Breaking Down the Doors: A Review of James Doyle’s The Silk at Her Throat

J.T. Cavender

René Magritte’s La réponse imprévue (The Unexpected Answer) depicts a golden door with a large, irregularly shaped hole through its center that reveals a dark void on the other side. As is the case with many of his paintings, the “cartoonish” simplicity of this oil on canvas belies the aptness and depth of Magritte’s message that truly imaginative breakthroughs are rarely, if ever, the result of the predictable access offered by doorways or the expected answers they are meant to contain. Unfortunately, more than a few contemporary American poets seem deaf to this message, preferring instead to further gild the door or polish the hinges and knob before opening it to reveal answers they and everyone else already expect to find. With apologies to T. S. Eliot, this subjective correlative — where poets seek to connect with their readers on personal levels of shared and, therefore, predictable emotion rooted in gender, ethnicity, political viewpoint, etc. — is not a technique that lends itself to poetry of the highest order. Happily, this is not the case with James Doyle’s most recent book The Silk at Her Throat, Cedar Hill Publications (1999). In this collection of eighty-four poems, Doyle dares readers to accompany him through doorways that are anything but predictable in search of answers that defy even the most imaginative expectations.
In “The Metaphysical Poets,” T. S. Eliot noted that “[o]ur civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive.” Even Eliot’s considerable imagination could not have anticipated the “variety and complexity” of today’s world, yet it is comprehensiveness — the sheer number of doors presented to the reader — that is immediately evident in The Silk at Her Throat.

Allowing his poetic imagination to roam through time, Doyle visits worlds both real and mythic from hummingbirds to elephants; from a crowded bus in rural Mexico to a bicycle trip through downtown Hanoi; from Lazarus to an Irish wake; and from Penelope waiting for Ulysses to an eighty-nine-year-old aunt at the pool, each, in her own way, redefining the female myth. In the process of leading his reader down this lengthy hallway, Doyle does not hesitate to break down doors in search of unexpected answers. Several poems in this collection, for instance, question the source(s) of the artistic impulse, a theme that Doyle inspects from perspectives as divergent as prehistoric France and a present day dinner table. In “In the Cave,” Paleolithic drawings serve as examples of creativity rooted in spirituality:

At Lascaux, darkness
burns the pelt away, releasing
the skull. The bear
crouches in stone. His dreams
hoard berries, wild
reds and blues
petrified inside the whorling
brushstrokes of the cells.

The speaker sees the creative impulse evident in these drawings as an extension of prehistoric spirituality, a yearning as natural as the hunt itself:

…A single hunter
commands the thawing blood. He moves
as the surface of the wall
moves, a stick figure
cast among the herds, a shadow
with a spear of stiffened
animal hair
for the gods that swell
these passageways the bright shapes and colors
grained in flesh and given to the day.

The contemporary speakers in “Salt,” whimsically suggest something less spiritual and more natural might be the wellspring of the imagination:

“This is a magnificent shaker,” he said.
“ The seasoning pours through the nipples

of the mermaid like….” Well, given
the color, we all know the metaphor

that follows. “But what if the work
itself is a symbol?” That’s nothing

special either.

In this poem, however, one of the speakers offers the twist that the source, the initial creative jolt is more important and addicting to the artist than whatever he may produce as a result of it:

…”And the place where
I bought it?” Now we may be getting

somewhere. Listen closely — was there
a bent tree and burnt grass in the backyard?

Another remarkable quality of The Silk at Her Throat is Doyle’s ability to assume a variety of personae as he explores the comprehensive array of themes in these pages, to “continual-[ly] surrender…himself as he is at the moment,” as Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” and Doyle’s movement beyond the personal infuses many of these poems with a sense of timelessness, a sense of the absolute.

Certainly most Christian and probably quite a few non-Christian poets have been drawn to the account of Judas and his betrayal of Christ, a story, even by present day standards, that has it all: love, jealousy, greed, betrayal, and death. What is intriguing about Doyle’s “Judas,” however, is that he ignores all of these predictable elements and, speaking as Judas, delivers the ultimate rationalization for the ultimate sin:

Alien to the natural grain of love, this Christ
will squirm like a serpent on the cross

for the black art of his bread and wine devours
with its dream of rags all that it would heal

and the unschooled eyes of fishermen will glitter
at the rites of blood as if they cast an oath

to smooth those calloused hands in some cloudy vault
of death that locks away the passion of the seed.

This is interesting stuff — Christ as the embodiment of evil, the anti-Christ. What is even more interesting as well as completely unexpected is that, while the first three stanzas of the second part continue in the same vein as the first, the last two lines of the poem evoke the tender sorrow of the Pieta.

For I have seen the garden tremble at his tongue
and the barren olive swell against his lips

that the crystal of the night be filled with wings
to beat a demon circle round his flames

and I know the silent potion of the sphinx
curled like acid in his heart that must be drained

by hands that hold their softness to his face
and a kiss to close those marble eyes in peace.

Despite his most vitriolic efforts, Judas is unable to justify his betrayal of Christ, and in the end, he too is consumed by grief and remorse, a conclusion as unexpected to readers of this poem as it must have been two thousand years ago to Judas himself.

