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Actual Air
David Berman
Open City Books, $12.95 (paper)

Informed by the notion "we’ve come to this, / and to think that someday we’ll come back to it / from the opposite direction," David Berman hones in on the kitsch and mundane elements strewn about our aggregate landscape: "mounds of dead Ataris" hidden in suburban garages, "door plaques and crab apples" adorning cul-de-sacs. A master collector of American miscellany, the author triumphs not only from his keen depiction of all things enchoric to a society teetering between vulgarized sentimentality and progress ("our advances are irrepressible. / Nowadays little kids can’t even set up lemonade stands"), but from his resistance from ridiculing or judging the "American Guest" who wends his way through the familiar, yet contorted, everyday. This is commendable, given a catalogue of minutiae including "ambassadors from Indiana in all their midwestern schmaltz," "little donuts for sale in the breakroom," "Caribou crossing the Nikon," and "the Duchess of Night Soccer." By choosing instead to examine the pathos underpinning banal scenery and situations, Berman infuses the disenfranchised souls that populate his "marriage of Now and Then" with eyes trained on beauty and transcendence; the result is a lush and poignant portrait of "the view from falling behind."

--Ethan A. Paquin

 

Popular Music
Stephen Burt
University Press of Colorado, $14.95 (paper)

Stephen Burt is not yet thirty, but he has already established himself as a lively and wide-ranging poetry critic. In his own first book of poems, he seems to remain one of "the lucky, // to whom nothing has happened, / already flaunting their buds, their cut teeth." Popular Music is certainly a young man’s book, centered on a self to whom nothing much has happened, and yet Burt’s flaunting of buds and teeth makes this a vivid and promising collection. Burt draws subjects from two main territories. Foremost are his quirky, often oblique meditations on adolescence: body-hating, bad skin, science fiction, and suspicions of the middle-class life. It is fascinating to watch such refractory teenage misgivings rippling through a grown man’s mind, to see a fourteen-year-old self--with "bruiseproof denim-jacket armor painted / with dancing turtles on a field of stars"--being rendered with the words of an experienced writer. Burt’s other region is brainier; it consists of reactions and homages to Lorca, Jarrell, Plath, Velázquez, Man Ray, and many others. While such intellectual engagement leads to some interesting moments, it is also Burt’s weak point--a few of these poems are murkily academic. He is more successful when he cuts loose and takes some personal risks, as in the ending of "The Epistolarians": "as we are afraid / of shrinking into experts on ourselves, / we correspond, and need // such secret languages / as kings abandoned and we made our own." There are many pleasures to be had in this book, but they come most often when Burt clears his throat and raises his voice.

--Michael Donohue

 

Economy of the Unlost: (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan)
Anne Carson
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

The poet and scholar Anne Carson casts a characteristically wide net in this discussion of poetic economy. There is Simonides of Keos, the first poet in ancient Greece to earn drachmas for his dithyrambs, yet a poet who, contrary to his legendary status as a money-grubber, was hardly numb to the alienation of living in a world where a gift economy was being overtaken by one based on commodities. There is Paul Celan, the Holocaust survivor estranged from his native German, using it as if he were always translating it and exacting from the fewest of words a multitude of meaning: economizing. And there is Carson, who makes ambiguity the coin of her realm. Her readings of individual poems are phosphorescent, particularly when she plumbs the nuances of Simonides’s Greek and Celan’s German. There is pith and polish in the book’s chapter on epitaphs, in which Carson explains the formal, social, and economic calculations that governed Simonides’s meticulous work as a memorialist. But in the end it’s unclear why Carson paired these two poets from radically different worlds and who never spoke the same language. Carson isn’t interested in exploring whether Celan was indebted to Simonides, nor does she fold their two stories together. She makes them apposite to each other and counts on the reader to make some chance calculations about the correspondence between the two--but what’s the exchange rate? The pairing is not a twinning but the dance of two shadows across a chasm, with Simonides’s often swallowing Celan’s.

--John Palattella

 

First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them
Edited by Carmela Ciuraru
Scribner, $22 (cloth)

In 1996, Carmela Ciuraru posed the question, "What poem has haunted you, provoked you, obsessed you, made you want to speak back to it?" to an audience of accomplished poets who seem to have been waiting all their lives for someone to ask. Their response is First Loves, a moving and intimate testimony to the work that first arrested them. Ciuraru’s anthology is a kiss of many valences, from the skyrockets of John Donne’s "The Flea" (Billy Collins’s pick), to the expansive playfulness of Wallace Stevens’s "The Man on the Dump" (James Tate’s pick), to the cultural fulcrum of Yeats’s "The Wild Swans at Coole" (Eavan Boland’s pick). And while it is impossible to typify the works collected here, the poem that perhaps most epitomizes the spirit of First Loves is Lewis Carroll’s "Jaberwocky," a work of ebullient music and diction that perches on the edge of apprehension. It’s this fertile territory of "knowing before understanding" that many of the writers revisit, parsing the moment out in prose which is deeply considered, flush and inspiring. In returning these poets to the source of their obsession, Ciuraru has managed the welcome trick of culling together an unassailable anthology. Page after page of guileless enthusiasm is, sooner or later, contagious; and that recommends First Loves to new readers of verse and the critically sophisticated alike. For while the poems featured in this collection are (by frequent concession) uneven in quality, so too (by frequent concession) is first love. It can be awkward and fumbling, but for these poets it is also the maiden scrape with the world that will define them. Beneath the celebratory tone of these essays is the powerful undercurrent of self-recognition. As Frederick Seidel says of Pound’s Canto LXXXI, "I had never read anything so plain and thick and strange, and beautiful. The lines stopped and started me. They shocked me into my life."

