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Poetry Microreviews


Antebellum Dream Book

Elizabeth Alexander
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

As in Alexander’s two previous collections, The Venus Hottentot and Body of Life, race, gender, place, family, and memory provide the prevalent themes in Antebellum Dream Book. These are poems of personal and political remembrance, glutted with names and haunted by absences. In the book’s first section Alexander exhumes personal history as she commemorates the struggle for civil rights (“You kiss / your elders’ knees in utmost reverence” and mentions the “men who have tweedled my cheeks once or twice / join the serial dead”), paying homage to the past before investigating the present, but ends with the sentiment: “what a strange thing is ‘race,’ and family, stranger still.” The middle section contains thirty-five dream poems invigorated by vivid, surrealistic imagery drawn from the author’s dreams during pregnancy: “a baby with a mammoth head and a full set / of teeth” and “a saber-toothed tiger [that] leaps out / of the manhole in the living room / and swallows a guest from head to toe.” However phantasmagoric, these dreams provide the dreamer with “(her) relics, (her) artifacts,” a wellspring of historical evidence preserved in linked frames and photographs: “It’s me! / Discovered in a sleeve of cellulose negatives.” Two long poems comprise the book’s final section. The first, “Narrative: Ali” (“a poem in twelve rounds”), is a surprisingly sincere sequence in the voice of Muhammad Ali; the second (and more successful) is “Neonatology,” which offers Alexander’s postpartum observations on giving birth and lying-in, concluding that “birth is like jazz, / from silence and blood, silence / then everything, / jazz.” Throughout, Alexander’s poems celebrate their own rhythmic progression with flashes of playful wit (“put your hands on your hips, and let your diction slip. / / We do it real quick. I am ‘that kind of girl’”), releasing excess ballast in the pursuit of “a better language / for poems both ‘political’ and ‘personal.’”

—Ellie Sarasohn


The Next Ancient World

Jennifer Michael Hecht
Tupelo Press, $13.95 (paper)

  “My latest project,” declares Jennifer Michael Hecht in the “Prologue” of her first full-length book of poems, “is to sketch several careful descriptions for the benefit / of the next ancient world.” This opening establishes an apocalyptic expectation—it ends with “the universe expand[ing] into the night”—but Hecht’s eschatology is appropriately postmillennial. Her poems are by turns playful (“So You’re a Little Mentally Ill”), exasperated (“Naked”), delightfully iconoclastic (“Villanelle If You Want to Be a Bad-Ass”), and when she asks us to “Please Answer All Three of the Following Essay Questions,” we gladly play the game on her terms: “Do these men and women, / your subjects, fear you more than they love you? / What is it that they fear? Use a logical / proof; show your work.” In “Love Sonnet on the Progress of the Soul” we are aware of having “tumble[d] to a world of other weather.” Although “Love Sonnet” is an exception, Hecht is at her best when disrupting formal regularity; in “September,” “Totem and Taboo,” and “Convince Him,” for example, couplets or longer stanzas alternate with single lines very effectively. Here Hecht reins in the less controllable Whitmanesque qualities in her work—qualities which, when left untethered (as the extended anaphora in “No, I Would Not Leave You If You Suddenly Found God”), mark the least successful pages in the book. The “next ancient world” is, of course, the one we live in, and “Totem and Taboo,” a nod to a father of the most recent modern world, shows Hecht in full control of her powers over it—and us. It is here that she leads us to one of the “untouchable totemic centers of the world, / carry[ing] your burden up the attic stairs” and out onto the top of the house, where she compels us to “step / off the roof.”

—Jeremy Glazier

Holiday
Susan Hahn
University of Chicago Press, $14 (paper)

Mother in Summer
Susan Hahn
Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, $15.95 (paper)

From the outset there is something ineffably nerve-wracking about reading Susan Hahn’s recent poems, a sense that they are driven by compulsions and obsessions—oriented toward an image, a memory, a pain—so powerful that they threaten to overload the poems’ frequently cautious, almost genteel lines. That Hahn has managed to publish two collections of widely disparate temperament within a few months of each other seems to hint at these compulsions, especially given the tendency here toward awkward phrases and gestures unworthy of the poet’s obvious talent. Indeed, one is hounded by the suspicion that there is a single worthwhile collection buried amidst this surplus. The core of such a book would be

