Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros29Queer LegaciesCoda: The “Queen Under the Hill,”...

Queer Legacies

Coda: The “Queen Under the Hill,” or, Robert Duncan’s Lesson in Essential Autobiography

Coda : “Queen Under the Hill,” ou la leçon de Robert Duncan sur l’autobiographie essentielle
Rob Halpern


Ce texte relève d’un travail hybride d’écriture et de critique : il s’agit d’un essai lyrique mêlant histoire personnelle et critique littéraire. J’y aborde mon apprentissage, à travers Duncan, lorsque j’avais une vingtaine d’années, et que je m’évertuais à comprendre ce que pourrait signifier le fait d’être « un bon poète gay ». En 1987, j’ai emporté avec moi The Opening of the Field (1960) partout où j’allais, et bien qu’il me fût alors impossible de comprendre entièrement les poèmes, ce livre a constitué néanmoins un modèle – pour le meilleur et pour le pire – pour sublimer ma sexualité durant les années les plus sombres de la crise du SIDA. Aujourd’hui, trente-deux années plus tard, je reviens à la première œuvre de la « maturité » de Duncan pour tenter de mieux comprendre le livre et qui je suis.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

“… just as the little boy does in the story, I went back to a place I had known well and there saw what I had not then known to see.”
– Duncan, “The Self in Postmodern Poetry”

1It was late afternoon in the desert when I crawled out from under a rock and into the light of day to capture the image of a desolate roadside bench that I had been thinking about for hours since passing it earlier that morning, a bus shelter minimally shaded and whose rubbish bin was overstuffed beside a signpost pointing in two directions – Jerusalem to the north, or Sodom to the south – mere yards from the Dead Sea’s western shore, near Ein Ghedi, where I’d been hunkered down for hours reading The Brothers Karamazov, feeling profound and protected from the sun inside a little hovel I’d discovered that housed an even smaller fresh water spring – the miracle of which felt nearly biblical – to rinse off the inhospitable salt of the sea. The photograph I’m looking at now is enlarged and grainy, as if it had been blown up to capture something important that would otherwise remain invisible, and perhaps it still does, just beyond that acacia bush. I developed the print myself in a friend’s darkroom upon returning to the States, and I can remember messing with the enlargement, experimenting with it, as if I were searching for something haunting the scene, like the photographer in Blow-Up who sensed in that graininess the sign of an event, something just there on the edge of detectability, inconspicuous, perhaps, though important, but it was my imagination alone that was haunted, as I gazed at the shadow and light I’d exposed, as if, were I only able to gaze long and hard enough, it might offer me some bit of information, a concealed datum or punctum, and expose me to myself, maybe even alter the course of my life.

2Years ago, I made a gift of this photo to my parents. Maybe I was trying to tell them something I could not yet tell myself, as if the act of making a gift of the image might reveal its secret to me, my struggle to decide between spirit and body – Jerusalem or Sodom – as if I needed to make any decision at all. I was twenty-two then – it was 1987 – and when I was not reading Dostoyevsky, I was reading Robert Duncan, whose 1960 volume of poems, The Opening of the Field – a first edition I found for $1.99 – was the only book I both left home and returned with, damaged as it was, after six months of travel from Israel / Palestine to Europe. I read Duncan’s verses cover to cover and back again, over and over, like a faithful lover who respected the other’s opacities without making a virtue of comprehension, and while I didn’t understand the poems – many of them, I’m embarrassed to say, I still do not understand – their elevation of spiritual eros over embodied desire made a profound impression – a misunderstood permission – while their music seduced my ear, materializing the work’s figural energies. But while honing my audition on Duncan’s lines like sentimental strings, my youthful apprenticeship fed delusions of hieratic wisdom and tonal harmony, which proved terrible nourishment, not only for my poetry but also my sexuality, both so vague and void of life, as Duncan endorsed my unconscious inclination to sublimate, and despite having devoted the whole of my writing life to surpassing that erotic abstraction in my effort to concretize it – to the point even of overcompensation – my poetry remains haunted by its residuum.

