& Dramatic Life
and Company: Contemporary Poems on Greek Mythology
The "whisper of the gods" is voluminous in Deborah DeNicolas Orpheus and Company. Here "company" refers not only to the mythological figures variously revived in this anthology, but also to the pantheon of modern poets DeNicola has skillfully affiliated under the aegis of poetrys martyr-maudit, Orpheus. Mary Jo Bang, Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Donald Justice, Carl Phillips and Rachel Wetzsteon are among the eclectic retinue of those whose poems appear. Why do Greek myths compel us at the verge of the twenty-firstst century? Perhaps because they provide a "public dream," as Joseph Campbell called myth, a powerful yet safe conceptual collective. At a time when political correctness has made many writers weary of claims larger than the personal, the Greek myths allow poets to write on a wider spiritual and historical plain without impunitya Hades that does not impinge upon any Hell, a history that (though Greek in origin) does not infringe upon any nationalism. The classical references also cater to poetrys largely intellectual audience while at the same time allow for a level of epic emotion not entirely academic. Moreover, in a culture devoted on the one hand to extra-human health and on the other to victim worship, the Greek figures in DeNicolas compilation offer mortal risk in lieu of frantic fitness and heroism in lieu of victimism. Regardless of rationale, Orpheus and Company shows modern poets at their revisionist best, taking on myths just as they would take on a fixed form, choosing Medusa or Daedalus as an elected constraint, to impersonate, to parody, to politicize, to privatize, to defy.
Winner of the 1998 Brittingham Prize in Poetry, Bardo is a work of remarkable lyric intelligence and visionary power. The title of the collection comes from the Bardo Thostrol, the Tibetan Buddhist guide to the afterlife in which the soul seeks liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The wonder of Paolas work here is that, although it draws aptly from Buddhist and Catholic spiritual traditions as well as from Greek mythology, the use of such material is never forced or esoteric. Rather, in these poems the world of late twentieth-century Americaepitomized by the "false heavens" of consumerism and drugsbecomes transparent to a religious longing hidden behind our cultures materialist façade. The Las Vegas of "Halfway to the Afterlife" is not only "a Mirage solid in the distance," but a reality that entices the poet to "A World Above the Rest." At the root of Bardo, however, is a longing to perceive the holy in the midst of the material world rather than in the mock ecstasy of simulated transcendence. As such, these splendid poems are about perception itself, about "seeing it all as the bardo." In that moment, the holy may be encountered in the substance of creation, in "what it takes / to make one small, barely visible, quick-dying thing."
The poems in Martha Zweigs first full-length collection conjure a charged, Anglo-Saxon underpulse. Her sensitivity to sound stiffens the texture of her lines and invites auditory memory"a spring-driven / bicycle bells tremolo," a freight train that "[p]ut ripples into the dark." When her rhythms tauten to chant, as in "Moon, Mother, Clown," they bear witness to the chthonic forces at work in the ordinary, but the volumes "pretty trickery" as a whole does not achieve this intensity. Several poems proceed "clump by blunder," as she writes in "Flourish," indulging overmuch in "pink arbitraries & vertigo." Yet Zweig is refreshingly wry about her own "floozy brilliance," almost self-critical in her appreciative complaint that "she does wild schism & / diametric, she kens & / savvies me senseless. I / will speak to her." Asars poetica, "Demonstration" more aptly describes Zweigs characteristic procedure than the eponymous poem about a school science experiment. Zweig grips the everyday as one would "pinch / Gently the cats paw ... / So that the toes sheath gives out / Smoothly its clear claw (not yet / Fierce, for the cat believes you are playing)."
Course in Turbulence
Dean Youngs fourth book is caffeinated, frantic. The speaker of these poems is highly attuned to the world but utterly befuddled by it, resulting in poems which vacillate between control and confused disjunction. Theories, conversations, books, friends, mishaps, and other minutiae blend into each other: "On the outside their mouths discussing / maybe Brad failing or the condition of / those manuscripts the weird weather / glucagon the king who liked locks. / Many many forces. Some say never wear / this shirt with these pants again." The core struggle here is how one goes about assigning meaning to the arbitrary. Mythologies, once created, rush towards their inevitable collapse. In "Tribe," Young weaves together a series of creation myths ("The first people came out of the lake / and their god was the raven") to plot a tumultuous history of a fictional, yet eerily recognizable world: "They would gather / in their condominiums, sharing descriptions / and disagreeing about the use of color and / whether a shovel could symbolize fear of intimacy." As definitions set and reset ad infinitum, Young asks "How can you know what to ask or answer / when you dont even know who you are."
In her second collection, Kathleen Peirce maintains her earmark dedication to clarity within an aesthetic that calls for considerable abstraction. One third of the poems in The Oval Hour are responses to the Confessions of St. Augustine, and although the titles clearly indicate their sources (i.e. Confessions 7.5.7), Peirces encounter with them is intensely private. We enter an evolved conversation at the point at which she begins to speak. "And when I asked where evil is / sometimes I asked in evil ways." This underscores an unusual tension between the logic in her tone and the large leaps in her argument. The poems are inspired by loss in the middle of life and the relationship of this loss to desire. What is most distinctive, however, about Peirces struggle with the carnal is the way in which the inanimate world reveals the spiritual. Objects in time, in dream, in memory"a dress fastened to a tree," "a soldier with a vase inside"take on a vivid architectural quality that converges with her odd phrasing and direct, philosophical approach to result in an image that is nearly fused with the meditation. This book does not sound like anything else being written today.
To the extent that writing poems is both a solitary and a social experience, it is important and perhaps inevitable that the poems cultivate this solitude while also reflecting something sharedif not in their images and phrases, then in the presence of language itself and in the impulses, apparent or not, which propel the poems. Pimone Tripletts poems sit squarely at the confluence of these strains of privacy and history, mixing Greek mythology with intimate impressions of Thailand and America, mining both the cultural and the sensual. Other peoplelisteners, especiallyfigure prominently in the book. Speakers frequently address someone specific, as in these opening lines of "Stillborn": "Mother, heres what the night offers: silence, / a tree with no bird, four unlit lamps, one sinks / empty bowl, and my closets packed with the spilt, / open mouths of shoes." In a good and uncommon way, the poems are less for usthe readersthan for the poet (and her speakers), and the people on whose open ears she so willingly, and lyrically, depends.
The speaker-gatherer of these poems journeys through language like an indiscriminate tourist, one moment recording an image which functions both visually and aurally"The train whistle like a big soft sided harmonica"the next exhaustively tracking a slip of the finger: "That is a typo, sweetit. Interesting that. She did not call me sweetit, no one has ever called me sweetit, she called me sweetite. No that is not right either, but also interesting." These poems will follow music anywhereinto silly punning ("Homing Inn"), or to the startling pairing "voilà, bulimia." What they refuse to do is commit to one singular meaning or feeling. The negation of signposts, Waldners titles ("Weathers / Little My" or "Carpe Something / Dr. Bronner") point in all directions. Emotional registers are nervously flitted through, and a quasi-footnote prose block includes both the chatty salute "hello HD everybody / loves you now" and the openly melancholy "you are so far away, and all I have are letters." The plural formulation of the books title suggests multiple attempts at arrival with possibly no resolution in sight. Along the way, however, there is much to admire.