Holiday, where Hahn strikes an intriguing (if not wholly original) thematic rhythm by writing around the American festival calendar, exploring what draws us emotionally and intellectually to prescribed occasions. At her best Hahn persuasively synthesizes diverse personal and collective elements—family with nation, the intimately psychological with the universally biological—into a sharp, breathless line, as in “Anthem,” an engaging meditation on the Fourth of July and the birth of the author’s mother. Unfortunately Hahn’s lack of restraint scuttles her poems far too often for us to buy into her project completely. In some instances the poem collapses into fruitless rumination or hackneyed formulations on the writing life. At other times, convenient, ill-considered puns leave the poem dead on arrival, as in the opening lines of “The Woman Who Hated Valentine’s Day”: “A quiver of arrows, a quiver of eros, / she cannot hold bow or beau—.” “Holiday,” the book’s long title sequence, functions inadvertently as a catalogue of the poet’s strengths and foibles, condemning impressive lyricism (“the soul restored / to exanimated stone”) to an uncomfortable cohabitation with prosiness and triviality. All this suggests that Hahn, herself an experienced editor, would have done well to have edited this book more ruthlessly.

Mother in Summer, a collection of tightly interwoven poems concerning the loss of the poet’s mother to cancer, shares many of the missteps of Holiday but very few of the virtues. These poems are overwhelmed by their subject matter, whose pathos remains evident on every page yet fails to work effectively in the poems’ favor. Here it is the subject that commands the speaker, as in the opening lines of “Red”: “These shrunken days I long / to die, to crawl back- / ward to your womb—sad vault / / which now is forever locked. / Death grabbed the key— / never to give up / / its privacy.” This kind of discount melancholy can’t help but make the demanding reader callous, if that can be the right word for someone who merely calls on the poem’s execution to be equal to its subject. With their frequently self-evident intelligence, linguistic playfulness, and emotional charge, powerful forces are certainly at work both behind and within Susan Hahn’s poems. One begs for the poet to reign these forces in.

—Benjamin Paloff

Telepathy
Devin Johnston
Paper Bark Press, $15.95 (paper)

It comes as no surprise that Devin Johnston had to go all the way to Sydney to get his superb first book published. At once casually introspective and rigorously musical, Telepathy nestles in nicely with Paper Bark’s progressive oeuvre, not to mention that of the Oz poetry scene in general. While many American large presses continue to favor complacently autobiographical verse (much of which pays homage to the self and its travails at the expense of poetic form) and many smaller, independent houses inundate readers with a younger set’s vacuous, hollowly ironic mode, writers like Johnston are developing a complex, resonant hybrid of carnival music and classicism. These poems are flashy but not without substance, sophisticated but never distractingly cerebral, painstakingly structured and curious of the world outside the poet-self. Forward-looking lines such as “starlings flock / or skirr / for cockling crust / and pithless hull,” “Tract or blade / would scarp a hill / / neither ‘mine’ / Dear Loss, nor ‘made’” and “Sunset, septic rose / Sand would turn to glass / and skies absorb its ash / if sun but chose” hark back to a poetic tradition centered on the sensible, well-turned phrase rather than bland, arbitrarily broken prose. Johnston’s centerpiece, the annotated title poem—as well as longer poems like “Commentaries on ‘The Witch of Atlas’” and “Molloy and Mollose”—is both lapidary and elusive, fringed with subtle gems (“Three paths were open to me, / all equally impassable”) and enigmatic verité narrative (“I hovered in / syringa’s meager shade / where the keeper cupped / a little bird”). In one poem Johnston implies the mental process is that of “the dull metal blade / [that] divides, divides,” but the poet himself is unencumbered by such mechanism.