3Jerusalem or Sodom? The opening of the camera’s shutter captured an image that would index my post-adolescent conundrum, a problem that did not need to have been a problem had I only realized sooner that I suffered a dualist’s misunderstanding of spirit and flesh, self and world, a confusion that slipped on a conjunction – I mean, why not Jerusalem and Sodom? – and this error would prove to be an obstacle to my wellbeing. It’s the convergence of this photographic event and my obsession with Duncan’s book that I wish now to narrate, as the chaste eroticism of Duncan’s poems – so platonic, so virginal (they seemed to require no fucking!) – appeared to endorse the only kind of sexual life I was able to imagine during the 1980s, and that’s a repressed one, as I came of age during the darkest years of the AIDS crisis.

4I want to tell the story of this photograph, but the story I’m telling turns on another. I was having dinner with two friends, and I thought I’d read some of Duncan’s poems aloud to them, if only to measure the half-life of their first impactful impression. Younger poets themselves, my friends knew little about Duncan beyond circulating hearsay, and so I began rehearsing my story with them, the one I’ve begun to share with you here, before fetching that same copy of The Opening of the Field, the one I had with me by the Dead Sea thirty-five years ago.

5“Often I am permitted to return to a meadow,” I began reading, “as if it were a scene made-up by the mind / that is not mine, but is a made place, // that is mine […]” and as I read I felt as though I were falling into a trance, a state of uncanny recognition and melancholic woe. I might as well have been reading the poem for the first time while simultaneously recalling it word for word, though my memory of those words felt as if implanted, as if the memory were not even mine. Then, a more acute sadness began to rise, a gloomy arousal, with that “Queen Under the Hill / whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words,” a disturbance I feel even now as I struggle to listen to my own words while writing them for you, words which are never my own, and I wonder about that “place of first permission,” and its relation to another place called Sodom, a place I once called “rumored,” without recalling why, and later called “common,” a made-up place that is never mine, “a property of the mind,” Duncan calls it, perhaps to cancel the untruth of property, or “that certain bounds hold against chaos,” when the tropes stop spinning and meaning breaks down, some “everlasting omen of what is.”

6The ambiguities of these lines are dizzying – the poem’s seeming simplicity belying a strange vertigo – and while this is not the moment to read those lines too closely, it suffices to say that they conjured all the same fears from first reading this poem when I was twenty-two, as it granted me permission to amplify the ambivalence I felt toward myself and my sexuality, which has everything to do with the story I wish now to tell.

7When I was in my early twenties, I needed to believe in that “property of the mind” as if it offered the promise of truth – something the mind could possess, as if the idea of such a possession did not portend being possessed by the thing you think you own – and so I fell for that meadow’s seductions, as if a poem could be a prosthetic – not of one’s sensorium, but of one’s very self – and thus a property whose truth I might have, and whose implied self-same ownership shares a false logic of immunity that once fortified me by arousing a myth of bodily impenetrability and psychic integrity, a mystified ideal to which I had clung in desperation at the expense the “ever shifting possibility of the poet I am – at once a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is.” (Duncan 1966, x)

8This last formulation appears in Duncan’s 1966 introduction to the reissue of The Years as Catches, but that “ever shifting possibility” would not find me until 1990 by way of Robert Glück (Bob), who collaged the fragment into the final pages of his first novel, Jack the Modernist, without any attribution. I found my first copy of Jack the Modernist in a San Francisco thrift store, and it’s fair to say that it altered the course of my life, but that’s another story. This one line in particular – “at once a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is” – would recur in Bob’s literary discussions when I finally met him five years later and joined his writing workshop and it made a deep impression on me before I knew the line was lifted from Duncan. Given the frequency with which Bob cited and re-cited that fragment, I always figured it was his. Often, in my memory, Bob would trot this phrase out whenever he wished to describe “the self” – “a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is,” I can still hear him saying – and so I adopted it as a foundational precept in my effort to overcome the seductions of truth that had so beguiled me in Duncan’s meadow. It’s strange now to realize that this idea, whose source I had mistaken, would be the idea I needed finally to disabuse my delusion of authentic selfhood, a delusion that I had contracted from my (mis)reading of Duncan and his notion of “essential autobiography” in The Truth and Life of Myth – “the story told of what cannot be told” – a notion that compromised my writing because I had thought it refused the ironies of fiction and play of personality, just as it had inhibited my sexuality, which was intimately bound up with this same refusal. Even stranger still, I eventually had to reckon with the fact that my antidote to Duncan would turn out to be none other than Duncan.

