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Summer Mystagogia
Bruce Beasley
University Press of Colorado, $12.95

As epigraph to the title poem, Beasley defines mystagogia as "the period immediately following the initiation into a mystery." Indeed these brilliant poems, often both mythic and demotic, powerfully initiate the reader into a world at once marred and yet suffused by the signs and wonders of an "irresistible grace"--a grace recognized through the difficult acceptance of "what all our losses make us." Winner of the Colorado Prize with this, his third, collection, Beasley's religious obsession with a childhood shattered by his parents' alcoholism, with the world's mix "of beauty and mutilation," and with the Orphic act of naming, now flowers into a wonderfully resilient and hard-won poetry of witness. "Somewhere someone is trying to tell you / something that language can't house," he observes in "The Monologue of the Signified." His desire to represent "the decreated" creates a poetry that is both emotionally present and intellectually supple.

--Daniel Tobin


The Cage of Age
William Bronk
Talisman House, $10.50 (paper)

The mysterious, edifying, delightfully peculiar music that is William Bronk's poetry has gone too long without the acclamation it deserves. In this, his twenty-fourth book, Bronk again proves worthy of the notice he has yet to receive. Many of the book's 100 poems are devoted to contemplating ontological and phenomenological matters--this is familiar territory, and written in Bronk's usual laconic style, but the despair so prevalent in his earlier work has receded. Sure, the mind plays tricks on us, but here Bronk welcomes the challenge. ("All our realities are virtual," he explains.) He's still fixated on the frustrating deficiencies of language, but now accepts its fallibility. Pleasure is to be found in life's lacunae, he tells us. ("Never know yourself or be able to say what it is you are.") No one ever said introspection would lead us anywhere; unknowing is where it's at. Bronk is exceptionally charming and wise, and awfully clever, too. What's not to love?

--Carmela Ciuraru


Poetry of the American West: A Columbia Anthology
Edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming
Columbia University Press, $24.95

This landmark anthology samples work from the panopoly of poetic voices that spring from, or find a home in, the American West. Beginning with translations of Nahuatl flower songs of the fifteenth-century Aztecs and ending with the contemporary poet Sherman Alexie, Deming resurrects significant poetic works by such major literary figures as D. H. Lawrence and Willa Cather and places them alongside cowboy ballads, Mormon hymns, American Indian songs and protest poems of the farm worker movement. A reader can expect startling and poignant discoveries, such as the haunted lyrics of the turn-of-the-century poet Hazel Hall, or nineteenth-century healing songs from the Tohono O'odham. Brief but insightful biographical notes do much to place the work in a larger literary and social context; historical and contemporary photographs of the people and landscapes of the West make it an exceptionally handsome book.

--Mark Wunderlich


Liar, Jones
Maggie Hannan
Bloodaxe/Dufour Editions, $16.95 (paper)

"Queer the way / the mouth let slip / the whether / or not of how / it might begin," remarks the ambiguously-gendered speaker of "Making Conversation," a six-poem sequence in Hannan's debut collection. Syntactically quirky and inventive, Hannan seems to savor the thought of readers speculating who is saying what to whom in her poems: "I put / my mouth / next to / her ear / . . . with words / my tongue / her ear / no lies." Hannan not only knows her semiotics but has made it a recurrent subject of her poetry, as in "The You Sign Poems," perhaps the most successful in the book. Less interesting is the eponymous "Jones" sequence, which is witty in parts but mostly pointless ("Q: What's brown and sticky? / A: A stick"). Still, Hannan's obsession with signs, symbols, and language is highly infectious, and lines like "Tick. Click. Real time's / the tilt on this bit" are delicious.

--Carmela Ciuraru


Shift
Jeredith Merrin
University of Chicago Press, $20, $9.95 (paper)

With its haphazard lists of images, Merrin's first book of poems is reminiscent of an orchestra still tuning. In one poem, rain, planetary orbits, lovers, and a grand piano all rise discordantly out of the pit. Instead of harmony, we sense a complex and irregular surface that refuses to yield, and that, though beautiful in patches, is as a whole incongruous. Merrin's casual confessionalism is intent on masking; her poems chatter pleasantly and shift attention quickly. They remain apprentice pieces, weakened by irrelevancies, strongest when most imitative. Finding herself and Elizabeth Bishop in a painting by Vermeer, for instance, Merrin fashions something rare and beautiful by adopting her mentor's quiet, steady attention: "We are together but separate, / the way the gold strand / in the left foreground / is a version of a shadow / of the gray cloud overhead: / foreboding seen as light--." Clearly Merrin has talent. But with a few exceptions, she fritters it away on chitchat and complaint.

