New Directions, $13.95
Born in Boston in 1924 and living in Japan since 1958, Cid Corman has
edited, translated, and written more than seventy poetry books. This
new volume collects 150 short poems from the last two decades. Cormans
writing has a smooth surface: "Pear being pared ah / the sweetness
of the drops on / the edge quite enough." The poems themselves
are allusive, and beneath their simple phrasing Corman evokes multiple
meanings carefully. The poems continually change, rewarding repeated
reading. Corman begins Nothing Doing with three psalms; in the
first, he whittles the King James Version of Psalm XXIV to 23 words.
Readers knowing the verses participate in his sampling, which conveys
ideas of identity, authorship, writing, and religion, while producing
a pared-down song: "The earth and / the fulness / thereof. Lift
// up your heads / O ye gates / for as long // as is
and / the glory / shall enter." The collection is scrupulously
ordered. This opening poem shows the poetic lineages Corman crosses,
which include the Objectivists, Black Mountain poets, and American poets
who practice Zen. Early sections move through Western civilization via
canonical writers from Heraclitus to Dante to Melville, and later sections
use this information in an extended meditation on the nature of paradox
and pleasure. Reigning king of the short poem, Cid Corman continues
to write current poetry engaging our literature and language in a genuinely
philosophical and sensuous manner. "Is that / it then? // No. This
/ is now."
Southern Illinois University
Press, $11.95 (paper)
A prosaic style and straightforward voice harmonize the poems in Denise
Duhamels The Star Spangled Banner, winner of the 1999 Crab
Orchard Award. These qualities also bolster the poets sanity against
a world in which the failures of language lead to humorous and sometimes
tragic misunderstandings. Many of these misunderstandings generate from
the authors loving Filipino husband, as in "Husband as a
Second Language," in which she playfully links a string of mixed
aphorisms that begins, "You can walk a mile / if you act his age,
not his shoe size. / When he does both things at once, he kills two
stones. / He never counts his chickens / before his eggs or vice versa."
Other poems deal with failed visual perceptions, as seen in the opening
lines of "The Difference Between Pepsi and Pope": "I
have this blind spot, a dark line, thin as hair, that obliterates /
a stroke of scenery on the right side of my field of vision / so that
I often get whole words at the end of the sentence wrong
In the title poem, Duhamel mistakes the first line of our national anthem
for "Jose, can you see / by the dancerly light
jags off into a narrative about an imaginary Latin lover. In The
Star-Spangled Banner, Duhamels sixth book, we are always engaged
with poems that rely upon wild juxtapositions and leaps of imagination.
Duhamel succeeds in reminding us, "How easy it is to live for stretches
at a time / in that skinny dark line, how easy it is to get so many
things all wrong."
Graywolf Press, $12.05
The poems in Some Ether create an explosive universe, charged
between the polar absences of a suicidal mother and a derelict father.
Flynn has neither map nor Virgil to guide him through this Dantean terrain,
only a kind of hopeless hope that somehow works: "I want to believe
/ that if I get the story right // we will rise, newly formed."
The most powerful realities here are not material ones, but absences,
vapors swirling with disembodied voices that come from everywhere: other
rooms, other towns, over radio waves and telephone wires, out of the
past. Absences are the founding elements of the books "I."
The father who disappears among scattered townsfurious, needy,
lost. The mother who descends into a wild, narcissistic depression:
"my mother stepped // inside herself & no one / could follow."
Flynn makes the emotional instability palpable in the way he breaks
his line, fusing subject and style: "Ill bend / each finger
back, until the bottle // falls, until the bone snaps, save [my father]
// by destroying his hands." Even relatively quiet moments are
cracked in the violence with which lines break against grammar: "We
/ scatter [my mother] in the Atlantic, my brother & I, I / watch
her sink." But no loss is final; the mothers suicide is but
one more exampleif the most devastatingof a hungry law of
eternal departure. In the end, physical touch provides a key to this
furious universe of shades, a possible way out. Inverting La Commedias
pursuit of the ethereal lover/spirit, Flynns last poems come upon
and map the material reality of a human lover. Not redemptive, but enough:
"My fingers / tangle your hair, trace / your skull, your face so
radiant // I can barely look into it."
