Friday, February 1, 2013

Robert Bly: Old Man Rubbing His Eyes - Small Press Friday

Artwork by Allbert Richter

I feel as if, over the years, over the decades, my mind and spirit have grown with the words of Robert Bly. Sometimes, I didn't understand them, sometimes they infuriated me, sometimes there was transference.

What an odd, beautiful way reading is to find a friend.

Dating all the way back to 1974 (Unicorn Press), though my copy is a 1987 reprint (Ally Press), the words of Old Man Rubbing His Eyes speak to me as powerfully as any other Bly collection, perhaps most powerfully of all.

There is an obliqueness, a slight off-centered quality to Bly's magic, an almost constant worrying over details, juxtaposed, not always related, striving for something beyond reach, something not even, or perhaps ever, known.

Which explains his late in life attraction to the ghazel form.

But this work has something of an Old World flavor, distinctly Western, yet mysterious as Eastern European poetry, and as forcefully real. Let's listen, let's see:

Writing Again

faces crowding to the window!
I turn away,

When I write of moral things,
the clouds boil
By day's end
a room of restless people,
lifting and putting down small things.

Well that is how I have spent this day.
And what good will it do me in the grave?

What good, indeed, in the grave; but it does do some good now, no?

A Cricket In The Wainscoting

The song of his is like a boat with black sails
Or a widow under a redwood tree, warning
passersby that the tree is about to fall.
Or a bell made of black tin in a Mexican village.
Or the hair in the ear of a hundred-year-old man.

We've all heard that cricket in the wainscoting with its many songs and their singular message; cricket in the wainscoting, cricket in the wainscoting. 

Old Man Rubbing His Eyes is one of those poetry books that it is as impossible to describe as it is to excerpt. What is the point really? It is a book, and that book has a message. If forced to put it into words I might say -

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Pick it up and read it. Get it at the library (it's in 364, there must be one nearby you), buy it in an independent shop. It has something of the tincture of winter, the flavor of rich soil, the taste of ever-present death.

It is poetry.

Listen: there's an old man in the wainscoting.


 Photo by Matias Romero

in the stove,
a cricket singing,
rendered by dw


Send a single haiku for the Wednesday Haiku feature. Here's how.

Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 155 songs


Ed Baker said...

I (also) like this that you write:

"There is an obliqueness, a slight off-centered quality to Bly's magic, an almost constant worrying over details, juxtaposed, not always related, striving for something beyond reach, something not even, or perhaps ever, known."

and to extend via my "me" seeing that

" the whole is equal to the sum of its parts"

mine goes like

the sum is equal to MORE than the sum of it s parts. Where each particular "part" is THE center of the Universe and, such-as-it is, everything interpenetrates

(or some such .....

Anonymous said...

Hi Don:

I have the Ally Press version and have been honored with both Franz Richter's and Robert Bly's signatures. Franz Richter's signature was on 5-27-1994 and Robert Bly's was on 12-3-2002. When I showed Mr. Bly my book, it was obvious he was touched to see it, I think particularly as Franz had signed it so many years earlier. I was fortunatre enough to have quite a long conversation with Bly, my only one,
which I shall never forget. I was also fortunate to speak with Franz Richter a number of times long ago, but do not know what has become of him. He was a midwestern artist of some renown back in the day.

What a wonderful post - your observations and comments are very perceptive and so true.

Best Regards -


Joseph Hutchison said...

My favorite from this book has always been "Walking and Sitting":

That's odd—I am trying to sit still,
trying to hold the mind to one thing.
Outdoors angleworms stretched out thin in the gravel,
while it is thundering.

I love it because it's a poem I can touch but not grasp. The first time I read it, it shivered through me and darted into some scooped out space under the riverbank. It's been there ever since.

Lyle Daggett said...

I found this book of Bly's in a small bookstore sometime shortly after it came out, probably late 1974 (though my memory may be fooling me on the date).

I remember the strange inward landscapes of the poems in the book. Almost feeling as though they were spoken by some presence living inside the trunk of a tree, or several feet under the earth, or the upper corner of an old house. Or some other unlikely place.

You talk here about the Old World flavor of the poems, the mysterious quality one finds in eastern European poetry, and I can see that, definitely. Also, I think, something of a northern European quality, trace-speaking and "automatic" writing and troll-beings living in the ground.

