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Poetry Microreviews

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated by W.S. Merwin
Alfred A. Knopf, $14 (paper)

Each new translation of Gawain's travails places the translator in conflict with the original text—how to recreate the narrative's pace, the alliterative swatches of language, the tale's uncanny aura? Newly interpolated into this edition is a conflict between the authority afforded the tale's most recent teller, W.S. Merwin, and his translation's place within the Gawain canon. Even the most radical of translators who envision equal billing for author and translator should be made nervous by the appearance of Merwin's name alone on the book jacket, an irony since the tale began its history at the hands of a now-forgotten 14th-century author, and before that time existed as various Celtic oral histories. Granted, readers are unlikely to mistake him as the "real" author of the tale, but Merwin's name on the cover does bring to the fore a perennial concern: that distinct voices (such as Merwin's) run the risk of making any translation sound like their own work, no matter the source language or author. Happily, these concerns are not borne out in Merwin's Gawain, as his verse translation relies more on literal sense and lucidity than on recasting the narrator's voice in his own. The tale is never reduced to "Gawain does this, Gawain does that," but neither does one feel a primal fear of the Green Knight or a romantic longing to be cast into the story. And rather than echoing Welsh voices from his childhood in Scranton, the accent that seems most clear is of the translator who "wanted to keep as close . . . to the meaning of the original words as possible." The printing of the Middle English original face-to-face with Merwin's version is a plus, and his introduction will prove useful for those wanting a quick entrance into the story.

—Christopher Mattison

Nice Hat. Thanks.
Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer
Verse Press, $10 (paper)

Based on recordings of improvised collaborations between the New York poets Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer, Nice Hat. Thanks. ends with an admission that "Flags often unknown to us walk past." Refreshingly non-monumental but not at all na´ve or apolitical, the poems in this collection favor simple language that points to immense potential: "Summer tries to confuse America but that's already happened"; New York is a "divine cloud" that comes down to set us dreaming. Though it would be difficult to locate either poet's voice in the work, the ragged edges of these spare poems articulate very distinct, very minor languages based on the most quotidian aspects of contemporary (and mostly urban) life. The result is an intimate and surprisingly moving collection of poems. Most of the book is composed of serial poems (the first series composed of two-line stanzas, the second of three-line, the third of four-line, and so on), and it is difficult not to sense that the disjunction between stanzas travels some slightly surreal internal logic—a logic that stems not from one mind reaching for false depths, but from two minds at once peripatetic and entirely focused. Humorous and simple but never trivial, Nice Hat. Thanks. incorporates an objectivist sensibility with a sensitive and rhetorical intimacy that allows the odd flat line or repetition to still serve the general movement of the book: "Trash cans dream they are apartments. / Sad apartments." Accretion, suggestion, convergence, and divergence contribute to the unpretentious style, and the book possesses an artless, colloquial music rather than a heavy-handed literary sound. (Yet the language never seeks to disappear, as it does in much mainstream poetry.) Throughout, there is a charming, even brave element to the way these poets seem willing to share their ideas as they evolve, and one finishes the book feeling that further collaborations between Beckman and Rohrer could become even more arresting.

