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Poetry Microreviews

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The Country Without a Post Office
Aga Shahid Ali
W. W. Norton, $19


Mandelstam, one of this collection's muses, once wrote that anyone who put a name into a poem would be thrice blessed. Aga Shahid Ali should be thrice blessed a thousand times over. Revisiting his native war-torn Kashmir, he finds old friends, relatives, and voices from piles of "dead" letters, and then, naming them, he gives them a chance to cry out for their homeland. This technique has a powerful effect: it ties the individual poems together into one loud lament. But the book isn't all pain. In traditional forms and his own invented forms, Ali works to wrest whatever beauty he can from the turmoil, as in "I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight," in which he imagines a boy, "his blood sheer rubies / on Himalayan snow." More often, however, the poems struggle for a belief in beauty and in God: "I beg for heaven: Prisons, let open your gates -- / A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight." Like a strong but gentle Virgil, Ali guides us through his country's hell, and we follow.

--E. J. Mc Adams

Inventions of The March Hare: Poems 1909-1917
T. S. Eliot
Edited by Christopher Ricks
Harcourt Brace, $30


In a critical climate often interested in finding poets guilty of something, be it bigotry or poor taste, the publication of Eliot's early notebook offers much. Eliot sold the leather-bound notebook containing his early poems to patron John Quinn in 1922, writing, "I beg you fervently to keep them to yourself and see that they never are printed." Now, more than thirty years after Eliot's death, we have Christopher Ricks's scrupulously edited volume, and interest in it has no doubt been enhanced by a spirit of defiance to the wishes of so large a literary figure. Prurient curiosity aside, the poems are striking in their own right, and Rick's extensive editorial materials (accounting for more than two-thirds of the volume) are invaluable to anyone interested in Eliot's work and a labyrinthine journey into its origins. Inventions offers many entrance points for study or browsing--and a tribute to Eliot's continued influence that such minute attention be given to his endpapers and inks.

--Barbara Fischer

Sands of the Well
Denise Levertov
New Directions, $20.95, $9.95 (paper)


In this twenty-second collection, Levertov is at the peak of her powers, spinning ecstasy into the battered gifts that suffering offers. Her later work has progressively shed an excessive Whitmanesque optimism and yearning for synthesis to portray a more vexing dialogue, one that celebrates wholeness by probing what is broken. Her observations deftly balance a late-romantic lyricism with objectivist-influenced precision; it is clear that for Levertov "to write is to listen." In these luminous capsules, we hear revelation and limitation: mercy shines in "glissades of fugitive jade" though "humdrum laws" of gravity and mortality entrap. Irony tempers wonder and one recognizes the sad radiance of a self-reliance that intrinsically resists faith. From "Threat": "Under your faith / in the pinetree's beauty, there lies / the fear it will crash some day / down on your house, on you in your bed / on the fragility of the safe / dailiness you have almost / grown used to."

--Kymberly Taylor

Leopardi: Selected Poems
Giacomo Leopardi
Translated by Eamon Grennan
Princeton University Press, $27.50, $9.95 (paper)


Ugly, sickly, and luckless in love, Leopardi comes to us as something of a tragic literary figure, still more so considering how few English-speaking readers of poetry even recognize his name. In his lifetime, he was a "European star"; today, none but the cognoscenti know to rank his contribution to 19th-century European poetry second only to Baudelaire's. Grennan's introduction suggests that "changes of taste and fashion" may help to explain why Leopardi's work has fallen into relative obscurity, and this seems partly true: modern audiences prefer some measure of irony to their reflections on "the infinite all is vanity of it all." Just as troublesome, however, is Leopardi's long-windedness--few poems in this collection manage to conclude without flagging weepily at one point or another, and this by the standard of any era. Still, there's plenty to be grateful for in this lucidly translated selection, especially the shorter poems and the long and remarkable "Broom," set upon "the naked back" of the "amazing / Exterminator, Mount Vesuvius." These above all seem "fashioned for immortality."