The wonderful artwork of Allbert Richter also evoked many of these qualities for me.

Anonymous said...


I forgot to mention - though perhaps it is well known - that the book you review is an early version of "This Tree Will Be Here For A Thousand Years". Bly was in the habit of occasionally giving his manuscripts to small-press publishers for the first shot. Also, in this case, he was able to benefit Franz Richter with initial book sales - which might have not been possible with Harper and "This Tree . . . "

Franz Allbert Richter went by "Franz".


Ed Baker said...

my first Bly "connection"
was that (when was it?) 1966 or 67 or 65 huge first protest march against the Viet Nam War (the Viets call
it :The American War). I was at U of Md at the time

went down to protest and in the front of the line marching was Robert Bly

my first Bly poetry was his The Light Around the Body.

My best guess is that because I dropped out in 1974-75 and stopped, cold-turkey, buying or reading anything that is why I didn't have, get, read this book of his...

and Joe... "walking and sitting"

especially the sitting (and waiting) I know about..
I know but can't explain ... either.


it just so happens that just yesterday i got my

into a form and into a "place" and into a pdf
that is it s final, complete, FIRST draft... and is ready to sit-and-wait for ... something to happen to it.... as
per it s needs. will send it to you after I finish this.

thanks, Don, for the reminder of Bly and his work... wld be nice to spend a month just reading his poems

or Bill Stafford's or Howard Nemrov's

who to read who is read REALLY DOES MATTER !

Charles Gramlich said...

It's been too long since I've really delved into poetry. I keep hanging on around the fringes but I don't spend enough time there.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Ed ... more than the sum of its parts ... ah, yes.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Very fine tale of Mr. Bly and Mr. Richter - thanks for sharing it here and glad you liked the post.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Yes, "Walking and Sitting" has that quality I was trying to grasp with an inadequate prose - but, pointing to it is enough, as you do.

While looking for some info on the poem, I discovered, oddly enough, it was one of the poems that was chosen as part of the Poetry on the Bus Project done here in the early 80s.

And, well, in my job buying for the International Poetry collection at the Carnegie Library, I've seen those placards from the buses, which were donated to the library.



Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Your description is even closer to the feeling of the book than mine. And, again with the coincidences, tomorrow's music post features a song based on a Hermann Hesse short story about a man who is tricked by the devil to become trapped in a tree. The story is Pictor's Metamorphoses.

Hmn, take two.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for the additional info. See Lyle's comment above and my reply to dovetail the coincidences (in this case, the title of the later version of Old Man Rubbing His Eyes) that are holding this thread together.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Cheers - it certainly does matter (and thanks for the reminder of Stafford and Nemerov)


Issa's Untidy Hut said...


See Ed's comment directly above yours -

Ed Baker said...

didn't Kafka
write a short story about a guy up in a tree ?

I think it was called The Hunger Artist ?

my Kafka "stuff" is up on the top shelf
and I need to get my ladder to
get up there to check and
since it is now snowing 'twill have to wait upon a more (or less)
aw-spicious occasion for...

Ed Baker said...


speaking of Bill Stafford... am sending you off blog
a scn of a letter that he sent to me in 1972

about 8 months before I first "connected" with Cid ...
also re: HEXAPOEMS.

(see first letter that Cid sent to me ... it is in RESTORATION LETTERS on my site....


Lyle Daggett said...

Footnote here to correct a typing error in my previous comment above -- should be "trance-speaking" (not "trace-speaking).

Also -- further footnote, just to clarify --

The later book Jeffery refers to, This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years, is actually a somewhat larger collection; it includes all of the poems from Old Man Rubbing His Eyes, and roughly an equal number of additional poems that had not (as far as I know) previously been gathered in Bly's other books.

I got curious and Googled Franz Allbert Richter, and found several mentions of him online, related to his work as an artist. He apparently worked as a graphic artists for a company in St. Paul for a number of years, among other things. The information I found appears to indicate he was alive and working at least as recently as 2003 or 2004. Not sure after that.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, thanks for sending along the WS letter. Wonderful.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for the update and correction. I found an article on him (and a number of other Minnesota artists from Sept. 2012, which brings Richter closer to today. Still active, too, which is great news.


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