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Night Out: Poems about Hotels, Motels, Restaurants, and Bars
Edited by Kurt Brown and Laure-Anne Bosselar
Milkweed Editions, $14.95 (paper)
Seedy motels, greasy diners, and bars that provide "forgettably pleasing"
nights are among the quintessentially American hangouts celebrated here by
125 poets. In Jorie Graham's "In the Hotel," the speaker lies awake and alone
in her rented room listening in on "[a] moaning now--a human moan--and then
/ another cry--but small" which leads her to ask, "How heavy can the singleness
become? / Who will hear us? What shall we do?" Campbell McGrath breezily eulogizes
downtown Manhattan, with its "hipsters and bikers and crazy Ukrainians," and
"all the black-clad chicks lined up like vodka bottles on Avenue B," while
Liam Rector copes with the aftermath of a friend's suicide: "We did right
by your death and went out, / Right away, to a public place to drink, / To
be with each other, to face it." From start to finish, this vivid and diverse
collection is a well-deserved tribute to insomniacs, misfits, and the ordinary
comforts we seek in the dead of night.
Selected by Joyce Carol Oates
The Ecco Press, $12 (paper)
In the person of Joyce Carol Oates, the Ecco Press has found the perfect
voice to reveal Emily Dickinson's dazzling mind and thin psychic boundaries.
When Oates writes in her bird-alert, penetrating introduction that "The writer
is forever in motion, calculating and breathless at once, casting out demons,
joys, gems, profundity in skeins of language, then moving restlessly on,"
she could as well be describing herself. Oates discusses the idiosyncratic
dashes and capitalizations, charged syntax, elusive slant rhymes, the inimitable
voice "discovered in adolescence" that is "at once self-effacing and self-declaring,"
so instantly recognizable in its obsessions and hungers. "Hunger--literal?
Sexual? A hunger for the manly attributes of freedom and power?" Oates has
selected masterpieces and lesser known poems to illustrate her many concerns:
the poet's bold imagery, energy, wit, mimicry of child's speech, dream babble,
quicksilver moments "recorded in the very instant of manifestation." This
is Dickinson "at the white heat" of ecstasy and its sister, despair, and she
continues to hold us in awe.
The Spirit Level
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $11 (paper)
The poems in Heaney's latest collection attempt to negotiate the alignment
between the poet and his world. Heaney has always dealt with moral and political
issues, but his light touch saves him from being didactic. The surfaces of
these poems sparkle with neologisms like "swimmy-trembly" and "glitter-drizzle,"
and the rich symbolism of "the spirit level" is couched in a nursery-rhyme-like
"fool's errand": "Run, son, like the devil / And tell your mother to try /
To find me a bubble for the spirit level." Nor does Heaney hesitate to let
his poems' conclusions contradict one another: in "St Kevin and the Blackbird,"
the saint must be an immobile witness for the eggs laid in his hand to hatch,
but in "Mycenae Lookout," he warns us there's "[n]o such thing / as innocent
/ bystanding." Perhaps it's because Heaney's position as a poet is so considered
that when he concludes "Poet's Chair" with the aim "Of being here for good
in every sense," we believe him.
University of Georgia Press, $14.95 (paper)
There is a cool precision in these poems, a striking aptness in the marrying
of word to word. And in many of them, there is an unexpected tenderness only
half-masked by Hoover's allegiance to exploring and mapping language's inherent
imperfection. Over the course of the book the individual poems--in which invention
and/or a relaxed form of treatise is often woven with fragments of autobiographical
detail--coalesce into a rebuke of history's inauthenticity and theory's arrogant
claim on reality. Hoover's concern with language's representational inadequacy
is shared by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets he's championed for years in New
American Writing and included in his Norton Anthology of Postmodern
Verse. However his own poems are more direct, more lyrical, and sometimes
seethingly and seductively melancholic. Central to all of them (regardless
of language's irrefutable limitations) is his keen intelligence and laconic
--Mary Jo Bang
Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems 1943-1993
City Lights, $12.95 (paper)
A teenager at the time, Philip Lamantia was the only American poet Andre
Breton invited to join the Surrealists. Influenced by Surrealism's reconciliation
of opposites ("The mermaids have come to the desert"), his poems were unlike
anything else being written in America during the 1940s. One can't imagine
Auden, Moore, or Lowell writing, "As the women who live within each other's
bodies / descend from their polar regions / to the circle of demons." By the
late 1950s, Lamantia had transformed Surrealism and made it American by taking
up the Beats' interest in American speech. Neither pastiche nor claims of
sincerity have ever appealed to him. His recent poems are ecstatic, erotic,
and yet disembodied, orphic; they connect the visible to the invisible, the
cacophonous present to mythic presences: "Gemmed, caught up in the old ways,
silver flesh / gleams between mandibles of the African Kingfisher / These
moving realities appear on the Nile / as if a postcard view of it held up
a hieratic bird." More than fifty years after he first published, Lamantia's
sensual, resistant poems remain unlike anyone else's.
