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'Everything, Forever, Everything Is Changed'

* A glimpse of Einstein, the bombing of Hiroshima, the plight of women. Moments are blazing images in Carolyn Kizer's poetry.

March 05, 2001|ALLAN M. JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SONOMA — Carolyn Kizer's friend and editor, Sam Hamill, has long regarded her as "a grande dame of American poetry." But when he recently dared to print that on the review galley for the newly published, 509-page collection of her life's work, she had it removed. Now, sitting here in her high-windowed, mid-19th century house, fixing her large blue eyes on me, she asks: "Do I seem like a grande dame to you?"

She's a statuesque woman who stands almost 6 feet; a 76-year-old winner of a Pulitzer Prize in a fashionably dark pantsuit; the first director of the literary program of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose aging admirers still recall the remarkable beauty of her youth. She is a widely traveled grandmother who translates poets from the Balkans to Beijing; she is a famously good teacher, spreading her work ethic of artistic improvement in a richly mellifluous voice, defying severe arthritis this winter to be a visiting professor at San Jose State University.

And now she waits for my answer.

"Yes," I venture nervously, if any poet on the West Coast, indeed in America today, deserves such a title, it is probably her. "Oh, it makes me sound like a large piano," she groans.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 8, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Poet's name--A story in Monday's Southern California Living misspelled the name of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

She sits in a reddish chair surrounded by Greek statuary, antique Chinese scrolls and modern paintings by her friends from the Northwest, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, along with countless shelves of books, many by poets she's known. The balance of intimacy and Old World elegance comes close to the architectural equivalent of a Kizer poem. It reflects what she calls a "very fortunate life" and also her collection's title, "Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960-2000" (Copper Canyon).

We struggle to fit her among poets. "I'm not a formalist, not a confessional poet, not strictly a free-verse poet," she says, though she relies on a refined metrical ear and has confessional moments. She agrees with the idea that she belongs to a long tradition of social advantage applied to a socially minded art, one that embraces writers ranging from Edith Wharton to Robert Lowell.

It is an unusual place to hold these days. In the 1960s, the big story in American letters became the explosion of minority voices: Jewish, black, Asian and, more recently, Latino. Kizer emerged from a sturdy, if left-leaning, WASP background. Her father was a prominent lawyer and civil libertarian in Spokane, Wash., who was harassed during the McCarthy era. Her mother worked for radical causes. Her parents, portrayed vividly in her work, taught Kizer a sensitivity to imbalances between insiders and outsiders. "I'm a lucky woman, really," she says. "Things always turn out all right for me, but if I have a model in this life, I've taken it from the Quakers: 'Speak truth to power.' "

She's fought for the social and artistic recognition of women. In the most-quoted line from her best-known poem, "Pro Femina," she calls women "the custodians of the world's best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity." That line dates to 1964. Recent work sustains her commitment to equality. In "Union of Women," a 1998 poem about Los Angeles poet FrancEYE (she goes by just the one name), Kizer identifies with FrancEYE's support for women hotel workers "in struggle / With the terrible Sheraton, it's unfair labor practices / Concerning the ladies who change the beds and mop the bathrooms / And fold the ends of the toilet paper / Into those stupid triangles, and put the mints on the pillow."

Tough without being cold, sometimes satirical (she's a great admirer of Alexander Pope), her work expresses a wordly largeness that repeatedly focuses on the points at which lives meet. "That's my subject," she says. "No matter how brief an encounter you have with anybody, you both change."

She draws my attention to "Twelve O'Clock," a poem with a powerful pacifist undercurrent, framed by her resonating glimpse of Albert Einstein at the main library as a 17-year-old visiting Princeton. She creates a collage of times and places, Princeton, Berkeley, Spokane. We see her stargazing with her mother. It's night in a meadow near the Kizers' summer home in Hayden Lake, Idaho. For the mother, the stars display an ordered, quite certain universe. To the daughter, they radiate uncertainty. Family scenes mingle with a growing awareness of physics. An orderly sense of anxiety spreads across time, until she walks past the Lawrence Lab in Berkeley, at noon, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima:

Everywhere, all over Japan / And Germany, people are lighting candles / It's dark in Germany and Japan, on different days, / But here in Berkeley, it is twelve o'clock.

Kizer's voice is subdued but strong, as she reads her concluding lines about seeing Einstein:

I stand in the center of the library

And he appears. Are we witnesses or actors?

The old man and the girl, smiling at each other,

He fixed by fame, she fluid, still without identity.

An instant which changes nothing.

And everything, forever, everything is changed.

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