Graywolf Press, $12.95
by Ellen Davis
"Do not imagine you can abdicate" -- the epigraph to the title poem in Carl Phillips' magnificent new collection -- could serve as the motivating idea for each poem in the book. The line is from Auden's "Venus Will Now Say a Few Words," in which the speaker addresses a lover who thinks he can turn away from desire. These words speak to the poet, certainly; Phillips' first book, In the Blood, shows just how much and how well he is able to submit his life to the open-heart surgery poetry requires. But Auden's invocation to love's claims speaks to each of us as well. In "Cortege," a chorus -- wrested from Greek tragedy into the present -- invites the audience to question and hear answers from the lyric "I." The poem's second section, "Pavilion," includes this tercet:
One is for now certain he is
Like poet and chorus, readers, too, are instructed not to abdicate responsibilities -- to the exigencies of the body, to communities, to our beloveds -- by Phillips' densely textured, unfor- gettable language and electrifying subject matter.
"The Compass," a poem that serves as prologue, establishes the book's trajectory. It's written in an impressionistic free verse without capitals or punctuation; it sketches emblems of suffering from the lives of saints and the four Gospels. Here are the last lines:
Wings and arrows are frequent images in Phillips' work. Here, they suggest the move the book makes toward redemption, toward a letting go of martyrdom, toward an actual, carefully-made happiness. Phillips' stunning poem "As From a Quiver of Arrows," which appeared in the October 1995 Atlantic, indicates that the direction set forth by "The Compass" transcends the pages of this collection.
"I See a Man," "The Hustler Speaks of Places," "King of Hearts," and "Our Lady," all look unflinchingly at aspects of homosexual life outside straight America's usual range of vision. Phillips' reworking of Langston Hughes' much-loved poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," is riveting; the hustler's persona allows:
Those "places" include gay bars and the Ritz-Carlton men's room. "The Hustler Speaks of Places" recalls "Passing" from In the Blood, a poem in which the speaker rejects the homage to "the dark river in the mind/ that runs thick with the heroes of color" the "Famous Black Poet" exacts. The addressee of "King of Hearts" has brought home a paid-for lover; the last line is especially devastating: "`You're the king, you're the king,' him saying."
Other extraordinarily moving poems are "Sunday" (here, God, Ecstasy, and Heaven are invoked and found, in part by contrasting the smell of potatoes sauted in butter and mint to that of the lover), "The Reach," "Glads," and "Cotillion." Written in what Phillips calls "a strained blank verse," "The Reach" offers these lines:
To read this subject-matter in careful, subtle iambics rings a sea-change in the usual associations with the meter. Here is the charming opening to "Cotillion": "Every one of these bodies, those in drag, those/ not, loves a party, that much is clear." Later, these crucial stanzas appear, both regarding this poem and the poet's stance:
"Cotillion" echoes back to an image in "The Reach":
Phillips is equally at home in classical, Renaissance, and contemporary cultures; myth, iconography, rhetoric, and idioms mesh beautifully in his work. In his poem "Teaching Ovid to Sixth Graders," for example, he uses the Ganymede myth as a vehicle for reconsidering the teacher's role as storyteller (Zeus figures as "a body that has already undone/ so many"). In "One Sees Pictures of Dante," the poet re-imagines Dante, not, as is often depicted, pining after Beatrice, but "leaning stiffly out/ from the roofless carriage of exile," admiring the "beautiful gestures" that "must/ in some way concern the soul" of a young man selecting fruit, paring the bad parts away.
"Pygmalion," too, refigures the old story: here, the sculptor, assumed to love boys also, is introduced in contrast to "the craven Tiberius." After the care Phillips takes with the lines "I have// watched him go down to the sea, gather/ roses at sunset --" his speaker ends with admirable calculation and restraint:
What I love most about Phillips' book is the way he makes poetry out of the physicality of desire, of the very body itself. The body holds out possibilities for a new life. In "What Myth Is," the first three stanzas announce:
I want to say that his writing moves toward a homosexual poetics, but that would be too easy, like saying James Merrill writes autobiographical verse. Such a move is present, but here also are compelling gestures toward finding language to recover many kinds of love, suffering, and redemption; admiring Renaissance buildings, humans, and angels in paintings; placing the poet through his work in direct commerce with the past and the present. It's worth the price of admission for "Domestic" and "Somewhere Holy" alone, poems in the final section that show a way to happiness. The poet completes his trajectory: redemption is earned for the spirit through the flesh by acts of gorgeous, uncompromising language. It's time to stop calling Carl Phillips an exciting "new" voice; the voice is mature, thrilling, and, with the publication of Cortege, here to stay.
In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems
The Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95
by Joe Osterhaus
Josephine Jacobsen's In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems gives us the life of a poet. The earliest poems in the collection date from the 1930s and the most recent from 1994. It quickly becomes apparent as one reads through the book that Jacobsen aspires to the rarest of statures -- the poet whose originality and power force us to rethink the accepted categories of poetic excellence.
