In Captivity by Camille Guthrie ff. Inspired by the Medieval tapestries of the Hunt of the Unicorn in the Cloisters, Camille frames human experience as a hunt in various forms, some obvious and some shrouded in ambiguity. Mesmerizing and complex, this collection of poems captivates the reader with the richness of its thematic content. The hunt for the mythical beast is intermingled with a modern hunt for more elusive quarry. The young woman whose poetic voice dominates the work is both hunted and hunter. As the hunted, she, like the unicorn, is hounded by fear. In one poem, fear is like an illness; she has "come down with it." Like the unicorn, she is captured, "Captured by my debt to pay/ Wanting to make something of myself/Wanting knowledge and intimacy." In her quest to fulfill these ambitions, she is the hunter. These poems, more than knowledge and intimacy, turn out to be the prize.
The speaker also claims to want only the "actual facts;" the poems, then, represent a search for truth and all the problems of finding it and (if found) translating it into words. Words order actual facts and rob them of their innate chaos. It is still the poet's goal to render that chaos: ". . . my words/In their best order wish to enter the chaos of real things." In addition to the dilemma of translating reality into words, there is the concern that everyone perceives things differently: ". . . if I say /'daffodil,' everyone thinks of a different radiant."
Some of the poems reflect directly on one of the tapestries. The panel in which the unicorn fights back at his tormenters provides the backdrop for the girl's very contemporary liaison in "Defending Oneself." "Let's exchange numbers and forked lightning," says he or she. As time goes by, the young woman must defend herself from her harshly critical, neglectful, and covetous partner. Though I sometimes had trouble sorting out the man and the woman's voices in this poem, it looked to me as though he was a rigid and judgmental academic who could not appreciate her creative and spontaneous free-spirit. She finally dismisses him, saying (somewhat smugly), "We who burn in a purer fire." Unless perhaps the "we" includes the self-defending unicorn, a creature so pure it is identified with Christ and can only be tamed by a virgin. Unless the speaker is paraphrasing Milton's villain Comus: "We that are of purer fire/Imitate the starry quire," which turns the meaning on its head since he, far from pure, commits unspeakable acts while the rest of humanity slumbers. (Que sais-je? As Montaigne would say. I have half a dozen other theories).
At other times the links between tapestries and poems are more veiled. I keep returning to "My Psychomachia," a meditation on the disparity between words and the objects they represent. Any connection with the tapestries is not apparent. Still, I think it is part of the poet's reflections about the artists who created the tapestries, anonymous but for the interwoven initials AE. The word psychomachia, I find, comes from a 5th-century allegory by Prudentius concerning the war within the soul. Here, our present-day poet reflects on one of the major themes of the work: that taking action, particularly taking action against fear, entails using words. At first, the poet wonders, "are words but a hunt for the shadow of things?" She seems to worry that the discrete entities that make up reality cannot be perceived as they are, so what hope then is there for words to render them? "Do I suit the word to the action, or the action to the word?" Her dilemma leads her further inside her mind and to the creation of poetry. But later, she quotes Rilke admiringly: "I am taking action against fear." Finally, she concludes, " He who knows the word for a thing I know masters the thing." I am suspicious of her, though. In an earlier poem, she said, "But there's a penalty to beauty/And to know the word for a thing." There, knowing the word for the thing sounds more like captivity than mastery.
In a series of haiku-like strophes, "My Informants" ambles through the history and mythology of the unicorn from Aristotle on down. "The Hunters" is a litany of every possible hunter from Keats, I think, though it could be Tereus ("the nightingale hunter") to Orion ("the starry hunter"). I think I found myself there –a theme hunter.
"My Boyfriend," the third of 11 poems in this collection, is an explosion of ribald fun and an astounding contrast in tone to the rest of the work. After a deluge of similes comes a wave of metaphors. I cannot imagine that Camille has any competition as the reigning queen of Rabelaisian hyperbole: "ears like a full bathtub. . . a mouth like a silk lampshade."(random sample). If this poem were to inspire a visual artist the way the tapestry inspired this poet, what a wonder we would have to behold!
The final poem, like the collection, is called "In Captivity," and I took a few leaps in trying to interpret its breathtaking twists and turns. When I was in graduate school in the sixties, New Criticism was all the rage. We learned to eschew any attempt to figure out what was in the poet's mind. To avoid committing the Intentional Fallacy, we viewed the poem as an aesthetic object -- a convenient approach since there is really no way to know for sure what was in the poet's mind. As the art philosopher Monroe Beardsley reminds us, the meaning of a poem, unlike that of a discursive piece of writing, is mostly implicit. Poetry, therefore, invites the reader to make conjectures, to try to explicate it. This little discussion is my part of that conversation. If my hunt for meaning has anything to do with what Camille had in mind, it would be a miracle.
"In Captivity" is also the name of the final tapestry, the very famous one where we find the unicorn enclosed in a small circular fence. Since the unicorn was killed in the previous tapestry, we assume he was resurrected and opted for his confined life. In the modern world of the poem, the oxymoron of voluntary captivity is not so easy to come by (to say nothing of, resurrection).
Much of this poem is written in the second person. Is an older wiser woman giving advice? A girl, perhaps the same girl I've been listening to all along, is the victim of harrowing violence and turns out to have no protection against someone who "jumps you behind the 7-eleven." Camille tells us in a note that this poem engages with Milton's "Comus," a masque in which a virtuous lady combats lasciviousness with her armor of chastity. But here, instead of chastity, apparently very powerful in the 17th century, "ambition is your only armor."
In the fourth part of this six-part poem, a theatrical production, probably a masque, is on display. The narrator contemplates the technical problems of depicting an inferno, the emergence of man from the ooze, and a deus ex machina (or perhaps plebis ex machina) on stage. People with animal heads appeared in an earlier poem waiting in line for a concert. In "Comus," they form the entourage of Comus, son of Circe and Bacchus. He is a notorious seducer who does not hesitate to use magic potions, Renaissance date-rape drugs, to have his way. Here, the phantasmagoric parade of monsters with grotesque animal heads strikes me as a rite of reversal.
In the fifth section, violence, death, and destruction take over. Present are those music makers who sacrificed their existence to leave behind a song, most prominently Orpheus, the archetype of the self-sacrificing artist, torn apart by the Furies. The Irish style blessing, which had appeared in an earlier poem as the delightful "May much gelato melt on your face," now becomes the dark "May my breath sounds words never exist."
After all the tumult and horror of the artist/musician ripped to shreds and beheaded, we hear in the final section of this poem (and of the whole collection), "But O the change now you're on the other side." All the fiery chaos is gone, replaced by a post-apocalyptic calm, as all is submerged. I wonder if the young woman, the poet, has like the unicorn (and Orpheus) gone round the bend to a place where "the relentless foot of time" no longer matters, where that foot is inert and lifeless. I see this foot as a reference to Shakespeare's sonnet, where the miracle of black ink is extolled as the counterpoise to the destructive passage of time. ("Who can hold his swift foot back"?) Should I believe the final note of hope? "You are the genius of this shore/ And will be truthful to your words/To all who listen from here on." From here on? Should I have mistrusted this teller of tales all along?
I hope that this work entices (captivates) many other readers as it has me. Teachers and professors, put this one in the curriculum.