—Standard Schaefer


Deposition
Katie Ford
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

Despite its cited OED definition of deposition as a taking down, this debut is puffed up and off-putting. Comprising three sections, "The First Gospel," "The Stations of the Cross," and "The Wake," Deposition imports biblical rhetoric wholesale: "make / straight the way of the Lord," "this is the kingdom of God," "our God is / a jealous God," "as it was in the beginning," baptism, trespass, "prepare ye," "kyrie eleison." The nineteen Aeolian "Last Breaths" are arrhythmic, the dialogues with "Master" as na´ve ("oh is there truth") as their revelations are bland, the compulsive professions of exhaustion ("I am tired," "I am so tired," "I have not slept at all," "I am worn out world through," "I am weary enough") exhausting. Further poems recount someone receiving letters from the dead and uttering portents such as, "It feels like someone's hand is on my back, even when it is not on my back." Several describe a woman severely burned or afflicted with spinal disease or both. If accounts of such suffering refer to violence that the author actually experienced—Ford cites "theological abuse" in an online interview, intimating that "something ill occurred in my body because of a particular religious construction"—then they feel gratuitous here as graphic subject matter. If she has appropriated others' trauma, then its assimilation to her personal anguish ("I hear people still with / no beating thing called a heart," "I can't cry for someone I don't know") hints at opportunism. Ford's reliance on pathos ("oh she cannot look her bruised grafts of skin," "oh but it hurt my body") passes, in Jorie Graham's esteem, for "extremity of spiritual practice" and "witnessing . . . a private end to a century's horrors," as though Auschwitz could be issued an ending, let alone a private one aired in public, under the errant sign, "I remember, I was there." Deposition practically parodies Graham, from obligatory sub-sub-numberings and parenthetical interpolations to its prescriptive noli-me-tangere and religiosity.

—Andrew Zawacki


The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life
Fanny Howe
University of California Press, $16.95 (paper)

Followers of Fanny Howe's career as a poet won't be surprised that her first collection of essays tackles heady subjects—"Immanence," "Bewilderment," "Purgatory & Other Places." A self-made mystic, Howe is most at home in the realm of the paradoxical and the (seemingly) counterintuitive. Although she shares Lyn Hejinian's preoccupation with closure, experiential and poetic, Howe's impulse towards "strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion" is, at least in part, a religious one. "Bewilderment" is not only a poetics, it is also a necessary component of belief: "bewilderment . . . will never lead you back to common sense but will offer you a walk into a further wild place on ‘the threshold of love's sanctuary which lies above that of reason.'" Love is not capitalized here, but the divine is everywhere implied. Out of Howe's "human search for hope, not just survival" has come a pleasingly eclectic set of essays, ranging in subject from Thomas Hardy to Howe's interracial marriage and life in the ghettoized Boston of the 1960s and 1970s to the theology of Edith Stein, the now-canonized Carmelite nun who converted to Catholicism from Judaism and was later killed at Auschwitz. Howe entertains and occupies historical and imaginative worlds that are difficult, but not bitterly or fatally so—or not only that. In a remarkable moment at the end of the essay on Stein, Howe concludes, "If a person makes the decision to be the thing that history and chance are already making them be, this decision switches the mechanisms away from the fated into a zone of freedom. This is one definition of a religious act, as it is also of a selfless political act." Resistance is the refusal of fixity. What might seem despairing, futile, or even ridiculous in the hands of a lesser writer and intellect is a productive, profoundly moving, and liberating mode of inquiry in this collection of essays: "a method of searching for something that can't be found."

—Bryn Canner


Winter Sex
Katy Lederer
Verse Press, $12 (paper)

A book of outsized emotional intelligence, Winter Sex is a powerful survey of that big country which is our interior lives. Throughout this debut collection, the poet boldly aspires toward the sublime, asking "How can we unwind ourselves into great garish stores of / Illimitable thought?" Beauty, solitude, and (to quote the title of one poem) "The Emotion and Pleasure of Thought" are contemplated throughout each of the book's four sections, as are the processes of transformation, appetite, and symbolic figuration. In the poem "A New Way To Live," Lederer writes, "An attachment like trees is not like / A human attachment at all. / To hear a bell ring and then put a bell in it / Is like trees that hear the sun and then / Put a sun in it like thirst." People in the book often feel like interrogative bodies exploring the outer limits of their own emotions and thoughts as well as the expanse beyond. "Light is conducting us in toward a unity," she writes, "but our instinct is against it." Lederer's poems have an intensity of spirit undiminished by the carefully measured lines and stanzas, which transcend the poet herself with their richness and flexibility. There are no merely abstract moments here, as birds, trees, and light itself provide Lederer sensual form for thought and emotion. In "Ode," she writes, "No. It is simply the beauty of this intelligent blue bird. / This bird is desirable. / I've touched it when a child. / I've touched its scalp and wondered—this intelligent bird is so calm in the morning. / It is a pleasure to hear it sing. It is a pleasure to lavish attention on this bird." Ultimately, Lederer's art is her ability to lavish her charged and intelligent sensibility upon the world.

