A. R. ("Archie") Ammons died on February 25, 2001. He was seventy-five. It is strange and yet unsurprising to read through his mid-career Collected Poems, re-issued in April, and to see that Ammons was writing about death from the very beginning. This is from the late 1950s: "I must go on / consigned to / form that will not / let me loose / except to death / till some syllable's rain / anoints my tongue / and makes it sing / to strangers." A half-century later, the rain—and the strangers listening—had become abundant. Ammons readers will recognize certain of his themes in place already: form and the destruction of form; freedom and constraint in body and mind; the simultaneous communion and isolation of poetry itself. What some might not recognize is the more explicit, almost-traditional religious cast of much of the early work, sometimes apparent even in the titles ("Hymn," "Doxology"). I say "almost" traditional because, while Ammons considered himself agnostic, he noted late in life that his Pentecostal upbringing had left him with the "sense of a distant home" conveyed in many church hymns, and in many of his poems. His own "prayers," even those early ones, could wield an edge, though: "keep me from my enemies' / wafered concision and zeal." Unconstrained by dogma, he also wrote poems argumentative as Jesuits, baffling and instructive as Zen Buddhists, and visionary and descriptive as Sufis. But these are merely categories. "My dice are crystal inlaid with gold," begins one sparkling oddity here, and ends as "the dice spoke their hard directive / and melting / left gold bits on the soil." The well-known "So I Said I Am Ezra" opens Collected Poems, suggesting the book's context as a series of related epistemological journeys in dramatic monologues. "I have been throughout the world sleuthing," one speaks in "Libation," "drawing back goatheads / and from the writhing throats bloodletting." Soon Ammons would set aside such heavy masks as he sought clarity's sound more nakedly, aspiring, as in a lesser-known Ezra poem, to "the Way in whose timeless reach / cool thought unpunishable / by bones eternally glides." Those lines tell us why death was always there: because knowledge and nothingness and eternity were there.
With Ammons, even among such themes, one rarely feels "cramped in abstraction's gilded loft," because the poems, high and low, know just where they are, and they tell us. American modernism and whatever has followed it are heavy with long poems which attempt to contain the fragmentary, but lacking integration, are archives at best, and more often cluttered drawers. In the three astonishing long works in Collected Poems ("Extremes And Moderations," "Essay on Poetics" with its poems within a poem, and "Hibernaculum"), we see how no poet is so alive to the processes linking the one and the many, the part and the whole, the high and the low, as Ammons is. He has always been simultaneously in flight toward "the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark" and knee-deep in his own backyard. "Shit List; or, Omnium-gatehrum of Diversity into Unity," is a joyous catalogue of ninety-five kinds of animal shit. Who but Ammons could include such in a book called Worldly Hopes? Like the other slim volumes published in the 1980s, this one gives us breathing room after the density of the Collected Poems. Here, in his continuing frankness toward the world, and in "self-endorsing song," Ammons makes a virtue of the egotistical sublime, allowing the breakthrough that "I may put writing aside some day to seek to know." Stevens wrote that the poet "fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives." It is heartbreaking to imagine a future without new poems from Archie Ammons, but the ones he gave us will continue to light the way: and "ahead, the road / pure of you."
Jensen/Daniels, $4 (paper)
Musing about his daughter throughout the chapbook First Life, his second poetry title, Burt Kimmelman expresses intense sentiment without sentimentality. Deploying stringent free-verse with Zukofsky-esque Objectivist precision, he plaintively probes mortality's impingement on growth and love. "For Jane, Age Three" explores children's perceptions of time: "Saying goodnight is saying goodbye— / leave-takings are forever. When / you were born, time began—yet for you / there's no such thing as time." If a child, as Kimmelman suggests, experiences "absence and return" as "instinct"—not as recurrent patterns—"time" does not exist for her. The father teaches temporal compartmentalization of the child's experiential continuum, "a world / of absolutes, the oddnesses not so remote." While death mocks the promise of reappearance ("There are times I say, 'I'll always be back.'"), the fiction of parental protection intensifies the father/daughter bond: "Saying goodbye seems against all nature." Death is even more firmly at the center of "Letter to My Dead Brother," which begins: "I suppose letters to the dead are common. / We need to speak, even when no one's there." But "Objects we inherit from the dead" abet and thwart elegiac desire to convert absence into reassuring presence; they engender "a strange language we speak / with astonishing clarity." The poet would tell his brother, who "never learned how children keep our time," how children influence parents' understanding of family's ongoing elaboration and how absolute ruptures dwell within and beyond narrative development. The pun on keeping time demonstrates that kids generate powerful new "readings" of family history, as "death forms / love" and "the photograph becomes memory." In First Life's poems, the balance of compelling images and deft abstractions helps us ponder how the transient stages of human connections engender abiding value, as does the difficulty of adequately representing such fleeting treasures.
