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Poetry Microreviews

Black Series
Laurie Sheck
Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (cloth)

"The days are trespass, // and their song is made of Darkness mixed with Light" Laurie Sheck writes in "Summer Storm" from her fourth volume, Black Series. In poem after poem in this ambitious, intelligent, and moving book, Sheck brings us to places and moments of trespass—borders, thresholds, windows, walls, screens, veils, dusk, the moment of waking—against which she gently pushes, crossing out from the ordinary into a lyrical place of dark and light, contradiction and strangeness. Like Whitman, whose long line she borrows, Sheck builds her poems upon opposition and incorporation. The impersonal contemporary world of e-mail, mannequins, and television abuts the romantic world of wind, flowers, and trees, and in this space of contradiction, the self is found through glimpses: "inside a parenthesis," a "ghost," "made, and then remade, unmade," "lightning." The intricacy of the volume's metaphysical inquiry is always grounded in human experience, in the necessary requirements of an active inner life. In the book's last poem, Sheck stands on the subway platform and wonders: "and the people all around me, how many hadn't / at some time or other curled up in their beds with the shades drawn, / not knowing how to feel the forwardness, or any trace / of joy?" What answers this image of darkness is an epiphanic moment of affirmation: as the train pulls up and Sheck steps across the threshold of the platform's yellow line, she sees the many colored dresses all around her, and the hems of these dresses seem to leap toward her "as if a seamstress had loosed them like laughter from her hands." Thus the volume's last image invites us into forwardness, out beyond the final seam of the book once more into the strange unknown—or back, again, to the volume's beginning.

—Nadia Herman Colburn


Strange Land
Sharon Kraus
University of Florida, $12.95 (paper)

Much like T. S. Eliot's epigraph to "Marina," which suspends the poem between Hercules' child-murdering madness and Pericles' redemptive reunion with his daughter, the epigraphs to Sharon Kraus's superb second collection of poems, Strange Land, position the reader between a strangeness born of exile and captivity ("How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land") and a strangeness wrought of newness and hope ("There is also for you something to be gained in this strange land"). The structure of the book sustains this condition, alternating seamlessly between poems about an abusive mother—whom Kraus recreates with all the repulsion and attraction with which Robert Duncan might conjure his falconress—and a portrait of a marriage, a source of redemption for the narrator, but also the fulcrum of a grave internal struggle. The tether is the primeval instrument of these poems. From the tropism of "the other agony, the aching turn toward the source" to the stave of "the man from Judah," Kraus is as adept with this conceit as George Herbert was with the pulley: "How he led her mornings / To the succulent meadow and tethered her by his door /…and at the appointed day, / he led her with songs and chirruks / into the thorned wood because he was / full of sin—his appetite, his anger at his Maker." Yet true to the pendulous structure of the book, the poems conjure an equal and opposite terror—that of freedom or "untetheredness." In "The Fight," Kraus considers her husband: "That this other creature, / though also wracked, might spare me /a particular terror, an infinite terror: of un- / tetheredness." And how we, as readers, are forced from the couch on which this marital conflict occurs and made to fathom the "container of the 56 celestial spheres" of the universe is the marvel and metaphysics of these poems.

—Christina Davis


Cascadia
Brenda Hillman
Wesleyan University Press, $12.95 (paper)