At the other end of the spectrum from “Judas” but still as effective is the persona Doyle adopts in “At the Pool.” An amazing shift in perspective in the first stanza yanks readers off a “ten-thousand meter precipice…eerily defined through Himalayan mists” and refocuses their attention on the “toes of [the speaker’s] “eighty-nine-year-old aunt” as she prepares to swim “illegal laps beneath the moon.” While the image of an elderly aunt or, for that matter, uncle in a bathing suit would cause most readers to immediately turn the page, here again the speaker has something unexpected to reveal, for this is no ordinary woman:

She was so firm-willed her stare alone
broke the calm of the water, driving ripples
across the pool and back again to receive
in state her lowering foot and slide it into
the only slipper in the kingdom shaped from light.

Through the mist and watery moonlight, an old woman is transformed first into a fairy tale princess and finally into the goddess of love and beauty: “Anodyne of flesh for all the failures of flesh, / her steaming form rose from her own waves / toward the robe I opened like a shell.” The speaker is humbled by this transformation and the fact that he or she is related to this vision: “…willing / myself the footman to our shared blood, to any / trace of Venus she might have sprinkled in my veins.” The reader is left with maybe the finest poem ever written about respect and the beauty of age.

Eliot also observes in “The Metaphysical Poets,” that “[t]he possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better,” and the most striking aspect of The Silk at Her Throat is Doyle’s “fierce intelligence,” as Philip Dacey has referred to it, at work over the comprehensive range of subject matter and in the personae mentioned above.

Twenty-or-so of the poems in this book have distinct religious, even Catholic, overtones, but they too have been well served by Doyle’s intellect and imagination. Among the fine poems that illustrate this point is “Ministering.” The very first line — ”She soaked the sponge in wine” — takes the reader to the final moments of the Crucifixion and the nature of the “ministering” taking place: Mary caring for her dying son. The second line, however, disconnects almost as immediately as the first connected: “and set it on the patio.” From this uncertain vantage point, the reader is treated to a succession of beautiful natural images:

had been waiting since dawn, a calico
sheen of moving hubs around which sparrows
wheeled impatiently. Sweet
followed sweet in a bright red trail
that led the morning all the way
to noon.

While it is possible to detect a thread of the religious connection made in the first line — the “bright red trail,” “every tree / saturated with God” and “[t]his was the jewelry / of the chosen, the stigmata” — it is so intelligently woven through images of sun and earth and wind that the beating wings ending the poem seem, at first, to be a well-crafted conclusion that mirrors the opening natural imagery. A more careful unraveling of the thread, however, reveals nothing less expected, nothing less mysterious and awe-inspiring than Christ’s Resurrection and / or the Virgin’s Assumption into heaven:

…the one
spot where she could draw up suddenly
and eat out of her own hand, a taste
of unleavened flight. Around this calm, wings
by the thousands would shred the air into storm.

In addition to poems that explore the spiritual, some of Doyle’s best lines are the result of his careful contemplations on the nature of time. In “A Genius for Waiting,” for example, time is not the predictable past, present, or future. In this poem, time is the eternity created in a dog’s mind as it watches for its owner to return or the suspended moment a major league hitter experiences as he waits for a pitched ball to reach him:

A Genius for Waiting
is shared by dogs and good hitters.
Paws and wrists twitch constantly
but the real roaming is in the brain,
electrical pathways that can shed
the present as it happens, so the future
is all they have left.

Despite all the bromides about patience being a virtue and the journey being more important than the destination, this ability to freeze time

…cannot be learned. Either certain
tiny wings are fluttering in the deepest
cells at birth or we enter the world
flaunting an impatience that will guarantee
success in most careers. Anyone can waste,
bide, mark, kill, or even use time well,
but only the elect can wait.

Only those blessed with the instinct to suspend time, maybe the ultimate act of creativity, will ever truly appreciate the intensity of the moment. In a complex, rationalistic world where the creative instinct is cut back to improve the bottom line, where product and not process is everything,

…[a]ll the rest of us perceive
is that the day is done. We mill about
between the poles, our vague desires shuffling
alongside us, ambushed over and over again by endings.

As might be deduced from the excerpts quoted above, James Doyle is no stranger to the printed page. His poetry has appeared in over 200 journals, including The Carolina Quarterly, Chelsea, The Literary Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Northwest Review, The Ohio Review, and Poetry as well as the anthology Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading (Prentice Hall, 1996). Both The Governor’s Office (Black Bear Publications, 1986) and The Sixth Day (Pygmy Forest Press, 1988) were well received, and The Silk at Her Throat is a welcome addition to these first two books. This remarkable collection of poems is yet another example of a masterful poet’s wide-ranging imagination and intellect. Those interested in doors that, when opened, reveal only the expected, no matter how well expressed, will not fully appreciate this book. However, for those who thrive on poetry that “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion…not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), poetry that breaks through Magritte’s predictable doorways, James Doyle’s The Silk at Her Throat presents new and unexpected answers to what lies beyond.