--Timothy Donnelly

There Is No Ithaca: Idylls of Semeniskiai and Reminiscences
Jonas Mekas
Translated by Vyt Bakaitis
Black Thistle, $14.95 (paper)


Though known primarily as an avant-garde filmmaker and director of New York's Anthology Film Archives, Jonas Mekas is not only "a poet of things observed and preserved on the film reel," as Czeslaw Milosz notes in this volume's introduction. While his Reminiscences (1951) may be somewhat limited by the very particular resonance it will have for those acquainted with Mekas's subsequent cinematic works, his glorious Idylls asks for no such familiarity. Composed in 1948, these 26 bucolics record the diverse textures of Lithuanian village life, capturing not only its seasonal variations of light and color, but also the accompanying chord progressions of "earth's astounding music." Mekas's symphonic Idylls celebrates the intensity of a beauty engendered by distance, heard by the poet as a reverberation, just as "men left stranded for shelter under an elm / stare after the rain, trailing its mist in the woods, / and listen for the last of thunder, rumbling off."

--Mary Maxwell

Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997
James Galvin
Copper Canyon Press, $25, $16.95 (paper)

Before mountain, weather, anonymous God and loved one's gaze, we are visibly divided, invisibly joined. This is Galvin's world: gorgeous, merciless, and quintessentially "Western" in that the lay of the landscape figures prominently: "Where I live distance is the primal fact." But through this landscape stares a ferociously metaphysical poet, attached, like Prometheus, like Blake, to the loved earth: "There is no shadow without a field to fall on." There's no other world without this one. Death is ever-present, but rarely the last word: "There is no philosophy of death where I live / Only philosophies of suffering." In early poems, Galvin betrays a tendency to force the "meta" onto the "physical," resulting in an unconvincing number of "angels". But later, he stands honest witness to the long-view birthed inside the close-up: "Let's pick wildflowers. / Let's take a meteor shower. / Let's live forever and let's die, too." Here, Galvin is the true student of Blake: listening, looking, declaiming, damning, and right where we live.

--Tom Thompson

True North
Stephanie Strickland
University of Notre Dame Press, $12

Late in this energetic collection, Strickland reveals an ambitious but fearless imperative: "The need to write down numbers: not some but All." Her poems draw no boundaries between science and passion, factual knowledge and artistic achievement. Though the range of Strickland's material may seem too broad at first glance and her canvas overpopulated, her talent for discovering desire in unexpected places is consistently engaging. Throughout, she presents--and honors--a panoply of literary, historical, and mythological personae struggling for ultimate forms of knowledge. Using rapid enjambment as her stylistic compass, Strickland leaps from the mathematician Gibbs's notebooks to Dickinson's Amherst, from the "mind of winter" of Stevens's Connecticut to Prometheus's rock. A compelling quintet of "True North" poems finds the speaker stranded in a psychic wasteland, seeking physical and spiritual direction. In a world "where there are no / straight / lines," this book tackles the unknown with aplomb and ardence.

--Michael Tyrell

The Sky Behind the Forest: Selected Poems
Liliana Ursu
Translated by Liliana Ursu with Adam J. Sorkin and Tess Gallagher
Bloodaxe Books, $16.95

The poems in this volume demonstrate influences of both East and West. Wild strawberries, romantic posturing, endings turned upon dramatic gesture remind us of the great modern Russian poets; poems structured upon ironic and random connections reflect familiarity with contemporary American writing. When the lines are most compressed, they render a delicacy that allows disorientation and surprise: "a wild cherry fallen into whitewash / or / a dove's egg in a crow's beak." Unfortunately, many of the longer poems veer into sentimentality because of clumsy (and sometimes outdated) political observation or references so personal they marginalize the work. The difficulty of conveying nuance, tone, and voice in translation seems most apparent in the poems with American settings--"Here on a college campus bearing the name of an Indian tribe / I look through many windows: / the window of Merwin / the window of Rich / the window of Brueghel / the window of Chagall"--where the language goes flat.

--Frances Pandor Brent

Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review



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