—Ethan Paquin

Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice
Devin Johnston
Wesleyan University Press, $19.95 (paper)

Crazy wisdom versus sane idiocy is a recurring tendency in modern American poetry. How else to explain Ezra Pound reading stuff like Joseph Ennemoser’s History of Magic during the Great War, or Allen Ginsberg making Chogyam Trungpa his pet guru during the 1970s? This tendency is the focus of Precipitations, wherein Devin Johnston examines how the work of H.D., Robert Duncan, and James Merrill was influenced by occult beliefs. All three poets were interested in the occult for deeply Romantic reasons, Johnston explains; each integrated some form of occult practice into their poetry as a way of reinvigorating a disenchanted world. For H.D. it was séances; Duncan relied on dictation and Merrill the Ouija board. What is unique about these poets’ use of the occult, however, is diluted by Johnston’s critical lingo. At one point he explains that H.D., Duncan, and Merrill practiced an occult poetics because of “its resistance to systemization and closure. All three poets, with varying degrees of intention, discerned in the occult an emphasis on process rather than product, and an integration of Romantic organicism and what we would now call a deconstructive emphasis on misreading, accident, and incompletion.” Those last three qualities have been attributed to the work of everyone from Ashbery to Zukofsky and in fact are often identified as the key strains of the poetry of Wallace Stevens and other “modernist skeptics,” who are the very foils of Precipitations. Johnston’s account of the occult might have been more engaging were it less wedded to stiff notions like closed versus open forms or the Enlightenment’s alleged tyrannical nature. A little sociology would have helped, too. Were H.D., Duncan, or Merrill as mesmerized as Pound by occultism’s blend of radicalism and reaction, one that often turns toxic when intellectual revolt crystallizes around a charismatic, eccentric, and strong-armed leader? If not, then how, and not just in formal terms, did each determine when a little endarkenment can become too much?

—John Palattella

Many Glove Compartments: Selected Poems
Oskar Pastior
Burning Deck, $10 (paper)

The manic and disruptive energy of this selection from the opus of the only German Oulipean—in which words such as “budgerigarlic,” “kunigundulate,” ”instrumentirritation,” and catchascatcher” whirl through sonnets, sestinas, palindromic poems, and other forms—may alienate fans of narrative, confessional, and otherwise tranquil(ized) verse. However, Pastior’s linguistic sensitivity and secretly methodical approach could grow on anyone. As far-reaching as their verbal cartwheels and juggernauts might be, the poems always return to an exploration of the ways in which humans both express themselves and block statement—sometimes in the same breath. One of the book’s more touching poems chronicles the progress of a singing wanderer and a singing trout towards “right”- and “wrong”-ness as well as harmony; they clash until finally “quadrophonics triumphs on all sides,” a seemingly placatory ending that actually makes an ars poetica of dissonance. Likewise Pastior’s poems about “hearbage,” which may be white noise from a radio, the contrapuntal drip of a faucet, or all of human speech, dramatize the inner rationalization of outer thought obstruction with balanced humor and urgency. Although Pastior’s dizzying, repetitive style often muddies the waters of understanding, a matter-of-fact core invites us to follow each work’s logical progression to its natural end—miraculous, given that this sort of logic might becalm (or beach) other poems. In a selection of works from the 1980s and 1990s, Pastior focuses his intellect on sleep, imagining one’s self elsewhere, and aging—these lyrical moments, in which Pastior’s lightning tongue slackens slightly (but not too much), are among the most affecting in the whole book. In one of the short essays on craft offered here, Pastior states, “What poetry is I do not know,” bespeaking the sincerity and beauty of his mission, which is to make a latticework of pure thought, threading through it the most beautiful words he can invent.

—Max Winter

A Minute without Danger
Jacqueline Waters
Adventures in Poetry, $10 (paper)

In her debut collection Jacqueline Waters establishes her roots in the New York School, with a particular leaning toward the wit of Ron Padgett or later Ashbery. “Oh can’t we stay / and reminisce a while? No, our passage / has been arranged,” she writes, recalling the rapid-fire setup and negation typified by these lines from Chinese Whispers, Ashbery’s most recent collection: “This is going to take some time. / Nope, it’s almost over.” While the indeterminacies of her book seem oddly predetermined, Waters’s greatest success is in her pithy, aphoristic asides, which are no less uncanny for their being studiedly blasé. Her speakers make startlingly obvious that which bubbles just below the surface of the everyday: “Astonishingly waves of light / do not require us as a medium”; “The great nonfiction / Is the terror of having to move.” Although she attempts to subvert this acuteness by claiming, “Uninterested in observation / I needed help with the naming,” it is in the precise moment that Waters’s “I” appears to dissolve that it proves its dependence upon the external world, which resembles both the urban and the suburban. There is a practiced facility, a deadpan giddiness to the poems (“Sometimes I sit in a chair and read a magazine. / What is life?”), but the title, A Minute without Danger, implies that such minutes are rare. “For what has settled around us / is not dust but the new. And new things, / we find are not like the old,” writes Waters. Beneath these poems is a critique of history and modern civilization, yet Waters offers no solution, only a world where “[t]he point is to keep moving.”

