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Herman Asarnow’s Glass-Bottom Boat

Several months ago I had the singular pelasure of sitting with Herman Asarnow in his office at the University of Portland, talking about theology, literature, the dynamics of tradition, family life, and the art of writing. We were surrounded by years of accumulated evidence of Asarnow’s formation, study, and ongoing engagements, for his office fairly overflows with texts that range from the ancient world to the world of just last week. This space signals the concerns and cultivation that Asarnow brings to his writing, where the conversation includes James Watson, Ovid, Thoreau, Tennyson, Michelangelo, Picasso, Brahms, Shakespeare, Pierre Bonnard, Christopher Wren, and Francis Crick.

Asarnow’s is a sensibility attuned to the disquieting mixture of tensuousness and tenacity that we encounter in our civilization and culture. His book Glass-Bottom Boat (Higganum Hill Books, 2007) opens on an encounter with fragility, “Driving in My Convertible, Exposed to the Elements,” Asarnow’s contribution to the tradition of the dead or dying animal poem, a tradition that includes Richard Eberhart’s “The Groundhog” and William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark.” Gazing upon the dead or dying creature, the figure of the poet in this meditative subgenre glimpses not only the vulnerability of the other, but also an image of ourselves subject to the forces of decay. Asarnow’s poem signals a moment of reciprocity:


the look the animal gives–struck

by a car, left on the road to die–

when you pull over to do something:

eye to eye, terror; not fear of death,

but a thought interrupting

the uninterruptible current (so it feels)….

But this reciprocity, this moment’s mutuality, remains the speaker’s projection, as that parenthetical and italicized “so it feels” emphasizes. For the other remains other, opaque and inaccessible. The poem is about the longing for an understanding that reaches across species as the speaker struggles to do what he can to do what is right for this suffering animal. It is about the primal and even neurological realization that “there is a stop, / a point that ends the flow of the sentence.” Again, the emphasis on the sentence keeps the focus on the human consciousness and what it can supply to the scene, for the human consciousness is what the poem cannot get away from; it is what we humans carry with us wherever we go and what we must figure out how to encounter the other in terms of. And of course the encounters are not always happy, as in this poem, where the speaker encounters the creature mangled by another car, a situation in which the best he can think to do is to end its pain as quickly as possible. The poem thus works against any sentimental notion of encounter between nature and civilization even as the speaker, in his encounter with the wounded animal, struggles to meet it as a fellow creature and not as a simplistic abstraction, such as the ‘nature’ I named earlier in this sentence. If I read this poem correctly, it ends with an “incorruptible element” that is both death and the feeling of solidarity shared, perhaps, by all living creatures subject to death.

For Herman Asarnow, poetry is the glass-bottom boat through which we catch a glimpse of the forces and wilderness that surround and circulate through us. Poetry is thus the vehicle in which we can “ride bravely the rough cross- / hatched swells beyond the bar….” (“Glass-Bottom Boat”). He takes us beyond that sandbar where the waters become rougher; we cross with him, as with Tennyson (see “Crossing the Bar”), the bar that leads us into death. What Asarnow says of Mark Rothko’s famous cubes may also be said of Asarnow’s own poems, that they “speak slowly, but with richly voiced / harmonics at the lowest frequencies.” Who knows but that, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Asarnow’s poems speak for us “on the lower frequencies”?