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Poetry Microreviews

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Mecox Road
Marc Cohen
Groundwater Press, $12

Cohen is in the cousinage of the New York School poets, but of all the originals he seems most akin to James Schuyler, with his love of the lyric and his appreciation of the pure pleasure of looking. Cohen is more analytical than Frank O'Hara, more linear than John Ashbery, less metaphysical than Barbara Guest, less comic than Kenneth Koch, and for that matter far quirkier than Schuyler. There is a philosophical resonance here that feels entirely his own. It's in the long(ish) poems where he is most eloquent--where his earnest tone, peripatetic circling, and aphoristic statement cohere into wisdom: "Psyche said: '. . . I love the water's skin, / and the earth's untimely speeches.' / Stan Getz was playing "Desafinado," / and Jobin's song was yet another example / of perfection existing, and Getz's sax proved / that even perfection could be further perfected, / unlike a face where beauty is reflected on a lake . . ."

--Mary Jo Bang

Evenings and Avenues
Stuart Dischell
Penguin, $14.95 (paper)

In Evenings and Avenues, Stuart Dischell's superb second book, the poet's eerie combination of humor and disaster gestures toward an oddball, American version of the sublime. You have to look back to John Berryman's best work to find such unlikely qualities sorting together. Like Berryman, Dischell's musical subtlety, his easy modulation between common speech and the high style, provides a formal analogue to his fascination with the sublime as a mode of consciousness on the wane--though not beyond resuscitation: Dischell's poetry conjures a form of the sublime, both antic and melancholy, in which foundered lives serve as subject matter. In lines like "The glory of the future has become a haze of names / Like the ones he slept with and remembers indistinctly," he dramatizes the contradictions in these lives with a sympathetic eye. But he also shrewdly lays bare the sad but comic disparity between who we are and who we think we are.

--Tom Sleigh

In the Belly
David Gewanter
University of Chicago Press, $24.95

The poems in Gewanter's first collection are spiked throughout with a surprising musicality and built with skilled formal elegance. Two often-interwoven themes drive many of the poems--the poet's complicated relationship with his doctor father and his bonds with an Eastern-European Jewish family. Like many before him, Gewanter uses the family as a source, though the dramatic situations he highlights are edgy, disquieting and strikingly original--in one the poet as a child is taken to an autopsy; in another he finds a centerfold he's hidden years ago in a couch belonging to an elderly aunt. Gewanter is deeply concerned with personal history and brave enough to question the histories that made him. From "Autopsy": "Once I thought my pen would open him here / like the corpse on its single pan of judgment; / but as I cover this pan with pages // he is alive on another one."

--Mark Wunderlich

Sun Under Wood
Robert Hass
The Ecco Press, $22

Now goth sonne under wode. Moving through darkness, Robert Hass casts light in this fourth book of poems on cruelty, history, an injured mother, and the sorrow human striving plumbs. He is a formal master in the spirit of Whitman, shaping a supple free verse whose syntaxes surge, delay with erotic delight, delay further, fulfill. The short poems here carve, as if from ice, a "[v]ertical music the cold makes visible." The long ones range through forms, cultures, and their own pensiveness, considering the "tight chevrons of green and purple-green" of bromegrass seeds in one season, Baroque treatments of the Crucifixion in the next. The ties are loose, slack ropes on a sailboat in harbor--but if you put the ship to sea, and the wind of your own intelligence behind it, the sails fill up, the ropes hold them with a perfect, fluid calibration, and there is transport.

--Christopher Patton

We Have Gone to the Beach
Cynthia Huntington
Alice James, $9.95 (paper)

Naming a poetry collection after a single poem can have one of two effects. Either it places an undue burden on the title poem by giving it too great an emphasis, or it brings to light a piece that centers the book, acting as a locus of the poet's dilemmas, triumphs and obsessions. Cynthia Huntington's second collection--winner of the 1996 Beatrice Hawley Award-- is an example of the latter, sharing a title with a long, moving and enigmatic poem that combines and refines the poet's greatest strengths--an authoritative voice, a tonal control that gracefully steps from irony to remorse, and the confidence to make daring imaginative leaps. Many of the poems look back on the lived life with an anti-nostalgia. From "The Place of Beautiful Trees": "Lord of shiny bottlecaps, snails and dead cigarettes, / god of flies, there's a shadow on the ground. / Under the shadow, a shadow."

