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Work Without Hope
Johns Hopkins University Press, $16.95
John Burt's second book of poems is full of dramatic monologues, compressed storytelling, and workmanlike sonnets. He is a poet who could not exist without Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson, and for whom nothing much has happened since they died; his least-ambitious lyrics take few chances, but his best blank-verse anecdotes are as sturdily alive as the ginkgo, as unshowily useful as umbrellas or nails. These frequently historical poems (some carry dates: 1534, 1866, 1953) star isolates, adventurers, and lonely souls surprised by their own weakness. Among the sidelined antiheroes are the Californian's becalmed sailors, "dead on the water," watching the Titanic sink all night; a Cambridge lady puzzled by a hardworking tramp; Chamberlain back from Munich, "stiff and ridiculous, an angry sparrow," protesting "I bought the world a year"; and the airfield workers of "1938," whose cowardice precipitates a blimp accident impossible to summarize or forget.
The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History
Princeton University Press, $39.50 (cloth), $15.95 (paper)
The movement called language (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) writing is over, Perelman writes. But what was it? Was it ever one thing? Perelman, himself a participant, sets out to "unravel . . . ideas of language writing as a uniform practice," describing and distinguishing the writerly strategies of Grenier, Silliman, Hejinian, Bernstein, Andrews, Howe, Armantrout and others. His brisk, near-jargonless prose does justice to individual styles in a way less limber exegetes never have, and he can quarrel with established critics without demanding that his readers take sides. Framing the prose are Perelman's own verse preface, his whimsical verse-epilogue, and a superb imaginary conversation between Barthes and Frank O'Hara. One doesn't have to like all language writers to benefit from Perelman's analyses of some, or to learn from his explanations of how, and why, they wrote certain of their sometimes-baffling books.
By Common Salt
Oberlin College Press/Field Poetry Series, $12.95
More than half of these 53 short prose poems resemble those in Clary's first book, Who Whispered Near Me: elliptical, fluent, coy, earnest, and in touch with the things of this world. Clary can be a landscape poet, her landscapes occasionally Irish, but more often a Greater L.A. of freeways, beaches and balconies. She's weakest being topical or anecdotal, best when anthropological, astronomical, personal. Her accomplished rhythms reveal conscious choices among grammatical structures-she knows (most prose poets don't) how rhythm in prose poems is 80 percent syntax. Cutting from one impression to the next in occasionally-Ashberyan, nearly-free associations, the poems contrive new proverbs. Melodrama redeems itself through compact and aphoristic music-"I ask like a spire, busy as lodestone and distracted by wanting to be lightning, fuel"-a sentence that makes a good touchstone: if you like it, you're someone for whom this poet will matter.
Wake Forest University Press, $15.95
The poems in this fourth collection by Belfast poet Medbh (pronounced Mave) McGuckian are located along a fault line where two surfaces badly meet; where what can be stopped or held or escaped grinds against what once could but can no longer. Water is the reigning metaphor: apt in its mutable demarcations, its squalls and shipwrecks. That these poems are so insistently personal only makes them more convincingly political. The partitioning wall is "unusually high, / interwoven like the materials for a nest, / the airtight sensation of slates: / all as gracefully apart as a calvary from a crib." There is nothing flippant nor trivial here. Lush with simile and sound ("I was born in little pieces, like specks of dust, / only an eye that looks in all directions can see me."), each poem is a sensuous gravure, a compelling portrait of the divided self, plangent echo of a country at civil war.
--Mary Jo Bang
Paris Press, $12.95 (paper)
From spiritual musings over dead mice discovered in stale coffee ("the pale spread pads of their feet / suppliant as the hands of novitiates") to an indoor fig tree's desire to participate in the autumn of deciduous trees just out of its sight, Ruth Stone corrals wide ranges of thought and imagery into her tenth collection, Simplicity. At their best, the poems go the distance of her ambition-unique characters, and dynamic plots unfold around simple vignettes. In scene after scene of "Medium for Stasis," Stone vividly enacts the immobility of the title, but with a strength and tension created through movements in time and place, as well as shifts in focus from the micro to the macro. Certain poems (and the collection itself) strain beneath the breadth, however; both Stone's artistry and the reader's attention would be better served by a smaller, more cohesive selection of this fine poet's new work.
