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Of Piscator
Martin Corless-Smith
University of Georgia Press, $15.95 (paper)


"Sounded along dove do-ve," begins one of the best poems in this first collection. Like Hopkins, Corless-Smith moves by sound, the poems diving like kingfishers after particular fish. Syntax and spell-check, however, are pure First Folio Shakespeare-he who wrote "Hey nonny nonny" ditties into his plays. And play matters here: "the was necessity / and in the play / there was necessity." "Play" of words. "Sexual" play. And, of course, theatrical "play"--most explicitly in the eponymous "Of Piscator: Five Acts" where disparate voices well up line after line. Together, the voices sometimes sound like a wild meadow chorus, and sometimes merely jangle. Whatever its consequence, the lack of design is by design, for order opposes live growth: "by order circumstance / is to be reduced." Corless-Smith's language is often dreamlike in beautiful opacity, sometimes as straight-up as Clare, but always it is after Nature, The Sublime. Starring such creatures as mud, motherchild, diablo, fence, sycamore, and cockatoo, these difficult lyrics offer a good road through difficulty: "We come to grief / here is one good leaf."

--Tom Thompson

 

It Is Hard to Look at What We Came to Think We'd Come to See
Michele Glazer
University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95 (paper)


The poems in this extraordinary debut are (like its title) sinuous, refractory, highly structured, yet in a way implosive, too, their asymmetric blocks holding in balances always about to give way. The current struggle to define a post-Language poetics finds evidence here, where elements of traditional lyric ("Morning glory tangles a simple landscape") merge in the same poem--sometimes in the same line--with Wittgensteinian turns and the poems' assertion of visual presence on the page: "We don't Let's not / Talk about We Look at that sculptural rock that rock that." Neither surface nor depth, the poems invite--and reward--re-reading, hinting at buried narratives, or interpolating naturalistic scenes, without becoming clarified (and hence reduced) as such: "My presence was a violence in wings. / Their flight was a thought / I could not follow, / an assumption." Formally--in their breakings of form--the poems are intricately irregular, full of disrupted patterns and a kind of syncopation that admits more than the well-wrought urn, without leaving the thought of it entirely behind. It is no longer, at this point, a matter of finding a voice: Glazer has made one from that "thing we look for / because it's there."

--Brian Lennon

 

And Her Soul Out of Nothing
Olena Kalytiaks Davis
University of Wisconsin Press, $17.95, $10.95 (paper)


The hands in this first collection gesture toward a mastery over that which is fragile. "If only my hands would stop shaking" writes Davis, "I could write you in person." This "shaking" (or fragility) resurfaces in a variety of forms: loneliness, pain, the repetitive wind, the way "soon" might sound if it were to be sung. But no matter how ethereal many of her poems' subjects may be, Davis knows that "each new loneliness need[s] a streetname." She calmly peels layers off her most vulnerable images (a wedding dress, a dying mother) to expose the outstandingly raw: "Dear visitor: you divide your age in two then square it by a dying mother. I am always gathering her up in my arms." With her risky syntax and a deft handling of repetition, she speaks to the broken spirit while seducing an answer: "the city expects to hear our beautiful stutter." Davis celebrates the haunt of the honest gaze inward, and what emerges from her dialogues with her "cloud covered heart" is an elegant panic as proud as it is shy, as self-critical as it is affirmative: "As if you had any business shaking / the hands of the insane. / As if you were doing somebody a favor." These conversations reclaim articulation, one that calls up in the "ghost making fog" and has pain respond, "I'll keep in touch."

--Sabrina Orah Mark

 

Satura
Eugenio Montale
Translated from the Italian by William Arrowsmith
W. W. Norton, $29.95


Originally published in 1971, Satura ushered in the style of Montale's old age: drier, more satirical and journalistic, less Dantesque and hermetic than his earlier three collections, all of which were among the great achievements of Italian literature. The word "satura," scholar Joseph Cary explains, is Latin for "a medley, a miscellany, a mixed dish, a stew, a mélange of attitudes and speech-styles"--or, as Montale himself put it, "lyric and satire set freely cheek by jowl." These poems, in other words, are much more "postmodern," and therefore more resigned to the passing of Montale's own cultural legacy--"the mind of Europe." The major theme in Satura is Montale's stoic, sometimes acerbic, but always very human confrontation of loss: of his wife, elegized in the beautiful "Xenia" sequences, and of a culture--a loss symbolized for Montale by the 1966 flooding of Florence. Brief descriptions of Montale's poetry invariably mention his "pessimism," but the poems in this book--so vividly and feelingly translated by Arrowsmith--are a reminder that Montale was also one of the great love poets of the century, as tender and humane, in his skeptical way, as Neruda, Machado, or Akhmatova. Arrowsmith's translations of Montale have always featured meticulous and comprehensive notes--invaluable guides to Montale's richly allusive, often difficult verse. Unfortunately, Arrowsmith died in 1992 before completing the annotations to Satura, but his translation of it is as highly polished and readable as the earlier three volumes.