With reference to the landform that bordered California (then underwater) 130 million years ago, the title of Brenda Hillman's sixth collection announces an excavation of earthbound logics and legacies, as well as the "cascading" linguistic strategies employed throughout. Against a backdrop of epochal geological change, Hillman presents fractured glimpses of contemporary middle-class life, a notational tumble that includes references to "grackles like computers starting up," Visa and Mastercard, shared custody, e-mail, working out at the Y, staying at corporate chain hotels, a "cellphone…ringing into the mocha," and "switching to de-caf." The witty poem "Styrofoam Cup" gives us a characteristic anti-ode to an anti-urn: the fragment "thou still unravished" breaks down into the unsettling "unthou unbride," with an implicit comment on the splitting of subjective utterance and the gendered array of that undoing. Yet despite their variegated linguistic surfaces, many of these poems seem to arise from the same tonal register—the same boredom and distracted fatigue that drive one to pick apart a styrofoam cup. The best of the poems here, including "Air for Mercury," "Patterns of Paint in Certain Small Missions," and "Noon Chain Replica" (these last two from a series that retraces steps and signifying systems through California missions), suggest ways to move beyond that boredom, to mediate if not ameliorate contemporary ennui by endeavoring to "Reassemble ruined stars." As in many collections predicated on disjunctive procedures this late in the modernist game, it goes without saying in Cascadia that no re-assembled, coherent, or redemptive whole is possible—not in geography or history, and certainly not in twenty-first century suburbia—but Hillman manages to gather together enough reflective fragments to throw some "lemon hyphen moonlight" on the tired ground.

—Barbara Fischer


Airs, Waters, Places
Bin Ramke
Iowa University Press, $16 (paper)

Ramke's seventh collection of poems exhibits the same humanistic authority and sincerity found in such previous books as Massacre of the Innocents and Wake. But in this latest collection, the poet takes on our stark cultural landscape with a fresh, contemporary keenness ("The children are killing each other elsewhere / not here not among the marble busts and cenotaphs"). Throughout, Ramke maintains an acuity of insight without ever compromising tenderness, and this, above all, lends the book's urgent inquiry a sense of deep rootedness. Airs, Waters, Places (the title is lifted from a Hippocratic medical treatise) comprises mostly long poems that explore the physical and spiritual body and the consequences of such exploration. Citations of other texts (from Pythagoras to Anne Carson) float in and out of poems as Ramke assumes the vantage points of saints, scientists, gods, and newspapers, all conspiring to warn the reader that "The world is in flames again, piled high." Ever aware of the detriment hidden in our great bulk of wisdom ("Who knows what mind / can know the future thus well, this / willfully?"), Ramke is wary, yet wryly romantic; in "Echo" he writes: "Until finally the stars drift across our bedroom /over the bed and we are elsewhere and the stars /are themselves and the dark universe broods /upon its little Eggs and Wonders." Unabashed by "that other mathematics, the one that predicts / the end of everything," Ramke reveals a willingness to love the things we are afraid to claim as our own: history, the body, the spirit. In "Paraclete," he writes of a man who becomes a "simple lover" and asks "…who would wound such a person? such a program? / This is how it works: an interior tryst, a private / agreement with himself to love it all always, its charm." The world Ramke imagines is the world we all know, but he lends it a kernel of possibility, a rare gift to a readership tired with cynicism and the familiar ponderings of the overschooled.

—Carmen Gimenez-Rosello


Atet A.D.
Nathaniel Mackey
City Lights, $13.95 (paper)

Atet A.D., the third installment of Mackey's ongoing epistolary work, From a Broken Bottle of Perfume Traces Still Emanate, picks up with the narrator, N., relating the news of Thelonious Monk's death and proceeds to a memorial gig played by the Mystic Horn Society, of which N. is a founding member. The letters, always addressed to "Dear Angel of Dust," mark one side of an exchange that spans seven months. Although there is a solid narrative here—the gigs played by the band, their decision to change their name to Molimo m'Atet (a reference at once to the singing ritual of the Mbuti Pygmies as well as the Egyptian boat said to carry the sun across the sky), the appearance of cartoon-like speech balloons from the band members' horns during performance, the recording of their first record, and the sexual tension between band members—what really carries the reader through the book is Mackey's linguistic transcription of musical exchanges. Rather than explain the musical interactions of band members during practice and performance, N. transposes them into verbal dialogue, a linguistic landscape wherein the fabric separating the abstract from the concrete is frayed in such a way that the one continually bleeds into the other. The letters also serve as an ethnographic map of the cross-cultural dialogues and layering of quotations often present within a single piece of music. Mackey's rampant alliteration and his reconfiguration of words on the phonemic and morphemic level create a sonic atmosphere that enacts a state of jazz.