Swimming at Midnight: Selected Shorter Poems
John Matthias Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, $12.95
Beltane at Aphelion: Longer Poems
Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, $32.95
Friedrich Schlegel preferred travelogues, correspondence and autobiographies
to novels, "for one who reads them in the romantic sense." Matthias's international
plain-style redacts these genres into, and out from, a romance of modernism.
He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, quit graduate school in 1966, left the United
States, and for many years lived between Notre Dame and Suffolk, where he
absorbed the work of British poets upon whom he has since commented acutely.
It might be said of him, as he has said of Geoffrey Hill, that the poet reads
history "in the hope (and the horror) of finding materials for poems, materials
to exploit;" but Matthias's poetic, local, and historical sensibilities are
more catholic. After the Beckett-like bad trip of "Bucyrus" (1965), his longer
poems crystallize around hermeticism and obscure court records, Scottish genealogy
and history, and transatlantic crossings on Polish and Russian vessels (cf.
Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron"). The final triptych, formerly A Gathering
of Ways (1991), juxtaposes lays of ley lines, Parkman's vision of La Salle's
Mississippi, and gnostic heresy at Santiago de Compostela. Formal recurrences
stake out hermeneutic horizons: the poet inhabits "An inbetween / when I don't
know precisely what I want to do in time / but only where I want to go / again."
The shorter poems, occasional, elegiac or ventriloquistic, often recall the
cragginess of Matthias's master, David Jones, while continually proclaiming
the height of the mark they have set--of "what is wrought by labour": "Who
breaks a spear is worth the prize," in the modern bard's "world against all
odds." Some of the best are new, and share a fascination with the poet's relation
to political power, invoking Hamsun, Mandelstam and the Balkans. Matthias,
perhaps more than any living poet in English, makes us want to go again--but
also to consider, in hope and horror, that we can.
--N. R. Moschovakis
Wesleyan/University Press of New England, $12.95 (paper)
An appealingly diffident poet, Shapiro acknowledges the limitations of what
he calls "the structure of my language." His writerly humility is especially
suited to his use of Jewish folklore and Old Testament tales, found in the
earliest poems in this collection. These wistful works are infused with sadness,
wonder, and loss, "the remembering / Already begun." Shapiro conflates religious
ritual and poetry as twin means of redemption through commemoration, and even
in his secular poems, the makings of memory concern him foremost. In his affectionate
introduction, James Atlas makes much of Delmore Schwartz's influence on these
poems, but while Schwartz's credo was "more: more and more: always more,"
Shapiro borrows little of his buoyant, if often gimmicky, spirit of whimsy.
To the contrary, Shapiro is often too terse, and the later short poems seem
especially cursory and inconsequential. His exacting eye, however, pinpoints
moments and details as indelibly as the "fixed camera" of "The Night," as
he struggles to reconcile himself to "memory, my own prince of disaster."
Iron Mountain Road
Salmon/Dufour Editions, $12.95
In his second book, Wall's wry imagination bears witness to his astonishing
ability to absorb what William Carlos Williams called "the American grain"
without losing the intonations of his own idiom. Such double vision, or double-speak,
defines the situation of the emigrant writer, and of this group Wall is among
the best. An Irish poet living in America, he is equally adept at evoking
the teeming cityscape of New York, the vast spaces of the American prairie,
and the lush countryside of his native Wexford. Louis Simpson observed that
American poetry must have a stomach that can "digest rubber, coal, uranium,
moons, poems." Wall's work has already digested Hart Crane's Bridge, Omaha,
Mount Rushmore, Lake Michigan and a good deal of junk food. These new poems
reveal him as a daring and original poet with an interest in exploring how
the surfaces of the present open windows into history.