University of Chicago
Press, $12 (paper)
"All the wanting and not having oilspills my room," Mark
Halliday writes in Selfwolf, his third book of poems. With unflinching,
often comic honesty about how "ego-fetid, hostile, grasping"
we are, Halliday exposes the selfs wolfish hungers and weaknesses.
His chosen terrain is the never-resolved tug-of-war between self-reliance
and empathybetween our sense that "I am the great adventure"
and "the surplus of human poignancy out there." Not surprising:
in a 1991 critical study, Halliday took Wallace Stevens to task for
his poetrys lack of interest in other people. Hallidays
own poems are quite deliberately interpersonal, and his language is
talky, jokey, and direct. But self-consciousness and irony often pleasantly
derail these smooth meditations in midstream, sending poems spinning
in unforeseen directions. "Are you getting the picture?" he
asks, interrupting a lyrical snapshot of an alley at dawn. "But
suppose I were a better writer, suppose I gave you now / ten more lines
describing the alley and its light, / evoking the paradoxical beauty
of drabness /
Or suppose then I made up a word that would mean
/ precisely this hours light: / draevelmo / how good would
this be?" While Halliday humorously depicts a swaggering, "presidential
self," the most moving poems in this humane and often funny book
find the poet assembling odd, vivid memories in a desperate bid to convince
himself that "he could not be just particles of mist / dispersing
into the sky, he could not be only that."
University of Georgia
Press, $15.95 (paper)
In Hotel Imperium, her first book, Rachel Loden works the twentieth
century like a DJ sampling from a stack of old LPs; she spins out her
own peculiar remix of history by cutting in unlikely hooks from Nixons
"Checkers" speech to Alan Greenspan, Clairol advertisements,
Little Richard, CNN, Bebe Rebozo, and the Soviet Writers Union,
to name a few. Lodens unusual subject matter can lull her into
rhetorical slothshe sometimes simply noodles around with her topic
for a bit, pleased with its quirkiness, then ends without having said
much sweet or useful. "We Are Sorry to Say" arises from the
poet Sparrows picketing of The New Yorker a few years back
("My poetry is as bad as yours!") in a bid for his fifteen
minutes, and Lodens poem is as merely cute (and as forgettable)
as the incident itself. "Last W & T," a collage of passages
from Nixons will, similarly fails to transcend its premise; it
just sounds like, well, language from a will. But that is the worst
to be said about this whip-smart, hilarious, and moving book, because
nearly all of these poems succeed brilliantly. "Premillennial Tristesse,"
the books best poem, demonstrates Lodens incredible ability
to render Our Century in a few quick strokes without sounding ridiculous.
She conjures Nixon "slipping / in and out of consciousness"
and Mandelstam intoning "My age, my beast." Then, imagining
the turn of the millennium, a vast image troubles her sight: "It
seems that something red as love / is bleeding through the centuries,
// that a reservoir of silky human grease / is oiling those celestial
. I dont want them to unload the gurney / from the
festooned ambulance: // the revelers in all their unforgiving / fury,
the new patient in her bandages." Lodens formidable skills
as a prosodist are also in evidence here; her masterful use of slant
rhyme in this book (seems/bleeding/centuries/grease/machines; gurney/fury;
ambulance/bandages) lends her pronouncements a graceful authority that
recalls Auden. This is an extremely accomplished debut.
Just Been Told
W. W. Norton, $22 (cloth)
The title of Elizabeth Macklins second book, with its connotations
of parental admonition (youve just been told not to do that) and
terminal diagnosis (youve just been told you are to die), succeeds
in capturing the fierce matter-of-factness of the collection. The new
poems, many of which treat the death of the poets mother, are
riddled with curt, slammed-shut endings: "I was not there."
"Now there isnt any." "Now we live here."
