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Canaan
Geoffrey Hill
Houghton Mifflin, $22, $14 (paper)


Count on few consolations from Hill's new collection: the first book to be published by this English poet during a decade of living abroad and teaching at Boston University, is as severe and wrathful as the old testament God evoked by its title, epigraph (Judges 3:7) and morally deserted landscapes (which move between World War II, contemporary British politics, and biblically- imbued psychic spaces). Miltonic cadences infuse England's "common plight" in "Dark-land": "Whereto England rous'd, / ignorant, her inane / Midas-like hunger: smoke / engrossed, cloud-clumbered, // a spectral people / raking among the ash." But like his literary ancestor Jonathan Swift, Hill's jeremiads never accuse without self-implicating gestures-poems whose Humean titles such as "Whether the Virtues are Emotions" and "Whether Moral Virtue Comes by Habituation" recall the reader-friendly rubrics of philosophy, but fragment into opaque half-lines, Dickinsonian in their solipsistic moral indictments. Hill also elegizes a range of poets, including Stefan George, Ivor Gurney, William Arrowsmith, Alexander Blok, and Christopher Okigbo, as well as a plotter against Hitler, Hans-Bernd von Haeften: "Could none predict these haughty degradations / as now your high-strung / martyred resistance serves / to consecrate the liberties of Maastricht?" Following the vatic judgments of Eliot's Quartets and the moral astringency of Penn Warren, Hill's erudite, exacting style leaves us with difficult questions and few reasons for complacency: "There being now such riotous shows of justice, / yet, of righteousness, the fading nimbus / remains to us, as a perceived glory" ("Mysticism and Democracy").

-Jenn Lewin

Oblivion: On Writers & Writing
Donald Justice
Story Line Press, $14 (paper)


This volume of occasional prose by an American master spans nearly four decades of writing, and graciously pays tribute to both canonized and neglected poets. Justice's exceptionally calibrated prose matches well the ambitious range of his investigations. In a dozen essays and selections from two notebooks, the poet's role in culture is subtly analyzed, sometimes diagnosed; the title piece is an uncompromising discussion of artistic immortality, concentrating on, among others, the missing person-and missing poet-Weldon Kees. Equally impressive are arguments on the genealogy of the free-verse line through Stevens and Pound, reminding us that their contributions were not isolated miracles but products of brilliant influence. The notebook selections are eclectic and at times witty, collecting personal anecdote, playful ideas ("a play . . . Lorca in California . . . 1999 . . . Reagan has been governor for generations") and fragments of poems-in-process. If the American poet's objective is "to purify the dialect of the tribe," these arresting observations prove that Justice has done more than his share, in poetry as well as prose.

-Michael Tyrell

Dura

Myung Mi Kim

Sun and Moon Press, $11.95 (paper)


"Dura" is defined by the OED as "the dense, tough, outermost membranous envelope of the brain and spinal cord." This book-length poem is divided into seven sections, reading like seven versions of the same letter-each challenging the limits of its transmission. Though each section has its own particular formal system, there is a shared vocabulary. The real blurs with the surreal ("Go see your mother / When does she eat / She doesn't have legs"), strangely precise, shorthand description ("The goat's spindly hold on rock") and minimalist lists ("ant-hole sieve / dog apricot"). Also notable is Kim's synaesthetic use of punctuation. In one section colons appear before sentences, signaling a desire for equivalence that isn't met. In the same section they acquire a rhythmic function, a kind of double-tap of the toe. In others, colons head the page in pairs like titles, or dividers. Translation animates the book, whose project could be described in Kim's own words, an "Invention where the tomatoes dangling from one end are not the tomatoes hanging from the other end." As "Dangling" becomes "hanging," Kim demonstrates how quickly equivalencies dissolve.

-Matthea Harvey

Human Rights

Joseph Lease

Zoland Books, $13 (paper)


The quiet politics of Joseph Lease's Human Rights is nothing short of astonishing. He juxtaposes fairy tale and myth with confessional or personal passages, often indicting the "I" in the process. In "Ode," he writes, "When you first wrote about me I didn't like it. // … I didn't recognize myself in what you wrote. Do you recognize yourself in this?" Just as he splices prose poetry with couplets, he continuously splices authority with the undercutting of that same authority. In "Slivovitz," there are Holocaust survivors who by now "have grandchildren / I have no right to picture." These poems are concerned with morality and justice, yet the implication of the speaker/self saves them from didacticism. In the prose poem "Listen with Pain," Lease writes, "I want to get in the big purple laundry basket, you could wash me in that." Lease's voice passes smoothly from tragedy to joy, from homelessness to mall life; his poems are amazing their scope, subtlety, and in their movement from wide angle shots in "Creases" ("God is so tired that everything / sits in God's mouth // like the taste of salami from last night") to close-ups, as in "Apartment" ("under the covers I would pull down my pants and writhe around in an exaggerated parody of cringing, demeaning myself before the Queen").