—Noah E. Gordon


Everything Happens
Dominique Fourcade Translated by Stacy Doris
Post Apollo Press $10 (paper)

Dominique Fourcade offers a key to Everything Happens in his book's sly, self-deprecating afterword: this "little book," he claims, was intended as a performance—a performance cancelled after a bout of stage-fright and laryngitis. The claim is both ironic (the poet praises Manet for giving modernism a "larynx") and ambiguous (the text is a deferral, the result of a subversion of voice). Everything Happens presses these ambiguities: Fourcade's complex of voices constitute a virtuosic, fugue-like "performance" with the off-handed verve of improvisation and the whimsy of variations-on-a-theme; as a prose-poem, the text is neurotically aware of its own limitations—those imposed by language, memory, perception (everything might happen without our noticing it), performance, death. The point of departure is the title (in French, Tout Arrive), a phrase written at the top of a note from Manet to Mallarmé. It is the book's overriding argument that "in this past century and a half there has been no event more decisive than the fact that a man chose these two words as a poetics." In tracing the genealogy of this two-word ars poetica, Fourcade finds himself "embarking on a shimmering apprenticeship," poring through the disorganized archives of memory and through the streets of Paris, trudging towards the "maddening simultaneity" of "experiencing everything at once." If Fourcade appears guilty of repetition or reductionism, it is because "everything happens" is about everything, or rather, everything about writing/writing about everything. Repetition is palimpsest, and palimpsest is the search for the true form, the ultimate reduction, the "life of the subject." As an enactment of simultaneity within the limits of temporality, Everything Happens requires a language of working and reworking, of trial and error, of layered voices in which repetitions, breaks in discourse (rather than line-breaks) enact a dialectical movement towards the Statement at the heart of all other statements. This is, as Stevens says, "the essential prose…to which all poems were incident": this exploration is both what "everything happens" means and what it aims to do.

—John Hulsey


Radio, Radio
Ben Doyle
Louisiana State University Press, $16.95 (paper)

The poet stands at the edge, emptied, exhausted, marveling at a world, new and newly surreal, which "does not seem shocking." If he shouts "Radio," in what shape will the echo resound? Here is the critical question and it is marked by the collection's half-jocular, half-reverent invocation: "O my goddess, O my goodness." Post-romanticism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism, Ben Doyle's Radio, Radio, proceeds through a landscape where "Lethe's ends [have] crept together" and become a lake, so when the speaker of the penultimate "Weathers" says "I love you I hummed I can't swim," joy and desperation have met and our predicament is clear. Doyle is deft. Structurally driven and pressed by traditional notions of form, the language of these poems is permitted decline; in fits of alliterative post-Hopkinsian glee, it runs: "Hollowing, Hello, thing. Hell, lathing. Howlingly singing holes." Further, if the tone is ironic in its allusions to pop-music and pop-culture ("This stupid skiff won't get me to the gulf on time"), it is also informed by sincere philosophical concerns about progression, memory, and consciousness. For example, in "The New Season," for the "deconditioning of the dogs," the speaker "stuff[s] them with steak for weeks then offer[s] them / a fruit cocktail…." This same man ends up dancing with one in the den; asking later to be bound to a post, he begs, "please divide me / like the day, the age—." In the title poem, a beautiful lyric at the book's center, we are led and lulled by a woman who "works burying swans alive / into the black earth." In this world where nostalgia meets premonition, where elegy meets ode, we don't know whether to step forward or back, but we accept with pleasure our sentence: "She makes me feed them by hand / twice a day for one full year."

