“It is Well Known,” a poem from New and Selected Poems by Harriet Zinnes
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2014)
LINEAR AND RETROSPECTIVE READING:
HARRIET ZINNES’ “’IT IS WELL KNOWN’”
Harriet Zinnes’ New and Selected Poems, (East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, 2014) collects the work of roughly half a century. In 1966, when An Eye for an I was published, the poet was already an accomplished Comparative Literature professor and translator. New and Selected Poems, includes work from eight previous books of verse, the most recent being Weather Is Whether (2012), as well as seven new pieces. Zinnes’ work happily blends the influence of French Symbolism, French surrealism, Steinian reiterations, stately cadences and heightened speech of high modernists like Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens, and a dash of Ashbery’s disjunctive cliché-tweaking. The great old themes of love, mutability, war, and communion/alienation, and the attempt at oneness with nature (especially birds) appear, but minus old platitudes.
The 1966 poem “’It is Well Known’” is especially remarkable for the ways in which the poet orchestrates an unsettling encounter between linear and retrospective reading. The opening tercet consists of a tantalizingly decontextualized string of quoted clichés:
“It is well known.”
“It is dangerous.”
“Temptation is irresistible.” (15)
Perhaps the relation between “temptation” and danger is “well known,” but the pronoun “it” lacks a referent. And isn’t it also well known that some temptations can be resisted?
Next, in a single-lined strophe, an image conveys a trope of positioning: “The center holds the black round eye.” The orientation of a “center” that is also an “eye” in tacit relation to a periphery suggests the organization and representation of perception. This is followed by two more aphorisms in a couplet that articulate further general admonitions about danger: “The path is hard./ Error is everywhere.” “Hard” can be read as a pun that links psychological and physical difficulty, while “error” includes the connotation of wandering (i.e. from the path), as well as mistake. Thus, the concept of centering and stability (“holds”) in the prior strophe is disrupted by an aura of deviation.
All of a sudden, the concluding strophes (a tercet and a couplet) provide somewhat firmer contexts:
The canvas is light blue.
Who torments the child with the McGuffey Reader
and tears the canvas at its black throbbing center?
The page is white
and the President is dead.
The repeated word “canvas” places a “frame” around the earlier “center” and “eye.” Is Zinnes describing a minimalist painting with a single “bullseye” at the center. As an art critic, she would have been acutely aware that minimalism stood at the center of the New York art scene at the time she wrote the poem. There are several reasons to suggest that “the black… center” is “throbbing.” For one thing, in a composition with so few elements, the viewer, staring hard at the canvas, may experience the illusion of central movement despite the work’s actual stasis. Also, like the nineteenth century American pedagogical tool, “the McGuffey Reader,” which Henry Ford helped endure in the early twentieth century, the center as a trope for stability—perhaps ahistorical “truth”—is subject to history’s volatility. Zinnes’ preposition “with” performs its own “violence” against the reader: is someone tormenting the young student by imposing the McGuffey reader on her/him, or is the child tormented by someone while s/he is trying to enjoy reading this text? As for the painting, the speaker may wonder who does violence to the painting—if not literally “tearing” it, then dismissing the value of the work, denying its aesthetic centrality even in a momentary act of looking. Of course, Zinnes is also spotlighting how bids for centrality in art seem to depend on the negative critique of other movements: Minimalism in visual art, soon to be challenged by Pop Art’s drive to refiguration, and a more severe conceptualism, can itself be read as an attack on fifties’ Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on emotion, personality, and even Existential action, as well as an attempt to prove itself superiority to prior twentieth-century movements championing abstraction, such as that of Mondrian and his followers.
It is obvious that intimations of desecration and destruction are registered on the poem’s “white” “page,” but the text’s final allusive assertion is its most ominous. If Zinnes wrote the poem as late as the early months of 1966, prior to her first book’s publication, it was merely a little over two years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Varied associations then (and for those of us old enough to remember, now) attached to this tragic event, especially the obliteration of Kennedy’s youthful promise and hope invested in his “New Frontier,” and the glaring vulnerability of the President as putatively stabilizing signifier for national identity, “throb” so insistently that the concluding line urges a reconsideration of what precedes it. Thus, the adjective “dangerous” can be tied to historical rupture. And there may be “irresistible” “temptation” to read this particular rupture, even if smoothed over by Lyndon B. Johnson’s speedy assumption of the Presidency, in ways that tenuously re-establish a conceptual “center” in order to banish anxiety and insecurity. Johnson’s own “error”-prone “path” involving escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—evident to many who were left of center as early as 1965 or 1966—might be seen in this light, as would the perceived need to grapple with conspiracy theories and the notion of Oswald as an individual acting alone that resulted in the Warren Commission’s research.
Although the art world is a tame arena compared to the tumult of realpolitik involving war and assassination, a retrospective reading of Zinnes’ poem establishes a salient parallel between the two. We can identify the “temptation” to mastery, to insist (“dangerously”) on maintaining that some “truth” “is well known” and to deny the relevance of other formulations, as well as the actual “errancy” of the “hard path” where “centers” do not “hold,” as serious problems in both spheres. So it turns out that, for Zinnes, “it is well known” that one can suppose many assertions of what “is well known” to be dangerous concealments of what is either unknown or unknowable or known only so long as some random disruption has not yet rendered it illusory.
Thomas Fink is the author of 8 books of poetry, including Joyride (Marsh Hawk Press, 2013) and a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason, Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010). A chapbook, Former Sestinas, Fink and Tom Beckett’s collaboration, appeared in late 2013 (Beard of Bees). Fink’s work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). He is the author of A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) and co-editor ofReading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary Innovative American Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2014) . His paintings hang in various collections.