
human, as embodied in tradition, can be achieved.
The image on the cover of Tide and Continuities is a telling
commentary on Viereck's mytho-philosophical poem cycle. It is a photograph
of an ancient terra cotta relief showing Persephone seated next to Pluto;
she holds a fowl in her hand and he holds a sheaf of grain, the arm rest
of their bench is a serpent. The two gods sit calmly, serenely, and impassively.
There is no sign of the third player, Dionysus, although there is great
merit to Joseph Brodsky's claim in his sparkling verse introduction that
"this book, left to its own devices/is an hommage to Dionysus" (xiv).
As Viereck has imagined the relation of the three gods, Dionysus is
the principle of unrepentant life, struggling for more life; Pluto is the
principle of death, secure in his serenity; and Persephone is the shifter
of the seasons, shuttling back and forth between her two lovers, reviving
by regathering Dionysus in the spring and reaping him, hacking him apart
in the fall. Viereck's poems are exquisite, often hilarious and often touching,
inquisitions into the ways in which the three figures respond to their
roles in the cosmic drama that they are fated to play, and to each other—as
they separate and unite in the subtlest and starkest ways through their
The mytho-philosophical poems appear in Parts I and VI of Tide and
Continuities. Part I features Dionysus asserting himself against death
("Dionysus in Old Age" and "Goat Ode in Mid-Dive") and Pluto defending
his place in the cosmos ("Pluto Incognito"). Part VI features Persephone
dialoguing with Dionysus ("Tide") and with an old poet ("Persephone and
Old Poet"). The former poem is often breathtaking in its changes of voice
and in the way it puts the two figures into a complex and genuine relation
with each other: they individuate for each other. The latter poem gives
the last word in the book to Persephone.
There can be no doubt that the most complex and credible figure in Viereck's
mytho-philosophical poems is not Dionysus but Persephone. She must spin
the wheel of life and death, of the seasons, dwelling with two lovers.
To whom does she belong? Is she the betrayer of Dionysus, his slayer; or
is she his reviver who would wish to stay with him perpetually but is forced
by fate to abandon him for the underworld? Is it really Pluto whom she
loves or does she defy Pluto each spring by leaving him alone to rule his
frigid but serene realm without a consort with whom to share its inhuman
peace? Does she belong to the wheel that she must spin? Does she belong
to herself as the one who shuttles and is ultimately indifferent to both
her lovers, although she is inevitably drawn to fuse with each of them
at certain times in the seasonal cycle?
The complexities, ambiguities, and ambivalence of Persephone's role
endow her with a wisdom that neither Dionysus nor Pluto can have. Each
of them is fixed in his world and would, if he could, have Persephone as
his consort perpetually. It is probably true that Persephone, given the
pushes and pulls on her, can never know what her will is and where her
loyalty lies. Her significance does not reside in her having a fixed viewpoint,
but in being an opening for a play of viewpoints. She is wise when she
takes account of the whole cycle in which she is involved, being the only
one to experience it as a whole. There she finds her superiority, and the
reader is tempted to speculate that she always reserves part of herself
above the stations of the cycle, even in her moments of abandon to one
of her lovers; that there is always a sad, hard, and yet strong independence
that neither Dionysus nor Pluto has—one gets the sense that she has learned
that a girl has to take care of herself and that she has learned to do
so with a savory realism.
It is a great credit to Viereck that he has been able to imagine a compelling,
even dominant, female figure at just the moment that, as the civilized-rogue-existentialist
and reverer of struggling life that he has always been, he encounters an
unwanted finality. The indisputable moment of transcendence in Viereck's
poetry is the figure of Persephone, the most complex persona that he has
yet invented and one that is at least as credible as his representations
"Persephone and Old Poet" contains seven sections entitled "Prologue,"
"Calendar," "Hex," "Mend," "Chore," "Medusa," and "Epilogue: My Future
Prologue." The poem is taken up with, as the old poet puts it, "a clash
of myths," specifically the encounter between Persephone's wisdom that
death is the preparation for new life and should be accepted by the one
who is dying, even though the dying one will not himself be reborn; and
the old poet's bid to assert the power of poetry against mortality, perhaps
to make poetry redeem the mortality of the flesh.