Middlebury College, $26 (cloth), $12.95 (paper)
Hart Crane, referring to his "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," once noted, "I was really building a bridge between so-called classic experience and many divergent realities of our seething, confused cosmos of today." Witt's collection contains a similar blueprint, wherein the embodiment of juxtaposing voices, at times within the same poem, and a concern for both the sublime and the grotesque, demand a deeper engagement from the reader. Although these voicings are often rooted in the traumatic—an incest victim ("I am the red clay after a flood / I am the words trying to say father"), the aftermath of another's murder ("As if my heart were retinal, and your absence, just an image / Rather than an emptiness that impregnates me")—Witt is able to transcend the merely confessional lyric by calling attention to the construction of his various selves ("When I write, I write in a room / wherein many have died—these are called the Shining Ones, / who drift through me…"), by employing an almost baroque diction ("dissolvingly, inconsolably, albumenescently so") and by avoiding linear narratives. Witt's heavy reliance on outside texts, and subsequent inclusion of four pages of notes, occasionally comes close to outshining his own work, as in "From a Book of the Dead" whose most successful lines amount to little more than paraphrase of Walter Benjamin's famous passage on the Angel of History—a figure previously explored/exhausted by both Carolyn Forché and Michael Palmer. Yet as Hart Crane makes clear, "The poet has a right to draw on whatever practical resources he finds…He must tax his sensibility and his touchstone of experience for the proper selections of these themes and details, however—and that is where he either stands, or falls into useless archaeology." Though an unabashed archaeologist, Witt has given us a beautiful polyphony of interesting, heartfelt poems.
—Noah E. Gordon
Reft and Light
Burning Deck, $10 (paper)
Compiling multiple translations of an individual poet has been a cornerstone of translation workshops for decades. It is rare, though, for these experiments to ever find their way out of the classroom and into print. Reft and Light integrates different versions of the work of Austrian poet Ernst Jandl by thirty-five different poets, including Charles Bernstein, Lee Ann Brown, John Yau, Marjorie Welish, and Kenward Elmslie. The first section of the book is built on imitations and near-literal translations; section two, translations and adaptations rendered by either Rosmarie Waldrop or Anselm Hollo, and several of Jandl's poems reft in their original form. There are brief, shining moments in the opening section, but there are also one too many phonemic imitations that vacillate between anemia and pop-tangents. The complex linguistic and comic games that Jandl employs in his own poetry too often devolve into a bilingual vaudeville, "dis and dat" or "ave banana," a phrase which is spurred on by the final word, "ananas" in Jandl's poem "hosi." Rosmarie Waldrop's preface states that, "Most of Ernst Jandl's poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate." And herein lies the flaw in a majority of the imitations—the translators go no further than a mimicry of Jandl's repetitions and transpositions, while exhibiting seemingly little concern for what the transpositions were intended to create. Exceptions to this are Welish's cyberization of the Bessemer converter in "Bessemerbirnen," and, for some inexplicable reason, most of the various imitations of a single Jandl poem, "das grosse e." The imitations of this one poem, along with numerous lines from the second section that haunt their way into the head: "in the nest of taughtology" or "l'amour / die tür / the chair / der bauch" salvages the pidgin wit of Jandl's language for an English speaking audience.