—Sally Keith


On the Cave You Live In
Philip Jenks
Flood Editions, $10 (paper)

Philip Jenks should be feared for what he's yet to write. His first full-length book reads as if Patmos had been an island in West Virginia, and now that Jenks is back among us, all will be converted to "The New Jesus," or at least made to look back over our shoulders. These are poems of reckoning, and poems to be reckoned with. Some of what sets Jenks apart from the slew of 'new American voices' is his comfort under a quilt of dialects, and with schools of thought that run the table up through a Foucaultian paranoia (in the foreboding "Panoptikos") to the domestically ominous eye that his mother paints on the clock: "His speech is from crevices / running diagonal through the /underneath what was A&PS." His diction draws on epileptic fits of tongues and a proved geometry that first appears in the book as a bodiless 'I/you.' These siamese spectres separate and then come stand in opposition to each other, as in the opening poem ("I didn't write you today. / when I did / you were all hollowed out / boney cuneiform / on the cave you live in"), or later in "Tropics," ("You're the interfused strata / that and you together / that was incalculable"). The 'I/you' and "I-Thou" are both the known and that which is still being glimpsed from within the cave. And then just as these propositions are set forth, the book steps out of its cavernous strictures into a landscape where John the Baptist, Christ, and Archimedes might walk over the same bridge. At this point the language becomes as dense as an Appalachian landscape, ostensibly mute of meaning ("dumstruc you al fa falling / blunder with laundered airs / is hot plus the hot blacktop"), though these sonic abstractions are carefully augmented by sweet lyrical stanzas and brief returns to the logic problems posed at the beginning.

—Christopher Mattison


Hourglass Transcripts
Susan Gevirtz
Burning Deck, $10 (paper)

In her essay "The Rejection of Closure," Lyn Hejinian observes that the poetic fragment functions not only as a "suggestive shard" of something lost, but may also represent something present and complete. Sparing of punctuation, stripped of directive syntax, and arranged in airy cascades ("Here falls // From there"), Susan Gevirtz's Hourglass Transcripts first appears as a network of fragments: Calder-like sculptures that rotate randomly in the breezes of sound and tentatively applied sense. But Gevirtz, a San Francisco poet of the Language persuasion, knows how to conjure the vibrant inner life of words and phrases by revealing their homophonic hailing frequencies ("many entrances / many embraces entrance us") and unpredictable contextual tensions ("Space is a frame up / we fill ourselves / in"). Her poems are intricate and scrupulously designed, but passive readers should be warned that conscious, creative engagement is required to navigate their ever-shifting, suggestive terrain. The long poem "Syllabary Dispossession" evokes a fresh crime scene with spatial dishevelment and split lines of type scattered like clues which can only be deciphered by covering one half or the other—deriving, however inconclusively, whole words from pieces of letters. The section "Hollowed Out Book" coheres only after one realizes that the individual poems' titles are the names of transoceanic shipping companies. Whether or not readers appreciate Gevirtz's theory-based structural methods and the serious mien that accompanies them, there is much to admire in the details: the koan-like suggestiveness of "Deferral" ("close distance will / close distance"), or the dangerously conventional pleasures of metaphor in "The Annexes," in which winter is defined as "this long misconstruance / of what could / be light." An heir to the Objectivist legacies of George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker, Gevirtz lets us take no thing for granted.

—Fred Muratori


Florida Poems
Campbell McGrath
Ecco/HarperCollins, $22.95 (cloth)

