Calling Robert Bly

We’re reading “In Danger from the Outer World”
in my graduate seminar and somebody asks,
“I know what all the bad stuff in the poem is—
the fire, the water, the plane crash, the grave—
but what’s this ‘shining thing’ inside us
that ‘shakes its bamboo bars’?” and I say

“Ummm, the unconscious mind?” and somebody else says,
“Maybe it’s the soul,” and a fourth person sneers
and says, “A poet like Robert Bly wouldn’t believe
in a stupid idea like that,” and the third person
says, “You’re not Robert Bly, how do you know
what Robert Bly believes?” and the fourth says,

“You’re not me, how do you know what I know?”
so to keep the peace, I interrupt with
the standard English professor’s joke:
“Hey, too bad we can’t just call the poet up
and ask him what he meant, huh?”
and then I think, Wait a minute,

we’re not talking about Wordsworth here,
and since it’s break time anyway,
I say, “Okay, everybody, come on up
to my office, we’re gonna call Robert Bly!”
and I leg it upstairs with my students
shuffling along behind and grab my copy

of the Directory of American Poets and sure enough,
there’s a Robert Bly in a town called Moose Lake,
Minnesota, and I dial the number,
and a woman answers, and I say, “Can I speak
to Robert Bly!” and she says, “Just a minute!”
and then this voice says, “Hello!”

and I say, “Mr. Bly?” and the voice at the other end says, “Yes?”
and I introduce myself and we chat a bit and then
I tell him we’re reading this poem of his
called “In Danger from the Outer World,”
only nobody gets this one image, and can he
explain it to us, and he says, “Aw, you know!

It’s the soul of the human spirit—something like that!”
I turn to the students, but by this time most of them
have drifted away to the bathroom or the coffee machine,
so I cover the receiver and say to no one,
“Mr. Bly says I’m right—it is the unconscious mind!”
and I look out the window as far as I can

and imagine Robert Bly sitting there with his phone in his hand
and all of America between us, the line
going out through Benevolence, Georgia, where a woman
who has just finished baking a buttermilk pie
for a family dinner the next day
decided it isn’t enough and starts to make a second;

then on to Difficult, Tennessee, where one man
has just sold his car to another and is now taking
a photo of the new owner alongside his new vehicle;
then Knob Lick, Kentucky, where a man is having sex
with a woman who is younger than he is
and doesn’t love him anymore, though she hasn’t told him yet;

and Goreville, Illinois,
where two men tell a third they’re going to whip his ass,
and he startles them when he shrugs and says,
“Go ahead”; and then Vesper, Wisconsin,
where a child is dying of acute myeloid leukemia,
and his parents can’t do a thing about it.

In the darkness outside Robert Bly’s cabin, a moose
is cropping ferns, his leathery flap of an upper lip
closing over the fronds as delicately
as a lady’s hand picking up a tea cake,
and he looks up, startled, when Robert Bly
laughs at something I’ve said, and then

Robert Bly says, “How are your students—are they any good?”
and I say, “They are, thought they seem
a little tired tonight,” and he says,
“Are they good writers?” and I say,
“Yeah, most of them,” and he says,
“How about you—you a writer?”

and whatever I say makes Mr. Bly laugh again really loudly,
but this time the moose just keeps eating,
finishing its little patch of ostrich ferns
and sniffing the night air and thinking, “Umm—asparagus!
and then stepping off, graceful as a skater,
toward the lake it can’t see but knows is there.


David Kirby
from his book The Ha-Ha: Poems
Louisiana State University Press, 2003
used with permission of the poet

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