--Mark Wunderlich

Jan Kochanowski
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney

The Noonday Press, $17.50, $9 (paper)

This Polish Renaissance poet, virtually unknown in America, is separated from us by a chasm of time but not of sensibility, thanks to this wonderful translation. Kochanowski's cycle of poems enacts his deepening despair over the death of his toddler-age daughter. In his lament-world, familiar to us in its sorrow but strange in its classical allusion and strict formality (well-rendered in heroic couplets), he finds words for wordless loss. And yet his grief--stirred by pieces of her clothing or the notes she sang from her death bed--drives him to thrash against the pillars of Enlightenment thought. Not surprisingly, he feels a kinship with Niobe, the sad mother turned to stone by the gods after they killed her children, and hauntingly portrays her fate: "This tomb keeps no corpse; this corpse keeps no tomb: / Here the room's tenant is the tenant's room." The poems are proceeded by an informative biography, and the Polish text faces the translations.

--E. J. McAdams

Through One Tear
Edward Nobles
Persea Books, $22

The poems in this first book come to us, like those of Wallace Stevens, filled with conundrum. Nobles is a master at transforming the ordinary by viewing it from alternating angles or through small slits, and always at a cool remove. Sometimes dream states blink back and forth until they too accumulate in clear vision. Nobles gives us the world from both sides of every window; he takes us to a height so we can look down and see ourselves looking up. His keen intelligence keeps the frequent metamorphosis from becoming dizzying or contrived. This looking and re-looking is clearly in the service of precision: what Nobles ultimately achieve is an exact and moving expression of how it is to be human at this particular historical moment. And he does it without resorting to the logarithm of easy sentiment or inconsequential personal details. He is obviously aware, as he writes in "Through the Desert," that "a fine line means so much."

--Mary Jo Bang

The Willow Grove
Laurie Sheck
Alfred A. Knopf, $21

Sheck's dead-on eye sees Persephone's dilemma all around us--she who belongs to neither the world of the (living) present nor the (dead) absent. There's the boy shooting up ("this sleep that is not sleep"), the ever-glowing TV ("the body of the world . . . seen but never touched"), and photography's fraudulent "you are there" (now even less trustworthy, says our "sense that all the photographs are doctored"). Sheck presents us with an age-old anxiety made more acute with 20th-century technotrappings. "If this is the world we must find some way to belong to it." We want to be here, whole, present. Can we? This eloquent collection's governing word, "static," tells us what's important--movement, communication--and of the tragic difficulty. The answer may lie in William of Ockham's presage of quantum mechanics: angels that "exist in the same place naturally," that "pass through the place of another." And that, in Sheck's addendum, "make a path where earthly love might enter."

--Tom Thompson

Walking the Black Cat
Charles Simic
Harcourt Brace, $24, $13 (paper)

The short lyrics in Simic's latest volume offer a refreshingly unabashed first-person voice. Through a priori juxtapositions and the refractions that follow, Simic invokes a limitless and unpredictable imagination. There are no boundaries in this work--Simic passes from the real to the supernatural as easily as the black cat of the volume's title. Occasionally this can be jarring, as in "At the Cookout," a speculative narrative poem which doesn't seem to earn its ending: "their heads / were crawling with snakes." Often, however, these transformations are more subtly achieved: in "Free the Goldfish," the speaker sublimates his wish to liberate by linking a description of goldfish in their tank to one of snow falling outside. Perhaps best of all, Simic is no cynic. In "Bed Music," the speaker concludes: "our love was new, / But your bedsprings were old. / In the flat below, / They stopped eating / With forks in the air." Unlike the people downstairs, we feel privileged to witness such enthusiasm.

--Matthea Harvey

707 Scott Street
John Wieners
Sun & Moon Press, $12.95

Begun shortly before publishing his first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), this journal commemorates the two years Wieners spent at the title's San Francisco address, and those acquainted with the poet's early lyrics will recognize at once the rhapsodic, drug- and love-induced der&egrav;glement of these entries. Skewing in and out of verse ("Why the drop in the / line because I feel the forces / gathering that makes a poem"), they're all ardently intimate, but passages of a confessional or anecdotal character are few. To the contrary, Wieners declares: "I have no obligation or debt to reality that I need record it," and "Surreal is the only way to endure the real we find heaped up in our cities." It's zingers like these that readers will be underlining, as well as the gorgeous vocational musings: "I can count on countless years before me with no food in my / stomach, / . . . doing my bit towards creating / a new structure / from love . . . . And love is a / sparse thing / to nurture all / these years."

--Timothy Donnelly

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review

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