University of Georgia Press, $16.95 (paper)
Oni Buchanans haunting and intelligent debut, What Animal, offers nothing less than a menagerie of despair, a bleakly beautiful petting zoo where each injured animal [is] accessible . . . one limping. / One with mange. Others you could not tell / what was wrong exactly, but then, // there they were. Populated by such creatureseach with its own tragedy and crisisBuchanans poems frequently address struggles with self-awareness and self-estrangement: I knew then that I had forgotten / what a yak looks like, though I am a yak, / and I knew then that I had been away for a long time. The poems often hinge on longing and transformation (my heart aching / as I felt for my face and I was still human) as well as isolation, each animal alone in its crowd, tucked together on the green, but frozen one and one and one. While the poems subjects often yearn for intimacy of one kind of another, Buchanan usually includes a sense of detachment within this desire: I wanted / to be with him on the glacier, just the two of us / freezing and turning away from each other. Elsewhere, adoration becomes possessive, destructive: We worshipped the animal by / cutting off his horns and grinding them / into bits of dust. All the poems inhabitants suffer, either from their own nature or by the imposition of anothers will: an animal skin is scraped clean with a rock by a human, a body on the beach sits upright from the sand like a shard wedged in. Both natural and not, there is a sense of purpose in these actions; the orphan folded like a fruit bat in the attic window seems strangely meticulous, but also self-protecting. Terror and loneliness are present throughout the collection, but there is an undercurrent of tenderness and care as well. For all its dark intensity, What Animal is a measured, almost quiet collection; if we come to the book as bewildered onlookers, we leave understanding the yaks sorrow is much like our own.
University of Iowa Press, $16(paper)
Whether or not Bin Ramke qualifies as a poet-philosopher, there is no doubt that he is a poet overtly in love with philosophy, someone whoas Heidegger might have put itwillingly compels himself into the state of questioning. Following in the mode of Airs, Waters, Places(2001), Ramkes eighth collection defines fields of intellectual play and speculation within broad metaphysical parameters, all the while acutely attending to the intricate, fickle physics of language. When he remarks on the crazed illusion of surface, he conjures a dimension of existence at once fragmented and frantic. And who could ask for more finely illustrated examples of the way life kindles its own demise than Ramkes morning glories, their color / deepening, purpling like bruises . . . a kind of slow blaze, /a blue incineration of self like breath held. To pepper ones poems with allusions to Lucretius, Walter Benjamin, the pre-Socratics, Wittgenstein and a host of other intellectual celebrities may not constitute the most engaging strategy, but readers dont need the Tractatus at their bedsides to appreciate Ramkes robust diction (day being the accident of sunlight / grinding against a turning world) and aphoristic precision (the sadness of possibility is infinite; the past is anythings childhood). Like Wallace Stevens and William Bronk, Ramke finds poetry, with its figurative and associative flexibility, an apt medium of negotiation between apparitions of the personal and semblances of the other, between our lost, imagined selves and our attempts to reconstruct them, however inadequately, with minds that may be no more than minimal reservoirs of the known. Ramkes poems are rich, if sometimes confounding, orchestrations of sorrow and wonder, cautionary reminders of how much of the human world as we perceive it has been spoken into existence.
University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95 (paper)
Readers familiar with Reginald Shepherds work will come to Otherhood, his fourth book, having witnessed the deepening of his sensibility and poetic over the last ten years. Otherhoods opening lines, Were walking with the backwards / river, sluggish water dialects / spell out spilled lakefronts / tumbledown babble of dressed / stones, present a thick, articulate music beyond the chords of Shepherds earlier work as well as an enhanced complexity of line and syntax. Shepherds thematic concerns remain the samedesire, power, blackness, whiteness, the place of the human in the natural worldand his fascination with the mores, trappings, and tonalities of classical myth shows no sign of abating. Certainly Shepherd has always pursued this fascination with refreshing authority and aplomb, and Otherhood makes for no exceptionrote formality and the usual modes of classical restraint are absent here; we are treated instead to alternately scuttling and hypnotic rhythms, a dazzling range of diction, and the will to topple or invert established hierarchies of power and meaning. For Shepherd, our mere world, where every mans / the artist of himself feeds the notion that Certain / human behaviors propagate godsand these gods are as gorgeous (or as monstrous) as human desire makes them. In his previous book, Wrong (1999), the poet asked, who wouldnt die for beauty / if he could, and no less than before, Shepherd refuses to shy away from beautys brutal aspect or to soften the mortal edges of desire: Every white man on my bus home looks / like him, what Id want to be destroyed / by, want to be. With Otherhood, Shepherd advances his risk-taking body of work, which veers far from traditional conceptions of identity (I seems // a ceremony of sums) as it plunges into distinction: The manifest scatters likeness / like white light, gods / cut through my body like a sword / in the hands of a dead hero, he who / accomplishes, whittles / me down into perfection.
Alice James Books, $13.95 (paper)
In previous collections, Cole Swensen submitted opera and painting to refractory procedures of re-description, refreshing our sense of arts inherent strangeness and our mindfulness of the exigencies of its manufacture. In Goest, her ninth collection, she performs a similar operation on the manifestations and vehicles of light. The mind in apperception is Swensens point zero, a site from whose vantage history is subjugated to subordinate clauses that mimic perceptive faculties: Niepces first photograph, / which was the first photograph, / was of a scene of roofs so blurred they were often mistaken for sails. The poems in Goests middle section, A History of the Incandescent, again and again return to lamps, lusters, candles, chandeliers; flares, photography, and phosphor; matches and powdered magnesium; a bright white sheet / [hung] out in the sun to dry. The books title (recalling the biblical Ruths Whither thou goest, I will go) both indicates a strategy and serves as lament, its homonym ghost designating both an observer and the fleetingness of any observation. Facts are filters; roofs are mistaken for sails. Time is defined as that which, / no matter how barely, exceeds / what the eye could grasp in a glance. We name things to stay confusion, but the Red Sea is white, and the Dead Sea, dead. The astonishing thing is that occasionally we stumble into brilliance, discover manganese, and if were lucky, we remember / what the stone looked like. Swensen catalogues many such ingenious accidents, her graceful transformations of found material calling notions of accident and invention into question. Readers benumbed by the epistemological didacticism of much post-Language poetry will rejoice in Swensens blazing, molten effects. If any number of contemporary poems demonstrate that Any liquid can be weighed by its resistance; / its like falling into history, which misses you, or that Beyond every window is a line where the world starts, few do so with such a finely torqued lyrical economy.