Recent history has not been kind to Florida, whose name sooner conjures images of butterfly ballots and Elián Gonzalez than pink flamingoes. Though such news-channel fodder seems unpromising inspiration for poetry, one might have expected Campbell McGrath, a native Floridian, to find it there. His four previous collections were as much cultural commentary as poetry, a colorfully biased journalism that assembled an operating definition of America by recording its contradictions and commodities, its weirdness and banality. But Florida Poems takes a mythic, historical approach to the Sunshine State. The opener, "A City in the Clouds," a fanciful allegory of colonial exploitation, borrows its setting from Aristophanes' The Birds. "William Bartram Beset by Crocodiles or Alligators" comes to us in the voice of the eighteenth-century naturalist, while other poems idealize the state's flora and fauna (an orange is a "golden orb, miraculous ur-fruit"). Following Whitman and the director John Ford, McGrath favors panoramic views, broad perspectives abetted by page-spanning lines, continental stanzas, and opulent imagery ("Hibiscus / ixora, night-blooming / jasmine's Socratic dialogue with daylight, // kin to the high tide's / lunar ambrosia."). But there's a level of detail missing in the middle distance, a certain human dimension. Whitman's poems teem with "the sprawl and fullness" of people in motion; McGrath's do not. Ford centered intimate dramas of personal survival and conquest in immutable western vistas, whereas McGrath invokes a florid but generalized rhetoric ("a republic of bananas and Banana Republics, / where cars are the chosen and credit cards the elect") that can caricature and distance the immediate experience it seeks to emphasize. But if McGrath tests a reader's endurance in the longer poems, he can also surprise with a villanelle ("Because This is Florida") or charm with musical wit ("Hemingway Dines on Boiled Shrimp and Beer"). Like the state he eulogizes, McGrath's poems promise an abundance of attractions for the adventurous visitor.

—Fred Muratori


Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems
Denise Duhamel
University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95 (paper)

By conventional standards, it is early for a "selected" volume of poems by Denise Duhamel: her first collection, Smile! appeared in 1993. That she has been extremely prolific since then, publishing four more full-length books and a chapbook, merits the publication of the present volume less than the fact that Queen for a Day shows—as such collections rarely do—the ongoing development of an exciting and decidedly unconventional sensibility. The quality of the poems is necessarily uneven over the course of this evolution. Duhamel tends to overdo the earliest poems, writing beyond their most consequential moments and delimiting their interpretive potential until the only reading that remains is the one she has conceived for us. Similarly, the poems from two thematic collections, The Woman with Two Vaginas (based on Inuit folklore) and Kinky (on the secret lives of Barbie dolls), often get bogged down in their predetermined subject matter, frustrating their movements toward discovery. Even in the weaker selections, however, we can glean the principal virtues of Duhamel's poetics: a long, discursive line reminiscent of Goldbarth and a fascination with significant revelations that take shape within the interconnected trivialities of everyday life. By the time we reach the new poems, Duhamel's line and rhetoric achieve a powerful harmony. This is especially true in "Mia and Darger, Ashbery and Gina," a rangy meditation on art, influence, and literary ambition, and in "Superego," which synthesizes personal conversation, memory, and ironic commentary on an earlier poem. The risk throughout Queen for a Day is that readers will lose patience with Duhamel's meandering thoughts and her deferral of linguistic gratification. The payoff is that her poems often produce a grand polyphony underneath their deceptively simple surfaces. Instead of benchmarking an already familiar career, this "selected" volume constitutes an auspicious beginning.

—Benjamin Paloff


Sleeping with the Dictionary
Harryette Mullen
University of California Press, $14.95 (paper)

Harryette Mullen's latest set of artful mis-hearings and mis-writings gives you the queasy sense that you haven't been paying enough attention. The amplitude of her absorption lets in an ambient soundscape of doublespeak, bus-talk, NPR, archaisms, pleasantries, euphemisms, jokes, fairy tales, language lessons, nationalistic anthems, and mixed metaphors as readily as it does the Shakespearean sonnet, then subjects it to sonic transpositions and Oulipian operations as well as alphabetical and acrostic ordering. This labor insists on poetry's centrality as captor and medium of departure in everyday life. High tonal ambiguity envelops Mullen's unfixed vernaculars, mixing relish in their absurdity with genuine ire, while her wordplay defamiliarizes such stultifying expressions as "boon coon" and "collateral damage." Mullen's fierce anti-essentialism and "bad attitude" are imbued with a painful awareness of the tendentious dictates and pricks of phallogos (also radiantly displayed in the 1992 S*PeRM**K*T). But she quotes and reorients shelved notions of gender, class, and the color spectrum ("purepeople / be lack / why it / pee ink") to address their "Dark Content" without the invasive penetration. In her radically anti-metaphorical work, even standard figures become opportunities for loitering in the literal. The verses take up and give what Williams called "an excrement of some sky." Mullen's subjects occupy a dimly recognizable terrain between Aristotelian poles of form and matter, actuality and potentiality. While some may lose patience with the collection's hilarious excesses, the potential spin-out of certain improvisations (the exhaustive "Jinglejangle," for example) is checked by the pattern's inevitability. Submit to its "Blah-Blah" and you'll be bothered and delighted by what you find there. Mullen forces us to act and react as language's riddlers and addicts: "as shadow as promised / as drinking fountain as well / as grassfire as myself / as mirror as is / as never as this."

