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Poetry Microreviews

Every Bird is One Bird
Francine Sterle
Tupelo Press, $13.95 (paper)

8“Every jay is one bird to me,” wrote James Schuyler in his “Hymn to Life.” Like many seers before him Schuyler detected in the part a representative for the whole, found all of nature signified in a single element of the natural world. With the title of her first collection Francine Sterle declares a similar affinity for, and understanding of, the natural sign. Throughout the book, Sterle takes in her surroundings and examines them in detail, but never to impose on them the burden of transcendent truth, never to dissect what she finds there in search of some occult meaning. She simply looks outward for evidence of the real, at times with an almost ascetic vigilance: “Stripped of everything / good in the world,” she writes, “I wait.” Reality arrives synecdochically, in sharply limned phenomena and events that act as object lessons. “I considered the heart / was twenty percent of its total weight,” she writes in the “Sparrow at My Window” section of “Two Women,” marking a movement away from “drowsy numbness” and reverie toward an emotional yet reasoned involvement with the natural world. While Sterle’s work does not ignore the spiritual resonances of that world, it acknowledges them with some measure of hesitation: “This is the world / philosophers say disappears when it isn’t seen, // . . . begging / faith.” As poet and observer Sterle makes the poem and remakes the world by apprehending the actuality of both, assured that they both cohere meaningfully even if only by virtue of their particularity, by mere fact that they are real. Her sensible, compactly written lyrics build upon traditions of meditative and investigative poetry ranging from the Koran to Sylvia Plath, a lineage of writers attuned not merely to the beauty of the natural world but to “how language cries out for a subject, how self and subject merge in the black-bibbed sparrow.”

—Catherine Daly


Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz
Jaime Saenz
Translated by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander
University of California Press, $19.95 (paper)

8 A finalist for this year’s PEN International Translation Award, Immanent Visitor is the first collection to bring to English the dazzling, hallucinatory work of the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz. Throughout the collection translators Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander maintain confident but respectful control of the poems, a curatorial bravura that asserts itself early on. In the long opening poem “Anniversary of a Vision” (1960), Johnson and Gander get right to it, remaining faithful to the original but sometimes employing a verbal pyrotechnics truer to its letters than to its letter: “Discurren a lo lejos” (“They run to the distant place”), for instance, appears ingeniously as “Dehiscing into distance.” Heterodox and visionary, Saenz’s poems—gusts of fresh air—meditate on the mysteries of the unknowable, emblazoned with the influences of Whitman, Latin American surrealism and Blakean mythologizing. There are distinct notes of Hindu mysticism as well, with passages celebrating moments of being (“when movement seeks out a going from one place to the next without needing to / go, and seeks to find itself within immobility and within itself”) recalling similar passages from the Kena Upanishad. Saenz’s poems balance extreme clarity with occult obscurity, alternating currents of life and death throughout. The poet longs to connect with the spiritual world, to bridge his existence with that of the others he firmly believes remain among the living. This desire receives its most explicit and prolonged treatment in the extraordinary “To Cross This Distance” (1973). Here Saenz’s skills and themes fuse effortlessly, culminating in the book’s (if not the poet’s) highest plateau: “At enchantment’s final hour, in which the earth sinks away somewhere, / beyond the wall, / where this body that I love is lying, / where this soul that I love is lying. // Beyond the beyond of all the paths / in the transcendence of the scent of this body that I love, / in the transcendence of the scent of this soul that I love.”

—Anastasios Kozaitis

Nude Siren
Peter Richards
Verse Press, $12 (paper)

8 Peter Richards’s second book consists of seriously wrought, playfully complex linguistic surfaces risen to the page from deeply human impulses: the need to address absence (“Light, hand me a pen named Sara”), the persistent calling of kissing (“Kissing Asa time has removed / the midsummer tires”), and one’s recalcitrant desire to break with covenants and taboos (“Sun with its loose towel / loves me like a sister”). What immediately distinguishes Nude Siren from Richards’s first book, Oubliette, is its word palette, which has expanded to include the quotidian, the domestic, and the concrete. On parole from the eponymous dungeon to address the faunal abundance at the earth’s crust, Nude Siren is even more various, more mystifying, and certainly more humorous than the gothic, quasi-metaphysical Oubliette—sometimes also dubbed “surrealist” because of the swiftness of its verbal collisions. Part of the enlarged scope of Nude Siren stems from an Ashberian array of abutting and overlapping tones that serve to complicate the new works. Controlled by Richards’s genuine mastery of syntactical patterning, these poems sound rhetorically sensible even as they are couched in an unpredictable diction that can quickly spellbind a reader stopping to deliberate on the predatory logic of a word chain peppered with strange, colorful ciphers for the unsayable. To decipher these words is not always the point, even if the reader must inevitably test the meanings of repeated mots fous such as “beige,” “human-hat power,” and “Sahara abbreviation” before surrendering again to the poem’s momentum. Although we cannot know where this seductive singing originates or the ultimate fate of our attraction to Nude Siren, each poem presents an irresistible detour—a narrow swath of poetic wilderness cutting through a civilization of prefabricated meaning—en route to the silence at the end of the page.

