“Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems, 1950 to 2013” by Robert Bly (W.W. Norton, 400 pages, $35)
“The fundamental world of poetry is an inward world. We approach it through solitude.” – From “Silence in the Snowy Fields”
Now well into his 80s, Robert Bly continues to rank as one of our great visionary poets. Over the course of his 63-year career, he has used deep imagery, free association and a flowing musicality to reveal the infinite in the finite, the ecstatic in the everyday, and the solace of silence.
Call him the American William Blake.
He has also been a tireless advocate for world poetry. For more than half a century, he has translated, published and championed verse from around the globe, offering us a broad horizon of works, from the odes of Chile’s Pablo Neruda to the cryptic, existential poems of Sweden’s Tomas Transtromer.
Bly’s latest collection, “Stealing Sugar From the Castle,” showcases his talents from 1950 to the present, leaning heavily on his more recent – and a handful of new – poems. Throughout, the book displays a dynamic love of language, a wide range of form, and Bly’s sensitivity to the mystery of the human condition, its wondrous sense of presence beyond the strict boundaries of the self.
The strong leaves of the box elder tree,
Plunging in the wind, call us to disappear
Into the wilds of the universe,
Where we shall sit at the foot of a plant,
And live forever, like the dust.
What makes Bly such a pleasure to read is that his spiritual voice carries authority yet never comes across as preachy. He may reach for “another heaven and earth beyond the world of men,” but his quest remains firmly anchored in the image. Not the anemic, cerebral image of high modernism, but an image with an earthy center, radiating transcendence as a real existential possibility. An image rooted in the quotidian.
After writing poems all day,
I go off to see the moon in the pines.
Far in the woods I sit down against a pine.
The moon has her porches turned to face the light,
But the deep part of her house is in darkness.
Bly has been deeply influenced by the mystic poetry of world religions, particularly Sufiism. That tradition’s essential poetic form, the ghazal, “provides a kind of chamber in which opposite things can be said,” as he described it in an interview.
Composed in three-line stanzas with a recurrent ending, the ghazal never states it theme directly, and thus stays open to multiple interpretations. It also frees the poet to try to make each element of the poem “stand for something bigger.”
Bly’s ghazals – some of the most elegant, resonant poems in this collection – rely on that process of association, ripe with meanings.
The goose cries, and there is no way to save her.
So many cheeps come from the nest by the river.
If God doesn’t listen, why are we listening.
Very deep water covers most of the globe.
Whenever I see it, I think of St. John.
There is no remedy for deep water but listening.
As he has aged, Bly has tried to recover the common language of human relationships, what one poem calls “the sympathies of the long married.” But he flourishes at his best – rich, allusive and wise – when calling forth our cosmic connections.
A hundred boats are still looking for shore.
There is more in my hopes than I imagined.
The tiny roof nail lies on the ground, aching for the roof.
Some little bone in our foot is longing for heaven.
As “Stealing Sugar From the Castle” so forcefully shows, Bly remains a national treasure. To step into his poetic universe is to be forever in his debt.