 —Jennifer Scappettone


Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-second Essays
James Richardson
Ausable Press, $14 (paper)

James Richardson's Vectors is a book of hard-won wisdom and stark pleasure in the form of 500 lyrical aphorisms and epigrams. Merging the poetry of silence and wonder with the intensity and integrity of philosophy, these "ten-second" essays boast a breathtaking simplicity ("Happiness is not the only happiness") which reveals the complexity and conundrums of existence. As in a Zen koan, where the question itself is also the answer, Richardson's unassuming introspection takes on nothing less than the subjective world, and—with equal thoroughness—the subject itself, without reducing or aggrandizing either. In thinking through time, failure, love, death, fear, writing, waiting, suffering, and just plain being, Vectors has the power to render a reader less lonely, less trapped in the immensity of such themes. Richardson takes natural law into his own hands, bringing the inanimate world to life with humor, logic, and soul ("The road forgets what's underneath the road"; "All stones are broken stones") while presenting the human realm as one of mystery and succinct, if uncanny, perfection ("Nothing is more real than what's impossible"). More thrilling still is Richardson's genius for connecting the human world with what surrounds and permeates it, breaking the illusion of separate realms: "The road not taken is the part of you not taking the road." If this world is a part of us, we are not alone. The only caveat for readers of Vectors is this: immediate illumination can be dangerous. Each entry of the 500 can be described as words to live by, each all too true. From the outset, the book earns the reader's trust, and this empathetic attachment—perhaps even dependence—only deepens. Readers will be obsessed by this book; they will memorize passages, give copies to friends, proselytize. That's because Vectors so generously provides the best that poetry can offer. It is a masterpiece of practicality, beauty, and solace.

—Brenda Shaughnessy


Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
Graywolf Press, $24.95 (cloth)

"The world still wants its poet-priest," wrote Emerson in 1850, "a reconciler." It is reconciliation that guides John D'Agata's curious, moving first book, Halls of Fame. Perched at the axis of competing traditions—the breathless lists, Adamic wonder, and emerging dialectic of Whitman's lineation versus the neo-Platonic analogue of Emerson's prose—D'Agata's collection of lyrical essays reconfigures Romantic iconography through the lens of American expansion: westward and capitalist. D'Agata's trajectory originates with the world's largest Aeolian harp, the Hoover Dam, and culminates in the 210,000-watt sublimity of Las Vegas. In between, he curates a sideshow exhibit of fringe dwellers and visionaries: flat-Earth devotees, Martha Graham, Henry Darger, insomniacs. D'Agata is a sympathetic reporter. Still, there is something unsettled and unsettling in the author's stance as Whitmanic superconductor: "Which means I'm their eyes…but not their interpreter," he writes of his work "translating" dance to the blind, knowing, surely, that what he chooses to describe is itself interpretation. And while the impulse here is the familiar drive toward the lyrical-transcendent, it is always belated or a bit pre-fab; we find monuments to wonder rather than wonder itself. Even the world's brightest light, at Vegas's Luxor Hotel, has dimmed by the time D'Agata arrives: "I go home and look up," his guide says, "and I'm like 'Where is it?'" This same disappointment pulls at all of D'Agata's characters, partly because it is inscribed in the form of the essays. As Mutlu Konuk Blasing wrote, "the knowledge of circularity condemns gods and poets; the same knowledge saves humans and essayists," and in this lies both the book's strength and its (necessary) failure. The surface drama of Halls of Fame may be lyrical, but its intelligence lies in its understanding of the constant recycling of our entrepreneurial and creative energy, or our recursive failure and redemption. These essays, which can't transcend but long to, tirelessly embody this same energy: "Surely the heart must break before we can begin to feel."

