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Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry
Robert Lax
Grove Press, $21

Lax, a member of Thomas Merton's circle at Columbia in the '30s (others were John Berryman and Robert Giroux), has lived for the last three decades on the island of Patmos in Greece. This volume reflects the range of his explorüTtions, both geographic (Lax is one of the great wanderers) and creative. Some of Lax's poetic phases are decidedly less interesting than others, but there is a sagacity in the modal and architectural shifts that makes the whole enterprise disarmingly honest. At his best, Lax is an unrivaled minimalist, constructing spare "verse ladders" that seem abstracted in an earthy way, with none of the polemical feel of Williams or early Wallace Stevens. On the whole, the poems selected here suggest a patient, private labor, and sacrifice nothing for their modesty.

--Brian Lennon



Beckon
Gillian Conoley
Carnegie Mellon University Press, $20.95 (cloth); $11.95 (paper)

One wonders at Conoley's poems. At their finest, they're Dickinsonian distillations, but often the compass needle trembles-albeit with beautiful versatility-toward an only half-sensed direction. Milosz has been critical of contemporary American poets' lack of subject, and one does wonder, is a pan of an urban and fragmented "where time happens" enough thematic sustenance here? Beckon feels the perfect title for the out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye, down-a-sidestreet poetry of glimpsed coincidence that the book affords and at times realizes startlingly. This is cinematic landscape, a film noir chiaroscuro of sensual pleasures and melancholy. A line from the poem "Coupling" sums up the quickness and possibility of Conoley's method: "Traverse, catch, cease." Through imitation and the lushest, surreal collisions she often breaks into a world. Ultimately we want to come to trust her shrewd intelligence, but like the painter deChirico, Conoley wants us unsettled and wondering.

--A.V. Christie



Cities of Memory
Ellen Hinsey
Yale University Press, $17 (cloth); $10 (paper)

Winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets for 1995, Hinsey can certainly be praised for this book's ambition and scope. Addressing major European cultural landmarks, Hinsey does achieve, as judge James Dickey observes, a measure of Einfülung, the empathy of the perceptive stranger. But taken together, the poems resemble an all-too-familiar whirlwind tour of Europe. They fail to engage the complex problems of their own making-the knotty implications of appropriating a foreign landscape and its cultural contents as poetic commodities. Despite her lyrical grace, Hinsey is too much the tourist, too willing to accept ownership quickly and blindly. The poems achieve more when they express ambivalence about the distinctions of home and away, as in "The Art of Measuring Light" where "the body in its accuracy cannot close the calipers of space." Hinsey is most successful not when she scours an historical landscape, but when she "map[s] the heart's closed-in terrain." When the moments are intimate, they're winningly hers.

--Barbara Fischer



Edge
Claire Malroux, translated by Marilyn Hacker
Wake Forest University Press, $9.95 (paper)

These 37 lyrics (exquisitely translated by Marilyn Hacker) have been selected from three books published in France under Malroux's nom de plume, Claire Sara Roux. Their bristling intensity, clipped phrasing, and brilliant flashes of imagery are apt to remind many readers of Dickinson, whose work Malroux has translated. But the majority assume a perspective twice removed from Dickinson's: They're radically Gallic, and they're thoroughly contemporary. Both Dickinson and Malroux are poets of mortal experience and archetypal power, but Dickinson's "Wild Nights" of unrealized passion become for the latter, more liberated poet, "Nights / dressing our sexes in silk / torn later in luminous rags on the gardens," and (in a turn of writerly dramatics) "Nights / thrown on the page." Elsewhere, in a more maternal mood: "the wild night at your gate / Sweet to weep for, like a wet stray dog." Malroux revels in all facets of womanhood, her sensuality rushing from seductive to nurturing, torrid to tender. And as Edge attests, its force shapes gem after gem.

--Timothy Donnelly



The Crack in Everything
Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press, $24.95 (cloth); $10.95 (paper)

The first half of Ostriker's eighth book of poems is a bit of a zoo: There are so many epigraphs (Li-Young Lee, Rothko, Bishop, Plato, Chekov) and so many references and excerpts (Rumi, Keats, Shostakovich, Stevens, Beckett, to name a few) that an intimacy-a confidence-between poet and reader isn't established. Dedications and personae add to the trouble, as do jarring shifts in subject and tone (light quatrains occasioned by a cat in repose not far from "The Russian Army Goes Into Baku"). Ostriker's style isn't signature enough for us to sense her presence every step of the way; we get separated in the crowd. It is the book's latter half that grabs you. These poems (from the poet as teacher, wife, mother, cancer patient) have a sharper focus and a fulsome, vibrant enthusiasm that's downright personable. Ostriker is very eagerly alive; looking back, it seems that the spirit behind the book's muddled beginning may have been a widespread-and
loving-ardor.

