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Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame
Benita Eisler
Alfred A. Knopf, $35 (cloth)

Eisler begins her biography of George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron, at the end–one month after his death–with the destruction by fire, in the drawing room of his publisher, John Murray, of two bound manuscript volumes of Byron’s memoirs. That cancellation by other hands of the poet’s personal words is echoed in the epigraph for this vividly detailed portrait, which consists of two cancelled lines from Byron’s 1806 "Childish Recollections": "Censure no more shall brand my humble name / The child of passion and the fool of fame." If much of Byron’s troubled life resulted from his obsessions and his outsize ego, the same obsessions and ego, Eisler suggests, seem to have been the mainspring of his poetic genius. The poetry and the personality are intertwined. The great strength of Eisler’s interpretation of this Romantic hero/antihero is the care with which she places Byron’s poetry in the context of the bewildering variety of Byron’s own self-creations: from renegade aristocrat to political revolutionary to drawing room dandy to heroic martyr. Of particular interest is Eisler’s account of Byron’s childhood years of poverty and abandonment, drawn on recently discovered family papers. Two photographic inserts–engravings, paintings, sketches, lithographs, and reproductions of letters–add a lavish visual dimension to the text.

–Robert C. Jones


Voice-Over
Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press, $13.95 (paper)

Although Elaine Equi’s title poem records all too well the human need to ignore reality in favor of illusion, it is the final lines of "Beauty Secret" that etch, with acid strength, the dominant lesson of this fine collection: "The sun sets. / The vase rests / in the center / of the poem. // It is all / a matter of arrangement. // Relationships / of power // made to seem / natural / and right." Indeed, ever since Equi made her poetic presence known back in Chicago in the 1980s, "arrangement" has been a key part of her poetry. An Equi poem–even an early one, like "Geisha" from Surface Tension(1989)–steps crisply, solidly, simply, from line to line; but the sequence of words is anything but simple: "Intrigued / the room / entered itself / with the tiny steps / of a mermaid / with a mustache / of orange blossom / with an abyss / dangling from / one pierced ear." So it is with these latest poems. The voice is, perhaps, more reflective–but the words fit together with the same inexorable finality, and there is never any doubt in that "voice-over" sequence about destination or order. If the poem, as Equi suggests in "Thesis Sentence," is "a small machine made of God," it is still arrangement that is the domain of the poet–for "though we say them with conviction, / the words are never really ours for keeps."

–Robert C. Jones


Vita Nova
Louise Glück
The Ecco Press, $22

Louise Glück’s eighth collection feels like the final part of a trilogy, a divine comedy of sorts preceded by the flower chorus of The Wild Iris and the secular and mythological conversations of Meadowlands. Invoking doomed unions–Dido and Aeneas, Orpheus and Eurydice, and more implicitly, Dante and Beatrice– Glück questions the stringent lessons of tragic love more than ever before, expressing "faint contempt" for such "eerie balance." These poems reveal the self at its most vulnerable, as it encounters catastrophic recollections and dreams–a fire, a seizure in a garden, a lover’s recurring departure–which speak powerfully of past lives and crimes. Better than any poet since Plath, Glück has perfected a kind of poem that reads as though written posthumously, but never fails to acknowledge "the deepest human wish," that of survival. She has inherited Rilke’s genius for apprehending paradox: "Surely spring has been returned to me, this time / not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet / it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly."

–Michael Tyrell


Things and the Flesh
Linda Gregg
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

In this book of lyrics, Gregg considers the vessel of the self as body. The celadon bowl in the exquisite "The Secret of Poetry" becomes a kind of coda for breakage. This is a postmodern urn, a breaking open into another tone, equally celebratory, but tempered by an unflinching recognition of suffering. The poems express this loss as ever-present, but they explore immanence in the daily rituals of living, even as they inquire after the absence of god, for these are poems of crisis. "Fish, bread, tea, rice" become sacraments, for, "It is this Earth that all / meaning is." Poems spoken by Io and Ariadne, poems about Hephaestus and Philomela, serve through their proximity to illuminate the mythic element in the poet’s voice; in her ability to feel and observe, in her recognition of passion and its absence, she speaks for us. A particular mind is here, selecting, moving, connecting, and arranging disparate elements to shape a perception that is acute, uncompromising, and sure. The poems offer avenues to travel through image and idea, whether they take place in Asia, Arkansas, or elsewhere. Gregg will yoke the disparate in surprising ways–"The birds hopping and feeding / and departing are flowers"; or create syntactic elisions–"The world / as far as we can see random in a wind." These poems are made from "the carnage of rapture."

