December 07, 2005

eventual review for American Literature.

Mastery’s End: Travel and Postwar American Poetry. By Jeffrey Gray. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press. 2005. 288 pp. $44.95.

Critical studies of travel literature have been for the most part limited to prose and to pre-twentieth century works. Jeffrey Gray in Mastery’s End, a study of travel and literature interestingly and productively turns to poetry and the second half of the twentieth century and in the process questions a lot of the received wisdom of travel writing. The book begins by suggesting that the Mary Louise Pratt’s pivotal and determining argument that the center is blinded by the ways it is shaped by the periphery does not hold for writers after the 1960s, especially for poets. Much of this work, Gray suggestively argues, questions travel as “mastery, hegemony, acquisition, penetration, pollution, rapine, and centripetal force” and instead suggests that it might be more about “vulnerability, diminution, incoherence, disorientation, and centrifugal force.”

In this book, Gray does detailed single author chapters on Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, and Derek Walcott. And in between he looks at the Beats, concentrating on Allen Ginsberg but turning also to Gary Snyder and Robert Creeley, and also more contemporary experimental poets such as Lyn Hejinian and Nathaniel Mackey. Gray shows his smartness in his close and attentive readings of poems. He points to Bishop’s hesitant voice, a Lowell unhinged by travel, the often overlooked trope of travel in Ashbery’s work, the tiredness and frustration of Creeley’s traveler, the Beckett in Mackey.

As his reading of how travel literature might be less colonial mastery and more self questioning and defamiliarization suggests, Gray is at his best when he challenges the received wisdoms of the academy. He is in part able to do this because he refuses to accept as oppositional diverse contemporary poetries. In Mastery’s End he usefully juxtaposes Ashbery and Walcott not to reify the opposition between experimental and multicultural, but rather to explore how both are poets of disengagement who use metaphors of maps and territories but rarely for deterministic reasons. He usefully reads Lyn Hejinian’s Oxota, a crucial book that has received little critical attention as it has been so overshadowed by her My Life, as “an expedition to locate an elusive and estranged identity.” And he ends the book suggestively with an epilogue on Walcott and the Nobel Prize, challenging Raoul Grunquist’s complaint that the Nobel Prize only goes to universalists and suggesting that instead, it is more often awarded to localists.

At moments, the focus on travel feels more as a limit and less as a possibility. The travel part of Gray’s arguments could be helped along by a slightly more quantitative approach at moments. It would be interesting, for instance, to see a little more statistical attention to what countries receive and what ones are spared the attentions of twentieth century poets. And also one might wish for more attention to how related or unrelated this poetic attention is to US foreign policy. The hard questions of travel post-1960s for US citizens, mainly its alliances with globalization, do not come much into question. So some big questions feel unaddressed, such as does the vulnerability and disorientation of poet travelers really let them off the hook of mastery?; if there is a politics to this feeling of disorientation, what is it?; and to what is it opposed? Still, Gray’s generous readings of the individual poems in this work ring true. The close readings in Mastery’s End are so smart and so generous that one finishes the book hoping that Gray turns next to an even wider ranging study of contemporary poetry.

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