--Sam White

The Daily Mirror
David Lehman
Scribner, $16 (paper)

If we could conjure our Muse whenever we pleased, at dawn or dusk or the busy hours in between, we might also write a book as brazenly energetic as David Lehman’s The Daily Mirror. By now, many poetry readers have at least heard about Lehman’s ambitious project: to write a poem a day and compile them into a diaristic volume that marks the calendar as well as captures daily events. Presumably, Lehman’s Muse is always nearby, enabling him to write with flashes of a kind of verve and wit not witnessed in American poetry since Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.Lehman borrows much from his literary ancestor, including O’Hara’s penchant for candor, speed of composition, and relaxed diction. Lehman also enjoys naming particular people and places: "Jorie Graham is waiting / at the Knickerbocker just in / from West Point where she / reviewed the troops and / the concept of just and unjust / wars she’ll have a gin and tonic / I’ll go for a Tanqueray martini / the question is whether The / Iliad is for or against war…." Beset with a lifestyle that necessitates multitasking, Lehman was forced to compose these short pieces without intense deliberation, but as a result he was able to seize upon images, dreams, and memories he might have otherwise lost. The poems in The Daily Mirror succeed at an astonishingly high rate because they evoke the peripatetic feel of contemporary life, especially life in New York City. Lehman’s daily effort almost always results in a poem that, as he hopes, "transcends the occasion of its making."

--David Roderick

 

Mongrelisme
Joan Retallack
Paradigm Press, $5 (paper)

 

The flyleaves of Mongrelisme: A Difficult Manual for Desperate Times are printed with the word "INFORMATION" in a continuously repeated and only slightly varied ("INFORMAZIONI"; "INFORMACIÓN"; "INFORMAZIONEN") stream, which might be taken as a reader’s clue--or, alternately, as anything but. Part One of an ongoing project, this serial poem enters the drained architectures of an elementary language primer, reviving mystery within the space designed to organize and repress it. Quotations from "Anon" and the apocryphal "Genre Tallique," meditative or improvisational streams of (someone’s) consciousness, interpolated subsection and sub-subsection divisions, appendices, and other textual machines lend Mongrelisme the air of a genetic encounter between poem and database: a series of determined accidents that demonstrate what "Tallique," in the first sequence here, terms the "flagrant improbabilities of culture." For all that, though, this poem--as in Retallack’s work generally--is animated by a vital and generous sense of humor, which rescues it from philosophic gravitas even as it opens new avenues for the pleasures of thinking in our era of resurgent literalisme.

--Brian Lennon

 

For
Carol Snow
University of California Press, $14.95 (paper)

Carol Snow’s second collection bobs and weaves in its play of grammar and biography, subject and object, position and landscape. The question of one’s "position," in particular, is central to the collection. Through scraps of narrative we uncover threads of the author’s relationship with her husband and the death of her father, and thus of her emotional position in the interior worlds of family and of self. In these scraps, too, we find the major conduits to feeling in the book: vulnerability and attentiveness. But as highlighted in the title of the book’s third and most successful section, "Position Paper," "position" is also literal, both physically ("At a high tide, standing behind the breakwater") and grammatically ("I know, only seen as--seeing (white), tugged: / I am That."). As its title implies, For is more about the act of reaching than about a singular position of either the reacher (subject) or the reached-for (object). As she writes in "Measure": "Ecstasy has its subject/object confusions"--meaning that for Snow this confusion is a near-religious matter. It is, however, an act of reaching and a blurring of position that is constantly aware of its limitations ("Tether" is the name of the second section, and a word that recurs throughout). Through the interplay of approaches, reachings, subjects and perspectives--as well as the multitudinous, near-musical notations of dashes, line breaks, and ellipses--this is a self-consciously fragmentary book: "To begin, even in the--even with the-- / disarrays." These are spare poems, ever restless, ever reframing the frame of reference.

--Tom Thompson

Ill Lit: Selected & New Poems Franz Wright
Oberlin College Press, $19.95 (paper)

Resonant with foreboding, fractured music, Ill Lit is ostensibly a study of the lacunae between symbols and meaning, the mind and physical environment, the thought of estrangement and the actual experience of it. Wright’s myriad personae--a writer hesitating over the accuracy of his vision ("This isn’t working out, is it / Here’s what really occurred, in my own words"), Everymen gripped by self-doubt and paranoia ("They think that they can scare me. / I am always scared")--inhabit a Jabes-like universe. Here silence and eruption nearly collide, and delineations between spirit and the lack thereof ("Which is more awful, a sentient or endlessly / presenceless sky?") provide an arresting tension. But beneath the book’s pall, where poems themselves are a "(f)riendless eeriness of the new street," Wright craftily employs a dark levity--notably in "Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse," where we’re advised "not to feel bad about dying. / Not to take it so personally," or in the "drowning at a baptism" in "Gone." To paraphrase Rene Char, whom Wright has translated extensively, the poet’s appetite for anxiety causes joy; Ill Lit, which revels in and retreats from division and disconnection, perfectly embodies this strange dichotomy.

--Ethan A. Paquin

Originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review



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