Descartes’ Loneliness

by Allen Grossman
New Directions 2008
Reviewed by Matt Soucy


Lens Crafter

grossman cover

In his new book Descartes’ Loneliness, Allen Grossman subtly displays the affects of a life of thought: the knife-edge between intellect and passion. As the first and titular poem shows, when Grossman strives for pure intellect, he comes face to face with the realities of being a subjective human: “But in fact, toward evening, I am not / convinced there is any other except myself.” This line encapsulates the strongest images in the book: the poet himself, the mind, and the passage of time as seen through light. It also capably establishes the poet’s major themes: objectivism vs. subjectivism, perspective vs. reality, and truth vs. experience. Overall, the book is an interesting read for anyone dedicating his/her life to Liberal Arts academia.

Intermittently, Grossman inserts bold, imagistic poems such as “A Day’s Work” and “Timor Mortis, Inc., A Switchboard Memory.” Each of these poems revolves around the mother figure, who serves as a counterpoint to the character of Descartes. In “A Day’s Work” he writes:

Bobbed hair conceals
ears. Starched white shirt (Sleeves
rolled up with fierce intent.)
Hands in pockets of a straight skirt
of heavy material. She is looking
at the ground.

There are a few moments like this throughout the work that impact the reader both directly and broadly. The poet’s mother represents all things vague and human. These are the poems that seem most honest and effortless for Grossman. The intellectual connection here is vague, but not invisible.

The majority of Descartes’ Loneliness is focused, obviously, on Descartes, although it is not as readily apparent as the title indicates. Two of the poet’s greatest notions come when considering Descartes. First, he indicates that a profound given is a type of ownership. And isn’t that true? That first person who truly blew your mind will forever occupy a piece of your life that you cannot extract. As Grossman puts it in, “A Kiss for You,”: “Take this kiss. / You are mine forever.”

Second, Grossman makes the self-important claim that truth in science, or direct scrutiny, cannot be ascertained, but can be detected through the lens of poetry. In, “Caedmon,” “Invention of Night,” and “A Long Romance,” Grossman does achieve moments of great poetry, exposing the truth of the Descartes mind that can only be understood, through metaphor: “You Will be Wrapped in Silk.”

The book is at its weakest when Grossman falls into explaining, which he does through direct address and, too often, exclamation. This is partially forgivable, as Grossman sometimes assumes the identity of Descartes in his letters to Princess Elizabeth. However, within the poems, the exclamations draw the reader out of the moment and put too strong a Grossman stamp on the poem.

There is a balance to be had. In the final poem, “Votre Altresse,” the reader sees a thinkers’ sympathy between Grossman and Descartes. Descartes’ final days are spent in a foreign court where he is beleaguered and misunderstood. He will die as a showpiece, a novelty, in the court of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Grossman sets a high intellectual bar with his new book, and he touches that bar, I think. But I did not detect anything novel in the conversations of philosophy or poetry. Although he does a nice job of framing the classic dilemmas of Descartes, he does not add anything new.