Invisible Cities Press, $19.95
Bob Hicok is armed with a full quiver. Anyone unfortunate enough to fall within his sightlines will bear the brunt of a humorous yet insistent and incisive probing of USA, c. 2001. As duly and aptly foreshadowed by his epigraph ("cave canem"), Hicok is courteous enough to offer warning barks, but will bite when provoked—in this case, by contemporary culture's intrusive banality. The first line of the book, "Fish can have mad cow disease and I have a problem / with that," gives but a glimpse of the kind of narrator we're embarking with. The final section of the same poem ("Whither Thou Goest")—"how and why you flee, in what manner / or mode you glide and thrash / … there's the moment you wake or refuse / to ever sleep again"—underscores the malcontent nature of Hicok's flaneur, perusing a refuse-filled landscape, akin to the hopeful man adorning the book's cover: he looks upward hopefully, yet wears x-ray specs as if to say the route toward Somewhere is clouded. "Slim Jims / & Newports," "Del Shannon and Nirvana," "the Hostess display" and "Scoobie Doo" are just a few of the "condiments" Hicok would "slip … neatly into the trash" if he had his druthers ("Birth of a Saint"). A Joel-Peter Witkin epigraph in "Harm's Way" ("…our agony to attain Utopia [has] made existence a form of pathology") further encapsulates Hicok's colorful but frustrating sturm, where hope ("the small weight of one / drop of one / world of one last chance / to adore beyond reason") collides with nihilism ("I'd saved / a life in the sense / that killing / everyone / would open up / a lot / of space"). A triumph of startling vision, the book's gorgeous production—heavy brownboard cover, hip fonts, sumptuous paper—also heralds the triumphal state of the American small press.
They Can't Take That Away from Me
University of Chicago Press, $26 (cloth), $12 (paper)
Belying the romance of the familiar Gershwin song, Gail Mazur's They Can't Take that Away from Me turns a clear eye to the ambivalence that is our human birthright, the paradoxical plight of one who tries "to practice goodness / I know isn't graphed in my genes / the way designs are programmed / in the cells of a butterfly's wing." In this, her fourth collection, Mazur expresses both the pain and the necessity of cultivating a vigilant kindness towards the world. Yet her poems turn on the inner life's resistance to any ethical imperative. The book's inaugural "Five Poems Entitled 'Questions'" read as contemporary psalms, at once craving and resisting the teleology of redemption: "Won't I always yearn for and fear an answer?" Through a masterful use of the interrogative form, series of adjectives that manage never to sound ornamental, and a plainspoken yet rhythmic line, Mazur sustains Keatsian negative capability throughout the book to startling emotional effect. As echo and historical counterpoint, she has punctuated the volume with several poems written in the manner of the Italian poet Vittorio Sereni, who recognized "the angel / of extermination" in his anger towards his young daughter. Like Sereni, Mazur is uncannily alert to the specter of cruelty subsisting in the everyday, whether in the discomfiting lessons of the dream world (feeding a beloved dog a dish of cinders, for example) or in a conversation with a racist stranger. Her poems remain a study in what Yeats called the "enterprise / In walking naked": a bareness that is singular yet exemplary.
The Annotated "Here" and Selected Poems
Coffee House Press, $14.95 (paper)
The title of Marjorie Welish's new series of thirty-three poems, which
heads selections from two decades of verse, locates presence in quotes—yet
likewise grants this by now familiar world of post-iteration the gift
of annotation. Welish's latest work continues "addressing the canvas"
of everyday event with an exacting eye (or "eyelash," as the opening
poem puts it) that only the most alert beholder of twentieth-century
experimentalism could hone. Interposing clipped, recombined lyric with
essay, Welish mines the limits of discursivity in ways dynamically distinct
from her impressive art criticism (which, recently collected, will acquaint
readers with some of the poems' unacknowledged influences: Johns, Kelly,
Judd). Literal edginess—of canvases and lidless boxes—measures
the signifier's "landslide," glissando, and mobile reprise. Welish's
investment in objects, the "very explicit pressures" of table and chair,
always remembers the tradition of analysis that chooses these as the
vernacular anchors of intellectual flight—even as it refuses the
static position of philosophe. Such attention echoes modernist
forebears Stevens and Williams, translated into shifting contexts in
the last of the new sections—the bare, masterful jar now "fermenting
place," the dependable red wheelbarrow displaced by black diluvium.