—Zack Finch


Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry
Robert Pinsky
Princeton University Press, $14.95 (cloth)

8 Very early in Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky cites Alexis de Tocqueville’s ominous claim that “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests—in one word, so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States.” With that, Pinsky sets out to prove that the anxious, defeatist belief that poetry’s place in a modernized, globalized, commercialized democracy is no place at all is—in one word—false. The former Poet Laureate clearly understands the impulse to question whether or not poetry (particularly the traditional lyric, with its inherently solitary, intimate, unapologetically human voice) can truly matter in our contemporary culture of outsized infotainment. But more importantly, he also understands that “the interrogation is hopeless, because it begins with the assumption that poetry’s tremendous strength, in the democratic context—that is, its human scale, its distinction from show business—is its weakness.” In other words, he explains, “as part of the entertainment industry, poetry will always be cute and small; as an art it is massive and fundamental.” Fittingly, these essays concerning the literal voice of poetry—poetry that has been memorized, recited, read aloud, or otherwise communicated vocally—were originally delivered by Pinsky’s own voice at Princeton University in April 2001, as that year’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values. The resulting monograph—thin in terms of pages, but thick with ideas—is eminently readable, gracefully personal, and wholly convincing in its argument that the “spirit and space” for poetry in America (in the form of MFA programs, slams, coffeehouses, and small presses) are in fact vitally present and that, as de Tocqueville himself concluded, “The principle of equality does not, then, destroy all the subjects of poetry: it renders them less numerous, but more vast.”

—Kathleen Rooney


Lyn Hejinian
Tuumba Press, $10 (paper)

8 Lyn Hejinian’s impressive new book-length poem, from her own Tuumba Press, is not out to explain or even interpret the infinite world but rather to reveal, explore, and enjoy its abundantly intricate parts. Like her well-regarded My Life, The Cold of Poetry, or 2001’s A Border Comedy, Slowly continues Hejinian’s use of the book as a capacious and ever-revealing instrument of perception. From “sound track to sight track,” Slowly threads together “the presentation of things that are abruptly otherwise” and the patient art of “intervals” (in space and mind, between words) “that never join.” The book is written in lines that allow sentences to breathe in their own intelligent, composite, and expansive modes. In section after section scenarios are generated to surpass mere explication and to reveal the unique exactly. She writes, “If there is nothing but uniqueness, we have to / accept chaos quickly, it’s the underlying logic of / uniqueness.” Taking photographs (or shots) and looking up words, only to find more words—as well as the act of just physically looking up—all contribute to Hejinian’s ongoing inquiry into the possibilities of framing, defining, and proposing. “One can’t look up and see mathematics,” she writes, “one / can’t look up and find autonomy.” There is an assurance in Hejinian’s radical skepticism and in her masterful use of sentences that seem, often, to know they are sentences: “Abandon is not something to abandon.” Throughout the poem, Hejinian explores the trope of speed in its various configurations: “Night comes whose terminus is the future we / cannot leave before the end though the end never / comes, it’s all that slow,” she writes, and later, “I don’t know if this can be called slowly or / quickly.” Slowly is a deep, probing, and beautiful book and one that is patient to connect us to the material world.