With grammarian precision, Macklin dissects each poem down to its bare
particulars of speech. What the title fails to capture is the struggle,
in the best poems of the collection, between this stark linguistic landscape
and a maze of lexicon and questioning that resists categoricals. "June
Intercedes in the Garden of Roses," for instance, begins with a
bare-faced assertion, but we later find that it has all the false calm
of Bishops "The Art of Losing." Macklin writes: "No
one you love is going to die." She follows this unadorned line
with an unexpectedly florid couplet: "The huddled gold roses. The
showy pink ones, bright / pink, under a mackerel sky" and
segues into a Glück-like line of abstract questioning: "Was
it irrevocable loss that kept you awake / last night? Fear of irrevocable
loss?" Like another extraordinary poem in the collection, "1,985
Years Though a Word Between Us," which traces the etymology of
a single phrase in Ovid (relapsa est), the meaning of the original
phrase"no one you love is going to die"slowly
and devastatingly alters over the course of the poem. By the time the
line is repeated at the poems close, we understand that no one
you love is going die in the future because someone you loved has already
died in the past. With great integrity and deftness, Macklin masters,
if not this loss, then the art of it.
Water Between Us
University of Pittsburgh
Press, $12.95 (paper)
The poems in The Water Between Us work to a compelling cumulative
effect. The title of the collection, the poets first, refers not
only to the water of birth but also to the mythological waters of memory
and the unconscious. Geographically, they also represent the speakers
separate lives in Jamaica and in the United States, and the waters her
Trinidadian grandmother crossed to reach Jamaica. Entered by children,
water here also marks the passage into maturity. McCallums poems
investigate childhood through the speakers engagement in the excavation
of a literal and figurative prelapsarian garden. In their engagement
with the question of identity, her parents become totemic figures, the
speaker comes into being as a woman, and the poems consider family history.
The poems possess a layered allusiveness; they are both discovery and
invention. This work incorporates fairy tale and myth to enlarge upon
and dramatize its narrative, which is rendered in simple, clear, almost
transparent language. The cadences are carefully measuredthe poems
endings often sliding shut in an underplayed tonal closure. There is
also a lovely condensation of concrete imagery: a child cuts out a paper
heart, a caterpillar "sprouts" wings in a marmalade jar. The
poet remarks, "What a special mango doll I made." McCallums
voice reflects a careful attention to diction, both in American English
and Jamaican patois, or "patwa," as she calls it. This is
an arresting new voice, it sings like a "surf rupturing herself
again and again."
HarperCollins, $23 (cloth)
In "The Poetic Principle," Poe claimed that there was no
such thing as a long poem, only a series of "brief poetical effects"
strung together by waste places of prosaic language. I was reminded
of my doubts about Poes principle when I encountered Susan Mitchells
Erotikon, an incredible new collection framed by two long poems.
Erotikon opens with "Bird: A Memoir," a fourteen-page
poem of loose septets, baroque and alliterative as Stevenss "The
Comedian as the Letter C," fetishistic, bawdy, and camp, with a
jouissance even Cixous would envy. The great feat of the poembeyond
its incessant symposium of questions, a hybrid of knock-knock jokes
and elegant Socratic Q & Ais the way in which Mitchell manages
to sustain the poem entirely as song without falling into the prosaic
lulls that Poe described. "From now on I will listen only to the
arias. / Spare me the long slow walk of recitative." To a certain
extent, "Bird" is the memoir of the lyric and how the diminished-thing
of song has survived through endless involutions: "If you go back
far enough in my family tree there are birds." "Bird"
manages to sustain its poetical effects through a shock of metrical
shifts ("I shall peck and peck / myself all naked of language,
with only my meter / to sound the way") and by constantly formulating
(and not definitively forming) an ideal poem, a song of songs, that
Mitchell calls "Erotikon." If "Bird" is a song of
memory ("in my Erotikon I wrote"), it is also a song of desire
("in my Erotikon I always hope to find"). The penultimate
poem in the collection is itself called "Erotikon"a
24-page brainstorm on such subjects as darkness and desire, technology
and etymology, the lyric and the intellect. Does the poem on the page
satisfy the expectations that "Bird" sets up for it? Not entirely.