9After reading “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” (Duncan 1960, 7), the silence around the table was thick, the tension felt, and one of my friends asked, “So, what do you make of the poem now?,” and despite feeling a residue of the inexplicable influence the poem had on me thirty-five years ago, though no longer under its spell, I felt wrecked by it, and while I have a hard time naming my sadness, it’s clear to me that the feeling is one of loss – not the loss of lovers and friends – but the loss of the self I might have been had I not clung to the certainty of property as a bound against chaos, without realizing the fictiveness of that certainty, and I feel that loss like the disappearance of stars and perishing light, I think, as I move quickly from that first poem to the one I’m even more anxious to read to my friends, if only as a test, to see how the poem made me feel now.

10“This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom / might have been” (Duncan 1960, 22), I begin, and by the end of my recitation I’m struggling to maintain my composure – this time for entirely other reasons – “as if men were birds flying up from the swamp,” men I knew, men I loved, and I choke-up unexpectedly, as it’s impossible for me to read this poem without feeling its untimely contemporaneity, as if it had been written under the sign of AIDS.

  • 1 Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life. Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester: Ze (...)

11Duncan offered me a refuge in the struggle to embrace my queerness during the plague years. He gave me permission to identify with a gay poet without having to identify with gay life, while abstracting every index of lived experience from my poems. Despite Duncan’s own insistence, time and again, that “the whole body is present in the poem” (that’s from his 1979 Charles Olson Memorial Lecture) – the insistence on the poem as a place of Eros – I could only feel this presence as an abstract haunting sublimed into an untouchable music, the body as a gap, a caesura, an absence, a word, like so many “erased names and sudden abductions” (though that is Mark Fisher writing about hauntology1), a phantasmatic presence discernible by its traces, which fail as indices of bone and sap.

All the bodies we cannot touch
are like harps. Toucht by the
a sound trembles up the string.

(“Five Pieces,” Fragments of a Disordered Devotion, Duncan 2012, 313)

12By the time I was writing my first book, that place rumored to have been Sodom had become submerged in a hazy underworld of unconscious silage – absorbed, hardened, and naturalized to the point of unrecognizability, so when that place returned to me in the form of my book’s title – Rumored Place – it was the most uncanny of returns to a place whose familiarity and strangeness kept me from recognizing its derivation. I did not realize I was citing Duncan, repeating my failure to grasp that Bob had in fact quoted him, too, a twofold disavowal of my own devotion, my descent. I had simply lost the source of that phrase, like a star or a word, or a “sevred distinct thing” “freed from their origins” (“The Concert, Passages 31”, Duncan 2014a, 444).

13Unattached to any first cause or origin, “swamp” and “meadow” converge, like dialectical twins, equal and opposite manifestations, perhaps, of earlier verses from “Random Lines: A Discourse on Love,” which precedes The Opening of the Field by some twenty years:

The absence of your body is
The drowning place, the deep abyss. (Duncan 2012, 54)

14Duncan was always the consummate dialectician, ever sensitive to the way opposing forces collide and persist through one another. Just as the part is mediated by the whole, even the most minute element of the poem carries “the DNA code it will use toward its incarnation” (The Truth and Life of Myth, Duncan 2014b, 154), so that every morpheme, every diphthong, bears the impress of the totality. This dialectic enabled Duncan to analogize the organic nature of the poem’s composition and that of historical events: “The dialectic of this Sentence in which every happening informs all the other parts of the structure appears in history as a poetry of events.” (Duncan 2014b, 175) At the same time, he stretched the analogy to include the evolution of his own individual person, or self – his “essential autobiography” – which he understood to be rooted in “a code of resources my life pattern itself carries; not only thought and feeling but all the nervous and visceral and muscular intelligence of the body.” So the code is at once cell and idea, concrete and abstract, content and form – all dialectical pairs, not oppositions. But the dialectic of Duncan’s “poetry of events” remains that of an idealist whose social ground is subordinate to the movement of spirit, “an inner order of the spirit,” as he puts it early on in The H.D. Book, and spirit comes at a price. No wasted shame, spirit’s expense is just raw erotic representation, which is given over to the linguistic sensuality of Duncan’s mature work, as the poems in The Opening of the Field surrender bodily pleasure to an abstract Eros whose sonic suppleness moves with no apparent agent, no body on the bed, a sacrifice whose “cries / as if men were birds flying up from the swamp / ring in our ears,” like an aural residue of fucking. This higher plane of sublimed sexuality to which men “fly up” – as if from Sodom to Jerusalem – is what seduced me as a young adult, and though I could not have possibly known it then, it’s what I find most troubling now because of what it tells me of my past. But the idea can’t be supported, for so long as Duncan was committed to a dialectical understanding, body could not be sacrificed to spirit, as the two are too deeply entwined to ever be separated.