--Timothy Donnelly



The Forest
Susan Stewart
University of Chicago Press, $10.95 (paper)

The apocalyptic vision of Stewart's third volume haunts and terrifies. Her primal use of repetition (as in much of children's verse) provides a chilling juxtaposition with her subjects-loss of forest and meadow, obliteration of the innocent self, the methodical slaughter of life forms at the end of the millennium. "You shall lie down and remember the forest," she begins, "for it is disappearing- / no the truth is it is gone now. . ." Stewart's manipulation of given forms mesmerizes. The title poem resembles a backward pantoum with five-line stanzas waving on the page like heat from a conflagration. In her startling syntaxes and surreal, reflective language she creates her own revelation, refusing redemption as a way to satisfy the reader. Instead she invents remarkable mutations, shocking new tongues of annihilation and survival. The results are deeply disturbing poems of original and unforgettable craft.

--Maureen Seaton



The Lord and the General Din of the World
Jane Mead
Sarabande Books, $19.95

It is rare to find poetry so determined to cast aside the notion of comfort through faith, yet so successful at conveying the fragility and fortitude of the human soul. In this impressive first collection, chosen by Philip Levine as the winner of the Katharine A. Morton Prize in Poetry, Mead creates an emotional center by chronicling a father's heroin addiction in painful detail, and continues through other narratives of substance abuse, extremity, and grave personal darkness. In the opening poem, "Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make," Mead begins, "Jesus, I am cruelly lonely / and I do not know what I have done / nor do I suspect that you will answer me," and continues to create a voice of startling vatic and seductive authority. Mixing prayer and trouble, high art and fractured lives, these poems teeter brilliantly, frighteningly, away from the pastoral and toward the abyss.

--Mark Wunderlich



Valentine Place
David Lehman
Scribner, $25 (cloth); $14 (paper)

Lehman's third book of poems is about failed marriage and romantic dreams gone bad-both skillfully linked to American dreams, American wanderlust. The poem against which all others reverberate is "The Drowning." In it, a son reflects on his mother's warning about a boy who "walked into the sea / And vanished in the foam and never came back." Over-identification with the drowned boy becomes both fantasy and terror for the personae in Lehman's poems. Manifest destiny is full of grim consequences. In "Seventh Heaven," an ex-lover is missed as ferociously as post-assassination JFK. "The most American thing he can think of is leaving. . ." decides "Young Death," the name of a trapped husband in a poem by the same title. While there is considerable grief in Valentine Place, there is also humor and flash and a red-white-and-blue optimism that love still might turn out right.

--Denise Duhamel


The Uses of Passion

Angie Estes
Gibbs-Smith, $9.95 (paper)

The imagination at work in this compelling new book is both subtle in its particulars and vastly comprehensive. An example of Estes' original perspective is revealed in the poem "Ancient Advice," which begins with an epigraph from Tips for the Thrifty Shopper ("Never go to the grocery store when hungry. . . Always take a list . . ."), then remarks upon the elemental frustration of emotional hungers, moves on to the interconnectedness between late 15th century canonical texts and their extensive marginalia, and concludes with what all of this might indicate about the hidden nature of authority. Estes leads us through the terrain of everyday objects, arcane and popular theory, and aesthetic responses by cutting away to the emotional landscape beneath the knotted surface: 'It is the salty edge we go on / licking, it's the home / of every word we spoke, it is what's left over / after everything else / has had its say.' ("The Shore")

--Erin Belieu



Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew
John Felstiner
Yale University Press, $30

Perhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe," Paul Celan wrote in 1948. A survivor of the Holocaust, Celan also affirmed that a poet must continue ". . . even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German." John Felstiner's scrupulously researched book seeks to trace the agonizing predicament of a writer whose mother tongue is also the language of his parents' murderers. Unfortunately, Felstiner attempts to combine biography and textual commentary with his own versions of Celan's difficult poetry. Felstiner's translations fall short of those in Michael Hamburger's English edition of Celan. However, Felstiner does provide invaluable information on Celan's specifically Jewish influences. And Felstiner's insistence on the factual grounding of many of Celan's apparent "metaphors" helps us see both Celan's torment and his lyric genius.

--Malcolm Farley

Originally published in the October/ November 1996 issue of Boston Review



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