--Andrew Frisardi

 

Soap
Francis Ponge
Translated from the French by Lane Dunlop
Stanford University Press, $14.95 (paper)


This text manages to be whimsical, political and philosphical all at once by behaving like its subject--soap--and slipping between modes. Sometimes Soap resembles an extended Neruda ode: "This egg, this flat / dab,--this little / almond, which / grows so quickly / (almost instantly) / into a Chinese fish." The historical events surrounding Soap's composition between 1942-67 are all the more haunting for being so delicately handled: "Let us pass rapidly over the four or five periods that followed . . . during which time I had many other things to do and no longer occupied myself with Soap." Through a re-ordering of images and ideas, each section of Soap attempts a revision of what precedes it; whether it takes the form of a poem, proem, a quoted letter from Camus, or miniature play (with a cast of characters including chimneysweeps, philosophers, a poet, an "absolute reader" and the unlisted but all-important bar, of soap). What Ponge says of poets--"They know how to hide, to dissimulate their usefulness"--describes his own practice: after using the bar of soap, he writes, "the marvellous thing is, that one comes out if it with cleaner hands, purer hands."

-- Matthea Harvey

 

Daughter of the Hangnail
Rebecca Reynolds
New Issues Press/Western Michigan University, $22, $12 (paper)


This fun, bracingly smart first collection balances speculative epistemologies against surprising, seen things, panning from incident ("man discovered with over 700 birds") to remote tangent: "his poor head, startled, / the way a floorplan is startled with wings." Reynolds's comparisons propose and test definitions of self, pain, meaning: "The heart--/ a canned tulip-- / cannot bear itself. And the mind's light masonry / houses a crap shoot, waterlit." She enjoys syncopated catalogs, aposiopeses, and "I am X, I am Y" conceits; her digressive, skittering lines mix traces of Clampitt and Graham with traces of "cool": "I had to book it with the f_____g diapers. Lost, // I might add, like a tune from God." Among many poets with similar projects, Reynolds stands out for her sharp juxtapositions, for her generous empathies, and for her sometimes-exceptional ear: "We are turning / cans and fenders into rust in the yard / and scrub in the umber ground."

--Stephen Burt

 

Natal Command
Peter Sacks
The University of Chicago Press, $$30, $12.95 (paper)


The title sequence in this third collection, named for a military camp in Durban, South Africa, mourns a father's death as well as a homeland. The intensity of its "unyielding clarities" can be almost excruciating ("--the veteran on the bus, / half-seen, then fully seen, / a boiled mask stretched tight / and welded to the head."), but Sacks modulates violence and grief with poignant memories that are not without humor, as when a child is "ambushed" by a magazine image of a wounded soldier. Sacks is a master of equipoise, his lines painstakingly executed to suggest multiple resonances: a "palm" is a frond and the flat of a hand; a "stump" is a cut trunk and an amputated limb. Ever conscious of the abstractions of his medium, Sacks nonetheless insists on the potent bodily effects of language. Returning often to the image of the "spill and friction" of the sea, Sacks evokes a cosmological imagination through the swimmer's simultaneous power and powerlessness, all the while keeping the reader aware of the body's palpable exertions: "I thrashed to break free // but the ocean held me, / and a slap of water broke / across my mouth." Demonstrating the tensile and contractile strength that poetry can exercise, Sacks has made poems with vehemence and poise, poems that are not unflinching, but that continue to flinch and still refuse to look away.

--Barbara Fischer

 

Blizzard of One
Mark Strand
Knopf, $21


Former Poet Laureate Strand's ninth volume opens on a few notes reminiscent of 1993's Dark Harbor--speculative, layered nocturnes that seem to signal from a great distance--and then veers off elsewhere, elaborating on the surrealist whimsy of some of Strand's earlier work. A familiar rangy, disconnected humor colors the poems, like someone murmuring from the depths of a beloved cocktail; familiar, too, is the irony poised over ecstatic gloom, which lends some of the poems a terminal cast: "how will the warmth of the fire, / So long in coming, keep us from mourning the loss?" Strand is at his best when gesturing toward the baroque; lyric resignation is courted, embraced, and then undermined by a sensibility that seems finally unsettled in itself, yet never utopian: "The self . . . can never be / Seen with a disguise, and never be seen without one." Blizzard of One offers less digressive modes, too, as in the very effective gestalt reading of "Two de Chiricos," or the glassy narcissism of "Old Man Leaves Party." And then there is the roman á clef--well, no, not really--of "The Delirium Waltz," an elegy for friends: "I cannot remember, but I think you were there, whoever you were . . . "

-- Brian Lennon

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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