The argument between the old poet and Persephone builds up to a climax
at the end of the sixth section ("Medusa") when the poet encapsulates the
controversy in his terms: "Goddess and bard are each a lasting watcher./Who
outlasts whom, there's the wager." Persephone responds: "Your hubris bloats
weirder. I'm wider, you're waner./A shuttler's no wilter. You wither."
The poet replies: "I wither. Into music. Though you balk,/Are not these
very lines (which magic is winner?)/My Perseus mirror against your Gorgon
In the seventh section ("Epilogue: My Future Prologue") we are back
to the stark confrontation with death that governed "At My Hospital Window."
As always, in Viereck, what is at stake is dignity. In section two Persephone
had uttered the challenge: "Age is a spastic fandango/(Flayed of all dignity)
towards your Penelope,/Your waiting grave-hole. Tell her 'Open Sesame.'
" At the end of the first part of the final section, she asks: "For what
are you waiting before you go drop?" The poet answers: "For the unlikely
chance of some unexplainable warmth" (309, 316).
In the second part of section seven, the old poet reviews the history
of evolution from the "rogue amoeba that split in two" to "my Homer-Shakespeare-etc.
accident," and declares it all to be "accident," asserting that now his
"accidental new start starts" (316).
The next part begins with Persephone's retort: "Though hooked fish twitch,
ends—ends!—aren't starts./No more Chronos coins in your till." The two
voices then go back and forth, with the old poet repeating his point that
"the singer topples, but his songs still scan." Persephone queries how
a few "neo-lungfish rebut/The odds and live to reach/That accident beach."
The poet responds enigmatically: "Maybe some accidents are less accidental
than others," recalling the physicist Wheeler's speculation that the "universe
required the future observer to empower past genesis" (316-17).
The penultimate part of the epilogue-prologue is a touching exchange
between the old poet and Persephone in which the poet acknowledges the
finality of death ("For Attis and his knife, no antidote."), but refuses
to let down his "heliotropic heart" and proclaims: "Unexplainable warmth
is now my blind date" (317).
Is it still true, as it was for our date with the world in the vignette
"Bewildered Dignity," that "nobody likes 'blind dates'"? Persephone responds
to the old poet's proclamation with a perhaps condescending, even gently
mocking, perhaps rueful and also ironic compassionate regret: "Because
I dote on you so, I'd stay for a quickie chat/If, if./The wheel won't let
me do it." She knows that he is not leaving her for new adventures, but
that she is leaving him, as she leaves Dionysus each fall.
The final part of "Epilogue: My Future Prologue" recounts the old poet's
attempt to start his new adventure, his grasping for a "fluke": "Fluke,
needed fluke, is my argonaut, steering/To where new mess, new growingness
is stirring." Persephone responds that the old poet's power is "worn out,"
he cannot launch himself again; to which he replies that his "knack of
fumbling empowers both heart and head." Persephone: "I almost believe in
you. But." Old Poet: "My riskiest launching—full speed ahead!—/(Well half
speed) is starting, is starting. " Persephone concludes the poem: "Brief
humans, my eons still can't figure you out" (317-18).
The final human dignity is to bewilder the gods. Bewildering dignity.
Yasmin Lodi, Martin Buber and Muhammad Igbal: A Study in the Modernizing
Mind, Doctoral Dissertation, Purdue University, West Lafayette: 1995.
Peter Viereck, Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals: Babbitt Jr.
vs. The Rediscovery of Values, New York: Capricorn Books, 1965.
Copyright © 2010 NATIONAL HUMANITIES
Updated 29 July 2010