—Tom Devaney



My Mojave
Donald Revell
Alice James Books, $13.95 (paper)

Published on the verge of the Iraq War, Donald Revell's My Mojave could not have been more timely. The book scans America in confoundment, and what it finds missing is "mandate." What it finds, instead, are "disappointed things"—literally, a president not appointed by the masses (read "To the Destroyer of Ballots")—and, by extension, "more obscenities" (not "explicit language," but words lacking in lawfulness). It is unusual, perhaps even unsettling for some, to encounter a postmodern poet who espouses religion, who addresses "Lord dear Governor God" without the prophylactic of irony, and who considers "all liberty / Is sad without worship." But what Revell seems to be searching for is not God per se—but a higher (or lower) order, a "compensation" to counter the president and the "pandemonium" of human powers. The desert, both spiritual and geographical, teaches Revell certain lessons in this regard—he hankers not to get out of his Mojave, but rather to "entertain" it (a word that appears often here, as well as in Milton's Paradise Lost), meaning to hold it (tenere) between (inter). Opening the book, you'll discover that Revell begins by imposing a polarity—the first part is called "Here" and the second part "There"—a governing dichotomy that the poems themselves subvert, proffering instead a system of contingencies in which near is not divisible from far, now from then, or even church from state. Interdependence replaces independence in Revell's casually accruing declaration. What appears initially to be an "adjectival" and "ill-defined" relativism in Revell's language (lines like "the grass is higher than here" and "God is the next thing"—my emphasis) is the inevitable linguistic outgrowth of his thinking. His comparisons insist on interdependence. In the case of the grass, Revell's vision of the vegetation in heaven relies solely on our knowledge of the height of it here. So much depends on the reader "completing the scene" with a bona fide, local, unabstract grass—the poet's equivalent of a grass-roots campaign.

—Christina Davis


Big Back Yard
Michael Teig
BOA Editions, Ltd., $13.95 (paper)

A fair portion of contemporary poetry over-relies on self-reflexive irony, tonal detachment, and an often irritating allusive erudition. The poems in Michael Teig's first book—chosen by Stephen Dobyns as the winner of the 2002 A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize—splendidly evade these pitfalls. Teig eschews linguistic and theoretical pyrotechnics in favor of deceptively plain language and the juxtaposition of a quiet, matter-of-fact quality with wild observation and intent. "Au Bonheur des Ogres" abruptly and beautifully begins, "Then sometimes late at night / I heard music and thought I must be dying. / I held still and my life came back to me." In "Wherever You Are Send Postcards" he writes: "I try to remember the afternoons / and the serious curtains, whatever it was we talked about. // You know, such and such a town where the sky settles down almost like glass. Everything takes place on a bridge. Rust. Little hills crumple." Teig's work understands that the finest poetry is at once mystery and clarity. While nearly every poem here is in the first person, and the very first word of many of these is "I," these are not poems that posit a stable, unchanging self. The speakers may turn in a "Report to the Bishop" or wonder "How Much String Is in the World. Who Has It." They are astonished by everything: "The room aching with flowers. / This lumpy pillow. Where are we going?" "The butcher's daughter's dress / had a kind of eloquence, / even her difficult brown shoes / her unfathomable neck." The calm sadness permeating Big Back Yard is balanced by gentle humor and conversational tone. These poems conceive a world where familiar things are utterly strange, and the possibilities for profound tenderness are manifold.

—Lisa Beskin

Originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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