—Spencer Short


Satellite
Matthew Rohrer
Verse Press, $12 (paper)

Satellite, Matthew Rohrer's second book, is both logical extension of and subtle break with A Hummock in the Malookas, his National-Poetry-Series-winning debut. The same sweet-natured, wounded speaking voice navigates the (mostly) short poems here—poems reliant on quiet dislocations and narrative misdirection for effect. But the animism and (for lack of a better phrase) magical realism of Hummock have been replaced by a junkyard of biomechanical images that suggests a world of childhood wonder lost to post-Romantic weariness. The need for wonder, though, has not waned, and into this void Rohrer inserts "the clockwork imitation of spring," robotroid girlfriends, and "taped together cars," a mechanistic vision that gives the poems a means to comment upon their own lyric constructedness. Rohrer acknowledges that poems, like the Panzer tank of "Precision German Craftsmanship," are built out of rakes, hoses, and garden gnomes, makeshift vehicles headed toward "the brink of mystery." This self-referentiality leads to an overriding sense of belatedness, and many of the poems seem like attempts to reconstruct an alternative adolescence. Even as they summon the atemporal world of the child's imagination ("Do you / have aspirin? I'm right in the middle of an adventure") and aspire to an Ashberian perspective (where the only threat of violence is of the 'punch-in-the-pajamas' variety), they never quite escape the pain of adulthood. Everywhere, Rohrer's poems play against our lyric expectations as they approach familiar ideas of lyric transcendence—only to turn away and begin again. The true evidence of Rohrer's growth as a poet, though, comes in the subtlety of the critical intelligence operating under the surface of his comic-fantastic. Lampooning post-structuralism as much as French gastronomy, he writes: "No man is an island. Also no one is interested / in excessive indeterminacy. The French / will eat the horse right out from under you."

—Spencer Short


Vicinities
Lisa Lubasch
Avec Books, $14 (paper)

Vicinities speaks in a language of fits and starts tailored to chart the difficulties of the self's emergence and those of delineating the space that the self occupies between birth and death. "How can you / be / if I / though / how / it was / it was ever," the narrator simultaneously asks and declares. Here confusion and clarity mingle successfully; they drive the reader forward in her exploration of the text. Birth and death are likewise embraced in equal measure, and Lubasch's linguistic banner continually unfurls to begin while at the same time folding to end. The first poem, "Ground Sways," is placed as a kind of prologue and ends with the lines: "Things veer off. And each of us." There is no way to verify that a birth or death has occurred; it is one, or both, or neither. Later, a section of the book ends with "hope / not as an ending / neither opening nor." It is this technique of swallowing conclusions or "veering off," without sacrificing a lovely precision and lyricism, that enables Lubasch's poetry to extend in every direction, beyond (above, behind) both beginning and ending. While the language remains precise, the images blur like objects under light rain, creating an atmospheric landscape while echoing the experience of being, "stirring in a miasmic dawn." What cuts through this artfully drawn layer of fog is simple emotion: the raw ache of growth and change, the desire and dread elicited by the knowledge of death's nearness. The book is most successful in the sections "Once," "Against the Hours," "Near," and "In Mid-Air" in capturing this existential ambiguity and in leaving the reader with a lingering resonance that returns her to her own "First Memory of Impermanence," leaving her in the "lost moment of a dream, stirring."

 —Laura Sims

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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