—Nick Moudry

Voyages in English
Dara Wier
Carnegie Mellon University Press, $12.95 (paper)

Hat on a Pond
Dara Wier
Verse Press, $13 (paper)

At a time when so many poems read like cautious, suspicious little essays out to prove something about language’s slippages and failings, Wier remains passionate about language’s ability to make, to weave as it unravels. The poems in Voyages in English and Hat on a Pond—Wier’s most accomplished books to date—know that language will always collide with and undo itself yet will still create meaning and music. A great collector and cataloguer, Wier’s signature work with listing and repetition (with its insistence on variation and riff) partakes of a unique kind of formalism, one whose pleasures are as manifold as its possibilities. Think of the Song of Songs, the paeans of Whitman, Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top,” the films of Peter Greenaway, the “catalogue” aria in Don Giovanni, etc., ad infinitum. The closing poem in Voyages in English, the quietly gorgeous “A Modern Version of the Way the Rosary Was Once Said Throughout Western Europe in the Late Middle Ages,” not only exemplifies the catalogue’s almost mystical ability to celebrate the whole cosmos from which its particular elements have been selected but also epitomizes the humor and vast tenderness of both of these books. “I’m not sewing velvet patches on a woolen blanket, / not putting silver buttons back where they belong, / not sweeping or folding, not in my right mind,” the poem begins, and goes on in its gentle but utterly unsentimental litany to make the ordinary more than extraordinary: In Wier’s hands it becomes sacred. Similarly, when the speaker of “A Peep of Saints” lists for us various saints she sees, some are ridiculous (“I saw a small saint chase a large one for the fun of it. / I saw a saint smoke a cigarette and one paint a go-cart”) and some strangely sublime (“I found a saint on a string, / sleeping by the foot of a singing boy . . . I watched a saint open a book and stare off into space”).

Hat on a Pond, a longer work, continues and extends the work of Voyages. Look at the surprisingly piercing conclusion of “Not That Lake,” or the wonderful movement the bees make in “Paradisiac”: “back / And forth, without comment, into sublime, into / Ridiculous, without regret, among lost, cunning / And purely blank, from needle to thorn, from wake / Rocking onto shore to a field of fire. . . .” Wier’s images are electric, unpredictable (“the bandaged hand / played through the air the way a hand fallen into / its own shape is still surprised enough by what it meets”) and her movements often resemble wild flights (“Is it good? Where is it going? Can I come along? / Is it chiselled into stone? Will smoky phlebia / and zoned velvet blue meet there with the trembling / merulius, the bristly parchment and the radiating / teeth?”). The various dictions in Wier’s poetry are without question love songs to and deep play with American English, its delights and peculiarities. A colleague of Wier’s once described her work as “an Americana of the mind.” As apt as that description may be in part, it fails to appreciate the generosity of her poems’ teachings on how the earthly and ethereal cohabitate and support one another. The complex, various circles they make back upon a word and/or a particular syntax gestures towards the infinite: the boundless possibilities within the bounds of the word.

—Lisa Beskin

Manderley
Rebecca Wolff
University of Illinois Press, $12.95 (paper)

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”: More than a few artists and writers have been inspired by the famed first line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, made even more famous as voiced by Joan Fontaine in the Hitchcock film. This most recent tribute, picked by Robert Pinsky for the 2001 National Poetry Series, is influenced most strongly by the bold visuals and eerie suspense of the film: lush greenery, worn European abodes, and circling voyages proliferate, as the ghostly presence of family mysteries and covered-up violence threaten to break through: “One asleep and waking, one decapitated, kissing.” Wolff is a Romantic at heart but she masks the longing for home with narratives that range from international rambles to musings on the more sinister aspects of Sleepy Hollow, from her take on a “Sharon Olds Poem” to crude tales of “Mom [getting] laid.” But profanity, jump cuts, and stylistic jumping jacks never quite cover an essential nostalgia: “Remember the smell of a fairy ring crushed, / ‘Aux Mortes.’ Towards grass / And any young rabbit crushed in it . . . Oh give me a home.” There is irony in these lines but its purpose is to confer a kind of surface edginess, an ‘indie’ veneer meant to distract the reader from the conventionality of the sentiment beneath. Wolff’s style—half Ashberian associative rambling, half stilted formal beauty—implies that the ties that bind this volume together are deliberately loose, and individual poems follow such different vectors that they are always on the edge of breaking away. In a recent interview Wolff commented that her schedule as the publisher of the offbeat literary magazine Fence is such that poetry has become an occasional occupation, “an in-between activity.” Though she is clearly a strong writer, Wolff isn’t yet able to pull together a book as soundly as she can an individual poem or a journal and would do well to give this aspect of her poetry career the time it deserves.