15“In the Lord whom the friends have named at last Love / the images and loves of the friends never die.” In “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom,” pleasures appear to be sacrificed to the demands of Love, whose blessedness is an effect of those pleasures being “at last” redeemed by the heavenly totality that degraded and buried them, “under the hill,” as it were. In that sacrifice, those pleasures find themselves transfigured and resurrected, so that Sodom can in the end be retrospectively affirmed, even if “bruised by redemption.” With the curious temporal marker, “at last,” Duncan indexes a hard won achievement, his personal evolution from a faggot in conflict with his sexuality – “When I love / hate burns my right side” (“Marriage,” 1943, Duncan 2012, 54) – to a domesticated lover, as if he’d been following a cosmic progression from loves to Love. Duncan himself suggests as much in the same introduction to The Years as Catches:

[T]here had been the awakening of a rhythm, the imprint of a cadence at once physical and psychological, that could contain and project the components of an emerging homosexuality in an ardor that would prepare for the development of Eros and, eventually, for that domesticated and domesticating Love that governs the creation of a household and a lasting companionship. (Duncan 2012, 3)

16The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom offers a foil for Duncan’s rumored place. Whereas Sade exhaustively materialized a common place called Sodom in the relentless narration of erotic exploits in excess of anyone’s effort to catalog them, and which – like Pasolini’s Salo – is never far from contemporary politics, Duncan’s Sodom is located in the past and remarked by “[p]ilgrims on their way to the Holy Places.” It is a place already reduced to “ashes” that “might have been pleasures,” as the subjunctive mood of this past tense summons Sodom elegiacally. For Sade, the revolutionary universal – the Law – emerging under the sign of liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the so-called “rights of man,” was a perverse abstraction grounded on negated particulars, banished bodies, disposable types, all realized literarily in sexual terms making Sade’s inexhaustible book an allegory of radical exclusion, an act of revenge against the violence of universality.

17In “Robert Duncan and Gay Community,” Bruce Boone refers to Duncan’s relationship to his sexuality as a “literary problem,” a proposition that Duncan himself endorsed in his 1982 Gay Sunshine interview with Steve Abbott and Aaron Shurin where he affirms that he was not so much expressing his sexuality in his poems as he was “realizing it, making it,” – “making it thru these things,” he says, referring to mythic images of Zeus, Ganymede, and Persephone. “So yr phrase making love is the same as making poems,” Shurin and Abbott propose, without Duncan’s objection. But if Duncan’s sexuality was tantamount to a literary problem, then by the time he wrote The Opening of the Field – where I found my first apprenticeship as a young aspiring poet who knew nothing of Duncan’s earlier work – that problem had already resolved itself for him into an abstract ideal, “a made place, created by light / wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall,” those shadows being nothing short of poems for which “Language obeyd flares tongues in obscure matter” (“Food for Fire, Food for Thought,” Duncan 2014a, 86). One could say that Duncan’s mature work hangs on a certain resolution of that sexual problem, but he explicitly disavows any such overcoming in the introduction to The Years as Catches: “I have come not to resolve or eliminate any of the old conflicting elements of my work but to imagine them now as contrasts of a field of composition” (Duncan 2012, 11); that is, literary shadows and light. And while Duncan will always affirm that “It is from longing my making proceeds,” as he does in “The Propositions” (Duncan 2014a, 33), all the embodied social tensions attending the relation between “making” and “longing” (or loving, or fucking) seem to evanesce with The Opening of the Field. Might I, too, have begun to imagine my sexuality as a “literary problem,” the way I would slowly come to imagine mourning?