In both their subjects and language, Jacobsen's poems claim what she has described as the "high ground." Unlike many contemporary poets who pitch their language to include the late 20th century vernacular, Jacobsen often writes in a more formal idiom and elevated tone. She similarly does not share the contemporary, sometimes overly fastidious, attention to the implied social characteristics of the poem's speaker and reader. The speakers of her poems are typically cultured and the poems often describe refined settings. Moreover, she does not explicitly address the condition of women or women writers, and does little to situate her reader in the social world. Yet, with an irony equal to the many stern ironies of the work, Jacobsen's poems are on the whole spirited and free of any cant about the purposes or direction of "high" culture.
The breadth and strength of the collection naturally provoke speculation about why Jacobsen is so infrequently taught and anthologized. My own explanation for the low profile of Jacobsen's poetry turns on the poet's choices about her project. In a 1991 article, "Lion Under Maples" (from The Confidence Woman: 26 Women Writers at Work, ed. Eve Shelnutt) she wrote this about the practice of poetry:
Reading through the span of Jacobsen's work, I find myself susceptible to another fiction: that of the "career" that proceeds "upwards like a flight of stairs" (the phrase is William Corbett's). In Jacobsen's first poems from the 1930s one encounters an aesthetic that seems in keeping with that time: often formal, the poems have a distanced, impersonal tone, and typically describe hieratic figures and archetypal situations. But, as the years progress, Jacobsen's virtues as a writer become more evident and appear with greater frequency. Her diction, while never entirely colloquial, becomes more relaxed and vigorous. This combination allows the sure, fine touch of the rhetoric; the clarity and surprise of the description; and the aptness and beauty of the plotting to surface:
This, from the late 1960s, is atypical of Jacobsen's work in the relative openness of the lines and form. Jacobsen frequently writes in quatrains, and though she often varies the line-length and rhythm, the ghost of the iambic line is never far removed:
This relaxation of her method seems more self-impelled -- a gaining of range and confidence -- than driven by the changes in the poetry world in the 60s and 70s. Happily, the last part of this collection, which contains poems from 1975-1994, contains many of her best, in which she turns her fine ear and sure rhetoric to even greater effect.
Jacobsen's great subject is isolation. The speakers in the poems are usually far removed from the scenes and objects described, and frequently that distance is itself the poem's main concern. Whether in the first person or the third, Jacobsen deals again and again with the cold clarities of the solitary sensibility:
Philip Larkin forms an interesting comparison here. In his poetry as well, we find a sometimes profoundly isolated sensibility trying to negotiate both its own horror and love. But in Larkin the voice can edge into a tight-lipped humor that rounds out the pathos of the speaker:
Jacobsen, by comparison, never strikes anything approximating the stumblebum tone of "Groping back to bed after a piss"; in poem after poem, for better or worse, she maintains a never entirely relaxed and never quite intimate distance:
When the poems are less successful, it is usually because the distance afforded by these solitary views becomes too Olympian and too concerned with a surface imagery that conceals more than it conveys. Jacobsen's remove can also leave her belaboring the obvious in a heavy tone and working too hard to mine the significance of a detail she might otherwise have passed over:
But even with these excesses, the collection contains many strong poems that close with the satisfying snap of a box's lid on their subjects. And the strength of the collection as a whole is enough to make us reconsider the eras in which Jacobsen wrote. She has received so little attention that she provides a new point of comparison with other more prominent poets. From the perspective this collection affords she becomes one of those figures who, like Elinor Wylie or Turner Cassity, share some of the impulses of the great modernists and mid-century poets, but who, for a variety of modesties of inclination and temperament, created poems that redefine but do not entirely rechart the center. In Jacobsen's case, the fact that her poetry succeeds in an endeavor that is more purely "aesthetic" than is currently fashionable, helps us bracket our contemporary truisms and see them in relationship to what preceded them.
I will close with one of Jacobsen's strongest poems, a spoken blues that, in the slightly formal and chillingly effective way it uses the form, wavers between the tone of Larkin and Auden:
As the poem proceeds, Mrs. Pondicherry suffers a stroke. On her death bed she calls for Father O'Hare, who, we are told, "couldn't get there." The poem ends:
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, $20
by David Gewanter
Like a last Adam, Rough Music, Deborah Digges' impressive third book of poems, names the beasts of an extinguished world, sounding out with hard measures the many presences of her life: an absent lover-turned-tyrant, boys losing their childish wonder, a father suffering his last labor, and animals turned into hand-shadows. In the title poem, villagers purge a house of its intruder, using a "rough music" drawn from medieval practice. This house is literally "hurt into poetry," as neighbors
Such jaw-filling phonics -- "rakes / raining rake tines" -- mark an unsentimental departure from Digges' two earlier books of verse, and her admired and sinuously direct memoir, Fugitive Spring. Those earlier volumes mixed family tales, domestic loves, and scientific myths into a rich sensible music; Rough Music, to borrow a phrase from Ornette Coleman, has "run a saw or something through it, then come back with the melody."