–Tina Barr


How Many More of Them Are You?
Lisa Lubasch
Avec Books, $14

Surprisingly, Lisa Lubasch’s book How Many More of Them Are You?maintains the interrogative/accusatory tension of the title throughout; Lubasch performs the daunting and ambitious feat of establishing an elliptic and elided narrative with one eye fixed upon the reader. The texts are pointed, entreating, and incantatory, often playing an uneasy tennis with first and second person, opposing and then briefly merging–"each of our intentions has abstracted its own / chaos from among the holdings." Lubasch’s insistently personal "I" brandishes and questions, but never abandons, its identity or its vigilance. It is posed in odd places, at the end of a loopy lyric ("Blue malignant flowers"), or in the middle of a word ("Ci vil I zay tion!"). Much like the work of Lyn Hejinian, Lubasch’s poems are by turns heroic and disembodied, confiding and disjunctive. It piques and denies, à haute voix, the attention which accompanies all voyeurism: the abiding fascination with the self.

–Geneva Chao


In the Pines: Lost Poems 1972—1997
David St. John
White Pine Press, $16 (paper)

The Red Leaves of Night
David St. John
Harperflamingo, $23 (cloth), $13 (paper)

David St. John’s poems have always offered an absorbing brand of beauty. In the Pines, a collection of twenty years’ "lost" work, is studded with it: "The leaves of the ash tree shook / Like the gloved hands of puppets / Like Aztec stars of the thinnest / Beaten gold"; "the first lesions of winter light"; "the simple / Insubordinate dark." These poems, fluent in the mind’s day-to-day work, often contain surprising shifts in attention toward the unusual. Beginning with a child hidden in a closet, sniffing a grandmother’s sachet, "Lavender" travels from remembrance to remembrance, finally doubling back on itself as it describes a memory as "buried / Like a child in the closet / Of an open field." In "The Party’s Over," an exhausted speaker empties ashtrays, regards his passed-out lover on the couch, is moved to tears by humming an Edith Piaf tune, and finally lets his thoughts rest on a sparrow in the attic "[w]ho only appears to be so ordinary / As she goes & comes & goes." St. John’s brand of tenderness is eminently likeable, especially in this collection; it is shot through with enough humor and, sometimes, irony so as not to tip over into the maudlin.

The Red Leaves of Night shares many of same concerns as In the Pines. "In the Sulphur Garden" gives us "As the summer clouds above us broke for some interval / Not quite long enough to grasp yet brief enough to light / The whole & at last softly recuperated body // Of the singular living day." This is a typical–and typically gorgeous–St. John moment, exploring regions of desire and loss and attempting to articulate the ache left in us by the natural world. A central project of The Red Leaves of Night is a layering of the mythic with the ordinary, making heavy use of the figure of the Troubadour, Orpheus’ ancestor who can open hearts with "the lyre’s pick." Other legends make their appearance, such as Daphne, Ondine the water nymph, Medusa, and the "Medusan" water serpents. Mostly female, these articulate the book’s effort to cope with the Gordian knot of love, gender, desire, and jealousy. The best poems in this collection take some odd turns of the kind mentioned earlier. In "Waves" and "The Park," the speaker’s "I" quickly disappears in the recounting of–or meditation on–another narrative, and the reflection-through-deflection of subject enchants: rather than distancing us from the poem, the tactic complicates the poem’s emotional core, "leading us together to some newly / solitary // & distant home."

–Lisa Beskin


Overtime: Selected Poems
Philip Whalen
Penguin Putnam, $16.95 (paper)

In many of his poems, Philip Whalen heralds perception’s critical and creative role in making reality ("What we see of the world is the mind’s / Invention and the mind / Though stained by it, becoming / Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies–" ) and asks the reader not to reach for sense as much as to share his attempt at unmediated awareness. Some of his best–and best-known–poems are the few long "Kyoto" pieces of the mid-1960s, but Whalen and editor Michael Rothenberg have culled a compelling selection from Whalen’s twenty-odd books of desperately joyful, often difficult poetry. His pieces frequently describe two or more simultaneous lines of thought–streams of consciousness punctuated by fervent restatements of his credo ("I want to be a world, not just another / American tinky poetty-boo"). But the attempt to reproduce the simultaneity and multiplicity of "real life" carries a sad idealism, as Whalen knows that we cannot really read more than one column of words at once–and that it is therefore impossible to read many of his poems as written. Perhaps the most formally radical of the Beat poets, Whalen sought to make poems by interrupting himself continually–and then by interrupting his interruptions–and yet the collection reads like a single prolonged poetic exhortation.

–Sarah Manguso

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review



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