18This is what desire sounds like when it is subsumed by cosmic measure:

O poet! if you would share my way,
come in under the Law, the great Longing. (Duncan 2014a, 33)

19As a young twenty-something fleeing the law of my own desire, I was terrified of living my sexuality, and more than ready to come in under the Law, in whose capital L I dreamed hospitable repose. I had what is fair to call my first political awakening after three weeks of traveling in Israel, and I only call it that here because I knew nothing then of the Nakba, let alone the historical claims of Palestine, which had been categorically denied by my Jewish education. I was working for a Baltimore Jewish organization, which paid me with free open-ended airfare and a modest stipend, to assist on one of those three week Zionist junkets for well-off high school kids whose itinerary concluded with a visit on the very last day to Yad Va’Shem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, as this final destination was contractually obliged by the World Zionist Organization, who subsidized the trip and supported my employment. That visit offered me an obscured illumination as I began to intimate, for the first time, and in an inchoate way, that the Holocaust could function as an ideological tool to promote Zionist nation-building, though I lacked a language with which to articulate this then and was only able to feel an unsettling arousal of rage and disgust as I observed the kids I was attending scurry through a Disney-esque spectacle of horrors whose scripted effects hung on the arousal of affect and identification, without any responsible pedagogy or history to guide them. I had no critical vocabulary or syntax with which to give perceptible form to what I was sensing and I was as yet unprepared to grasp the implications of my occulted insight.

20“Where is thy Jerusalem?,” Duncan asks in “The Structure of Rime XIII.” (Duncan 2014a, 75) Maybe I heard the question as a direct address demanding that I submit to that Law, the one that subordinates and negates all the others, and I ended up enrolling in a Yeshivah and studying Torah in the Old City in an effort to resolve the emerging contradiction of my experience. In my head rang verses of “The Law,” one of the first poems by Duncan I ever read, whose lines “There are no / final orders. But the Law /constantly destroys the law” (Roots and Branches, Duncan 2014, 122), echo “The Law I Love is Major Mover // from which flow destructions of the Constitution” (Duncan 2014, 6), insinuating a mood wherein one could both resist and submit at the same time insofar as “law abiding or breaking the law” could only amount to the same thing when mediated by the same higher orders. So no law is safe under the Law, not even “a law that is stone,” or “the first law, the stone tablets of Moses or of Kung, […] instruments of a light music, a melody from celestial orbs outswirld.” For even when there is “a law under the stars,” “the galaxies drift outward to enter a new universe” (“The Structure of Rime XIII,” Duncan 2014a, 75). The Law thus interpellated me, calling me from “a continent of feeling beyond our feeling” (“The Law”).

21Rather than leave for home when my job ended, I decided to stay with that open-ended ticket in my pocket, guided unconsciously by the need to correct some educational error, or a violence I couldn’t as yet fully apprehend. So I traveled from Tel Aviv to Ein Ghedi where I exchanged my labor for a bed at a hostel just a short walk from the Dead Sea where I would spend my afternoons reading Dostoyevsky and Duncan, a few miles from that place rumored to have been Sodom. There I met Palestinians for the first time ever. I worked, drank, and talked endlessly with them, people whom I’d been taught did not exist, and I listened to them and I learned, and I came away from these new friendships – all of them male – grasping how my education as a young Jew had failed me by feeding me on a diet of historical falsehood and elision. This awakening stirred disorder, as it shook one foundation of my young adult identity, leaving me with a feeling of shame matched only by the shame I felt about my sexuality, which I still could not name. Had I only been able to sleep with my new friends perhaps I would have chosen otherwise – like Genet dreaming among the fedayeen – tho they likely would have been appalled by my secret, and I was so embarrassed by my desire that I would not have even known how to make myself available to them had they shown me signs of interest. Now I was ashamed of my Jewishness to boot, making these men even more painfully desirable, as if their affection could heal me. It was the realization that no one could do that, however, that sent me away in search of some obscure redemption. So I returned to the bus stop where I had only just recently taken the photograph that would begin my narration, and I went to Jerusalem without any idea what I would do there, while unconsciously believing, perhaps, that the Law called Torah, with its bottomless wells of interpretation, its dizzying crowns of anagrammatic order – “a disturbance of words within words” – remained untainted and beyond every ideology, if I could just learn how to read it, like “Rabbi Aaron of Bagdad meditating upon the Word / and the letters Yod and Hé” who “came upon the Name of God and achieved a pure rapture” (“The Natural Doctrine,” Duncan 2014a, 74).

