Tottering State: Selected Early Poems 1963-1983
Oakland: O Books, 2000
Given the many Tom Raworth books currently out-of-print, it is cheering
to see this reprint of one of his best collections, Tottering State:
Selected Early Poems 1963-1983. Originally published by The Figures
in 1984, the republication will give new readers access to Raworths
subtle observations, subversive sense of humor, and restless intelligence.
Raworth does not date these poems or name their original publications,
so the desire to read Tottering State as twenty years worth of
artistic development is unfortunately hindered. Still, close reading and
familiarity with some of Raworths other work should allow the reader
to presume a vaguely chronological order.
In any case, this is the only disappointment in an otherwise stunning
book. The arc of concerns it reveals, the range of poetic possibility,
strikes me as not only the perfect way to begin reading Raworth but also
an abiding source of intellectual energy.
One source of this energy is Raworths resolve to keep his work from
reproducing the falsehoods of artistic conventions. The complexity of
such a task borders on the self-contradictory: "as in the progress
of art the aim is finally / to make rules the next generation can break
more cleverly" ("South America"). Formally, progress is
the eternal repetition of a single "aim," but in its actual
engagement it relies on cleverness, inventiveness, newness.
Such an approach to artistic stagnation frequently implies a critique
of a disinterested social system, a state "tottering" forward,
automatized, reproducing established clichés and forms. "Whose
lives / does the government / affect?" writes Raworth in "West
Wind," the final poem. Since so many truth claims have been subverted
in this book, the reader naturally understands that whoever the government
*is* affecting must be different from whoever they are *claiming* to affect.
Some might argue that Raworths obsession with immediate perception
produces his mistrust of automatized perception, but I find it the opposite.
His struggle against all forms of mere reproduction (of forms, of presumptions,
of expectations) leads him to the "authenticity" of immediately
observed scenes and objects, an authenticity he is equally capable of
This becomes especially evident in a poem like "Pratheoryctice."
After undermining the presumptions of thought by evoking immediate perception,
Raworth uses the last line to undermine the immediate itself: "sometimes
i wonder/ what is introspection / red white and blue / or through mud
and blood / to the green fields beyond / which were the colours on a tie."
What is the point, one might ask, of all this mistrust and undermining?
Ultimately, as in the last line of the poem "Writing," Raworth
aims at bringing human life into at least a temporary equilibrium with
its self-mythology: "at last / the sun / is level with our eyes."