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Nothing Doing
Cid Corman
New Directions, $13.95 (paper)

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. Corman’s 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."

–Catherine Daly

The Star-Spangled Banner
Denise Duhamel
Southern Illinois University Press, $11.95 (paper)

A prosaic style and straightforward voice harmonize the poems in Denise Duhamel’s The Star Spangled Banner, winner of the 1999 Crab Orchard Award. These qualities also bolster the poet’s sanity against a world in which the failures of language lead to humorous and sometimes tragic misunderstandings. Many of these misunderstandings generate from the author’s 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…" and jags off into a narrative about an imaginary Latin lover. In The Star-Spangled Banner, Duhamel’s 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."

–David Roderick

Some Ether
Nick Flynn
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 book’s "I." The father who disappears among scattered towns–furious, 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: "I’ll 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 mother’s suicide is but one more example–if the most devastating–of 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 Commedia’s pursuit of the ethereal lover/spirit, Flynn’s 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."

–Tom Thompson

Mark Halliday
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 self’s wolfish hungers and weaknesses. His chosen terrain is the never-resolved tug-of-war between self-reliance and empathy–between 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 poetry’s lack of interest in other people. Halliday’s 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 hour’s 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."

–Andrew Epstein

Hotel Imperium
Rachel Loden
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 Nixon’s "Checkers" speech to Alan Greenspan, Clairol advertisements, Little Richard, CNN, Bebe Rebozo, and the Soviet Writers’ Union, to name a few. Loden’s unusual subject matter can lull her into rhetorical sloth–she 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 Sparrow’s picketing of The New Yorker a few years back ("My poetry is as bad as yours!") in a bid for his fifteen minutes, and Loden’s poem is as merely cute (and as forgettable) as the incident itself. "Last W & T," a collage of passages from Nixon’s 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 book’s best poem, demonstrates Loden’s 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 machines…. I don’t want them to unload the gurney / from the festooned ambulance: // the revelers in all their unforgiving / fury, the new patient in her bandages." Loden’s 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.

–Joel Brouwer

You’ve Just Been Told
Elizabeth Macklin
W. W. Norton, $22 (cloth)

The title of Elizabeth Macklin’s second book, with its connotations of parental admonition (you’ve just been told not to do that) and terminal diagnosis (you’ve 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 poet’s mother, are riddled with curt, slammed-shut endings: "I was not there." "Now there isn’t 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 Bishop’s "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 poem’s 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.

–Christina Davis

The Water Between Us
Shara McCallum
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 poet’s 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 speaker’s 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. McCallum’s poems investigate childhood through the speaker’s 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 measured–the 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." McCallum’s 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."

–Tina Barr

Susan Mitchell
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 Poe’s principle when I encountered Susan Mitchell’s 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 Stevens’s "The Comedian as the Letter C," fetishistic, bawdy, and camp, with a jouissance even Cixous would envy. The great feat of the poem–beyond its incessant symposium of questions, a hybrid of knock-knock jokes and elegant Socratic Q & A–is 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 Mitchell’s daring intent–that "Erotikon" should fail to quench "all my mouths," that her song of songs should not be one of brief poetical fulfillment, but of desire.

–Christina Davis

Touching the Headstone
Simon Perchik
Stride Publications, $11 (paper)

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 title–where acts of narrative cohesion and remembrance are nearly inutterable, a "hum struggling in armor." Headstone, then, recalls not only Charles Wright’s "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. Gregory’s 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."

–Ethan Paquin

Devil’s Lunch: Selected Poems
Aleksandar Ristovic (translated by Charles Simic)
Faber & Faber, $13 (paper)

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 book’s cover features a detail from the "Hell" panel of Bosch’s 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 Bosch’s 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, there’s also innocence."

–Monica Ferrell

Bliss to Fill
Prageeta Sharma
Subpress Collective, $10 (paper)

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 Dickinson’s poem in full at the beginning of her collection.) Sharma’s 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 reader’s sense of what is literally being said ("Your station is not a-calling / without an amble that’s 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 hostess’s 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."

–Tara Neelakantappa

Larissa Szporluk
University of Iowa Press, $10.95 (paper)

The poems in Larissa Szporluk’s 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 book–but 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 Szporluk’s 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 poem’s mystery. Others will be happy to sacrifice a bit of Szporluk’s 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."

–Joel Brouwer

Reluctant Gravities
Rosemarie Waldrop
New Directions, $12.95 (cloth)

Rosemarie Waldrop’s 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 language’s attempts to deal with the indissoluble bonds and insurmountable divides among body, mind, and spirit: "If I must have a god I’ll take the matter between noun and verb." Despite this overt trust in language, the voice(s) cannot sit satisfied with any conclusive point "… maybe I’d 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 … that it’s 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 Waldrop’s voices, must be satisfied that, as one temporary conclusion in the text allows, "history will take care of our rage for explanation."

–Ann Humphreys

Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review

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