But that seems part of Mitchells daring intentthat "Erotikon"
should fail to quench "all my mouths," that her song of songs
should not be one of brief poetical fulfillment, but of desire.
Touching the Headstone
Proust wrote of "the social world being the realm of nullity,"
and so it is to Perchik as well. Born in Paterson, N.J., in 1923, Perchik
is the author of more than a dozen books of poems; his preferred territory
is the mystical netherworld of physical and psychological alienation
("could be the ice forgets / surfaces where I trace your lips /
sip from the sharp stone")symbolized by the cenotaph that
provides the titlewhere acts of narrative cohesion and remembrance
are nearly inutterable, a "hum struggling in armor." Headstone,
then, recalls not only Charles Wrights "new geography, /
Landscapes stilled and adumbrated, memory unratcheting," but his
fantastical yet completely compos mentis imagery"two
lips would grow from your own / quietly into place / clot this darkness
and crust"; "Each night these branches lift off / dragging
a tree / that is not a scarecrow." This is certainly no derivative
collection, but rather a unique meditation on the orogeny of a soul.
Appropriately, nearly every poem is alternately peopled with rock, ice,
hillsides, and waves, the recurrence of their metaphoric heft and mutability
("one stone / crack[s] open the sun, the others / full length,
over you") forming a mantra which demands, and darkly celebrates,
the realization of mortality (man as "a basket full of riversides")
as a final step toward spiritual actualization (where "the Earth
[is] open again and overflowing"). Headstone is an extraordinary
modern-day adaptation of St. Gregorys dictum that contemplation
of human weakness is the path to beatitude; in the words of Perchik,
such is a bittersweet process of "light being born, already weeping
/ ... this bloodstained sand / ... made graceful / to welcome the lost."
Lunch: Selected Poems
Aleksandar Ristovic (translated
by Charles Simic)
Faber & Faber, $13
When Aleksandar Ristovic died in 1994, his poetry was little available
to English audiences; his sole appearances were a collection in 1989
and inclusion in a Serbian anthology published in 1992. In both cases,
Charles Simic served as translator and editor. Now, Simic has once again
taken on the task of making Ristovic known in English, culling together
a slim but faultless selection from his more than twenty collections.
Ristovic could not have wished for a better advocate: the affinity between
these two is deep. Like Simic, Ristovic juxtaposes the surreal and banal,
grotesque and beautiful, shockingly vulgar and metaphysically transcendent,
symbols of decay and despair with those of an irrepressible, humane
hope. By turns wryly satiric and nakedly vulnerable, Ristovic populates
his poems with a singular, shared set of images: rats, nunneries, nipples,
pigs, lavatories, a solitary lamp, or a glass of wine. The books
cover features a detail from the "Hell" panel of Boschs
Garden of Heavenly Delights, and the association is apt. Lines like
"[t]he water lay green in the stone well / while the frog watched
me with her red eyes / out of that other world" or "[n]ow,
we are walking under the big trees / in whose high branches the owls
sit brooding. / God whispers coarse words into their ears, but they
stay as they are" conjure up visions that seem to belong to Boschs
painting. Yet despite the nightmarish quality of these figures, one
might say of Ristovic what Simic has recently written of Bosch: "[a]gain
and again, [he] insists, where there is evil, theres also innocence."
The poems in this first book explore the difficulties in easing the
emptiness of what Emily Dickinson calls "our blank in bliss to
fill." (The author quotes Dickinsons poem in full at the
beginning of her collection.) Sharmas poems reveal her attempts
to fill that blank through the creation of poetry and the crafting of
an intimate connection to another person; both are accomplished, the
poems wryly tell us, with varying degrees of success: "And their
daughter grew into a poet. / Or she grew into a lover which was taking
up all her time / and poetry was only a series of mistakes worth claiming."
