Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry
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.
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.
Cities of Memory
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.
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.
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
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.
The Lord and the General Din of the World
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.
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.
The Uses of Passion
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")
Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew
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.
Originally published in the October/ November
1996 issue of Boston Review