Contributors’ Marginalia: Austin Segrest on “Winter Inlet Arrangement” by Hastings Hensel

Hensel’s poem operates in the Bishop-esque mode of reading the correspondences of a seascape: we might think, for example, of the glaring clutter of “The Bight” or the steely fishscaled disuse of “At the Fishhouses.” Hensel’s foregone conclusion—that all is pain—reminds one of Randall Jarrell’s “90 North”: “…Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. It is pain.” The tested assumption in these great midcentury poems is the pathetic fallacy—projecting (imagined) feeling onto the (real) inanimate. Jarrell’s poem pushes the limits of such a potentially corresponding landscape to the extreme of polar desolation, finding, like Stevens’ “Snow Man,” hoary blank “meaninglessness.” But where Stevens discriminates winter’s real “nothing” from the poet’s falsely (and pusillanimously) projected, apocalyptic “nothing,” Jarrell names it “pain.” What else would we expect with Freud in the water and confessionalism on the rise? Stevens might tell Jarrell you’re projecting your emotions; Jarrell might tell Stevens you’re afraid of the pain like everyone else but trying to be stoic and wise. Either way, the text of nature yields for Stevens, and after him, for Jarrell and Hensel, a grounding, a sobering. It seems likely that war is at the back of these very American curtailments, squelching natural-emotional hermeneutic transport: for Stevens, WWI, for Jarrell, WWII, and for Hensel, possibly, take your pick. So goes the modernist narrative. Interestingly, Bishop’s “Bight” alludes overtly to Baudelaire, proto-modern coiner and deconstructer of such “Correspondences.” Bridging European Romanticism (the ideal moral instruction of Nature’s teachings) and American modernist meaninglessness, Baudelaire reads in Nature synesthesia, sensory derangement and intoxication. For all his Dionysian materialism, the intended effect of such derangement (a kind of willful misreading some would say) is still “les transports de l’esprit,”—though the poem’s final clause is telling: “et des sens.” “The Bight,” then, reads like a kind of post-Baudelairean hangover. “If one were Baudelaire,” she writes, “one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.” Bishop’s poem reels to the residual rhythm but falls nauseously short of such surreal correspondence. In contrast, Hensel’s poem is a pointedly sober, tensely muscular “Arrangement,” though it could also evoke a hangover. With such high-flying notions of “les transports de l’esprit” thoroughly grounded, Hensel’s ordering principle, like a baseline of the remaining “des sens,” is “pain.” Which is not nothing, especially if you buy Burke, who finds that pain is the primary cause of the sublime.

Austin Segrest

Originally from Alabama and Georgia, Austin Segrest is poetry editor of Missouri Review. His poems can be found in Yale Review, New England Review, and Threepenny Review.