22I was familiar with Duncan’s gay politics. I had read “The Homosexual in Society,” and was compelled by its universalism, but by the time of The Opening of the Field, where I entered Duncan’s oeuvre in medias res as it were, sex didn’t seem to be a problem for him, as all its disorders had been perfectly sublimed into some domestic order. Maybe this is why I clung to that book, because in having answered the question of how to make one’s queer longing “the matter of poetry” – a longing whose literary history was unknown to me – Duncan relieved me of it as a problem. My entrée into the world of poetry thus opened onto a meadow where I could fantasize a similar resolution without having to do the work of living it, as I, a closeted gay boy, terrified of my body, was coming of age in the shadow of AIDS, struggling to understand a form of desire that seemed to be in the process of being negated for me before I could assume it as a bequest, a negation I passively observed because I was not strong enough to protest it. In other words, at a historical moment when the idea of a Love could no longer harbor any illusion of beneficent inclusion, all its particulars sentenced under the hill, as it were, The Opening of the Field offered me an alibi for avoiding myself, while denying my sexuality and the emotional life it silently aroused, all of which seemed more manageable when repressed because the prospect of “making it up” was in direct contradiction with the “everlasting omen of what is,” which, given the beguiling authority of that phrase, had no need of me to realize or express it.

23Duncan’s “Homosexual in Society” negates the law “that has declared homosexuality secret, inhuman, unnatural,” and in this sense, the essay is heroic. At times, it reads like a conscientious adaptation of Marx’s essay on “The Jewish Question,” as Duncan poses the issue of sexual liberation not as the fight for a “specialized sexuality,” but rather in direct connection with a more fully human emancipation, “human freedom” and “the common good.” Unlike the Beats – who, in his critical estimation, fetishized the faggot outcast, like the addict – Duncan professed in this essay “a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations” (Duncan 2014b, 11). So Duncan’s brave vision was not a minoritarian affirmation of the particular but a universal avowal of the common, and while this gesture foreshadows the intersectional activism of the Gay Liberation Front, whose fight would incline toward revolution, Duncan seems uninterested in political struggle that would require affiliation, recognition, and valorization of the lived experience of gays in the so-called “ghetto,” nor did he want to flaunt an interest in particular sexual practices. Instead, he argues for the honor of Love, with a capital L. And Love, with a capital L, for me in 1987 felt very safe. Strangely, it’s at this moment, in 1948, that Duncan refers to his past writing as mystifying: “In the face of the ‘crime’ of my own feelings,” Duncan writes, “I colored and perverted simple and direct emotions and realizations into a mysterious realm.” (Duncan 2014b, 10) He seems to critically regret this paradoxical “perversion” – a counter-perversion, perhaps – and yet this mystification is precisely what the poems of The Opening of the Field invited me to identify with, as his idealism relieved me of having to understand my struggle as a social struggle, that it was political, and would require action, not just feeling.

24“Duncan’s concept of male-on-male sexuality glows, mystified, and idealistic,” writes Bruce, and of course I sensed this when first reading Duncan, though I could not have articulated it like that, or like anything for that matter, but my damp intuition allowed me to nurse an abstract, idealized affirmation of sex without any fucking whatsoever, without fluids or disease, and without any motivation, responsibility, or obligation to extend myself toward other fags, the mere prospect of which quite frankly terrified me. My fantasy of gayness harbored a more general antinomianism – a kind of universalism that refused every concept – and so long as this fantasy remained unlocated in any concrete present, I was relieved of having to “own” my sexuality, which is never one’s own, as I withdrew into a private space where my “relief” proved itself to be but the inverse and complement of ownership as I quietly negated my embodied social life. And though I was ashamed of my sexuality, I may have been more secretly ashamed that I wasn’t fucking like a bunny the way I ought to have been at twenty-two, and Duncan’s poem gave me permission to eschew any hint of expressed desire in my writing, as I faithfully and chastely abstracted my eroticism in some virginal relation to “The Poem.” As I intimated it, there could be no poem that wouldn’t be destroyed by “The Poem.” And so long as I apprenticed myself to “The Poem,” I would never have to write a poem, never have to address anything real in my life, anything material or embodied, anything that hurt.

