When I interviewed Robert Bly on an icy London evening in December 1997, he talked about the Eskimo. This was a short while after the English publication of his second popular prose work, The Sibling Society, a book far more radical in its propositions and conclusions than Iron John had been. Where the earlier book dealt with the boy-child's journey to maturity, this new book focused on the end of that journey–adulthood–or, rather, the lack of it in contemporary society. Without getting too close to what remains a touchy topic in liberal society, the book circled around the subject of authority, trying to wrest it from its negative associations and historical abuses. Bly was interested in the meaning of maturity, which he posited as a state of dignity, clarity and power, and he was concerned about the effects of our having removed the positive hierarchies and limitations that previously aided our passage to genuine adulthood. So he was intrigued to have read somewhere that the Eskimo were the most adult people on the face of the earth. This was because, as he put it, "Adulthood is connected, in some mysterious way that no one understands, with the number of limitations that there are in your life." And of course the deprivation and difficulty of living with extreme weather and other conditions give ample limitations.
But the reason we turned to the Eskimo was that we were speaking about poetry, and poets have always had to work with limitations. Most of the poets of Bly's generation–he spoke specifically of Ginsberg, James Wright and Louis Simpson–learned and practiced traditional forms at the beginning of their careers. "And then free verse came, and we went into free verse, which is really un-Eskimo-like behavior." He and his young fellow poets gave up their limitations and wrote the free-form work for which they are now best known. But Bly went on to say, "I'm 70 now, and I'm more and more interested in finding limitations in poetry, so I'm going back and finding ones, even though I don't have to."
He had then just published in the United States his last volume of new work, Morning Poems. The self-imposed limitation that governed that book was the discipline of writing a poem every morning–following the habit of his friend William Stafford, who woke early most mornings to write, from the period of his internment as a conscientious objector during World War II until his death in 1993. Bly explained that his own working method had been to remain in bed until he finished the poem, which on some days meant getting up at dawn, on others at noon.
The Night Abraham Called to the Stars has a different set of limitations entirely: The poems are all written in an invented eighteen-line form consisting of six three-line stanzas, with unrhymed lines of between nine and fourteen syllables in length. The stanzas, like those of the Islamic ghazals on which Bly based his form, are not necessarily linked in theme or narrative. As Bly put it in his introduction to the volume of Ghalib's ghazals that he translated with Sunil Dutta, "It slowly becomes clear that we are dealing with a way of adventuring one's way through a poem utterly distinct from our habit of textual consistency in theme" (The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib). Like Ghalib's work, Bly's new poems often jump from praise to despair, from absurdity to love, but sometimes he runs lines on between stanzas, as in the first poem, from which the book takes its title:
Do you remember the night Abraham first called
To the stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my Lord!"
How happy he was! When he saw the Dawn Star,
He cried, "You are my Lord!" How destroyed he was
When he watched them set. Friends, he is like us:
We take as our Lord the stars that go down.
("The Night Abraham Called to the Stars")
The poems of the book's final section tighten the limitation by requiring also that each stanza end on the same word:
I never understood that abundance leads to war,
Nor that manyness is gasoline on the fire.
I never knew that the horseshoe longs for night.