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Poetry Microreviews

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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.

--Carmela Ciuraru

The Essential Dickinson
Emily Dickinson
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.

--Emily Fragos

The Spirit Level
Seamus Heaney
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.

--Matthea Harvey

Viridian
Paul Hoover
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 wit.

--Mary Jo Bang

Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems 1943-1993
Philip Lamantia
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.

--John Yau

Swimming at Midnight: Selected Shorter Poems
John Matthias Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, $12.95

Beltane at Aphelion: Longer Poems
John Matthias
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

Selected Poems
Harvey Shapiro
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."

--Jessica Winter

Iron Mountain Road
Eamonn Wall
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.

--Daniel Tobin

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review



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