Louisiana State University Press, $19.95 (cloth), $10.95 (paper)
One admires the originality of the personae Cooley chooses to inhabit-Patty Hearst, Diane Arbus, Alice Liddell, or those historical and fictional women she uses as vehicles for her meanings-Frida Kahlo, Snow White, and Thumbelina, but one finishes this book feeling the poet failed to identify anything more acute than some vague affiliation with these women's pain or estrangement. From "Self-Portrait: Frida Kahlo": "Exhibited on the bed, / the plaster comet testifies to her pain. I want to know / that pain. I want to save her as Diego could not." Lines like these leave a reader wishing the poet would rely less on the resources these characters already possess, and more on her own poetic imagination. Stronger poems in the first collection, chosen by Cynthia Macdonald for the 1995 Walt Whitman Award, address directly the speaker's relationship to sisters and an absent mother, and evoke a realm of genuine grief.
Four Way Books, $11.95
That Kircher's poems are private ones constitutes the strength and disadvantage of her first collection. The book reads like miniature portraits of the interiors of a life: what happens to us in rooms, before sleeping or in the quiet of an empty house. While sometimes too private, not speaking beyond the argument between lovers or the grandmother's death, her skillful images weave quotidian scenes into subtle and disturbing landscapes. These poems hover between dream and wakefulness, as when the girl in "Dreamer's Dark" sings to the fish she won't eat whose eye is "wrinkled like an ocean wave / so everyone it sees is swept away." Although certain moments remain estranged to the reader, the cobblestones and hillsides, the self's familiar body become the reader's stunning, if not quiet, possession. In the end, we believe that the mouse caught in the kitchen trap is, as the poem asserts, desperate and angelic.
--Jennifer Anna Gosetti
The Education of Desire
Wesleyan University Press, $25.00 (cloth), $11.95 (paper)
In his foreword, W. D. Snodgrass draws attention to a shift in Dickey's work, a movement from the "traditional" and Apollonian measures of his earliest books to the "wild prankiness" and "giddy whirl" of this posthumous and unabashedly Dionysian collection. It's important to note, however, that Dickey's poetic outlook remained dark throughout, and despite its stylistic high-spiritedness-and undeniable excellence-this book is a frenzy, not a frolic. Its poems pulsate with the ruthless, unstoppable rhythms of ritual drumming and maddened anatomy. Miraculously, their logic never fails, even as images terrify and dizzy: the visions of a soothsayer caught in a spin. Slower movements are steeped in a post-bacchanalian sorrow ("There were never enough / lifeboats, and never / enough gaiety to see us safely through . . .") and a resignation that, from one approaching death, stuns the heart and breaks it: "What I am going to do now is walk toward the hills, and see whether, if I walk long enough, the hills decide to let me arrive there."
The Dig and Hotel Fiesta
University of Illinois Press, $13.95
"I am what is wrong with America" declares the poet, and the irony is gorgeous, the self-reproach sparkling with enough braggadocio to out-flash Las Vegas. Emanuel is a master of such double-edged, hard-boiled delivery, and often assumes a customized toughness to clip a wildly emotional character, to regulate her speaker's narcissistic wavering from "raptures of self-regard" to sloughs of self-destructiveness. "I am so tired," she writes, "I could lie down among these trees . . . / And let the earth take one slow liberty / After another." This is remarkable work, and readers will be grateful that Emanuel's two previously published books are now available in one rich volume. A great auteur, she imbues her sets with a crisp psychology, revealing the "eternal verity" in the quick dramas they backdrop. A great poet, she devastates and delights-often at once, as life does, but more intelligibly, acutely. "I am a pebble . . ." she concludes, "a loose thread, / nothing, really, the unimportant / and, therefore, immortal."
New York University Press, $25 (cloth), $12.95 (paper)
Rats, bats, and squirrels aren't the only recurring images in this first book, winner of the 1995 Mamdouha S. Bobst Literary Award. Thighs and bites, poison and hair resurface like mantra, and the force of such repetition pushes each poem forward and into the next. This makes for a strong and coherent collection. Less craft, however, is evidenced in the forming of lines and stanzas than in the assembly of the book as a whole, and poems often do not work well in isolation. Furthermore, as with all poems rooted in their own shock value, those of Rodent Angel frequently collapse into cliche ("I'll kill / you, I want / to say, but I bite / my tongue . . .") or adolescent heterodoxy ("A Little Death" mingles Jesus with cunnilingus). The poems resisting these temptations are the smartest here, and the most haunting: "He was the rat / poisoned over time. / He grew tumors on the soft / part of his hands."
Originally published in the December 1996/ January 1997 issue of Boston Review