The poems resound with series of negatives, often displacing the readers
sense of what is literally being said ("Your station is not a-calling
/ without an amble thats airy. / You are not accustomed to floods"),
but reinforcing the poems acute sense of a void to be replenished
with the linking of words or of people: "but this vacuity wants
something / for nothing, sometimes I think the poem offers me / some
manifestation for nothing." Bliss to Fill is full of poems
of remarkable skill and range, alternating free verse with intricate
rhyme schemes like the sestina, and playing with dramatic shifts in
tone and diction; the speakers in several poems with otherwise casual
language address others with "thee" and "thou" ("
or are thou not interested to score / under this hostesss canvas
tent?"). Playfully experimental, yet uniformly thoughtful, these
poems examine, with a clear-sighted lack of sentimentality, "the
idea of soulmates" and the "elegance of love unrestraint."
University of Iowa Press,
The poems in Larissa Szporluks first book, Dark Sky Question,
scorned worldly existence (a "golden prison" of "weight"),
but despaired of ever escaping to a purer condition (variously named
"sky," "the sun realm," even good old "God"),
and so thrashed about in a kind of purgatory, unable to endure "here"
and unable to "cross the barrier." Although occasionally obscurantist,
Dark Sky Question was a debut of remarkable philosophical coherence
and lyric energy. In Isolato, Szporluk revisits her established
themes"Deer Crossing the Sea," a beautiful poem, would
have fit perfectly in the earlier bookbut the cryptic quality
of the earlier work has loosened up to admit a touch of autobiography.
One poem describes "my ex in his bright / existence, new live-in
woman." Another imagines the "rise and fall phenomenon"
of "the husband" seducing a "girl": "How old
did you say you were?" This new specificity is jarring: expecting
the rare air of Szporluks gnostic utterances, we are handed everyday
human heartbreak instead. The result is a strong temptation to return
to the more opaque poems and reinterpret them as veiled personal history.
The title poem is hermetic as you please if taken alone, but yields
easily to a reader predisposed to construe it as a lament for lost love.
Such an interpretive impulse is understandable, but some will say also
unfortunate, because it compromises the poems mystery. Others
will be happy to sacrifice a bit of Szporluks beguiling indeterminacy
in exchange for evidence of her humanity. Dark Sky Question was
virtuosic, but slick to the point of impenetrability. Isolato
admits more readily to the messiness of being human, and that vulnerability
makes these poems all the more affecting. "After so many spells,
the only language / is the fire of a person."
New Directions, $12.95
Rosemarie Waldrops fourteenth volume of poetry, composed primarily
of prose dialogues, proves indeed both reluctant and gravid. The voice(s)
that govern the text unstintingly refuse conclusion, examining not merely
the infinite things of this world, but the nature of their being in
time: the "[u]nreachable
left of the left margin."
All material and immaterial stands subject to this avid probe: "the
silences between parts. Of speech;" "the marrow of the mind
opaque like trauma;" "the way the sky turns deep honey
at noon." The he/she prose exchanges, broken by verse interludes,
approach quiet states of madness in their obsession with languages
attempts to deal with the indissoluble bonds and insurmountable divides
among body, mind, and spirit: "If I must have a god Ill take
the matter between noun and verb." Despite this overt trust in
language, the voice(s) cannot sit satisfied with any conclusive point
maybe Id rather have an old woman sprawled barefoot
through fields and space foam, pushing her breasts at any week in the
world as if the only true way to see were by touch." So that in
this volume, "writing
becomes an act of faith that [the]
bondage to grammar and lexicon is not in vain." Through the dialogue
form, the voice combats its own premise: "Do you mean
its futile to ignore the bright emptiness of symbols and plunge
to mine the deep?
where it is too dark for language to throw
its shadow?" Perhaps we, and Waldrops voices, must be satisfied
that, as one temporary conclusion in the text allows, "history
will take care of our rage for explanation."
Originally published in the October/
November 2000 issue of Boston Review