Amherst Magazine

The Power of Myth

Horsegod: Collected Poems, by Robert Bagg ’57 (IndieReader.com)

Reviewed by Amelia Klein ’00

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[Poetry] To read Horsegod is to enter a fairly complete world, a world made coherent by a symbolic logic at once deeply private and derived from the wellsprings of ancient mythology. Robert Bagg is in fact the author of several highly regarded translations of Sophocles and Euripides; the breath of myth permeates his imagination. Like Yeats, whom these poems frequently invoke, Bagg perceives his own life as a local instantiation of a timeless pattern. Every story is old and many times told, tragedy the cosmic law. Yet these poems are able to arrive at a grave and compelling acceptance of suffering, precisely because tradition radiates through them its central wisdom: pity, terror and the saving grace that all of this has come before, that beauty survives where violence merely shatters.

In Bagg’s comprehensively mythological vision, ontogeny, or the development of the individual, is necessarily an index of ontology, the nature of being itself. “I’ve organized Horsegod,” the preface explains, “to form an implicit narrative from childhood to old age.” The poems of youth relive moments of triumph and trauma: a pigeon set on fire in an act of boyish cruelty; a “sewer dare” that sounds just as disgusting as it is, accepted for the sake of being part of “Reichart’s roaring gang”—“His was the biggest swindle of our lives,” Bagg remarks, in a moment of characteristic wryness. We pursue these early exploits into songs of adolescent lust, and finally into the poetry of perplexed maturity. Here, it is death—the death of a marriage, a student’s suicide, terrorism and, of course, his own death—that is the poet’s nearly constant theme. However, as in all tragedies worthy of the name, death is coupled with madly resilient hope—hope of redemption through love, through art, Eros transfiguring Thánatos once more.

In a sense, the first poem in the volume, “Ostrakoi,” prophesies all that follow. Chancing to catch his mother in an erotically charged embrace with one Rick Larkin, a rather dubious fellow, the child is suddenly cast out of innocence:

This memory has jagged edges. Like
          those
clay ostrakoi Athenians attached
to unwanted newborns left out to die,
so if rescued and brought up by            
          strangers
they might, fate willing, chance on            
          whoever
holds the other broken half, make the            
          match,
discover who their parents really were.

The self is born as the self is broken, exiled into fragmentary knowledge. When the pieces are reunited at the end of the poem, the boy perceives his own sexuality in the mirror his mother’s holds up to him:

The potshard pieces come together.            
          Mom
stares at me. My shivering nakedness
covers itself up. Hers lights up with            
          a flash
so blinding all I see is the darkness.

In this defining moment of recognition, the poet’s fate is sealed: his inheritance is the hunger that ravishes his life and wrests his poems into being.

“What in our genes makes myths / such contagious obsessions?” Bagg asks in the radiant “Epidauros,” perhaps my favorite poem in the collection (though one hastens to add that Horsegod asks to be experienced in order, as a whole, and will reward the reader’s patience). The poems collected here hazard an answer to that question: myths bear the power to illuminate truths about ourselves that we would otherwise be blind to. These truths are devastating, yet not to perceive them is just as fatal as the tragic knowledge they convey.

Horsegod holds special pleasures for Amherst readers. The college itself figures in several poems, and Bagg is unmistakably an Amherst poet, swimming in the strong current of Frost, Merrill and Wilbur. More ineffably, there is something in the quality of his work—the scent and spirit of it—that will be familiar, I think, to anyone who has studied English literature at Amherst. Though Bagg’s time at the Fairest College preceded mine by roughly 40 years, his poems struck a nerve of literary kinship.

Those seeking the avant-garde need not inquire here. The poems, for the most part, are written in the tried-and-true rhythms of English verse; their subjects are as timeworn as can be; and where the form appears experimental, it reaches not forward but backward, toward the cadences of Greek syllabic meter. Novelty, here, is beside the point. What makes Horsegod so extraordinary is just how traditional these lyrics are, how basically confident they remain in the ability of the past to shed light on the present, in the power of ancient myth to disclose the depths of psyche, indeed in the ultimate universality of psyche itself. There is bravery and folly in these poems, which touch the root of story. They are classical in the best sense of the word.

Amelia Klein recently received her Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in Boston Review, Tin House and Twentieth-Century Literature, among other publications. She lives in South Boston.