In "Tomb of the Muses," for instance, a chapter from her prose memoir, Digges traces her first tries at poetry: "I write to be saved; from what, I'm not sure . . . ." Rough Music includes a poem called "Tomb of the Muses" as well; here, instead of quiet meditations, we find several funereal tag-artists spraypainting a wall:
In other poems, Digges empties from her "dream silos" her absent loves and jangling memories, "meanings rushing backwards" to their origins. Despite the lyric purge, her "roofless" house remains haunted by "the ghost of the man":
Elsewhere, the tyrant who "hates his seed" is cursed in tones from Exodus. A man who "wants no children / is like five smooth stones":
Digges' smoothly ordered lyrics are set among more spiky and scraping songs, ones that name "the stand-ins, lovers, the lies like animal shadows" and that teach us "faith's limits": "not to want what doesn't want us." Sometimes we feel the willful strain of a speaker bending all matter to her accusing tale. The amaryllis is a fat boy "donning funny hats":
Other poems challenge us not through strong-armed fusions, but through surprising compressions. In "The Story of the Lighthouse," the song outsings the story:
The wonderful sounds of the third line have hardened round its meaning -- a nut rolling around in the mouth that we can't crack. Here is lyric at full throttle but not, perhaps, at `full-throated ease.' The book's most experimental and ambitious poem, though, presents a different order of lyric challenge. "Rock, Scissors, Paper" is a choral fugue strung with the words of Darwin, Marx, and Freud:
"Rock, Scissors, Paper" recalls the great pastiche-epics of Pound and Williams, where the page becomes a sticky wall that voices could cling to. There's great poetry in Digges' long poem; its mesh of voices offers raw reports and, through the continual surprise and swerve between speakers, a density of pattern to suit the vocal weave of the short poems. The advance in design may have come at a cost; some voices don't catch the tonal complexity of swallowed pain, cool observation, ironic wisdom and naked ardor of Digges' own monodies. Here, for comparison, is Freud speaking in "Rock, Scissors, Paper":
And here is a speaker from "Gypsy Moths," who may know more of life and destruction:
Digges' short poems best display her talent for bringing back the `live data' of personal experience. Yet her long poem may point the way to a new poetics: drawing from historical records and the patchwork of multi-personal testimony, she may establish an epic voice to match the range and resourcefulness of the prose narrator in Fugitive Spring. For the present, "Rock, Paper, Scissors" shows an Apollonian vigor, male voices rampant; by contrast, lyrics such as "The Little Book of Hand-Shadows" hold a quiet Dionysian passion:
Yeats thought the best poetry was sparked by "the quarrel with ourselves." Certainly in this century, a poet's signature style is thought to be threaded with different -- and disjunct -- poetries. Rough Music, with its mix of hard humor, dramatic history, eros, lament, and elegy, weaves much more than a string of accusations. If its best pages seem "hurt into poetry" like Yeats' Ireland, they hold melodies from a half-abandoned island, whose Dido
In Time: Women's Poetry from Prison
Edited by Rosanna Warren and Teresa Iverson
Boston University Prison Education Fund, $1
by Catherine A. Salmons
As American prisons strain to house more than a million inmates, the 1994 Crime Bill has abolished rehabilitative services that may have offered them a brighter future. Of the 350 higher education programs for inmates nationwide, only eight will survive by 1997. Despite statistics indicating that such programs help lower recidivism rates, conservative pundits lambaste them as "soft on crime."
Against this grim backdrop, In Time, a chapbook-length anthology of poems by female inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Framingham, stands out as a record of six women's courage, their duels with personal demons supplanting the mean-spirited debate outside. Carefully tended as hothouse flowers, these poems honor discipline and craft. No line is too hurried; no note lasts too long. Precise language sculpts each poet's guilt and pain into insights which -- like Katherine Power's "Snatches of Vivaldi" -- defy the ugliness of prison life.
Power (the former 60's radical who made headlines, in 1993, for turning herself in twenty-plus years after fleeing her role in a Boston bank robbery/murder), distills with haiku-like grace her need for relief from the prison's harsh routine, reaching like a "bare-limbed winter grey tree" toward the "Solstice sun/ Glinting off razor wire loops." Time's stultifying slowness takes a psychic beating from the "Mighty Crane" which Kathleen Gamache watches "destroy old buildings/ with an ease." Disappointment resonates with atonement in Jacqueline Dash's crisp lines, "I awaited the hope of a world/ and am culpable/ now." Evoking personal failure, lost love, the children they've been forced to leave behind, these women explore the strength of shaping their grief into words.
Fierce honesty conceived these poems. Their formal elegance was nurtured by editors Rosanna Warren and Teresa Iverson. With a grant from the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Fund, and under the auspices of Boston University's degree program for inmates, they pioneered the year-long Creative Writing Workshop which became In Time's genesis. It's hard to imagine a better argument in favor of prison education.