25Duncan’s “place of first permission” became for me a place of first avoidance, guided or governed by the “Queen Under The Hill” (2012, 7) allowing me to escape the disordered ache of my body so as to sleep in a meadow, where, for Duncan, to awaken would be to “wake deeply / into the suffering of Man” (The Truth and Life of Myth, 2014b, 194), a universal suffering whose particulars had been banished, relieving me of having to write of anything concrete as my poems became a carapace, a fortified shield rather than a vulnerable skin, a protective covering, an absence of dis-covery. “I left my body hanging behind me,” Duncan writes in “The Structure of Rime V” (2014a, 14), and I must have read that is if it were a desired end, a necessary sacrifice. But why was I any different than that “boy raised in Iowa,” the boy Duncan refers to in “The War” (Bending the Bow, 2014a, 293), the soldier who repelled me but with whom I shared a secret, the boy called upon “to defend a form that our very defense corrupts”? “He turns from us, my very words turn from their music to seek his deaf ears in me,” just as my own ears remained deaf to my longing, crafting a music that could only further deceive me, as The Opening of the Field invited me permissively to imagine both meadow and Sodom as one might imagine Eden or Atlantis, Shangri-La or Planet Xena, bearing no relation whatsoever to history, be it my own, or that of a community to which I might belong.

26Duncan offers some insight into the figure of the “Queen Under the Hill” in The H.D. Book while glossing the word fey, which, he writes, has to with “illusions or enchantments, bewilderings of the mind in which men saw another world behind or under ‘reality,’ and at the same time it meant the enchanters themselves, the folk who lived under the Hill.” The capital H is Duncan’s, and it is no doubt the same Hill as the one the Queen lives under, the one in the meadow. The resonance becomes even more astonishing, however, as Duncan goes on to associate this with Ezra Pounds’ conceptualization of the poetic image: “The casting of the image is high fairy,” he writes in a strange leap, queering Pound’s apparition, his phanopoeia. “The image itself is fay,” Duncan concludes, before going to gloss its more vernacular meaning: “fated to die, cowardly, or weak, as the O.E.D. tells us – unmanned.”

27The Opening of the Field appeared enclosed by a cordon sanitaire advertising a queer desire hygienically cleansed, or forced underground. What remains to contest the oppressive law of normative sexuality in such a sanitized place? Certainly not the pleasures of fucking, but rather the “flames lit unto the Lady.” And it’s this “Lady” who communicates an illegible sign of my repressed lust, softening the pain of an “abject sexual kingdom” without my ever having had to live there (“Heavenly City, Earthly City,” 2012, 84). Duncan gives the sub-textual queerness of this underground figure over to a universal vision of Troubadourian resistance to the Law of Empire, as his struggle moves from one cult to another, from that of the banished and ostracized faggot to that of the “Queen Under the Hill” – cult of “the Lady” – whose idealization of an Eros counter to the law is forced underground, but whose energies and orders Duncan’s poem channels. “Call back / into my heart that raging woman / outcast,” Duncan writes in “Structure of Rime XV” (2014a, 156). As for “The Lady,” it’s hard not to read her as an allegory of incarnate sexuality by whose banishment the universal defines itself and who, for Duncan, must be resurrected in the name of a more total and totalizing Love, with a capital L. She dwells in the dark, the meadow’s underworld, a subterranean place – like a closet? – of banished pleasure and outcast yearning, a burial mound upon which the Enlightenment will one day be founded. In deifying the Lady as the “Queen Under The Hill”, Duncan sublimes and represses every erotic particular excluded from earthly laws, rendering them as part of a higher order – the common, or The True – without abandoning “the accident of sun,” the contingent element that promises to disrupt the meaning of every fixed truth (“Heavenly City, Earthly City”).

28Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” (1959), written only a year before the publication of The Opening of the Field, offers a strange complement to Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to A Meadow” and its “flames lit to the Lady” (2014a, 7). Two ladies, two queens, whose difference couldn’t be more stark! O’Hara’s poem works like a sponge to absorb as many material things as possible in a space as compact and energized as the 5-Spot itself. The energy of the poem derives from O’Hara’s choice of each particular that will live in it – a john door, a bottle of Strega, a carton of Picayunes, a hamburger and a malted, the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre – whose aggregate creates the effect of “personality,” which like a superficial film covering some mythical essence, threatens to conceal the priorities of Psyche, which for Duncan the poem would otherwise dis-cover. By contrast, Duncan’s meadow is void of every particular, as if by risking prosaic things – the way Denise Levertov risks “broom vendors, house-wifely life, and kitchen step-ladders” only to be met by the critic’s reproach that “such things do not deserve our poetic attentions,” as Duncan notes in The Truth and Life of Myth – he, too, might risk the admonishment of Levertov’s critic.

29Were I to have read O’Hara’s poem while under Duncan’s commanding influence, I don’t think I would have known what to do with it. A shoeshine, a muggy street, the poets in Ghana, the Golden Griffin, Le Balcon or Les Nègres of Genet, a carton of Gauloises, the New York Post, let alone the Lady’s face that graced its front page, could only appear to me as litter in that meadow on whose purity my own myth depended. No doubt, I would have dismissed the poem naively as “bad poetry,” having conveniently internalized Duncan’s idealism and suspicion, both of which abetted the need to erase my awkwardness, my shame, and my personality – because I was terrified of not having one. And while I didn’t know how to read Duncan either, I was compelled to believe he was “good,” and in my Manichean worldview – Jerusalem or Sodom? – that goodness depended on the absence of any legible content specific to a life. Poetry thereby offered me a way to go on avoiding myself, while offering consolation for that avoidance under the duplicitous sign of “self-expression.”

30Upon my return to the US, I would eventually figure out how to come out and I wouldn’t need Duncan in the same way, though I hadn’t yet realized I had needed him at all. In any case, my ear had already been shaped, im-pressed, as it were, and with his prosody still laminated to my inner ear, I stole a mint copy of his limited edition chapbook, Veil, Turbine, Cord & Bird (1979) containing an eponymous sequence of poems which I would read and reread many times as I went on honing my verses on lines like these:

For I your boy of brass bright star the force
son turns of wheel in heart man strength streams fire
weave still the veil and spell from word to chord
green course from spring to fall I take my source
where sun down dark the earth goes round to tire
and seek dear night myrrh and red bird pour
in turn from light to dim and dim to sleep. (Duncan 2014a, 672)

31The music that concentrates across Duncan’s work crystallizes in such late verses, and even as I’ve struggled to lift the veil, or release the cord, I’ve never quite shaken its aural strangeness.

Haut de page


Boone, Bruce. “Robert Duncan and the Gay Community: A Reflection.” Bruce Boone Dismembered: Poems, Stories, and Essays. Ed. Rob Halpern. New York: Nightboat, 2020. Originally published Ironwood 11. 2 (1983): 66-82.

Duncan, Robert. The Opening of the Field. New York: Grove Press, 1960. 

Duncan, Robert. The Years as Catches: First Poems 1939–1946. Berkeley: Oyez, 1966.

Duncan, Robert. The Collected Early Poems and Plays. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Duncan, Robert. The Collected Later Poems and Plays. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014a.

Duncan, Robert. Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose. Ed. James Maynard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014b.

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writing on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester: Zero Books, 2014.

Glück, Robert. Jack the Modernist. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1985.

Haut de page


1 Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life. Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester: Zero Books, 2014 (52).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Rob Halpern, « Coda: The “Queen Under the Hill,” or, Robert Duncan’s Lesson in Essential Autobiography »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Rob Halpern

Eastern Michigan University
Rob Halpern is Professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Michigan University. In addition, he facilitates poetry writing workshops inside Women’s Huron Valley Prison. He is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Weak Link (Atelos, 2019), as well as critical essays on contemporary poetry and “New Narrative.” His translations of Georges Perec’s early essays on aesthetics and politics are forthcoming with Verso Books.

Rob Halpern est professeur de creative writing à Eastern Michigan University. Par ailleurs, il participe à l’organisation d’ateliers d’écriture à la prison pour femmes de Huron Valley. Il a écrit six livres de poésie, dont le plus récent est Weak Link (Atelos, 2019), ainsi que des ouvrages de critique sur la poésie contemporaine et le “New Narrative.” Ses traductions des essais de jeunesse de Georges Pérec sur l’esthétique et la politique sont à paraître chez Verso Books.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Sillages critiques est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search