Book Review: Orphic Bend: Music and Innovative Poetics

Zamsky, Robert L., Orphic Bend: Music and Innovative Poetics. Tuscaloosa: Uni of Alabama Press, 2021. viii + 216pp. ISBN (paperback) 978-0-8173-6014-6

By Rob Turner, University of Exeter

“I would play Orpheus for you again,” Robert Duncan once wrote to Denise Levertov, “recall the arrow or song / to the trembling daylight / from which it sprang.” The shade of the doomed mythic inventor of lyric verse runs through twentieth century American poetry, with echoes of tragic love, loss, and lament. In this compelling and often surprising monograph, Robert L. Zamsky takes up the shifting legacy of the myth, pursuing its “Orphic bend” (a phrase he borrows from Nathaniel Mackey) through the work of five major twentieth-century US poets: Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley, John Taggart, Tracie Morris, and Mackey himself.

In his opening pages, Zamsky lays out the familiar story of Orpheus and Eurydice, before narrating its early evolution from a fragment attributed to Ibycus (6th century BC) through to Ovid and Virgil. At first, the critic seems to be settling into a belated reply to Walter Strauss’s influential study Descent and Return: The Orphic Theme in Modern Literature (1971), until he pauses to note that the three poets at the core of his book—Creeley, Taggart, Morris—are not, in fact, making use of the Orpheus myth at all. In their writings, he admits, “the relationship to Orpheus is simply not an explicit one. None of them, to my knowledge, describes his or her work in relation to the Orphic tradition” (6). It becomes clear that Orphic Bend is less about direct responses to the myth, and more the thicket of lyrical metaphors that emerge from its details, ranging from the poet’s backward glance to the later dismemberment of his corpse.

As indicated by the book’s subtitle, the most important of these tropes is Orpheus’s song itself: an ancient reminder of the vexed relationship between music and poetry. Zamsky’s study takes up the question of the musicality of post-war American verse, writing in the wake of Joseph M. Conte’s Unending Design: The Form of Postmodern Poetry (1991), and sharing lines of inquiry with the more recent work of Susan Stewart. At first, the critic’s specific musical context is opera, a famously orphic spectacle: Zamsky touches on the origins of this form, and considers Ezra Pound’s rarely-heard Le Testament de Villon (1923), before turning to Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime (2004).

Focusing on the dramatic suicide of Walter Benjamin at the climax of Bernstein’s libretto, Zamsky reads Shadowtime as capturing “not only a significant moment in human history but also the logical conclusion of the humanism of that history” (39), a grand argument that rests on his repeated claim that “for the humanist thinkers of the Renaissance, the narrative of Orpheus represented the possibilities and the challenges of syncretic logic” (18). It’s an intriguing reading, positing an Orphic loop in early modern thought, although its historic basis feels a little ungrounded: it’s supported only by a nod to Peter Kivy’s work, and Zamsky avoids citing any of the Renaissance humanists he has in mind.

In any case, opera is soon put to one side: from the second chapter onwards, American music dominates Zamsky’s soundtrack. Indeed, it is often jazz, more than the Orpheus myth, that seems to be his primary concern: the gorgeous graphic score that appears on the dust jacket was composed by the trumpeter (and first-generation member of the AACM) Wadada Leo Smith. This turn to specifically Black sonics feels increasingly central to the book, hinting at a set of urgent questions underpinning its account of the relationship between poetry and music in America across the last half century.

“Struggling to find his voice as a young poet, Creeley found not just inspiration but a model in jazz” (48), Zamsky writes towards the start of his second chapter. And yet, this is swiftly qualified by Creeley’s claim that his work is not “jazzy, or about jazz—rather, it’s trying to use a rhythmic base much as jazz of this time would” (49). There is a tension here, and it creeps into the following section, too, as John Taggart discusses his decision to make “a grid from the sheet music for [Ornette Coleman’s] ‘Lonely Woman’” to build his own verse. “Not ‘jazz poems’,” Taggart insists, “they would have to start from and go away from jazz” (70). Across these central chapters, Zamsky shows us a pair of white poets who are torn between claiming and refusing an association with Black music, insisting on framing their borrowings as somehow abstract rather than stylistic.

37 For now, Zamsky steers clear of the lurking question of race and appropriation; instead, he dives into Creeley and Taggart’s texts. His close readings are often excellent, as when he pauses to weigh the phrasing in Creeley’s ‘A Song’ (1957): “the slipperiness of ‘which’ troubles the line, which reads as much like a question as it does a statement. […] ‘you’ could be equated with an unknown addressee, the murmur, the grace, or even the eponymous ‘song’ of the poem as a whole” (52). This mode of sustained attention is often striking, and Zamsky can send you rushing back to a poem with renewed interest and understanding.

The same precision and care can be seen in the discussion of Tracie Morris’s recorded performances in the fourth chapter, as whole pages are dedicated to describing intricate sonic effects. Where the question of race was largely dodged in prior chapters, the relationship between Blackness and linguistic performativity becomes explicit here, with Zamsky making use of Fred Moten’s work, alongside Morris’s own research into the language philosophy of J.L. Austin. The argument is nuanced and often persuasive, but there are moments where the “Orphic” framework risks getting in the way. The chapter title “Eurydice Takes the Mic” (Zamsky’s phrase, not Morris’s) seems an unhelpful projection of the trope onto the female writer. And, given the fact that there is no mention of Orpheus’s doomed wife in Morris’s work, the description of her undertaking a “Eurydicean drive for performative justice” (118) seems misjudged, as does the puzzling suggestion that her writing is “no less derivative of [Gertrude] Stein than Eurydice is of Orpheus” (114).

As Orphic Bend draws to a close, we turn at last to Nathaniel Mackey, the source of the book’s title. Zamsky’s excellent 2006 article on music in the poet’s early verse is revised and expanded, here, with the addition of carefully argued material on the braided songs in Splay Anthem. It’s a pity that the publication schedule precludes any analysis of the monolithic jazz meditations in the Double Trio box set, but Zamsky writes well on the way that Mackey’s lines respond to the innovations of Black musicians, from Don Cherry to Cecil Taylor. The granular readings that are one of the book’s consistent strengths are given a surprisingly metrical emphasis in these pages, as the critic hunts for amphimacers and spondaic substitutions in this syncopated free verse.

In his brief conclusion, Zamsky turns to some of the more explicit treatments of Orpheus in 20th-century US poetry, touching on the work of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and John Ashbery. Pointing out that “part of Orpheus’s myth is that after the loss of Eurydice, he foregoes the love of women and substitutes for it homosexual love” (164), these closing pages hint in passing at a queer counter-tradition, an intriguing reworking of an otherwise heteronormative marriage story. This is just one of the many areas for compelling future research suggested by Zamsky’s thoughtful book. Returning to the founding myth of lyric, Orphic Bend offers a number of ways of rethinking the interplay between music and meaning in contemporary poetry.