-Denise Duhamel

After All

William Matthews

Houghton Mifflin, $20


"I like divorce. I love to compose / letters of resignation," begins the darkly comic and startling "No Return," and immediately we hear the savage wit and rhetorical intelligence sustained throughout this valedictory collection. Rising above its sentimental title, the book's recurring themes are "ordinary fear" and a disappointed, middle-aged love which "will do its very / best not to consume us." Keeping his sense of absurd humor, Matthews impressively untangles the eccentricities of human nature from the recesses of language. Oxymorons, redundancies, even poetry readings: the occasions of speech move him to illumination. At his most adventurous, he makes use not only of a personal mode, but also an historical one. Figures ravaged by calumny and terminal illness- Nixon, Mingus and Matthews' own wife-do not soften his tough approach. This poet never asks for our pity; like Houdini, he mystifies us, but doesn't fool himself or his audience by promising a return. He offers only "the vast loneliness / of prayer."

-Michael Tyrell

The Captain of the Butterflies

Cees Nooteboom

Translated by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr

Sun & Moon Press, $11.95


Although the eminent Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has published 11 books of poetry over the past 40 years, this long-awaited collection is his first to appear in English. Nooteboom writes with a distinctly, even acutely, European tone, marrying the wry and worldly perspective of Zbigniew Herbert with the brooding and elemental hermeticism of Paul Celan. Such lofty comparisons are not merely rhetorical exaggeration; outside the exclusively English-reading world, Nooteboom's poetry is held in considerable esteem. While the book's appearance, therefore, is cause for much gratitude, the nature and importance of Nooteboom's opus demands an even more extensive bilingual edition. As with Celan, the density of Nooteboom's verbal luggage resists transfer to another language even while, as with Herbert, his deeply informed intellect crosses linguistic borders with a certain cosmopolitan ease: "Taciturn as the mouth of shells, / between praying dogs and the irreverent / fluting of light, / the gleaming gods spoil in their gold-lacquered beds / wild and useless in their loneliness. // Outside, their antiquated horses stand waiting. / The jewels have been stolen from the chariots. / The saddles sit empty, empty the chariots, / coated and ruined by a mildew of space."

-Mary Maxwell

How to Do Things with Words

Joan Retallack

Sun & Moon Press, $10.95 (paper)


Formalism in poetry can mean neoconservatism, or-as this polylingual, polymorphic work would have it-etwas ganz anderes. Its title raids that of a late work of J. L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher of the "speech act" who famously "failed to say why what I have said is interesting," and it demonstrates just how astonishingly heterogeneous theory and practice can be. The book's intricately nested serial structures mimic instruction manuals, charts and diagrams, dictionary and encyclopedia entries, labels and plaques, computer printouts and scrolling messages, "creating parallel texts left and right full of opposing forces in a sad space of alternating dire lexical black and white squares." The poems (they might as easily be termed "radical essays") work to defamiliarize, and aestheticize, information as it is organized and transmitted by the new media. Rather than seeming coldly constructed, though, the work here is, in the most ordinary sense, enthralling; Retallack's figures are vertiginously lovely, gesturing toward a kind of cybernetic beauty for which there's no critical vocabulary as yet. All the more reason to see it for yourself.

-Brian Lennon

Haiku: This Other World

Richard Wright Edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener

Arcade Publishing, $23.50


During the last year and a half of his life, Richard Wright wrote more than four thousand haiku, some 800 of which he included in a manuscript prepared just before his death in 1960. Nearly four decades later, these last words come to us as a gift of time. In her introduction, Julia Wright speaks of her father's work as "poems of light" spun "out of the gathering darkness." It would seem equally fit to speak of these poems as lessons in living. "In the falling snow / A laughing boy holds out his palms / Until they are white," reads one. Another states: "Not even the sun / Can make oak tree leaves as green / As the starlight does." Each three-line structure flowers complete-yet still reaching out: "A sleepless spring night: / Yearning for what I never had, / And for what never was." In this careful collection of "charmed syllables" readers will find poems that speak careful words into the healing darkness, the revealing light. Here is one to start with: "And though level full, / The petal holds its dew, / And without trembling."

- Robert C. Jones

Originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Boston Review



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