Blackbird and Wolf
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $23 (cloth)
“I, upright on hind legs, alternately sexed / (even that seemed banal), didn’t want to go home.” So ends “Maple Leaves Forever,” one of the free sonnets that make up the bulk of Henri Cole’s new book. The banality with which the speaker greets his transformation is an appropriate stance for a speaker in this book to take, since the book’s pleasures appear in tones so casual as to make them seem obvious. Take “Chenin Blanc,” for instance, where, between sips of wine, Cole converses with a Rumi-quoting crow who “is sampling a limp rodent and seems / to want to say something, holding out / a clenched yellow foot, like a tiny man.” The understatement of the fantastical, the way the poem simply begins with a crow saying “my heart feels bad,” is what makes the strategy work. Occasionally, however, Cole’s ideas overtake his images, and things turn too abstract, as in the end of “Sycamores,” the book’s opening poem. Beginning at the speaker’s birth, and meditating on that instant of innocence, Cole gets some good lines in, both metaphorically beautiful (“I lay on it like a snail on a cup”) and philosophically true (“I did not know life cheats us”), before ending with “a hard, gemlike feeling burning through me, / like limbs of burning sycamores, touching / across some new barrier of touchability.” Too much pressure rests on that final, insufficient word, which seems a placeholder for a better word Cole hasn’t come up with. As it stands, there is nothing there that one can actually touch. Cole is so often masterful at rendering the abstract that one tends to grant him such leeway just to see what he can do with it, but this attempt falls short. A far better ending comes in “Birthday.” The poem begins, “When I was a boy, we called it punishment / to be locked up in a room. God’s apparent / abdication from the affairs of the world / seemed unforgivable,” then ends with the speaker happily shut in, reading: “Though the door is locked, I am free. / Like an outdated map, my borders are changing.” Here the assertion is logical and well illustrated, the final image both concrete and transformative, and like so much of the book, it is an absolute delight to read.
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Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry
David Baker and Ann Townsend, editors
Graywolf Press, $15 (paper)
Radiant Lyre, which the editors dub “a comprehensive seminar on the lyric,” aims to gather several poets’ own responses to lyric forms and methods, as well as to pose questions poets and readers might ask about how to define the lyric for a contemporary world. The book’s handy table of contents, laid out as a map, treats both the broad designs of lyric poetry—elegy, love poem, ode—and its internal features: the pastoral, the sublime, people, and time. Each section clusters essays describing the history of each mean or mode, usually moving from Greco-Roman inheritance through the Renaissance and the Romantics, exploring something from America’s 19th-century tradition, and then looking at how the subject is treated today. It’s a large task, and at their best, the sections navigate tributaries of reinvention. The examination of the ode, for instance, begins with Carl Phillips’s reading of rhetoric in Horace and Pindar and moves to Linda Gregerson’s rather unexpected readings of how Robert Hass uses the ode to engage our present imperium. It can be especially interesting to hear the ways these authors are critical of the very modes they have spent such energy describing: Phillips writes passionately about public encomium even as he questions it, and Gregerson notes that “pastoral was always the genre of city folk, the simple life a fantasy of power elites.” At other times, the book’s strategy of moving taxonomies through time can feel like a catalog of ships. Still, as they move, these essays accumulate a toolbox of methods for approaching and understanding constellations within the vast terrain of the lyric, and they frame questions practitioners might well ask as they assemble poems out of our shared lyric inheritance: How do we deal with questions of beauty or time now? How does a modern ode recreate public duties in a world where genres are routinely bent, the public fractured? What might a specifically American elegy look like? All in all, Radiant Lyre demonstrates the good of comprehensiveness. Once the questions are posed, the breadth of reading cited in these essays may very well send readers back to libraries or bookstores to go deeper on their own.