Here "Negativity, the architect of," rules. But even in her self-restrictions
to severe black-on-black, Welish generates pleasures of unanticipated
wit. Her poems construct their own context, founding and furnishing
the entryway of the "if," prizing not causes but conditions. So, though
smart and tough in its inclusions, this selection is no substitute
for the more gradual and sustained entry into the field afforded by
her intact series—although the career-long inquiry it records
more than makes up for its truncations. Even though, in concert with
contemporary theory, Welish posits a world of belated, thwarted deixis,
of quasi-chimerical example, her written words answer the question posed
by "Setting, Or Farewell": "How is this example alive?"
Grove, $13 (paper)
In the thirteen years between her first poetry collection, Memoir,
and her second, Darling, Honor Moore wrote The White Blackbird,
a biography of the artist Margarett Sargent (Moore's grandmother),
as well as a verse play. Poetry readers who loved Memoir will
be interested to note how this versatile author's new poems are clearly
influenced by her explorations of the visual arts, and her work in biography
and theater. Darling is saturated with sensuality and a poet's
yearning for visual expression with elegant descriptions of light and
evocations of color. In lush monologues, Moore brings to startling life
the women featured in Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas's paintings. In "The
Girl in the Fur-Trimmed Dress," the female narrator takes issue with
Toulouse-Lautrec's famous rendering of her former lover, remembering
with searing clarity and affection the middle-aged body of the model
as the artist, seemingly, cannot. "She Remembers" is spoken in the voice
of the woman in Edgar Degas's painting, The Bath, and describes
a luminous carnality, love tinged with bitterness, between artist and
model ("I won't say what we did / that I wanted again and again, only
/ what grief I felt in his wanting"). These two poems comment wryly
on "New Haven 1969," a stark recollection of another kind of artist/model
scenario: innocent college student assaulted by rapacious photographer.
Blunt and brave, this poem describes the story in curt, plain couplets:
"It's an infection. / I call the gynecologist. He / asks if I've told
anyone, / prescribes, hangs up." Where "New Haven" depicts this sorrow,
other poems celebrate more tender rituals of courtship, of falling in
love, of remembering love, all with Moore's unique ability to infuse
her poems with real body heat, emotional electricity, and the divine
grief at the center of desire.
Verse Press, $12 (paper)
Richard Meier's first book, selected by Tomasz Salamun for the 2000
Verse Prize, maps the uneasy ground between the desire for transcendence
and a pervasive, almost atmospheric, sense of aporia: "I've an in /
between, a canyon's shaking, for the essential / part of it is missing"
he writes in "Nonplussed," positing his I in contrast to "Dante
the divine / detective." Unlike Dante, who journeyed from mid-life abyss
toward redemption, Meier's lyrics skirt the edges of that abyss, hoping
that "a cavity can lure / its opposite, fulfillment." The book is, in
a central paradox, full of "the missing": AWOL coffins, deserted farmhouses,
oceans that "used to live here" are just a few of the items whose disappearance
sets the poems in motion, little clocks whose "arrhythmia advances the
hours to a dead certainty." The poems feverishly attempt to avoid this
"certainty" and the death attendant with it, and often succeed wonderfully,
cleverly, by sleight of hand. In "Obvious Doubles," the first poem in
the collection, he hints at this tack, arguing that "absence embodied
is different / that its shifts aren't loss." These "shifts" are everywhere,
in the music of "enamel against enamel against idyll, cold pastoral
/ traded up" or "unman that manikin and you will awaken" or found in
the boy "transfixed by the picture / of the man who holds the picture
of the man / who holds the picture" leading to "wonder irreproachable."
Occasionally this shuffling leads to a cryptic, Yoda-like neo-mysticism:
"What to make of proved a good dog also?" More often than not, though,
the poems manage a masterful combination of serious-mindedness and play.
Rarely has the Merwinesque negative lyric been so noisy or populated,
by birdsong and cocktail party, church bells and happy hour. Still,
the poems return ineluctably to an existence predicated on absence,
"brought on by a lack": "Dark, iridescent, the starling lives in the
gable. / A hole in the shelter. A shelter."