--Christopher Patton


Minding the Sun
Robert Pack
University of Chicago Press, $35.00, $11.95 (paper)

"The pleasure that is in sorrow," Shelley wrote, "is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself"; here is proof. Pack's thirteenth volume opens with a gorgeous sonnet sequence in the Petrarchan mode: thirty-three postcards from a soul in pain "impersonal as February sleet," and not a dud among them. The remaining two-thirds of the volume is, alas, less interesting. Largely in dramatic monologue, Pack addresses--sometimes successfully and sometimes not--the other "big questions": organic ooze, the Big Bang, evolution. Though technically flawless, these compositions can seem thin, like intellectual hors d'oeuvres; at times, their ambitious playfulness risks bathos. Speakers affect a jaunty air ("Let me assume, my dear") that too often rings hollow, inviting the epithet "low Browning." The formal contrast breeds ambivalence: one admires the experiment while regretting the imbalance it creates. What's good here, though, is very good indeed.

--Brian Lennon


The Marriage in the Trees
Stanley Plumly
The Ecco Press, $22

Plumly's sixth book of poems mourns and celebrates the finitude of what we love, our inability to speak it, and the stunning humility of an "answer to longing and our hunger." With a Keatsian intimacy of self, the voice of these poems reveals a plaintiveness without sentimentality, weaving poignant stories that transcend mere narrative. Here as before, Plumly's work is nourished by the beautiful specificity of its images: the berries eaten on 22nd Street, the horse leaping from a barn, moonlight drinking at the water's surface. The suffering in The Marriage in the Trees--that of childhood friends lost to suicide, a mother lost to death, a boyhood lost to war and wounds--is rendered pristinely crisp by a skillful adherence to form, by the poet's patient lingering in the events which craft selfhood from contingency.

--Jennifer Anna Gosetti


The Iliad of Homer
Translated by Alexander Pope
Edited by Steven Shankman
Penguin Classics, $22.95 (paper)

Penguin has recently republished Alexander Pope's brilliant version of The Iliad. After 276 years, it is still one of the most fluent translations of this Greek epic, and should interest the general reader as well as the antiquarian. Pope had no qualms about rendering the Greek hexameters of the original as rhymed couplets--the reigning poetic form of his day--and his restrained, neo-classical diction falls easily on the modern ear. Take Pope's rendering of the epic's famous opening: "Achilles' Wrath, to Greece the direful spring / Of woes unnumber'd, heav'nly Goddess, sing!" and compare it to Richard Lattimore's--whose translation is commonly used in the classroom: "Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus / and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians . . . ." Pope's version is English poetry; Lattimore's, a fabricated Greek/English prose. Whatever Lattimore gains in literal accuracy, Pope more than makes up for in genius and zest.

--Malcolm Farley


Wise Poison
David Rivard
Graywolf Press, $12.95 (paper)

"And then there are places / no one expects to arrive," begins the poem "Any Where Out of the World," as if to warn readers of the quick turns and scattering narratives of this startling, rapid-fire book, the 1996 James Laughlin Award winner from The Academy of American Poets. Rivard combines colloquial diction with personal, post-confessional insights on human affections, concerns, and fears to create a moving, ironic, undeniably American and millennial voice. Set in locations as various as Guyana and Tucson, Arizona, these poems are a journal of nervousness articulated with utter clarity and a fine-boned lyric intensity. It is the alchemy of a shifting and edgy logic, combined with the sure-footedness of a poet come into his own, that gives the book its transcendent quality. From "I am a Pilgrim & a Stranger," "what have I seen / I have not let go of & only loved?"

--Mark Wunderlich


Written Reaction: Poetics Politics Polemics (1979-1995)
Eliot Weinberger
Marsilio Publishers, $12.95 (paper)

Weinberger is best known as a translator (of Paz, Borges, and others) and an editor (most recently of American Poetry Since 1950: Outsiders & Innovators, an anthology controversial for both its premise and its omissions). This collection gathers miscellany penned over the past sixteen years but previously unpublished, or published obscurely, in the United States--much of it reactive commentary about activities and debates within the poetry community. Oddly, he includes several pieces previously published in Spanish that fall into disparate categories (travel, scholarly essay, etc.). These dissimilars seem misplaced here. The other pieces cohere due to Weinberger's unbridled honesty and caustic wit--as in, Poet X is "a windbag, a sentimentalist, a slob in the language." Weinberger is poetry's bad boy: cantankerous, often scathing, but always true to his ideals for contemporary poetry. This is intellectual rabbling without academia's waist cinch. It's a delightful read, regardless of whether you agree with him.

--Mary Jo Bang

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review



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