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The Bird Hoverer
BlazeVOX, $14 (paper)
The impressive, loopy poems in Aaron Belz’s first full-length collection are touched by a raw grace of mind and nimble phrasing. The poems stage deft quarrels with the same pop complacencies that inspire them, as in “Hidden Microphones,” where the speaker’s enthusiasm about surveillance culture overwhelms him and he can’t help but exclaim, “I am all about hidden microphones.” Readers will find themselves rattled, delightfully, as Belz juggles the gods of the past with the gods of celebrity culture—always wired to an ethics of spectacle that resists becoming “all about hidden microphones.” The Bird Hoverer does not simply embrace its gods or only work to displace them. In “Things That Tend Not to Collapse,” for instance, readers are encouraged to test how far Belz’s ebullient metaphysics allows for things to fall apart. Similarly, “For Walt Whitman” celebrates the transcendentalism of Whitman and Coleridge while its self-reflexive underbelly admits nothing beyond the reality of the five senses. “I glare at a brick of grass,” he writes, “stunned at its insouciance.” These poems suggest that the most effective way to render subjectivity is to dramatize its deeply felt otherness—to write, as in the book’s opening poem, from “a lone bench in the dark” behind the locked gates of a park, desiring to restore everything that is unwanted. Only then, perhaps, can we see the “gorgeous sparkle” of “Michael Landon as a Melville Character” or make sense of the genius and recklessness that frames the subject of “Polanski’s Panopticon.” Belz asks us to be lucid enough to get the facts right and also to make the facts more grand than they really are: a poetics that is masterfully strange, weirdly comic, and as innovative and conventional as Aristotle’s plausible impossibilities. With their ethics of alterity, their faith in the strangeness we see in each other, these poems hover, bend back against themselves, and with charm make no pretense but to remind us that life “is a dirty secret / that literature exalts” and to wish us best of luck in everything we do.
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Translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied
Introduction by Anne Carson
New Directions Publishing, $17.95, (paper)
Something like a history of consciousness and something like a 237-page logic puzzle, Susanna Nied’s translation of it (Danish poet Inger Christensen’s opus from 1969) investigates how language dissects, describes, and organizes the world. Christensen examines (among other things) the way the faulty engine of speech illuminates and circumscribes our perceptions of reality: “The words stay where they are / while the world vanishes / This is a criticism of the way language is used / Because it’s a criticism of the way things are.” A long poem in three parts, it meditates on how words mold power dynamics among people and environments. Christensen wrestles with the impossibility of sharing an objective reality with anyone else when all experience must be mediated through the subjective filters of language and sensory perception. In it, words and the systems of mythology they create evoke resonances—both sympathetic and hostile—between individuals. But these resonances, formed from the unreliable material of language, are suspect: “Does no interstice exist / that’s not an empty zone / and not a battle zone / just a play of lines.” In Danish the poem relies on a formal scheme of line counts and syllabics for effect. Nied wisely refrains from torturing her translation into the same shape. Instead, she conveys meaning through careful diction in phrases like “as paper at rest / while a word passes,” or “the birds fall / and in quantities of light-years we see their death.” Nied does her finest work in the subtler, more introspective sections of the poem. By contrast, the overtly political parts of the translation feel flatter, less textured than the rest of the verse. Though a few of the poems falter around a singsong rhyme scheme (“fly” and “sky”, “be” and “see”) or a precious tautology (“I think what I see with my eyes / I see with my eyes what I think”) Nied’s translation offers a lyrical and intricate adaptation of Christensen’s work.
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The Wanton Sublime: A Florigium of Whethers and Wonders
Tupelo Press, $16.95, (paper)
Mahatma Gandhi said that the female gender is the embodiment of sacrifice, silent suffering, humility, faith and knowledge. He posited that woman is immeasurably man’s superior because she has greater intuition and is more self-sacrificing. Anna Rabinowitz’s third book, The Wanton Sublime, simultaneously reinforces and deflates similar ideas of womanhood in its attempt to define and redefine the Virgin Mary, that prototypical “life-bestower, nurturer, / agent of futurity.” Filled with writing that challenges conventional pieties and the surrounding ethos of womanhood, The Wanton Sublime strips away stereotypes in order to arrive at a more stable platform from which to view historical and contemporary representations of the female experience. Rabinowitz revises reader’s notions of what it means to be “chosen” (in the manner not only of Mary, but also of Europa, Io, and others), suggesting that throughout history gods as well as humans have relied on deception to gain control over females and to achieve their own lustful desires: “‘You cannot have my heart,’ she said / He smiled and winked his eye, /‚Ä¶‘I do not aim so high!’” Rabinowitz intermixes lyrics that demonstrate her characteristic linguistic flexibility with excerpts from ersatz texts as well as actual texts drawn from a variety of historically significant periods. The result is a vibrant and illuminating gathering of anecdotal threads pertaining to ideas about perception, deception, feminism in traditional and non-traditional forms, and spirituality. On one level Rabinowitz appears to have given voice to the female gender via a reclamation of the Virgin Mary, a voice that takes its cues from a decidedly modern feminism tempered by mid-20th-century expectations: “if I am favored / leave me be / —I’ve got things to do around the house.” At the same time she is simply taking advantage of the opportunity to reconsider the Virgin Mary and, by extension, the very nature of what it means to be female, to tell “a truth / from a place that serves lilies.”