Spring/Summer 1993, Volue 10.2
Unravelling the Knot by Brad L. Roghaar, Salt Lake City, UT: Utah State Poetry Society, 1992, 76 pp., $9.00 (cloth).
Reviewed by Scott Cairns, Department of English, University of North Texas at Denton
When attending to any landscape-exotic or familiar-the poet makes a choice about how he will regard what lies before him. Granted the choice is very often so quickly made as to be barely noticed, but it is nonetheless a choice, and one which sets the terms-both the limits and the language-for what he will see and what he will say.
As he looks upon the expanse before him, the landscape will become for him one of two things: a receptive scene of invention or a scene of resistance; the field will either receive his impression, or it will refuse, attaining an opacity which separates him from what he desires. The former circumstance results in a vocabulary evoking cooperation and re-creation; the latter results in language whose gestures are those of penetration and obliteration.
In Unravelling the Knot, Brad L. Roghaar throws in with those poets who would see such figures as the landscape, the other, the truth as resistances to be penetrated. The figures in this collection have, therefore, to do with phenomena (a Hindu temple, a wife, a daughter, a son) objectified as resisting others; loss and privation become the recurring themes; and ennui becomes the speaker's sole, consoling note.
Roghaar's central metaphor, the knot, establishes and maintains a vision of the perceived world as a kind of puzzlement, a complexity which the speaker might prefer less difficult or one which he, at least, understands as preventing his access to what lies before him. In the opening poem, 'Cremation at Pashupatinath, Nepal," the speaker would have the river before him serve his desire for revelation: " . . . Bagmati-the ribbon of life,/ the unraveled knot of whatever there is." Even so, the desired revelation is not forthcoming, so the speaker must recant in order to proceed: "I know only that the knot is not easily unraveled."
"Cremation at Pashupatinath, Nepal," which actually addresses the temple named in its title, is exemplary, in general, of the speaker's disposition toward each of the witnessed scenes the book provides:
Pashupatinath, most holy of all Hindu temples,
closed behind silver doors and
resting under a roof of bronze
like a woman beneath a shield,
You pull me with one bent finger
but permit me a look only from the Eastern bank,
the bank I do not understand.
So, given an implicit insistence upon this opposition of I and the other, the character of reception must be discussed by the speaker as being determined by the object addressed; this is a necessary fiction whose effect is relieving the speaker of culpability for his own privation and loss.
As the resulting vocabulary is comprised of terms of resistance, the speaker's relationship to the object is necessarily one of ingression. Moreover, any intersection of the speaker with those addressed is transient and threatening to the speaker.
1 will cross with curiosity and
peer into You from the permitted place,
the vantage point You demand.
... Pashupatinath, You open beneath me like
a young woman .....
You will have a piece of me yet.
If these poems appear sentimental, they are not simply so. While much of the subject matter from poem to poem attends ostensibly to beloved family and friends ("My Son Who Chases Birds," "Brothers," "To A Sister," "Mother, We Are Growing Old") or attends to the apparent efficacy of natural circumstances ("Autumn Arguments," "Somewhere in the Desert," "This Is How Grass Grows," "The Death of a Bull Elephant"), they all conclude as elegies. The beloved are insufficiently loved ("I ... / sleep with a wife 1 don't deserve), or the joy of presence is overshadowed by their eventual loss ("To hold you, even as we both / evaporate"), or the pleasures of the landscape are compromised by their anticipated absence ("The leaves of tress/ don't choose to died They part from limbs,/ alone and forsaken."). One reads through these catalogs of relationship-most of them quite lovely, musically attractive-, and cannot help but wonder why this speaker insists so upon maintaining his sadness:
No this sadness is not a sudden thing,
And what is more
(But you already know this.)
It is never through with you.
Inevitable and Irrevocable-
A dull thud that you hear
Long before it hits.
("Sometimes a Great Sadness Comes")
It is this decision to hear the dull thud of melancholy "long before it hits" that wrestles these poems out of access to anything beyond the speaker himself. It is as if the opacity of the other hardens into something of a sheen-perhaps into a poolinto which the poet peers, believing he addresses the beloved when he speaks only to himself, and about himself.
Presumably, then, these are poems whose common matter is not so much the relationship of the speaker to these others, as it is the isolation of the speaker from these others. This is what makes Unravelling the Knot so moving a collection of poems; the speaker repeatedly extends gestures of intimacy, of wanting to know the other, and these gestures repeatedly translate into pleas to be known. It is a circumstance which demands some manner of consolation.
Here, the consolation arrives in the form of a familiar, and much treasured, modernist pathos: given a land and loved ones whose eventual loss is assured, one may exert some manner of apparent control over their loss by choosing to paint them already with the shadow of obliteration. In so doing, one may adopt a kind of nobility in facing up to the promise of loss. These poems are unified in their resolve to savor this curious species of pleasure which attends self-imposed isolation. In Unravelling the Knot, Brad L. Roghaar has created a persona who performs a dire isolation, a performance which provides that speaker with both a content and a rhetoric for uttering it.