—Tom Devaney


Soft Sift
Mark Ford
Harcourt, $23 (cloth)

8 At once grave and hilarious, formally taut and effortlessly colloquial, Mark Ford’s poems document the soul’s progress through the chaotic eddies and diffusions of the present day. Their presumption of a soul, however, or of progress, is tentative at best; “motive” and “tactic” are more Fordian terms than “spirit” or “will.” The values in Ford’s world are essentially speculative, pegged to a capriciously fluctuating and euphorically abundant market: “Our collective reverie, a lost soul ventured / To explain, is about as random as the ebb / And flow of the stock exchange: we’re so easily / Suckered we no longer care.” For him this market, or agora, is not the center of our city but the city itself, the place where we live. In it, flashes and fragments of religion, philosophy, romanticism, romance, and politics may be glimpsed, though little in such a free flow of exchanges can hold the gaze for long. Spacious, clamorous, and peppered with surprises, these poems might, for an agoraphobe, unleash a kind of panic, particularly for one who would keep the lyric locked in the much-smudged vitrine of Introspective Disclosure. In the end, however, these poems are in fact consumed with the search for what Ford calls “a viable interiority,” a search, often quixotic, through an inner landscape as anarchic, bizarre, absurd, and ominous as the one outside. Though he eschews from the start any claim to objectivity or objectivism and speaks as one frequently dazed, drunk, or blinded, these disorientations unfold in a language of exquisite rhetorical control, in a diction which, threatening to be precious, manages to be without price. The freshness of these poems is so pervasive and generous that it is only with a kind of delighted surprise that one recognizes among them works of extraordinary art.

—DeSales Harrison


Chinese Whispers
John Ashbery
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22 (cloth)

8 References to quietness, departure, and distance abound in Chinese Whispers, as well as the usual comments about the mail and the weather. Yes, it’s the same old Ashbery: same pointed nonchalance, same curious sequence of observations, same brilliant sense of language and cliché, same blurb from Harold Bloom placing Ashbery in the tradition of Wallace Stevens. But these poems, as indeed those in Ashbery’s previous collection, Your Name Here, feel softer around the edges than the poet’s earlier work. Aggressive linguistic subversiveness, which used to be his hallmark, has dwindled into charm; sheer amazement has become indistinct bemusement. In Chinese Whispers time slips past unmarked: “Quietly the first hours left, amused.” What unfolds is a “nice, normal morning” in which “passivity rests its case.” Later, “Evening settles in / with as many errors as usual”; “Age sags; little’s left to elegize”; and “in the end,” concludes the poet, “we are all bores.” Is this the ennui of a successful American poet in his mid-70s? What, after all, do you buy for the legend who already has everything? The masterful and unusually straightforward “Random Jottings of an Old Man” allegorizes this predicament. In the poem, a strange visitor telling warped, apparently meaningless stories heaps scribbled-on scraps of paper throughout the house. He leaves “terrible fingerprints” everywhere and “sticky places on the railing.” At last the guest departs, relieving the host, who is now ready to move “westward / into sheepherding country.” He is “closer to dying.” Is the muse abandoning the poet, or the poet abandoning us? In the final lines, hope for renewal is conferred upon others: “Other oaths, other options will follow / in the wake of spring. // Millions of mullions waken us, gesticulate to us.”

—Aaron Belz


Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath
Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press. $22.95 (cloth)

8 Following the truism that the style makes the man or woman, Helen Vendler’s recent book meditates on the much-recycled theme of the election of the Poet—an election that for Vendler seems cyclically bestowed throughout the centuries. In many ways the dusty charm of Coming of Age as a Poet is its strongest point. Delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Aberdeen, Vendler’s chapters on Milton, Keats, Eliot and Plath exhaustively explore poetic Bildung and the mythic quest for the “perfect poem.” Her attention to the psychological and aesthetic unravelling of the poet’s calling turns the microscopic into the majestic. For Vendler, poetry is not so much evidence of prophecy as it is a road map of sweaty labor, and in this sense her presiding definition of a strong poet is more pragmatic and less vatic than Harold Bloom’s. A central problem of the book, however, one that dogs Vendler’s work in general, is the sense that her approach is anachronistically stranded on some distant critical shore. Vendler’s resolutely New Critical stance is thematically inscribed into the book’s own Eliotic insistence on achieving poetic metier through extraordinary skill, internalization of learning, and aesthetic devotion. But this almost patronizing gospel of high learning forsakes necessary historicization and theory for more myopic designs. Coming of Age as a Poet feels like a call to the dead—not necessarily the poetic dead but the graveyard of New Criticism and its attending acolytes. But there is more, here, than a sifting of relics—Vendler’s style is crystalline and argumentative, and this ornate quality adds considerable lustre to her reflections. Despite the book’s self-enclosed quality, its enthusiasm pays tribute to Vendler’s own poetic loyalties.

—Jacques Khalip

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review

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