—Jenny Ludwig

Gone to Earth
Pam Rehm
Flood Editions, $10 (paper)

As suggested by the image of the author’s clasped hands which appears as the frontispiece of this elegantly designed book—Rehm’s third, and Flood Edition’s premier release—the poems in Gone to Earth are aligned with prayer even as they express uncertainty about how to believe. Unadorned (even of punctuation), the poems question and worry; they dialogue with each other inside the brain of a speaker who, like Dickinson’s, feels her thoughts—they stalk the planks in heavy boots, they have a weight in sense if not in bulk. A New York–based poet whose 1994 To Give it Up won the National Poetry Series award, Rehm renders here the isolation of urban disquiet: “Your business in this world / Your nakedness and terror / / Your sanctity remains / the crucial battle / / Dearly beyond / we are scattered here today / / amongst commodities.” The battle for sanctity waging in the mind of one wandering the desolate field of industrial and social wreckage has at stake not only spiritual well-being but also a desire for transcendence through love for the other: “I dream of no heaven / except one on the hillsides / / Ascending / / Where the fire is / in your eyes / / Unceasingly beheld / by mine.” Rehm maintains a “superstitious regard for salvation / and the soul,” but looks not skyward for redemption. She shows us the essential act of paying attention to the earth we are able to carry in our hands; earth which stands below us just as thought and doubt occur in dark places below our casual interactions. “There are stories / in order to make / heaven / unlike the other fragments / that have come down to us.” Grounded, urgent, quivering bravely in what is unknowable, and devotional to their own anxieties and passions, the poems in Gone to Earth represent what is most genuine, generous, and scrupulously crafted in the best of our young American poetry.

—Sarah Fox

A Short History of the Shadow
Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20 (cloth)

“The iconic book in my life, the work toward which all my work has aspired, is the Confessions of St. Augustine,” says Charles Wright. “It is that kind of autobiography, in a more temporal—though no less spiritual—sense . . . that my poems want to describe.” Wright’s fifteenth book, A Short History of the Shadow, conveys this mix of the spiritual and the temporal—or more clearly, the sense of the spiritual or divine in the temporal, the unseen in the seen—whether in the landscape of Italy or in his home base of Charlottesville, Virginia. Wright has not shifted gears abruptly in recent volumes but rather continued the conversation, moved the “journey along,” generally jump-starting his poems with a simple image or observation, asking the questions, often without assuming that there are answers: “What can I possibly see back here that I haven’t seen before / Is landscape, like God, a Heraclitean river? Is language a night flight and sea-change?” Although wonderfully insouciant images—“April’s agnostic and nickel-plated skin deep, / Glitter and bead spangle, haute couture, / The world its runway, slink-step and glide”—occasionally play off against understated jazz riffs, the overall tone of A Short History is quiet, meditative, reflecting a subtle evolution in Wright’s work. He is further along into “late middle age,” and the volume, characterized by Wright’s meticulously crafted lines and signature prosodic sense contemplates the urgency of time. Wright’s heightened use of anaphora in poems such as “Charlottesville Nocturne” or the powerful “Night Rider” momentarily suggest the poem as prayer, while other poems simultaneously imply that it is “a kind of believing without belief that we believe in.” Yet as Wright concludes in “Body and Soul,” language, poetry itself, may point the way”: “I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible / . . . / That words were the Word, / That language could lead us inexplicably to grace / . . . / I used to think these things when I was young / I still do.”

—Carol Bere

Originally published in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Boston Review



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