New Poets on the Block
A roundup of first and second books
April 1, 2003
Apr 1, 2003
18 Min read time
Slope Editions, $12.95 (paper)
A Carnage in the Lovetrees
University of California, $16.95 (paper)
A Defense of Poetry
University of Pittsburgh, $12.95 (paper)
Very Far North
Waywiser Press, $18.95 (cloth)
Distance from Birth
Elixir Press, $14 (paper)
Brief Moral History in Blue
New Issues Press, $14 (paper)
University of Iowa, $16 (paper)
University of Georgia, $16.95 (paper)
Tupelo Press, $14.95 (paper)
If you look over a pile of recent first and second books, giving special attention to those with some critical traction, you will notice a period style on its way to becoming a formula. It is a style almost as deadeningly replicable as the tiny-epiphany poem which preceded it, being exactly the opposite of that poem: the tiny epiphany (still practiced in many quarters) didn’t have to sound good as long as it finished the right kind of mini-story; the comic or “challenging” poems of the present generation, at their worst, need not finish, make, or decide anything at all. One of the books here avoids such perils by avoiding its time entirely (it might have been written in 1953). The other eight of these nine volumes rise, each in its own way, above the period styles on which they draw: each finds, and finds new words for, subjects—although some ask you to look twice before you can see those subjects through their skillfully drawn scrims and veils.
You can find anthologies of modern poems about rock and roll, jazz, film, paintings and almost any other art, fine or applied. Haute couture clothing and jewelry, however, have lacked a contemporary muse until now; the highly wrought, flirtatious sequences in Robyn Schiff’s Worth describe (and liken themselves to) “dresses meant to be worn / once and once only,” to pear-shaped platinum earrings, to diamonds and diamond thieves, and to elaborate jewel-like birds. Schiff’s forms depend (like Marianne Moore’s) on interlocking enjambments, on syllabics, and on baroque grammar, or else (unlike Moore’s) on dense repetitions derived from Provençal forms. Almost every line in “Maison Cartier” (the poem with the earrings) ends with press, pare / pair, constant, or war / where / wore:
is the memory of everything constantly
darkening, bead pressing
bead. . .
of everything is sad. She wore
them until the war.
Where Moore praised intricacies in nature as moral lessons for arrogant human beings, Schiff asks why we cherish elaboration and delicacy per se, why we feel we need them, and why they seem feminine. That difference of interest keeps her from sounding derivative even when her debt to Moore grows clear, as in “Chanel No. 5”:
Waterfall gown with water-
fowl sleekness embroidered so as to rise
with the speed of light while
not in motion: slit placed
to stride from standstill to escape
as a leopard, monkey, or fox might hear an en-
emy in the dark brush
before she sees it (the coat
is lined) and try deception.
Her poems about finches treat the birds as further instances, as more objects of human desire—couturiers once treated them that way too: “oh little-willed feathers rearranged / upon a decorated hat as the tail of a taller bird, / isn’t this the dime that was your throne?” Schiff loves juxtapositions, sometimes too well: the details she limns don’t always fit together (though sometimes they fit better on a third rereading). Of two longish poems with narrative components, the better by far, “House of De Beers,” brushes in Schiff’s self-portrait as a late-Victorian diamond thief, the most ambitious and perhaps most powerful figure for this daringly elaborate, technically impressive poet, who says (and says convincingly): “I’m coming on foot with a diamond in my mouth.”
Gabriel Gudding’s A Defense of Poetry is no such thing, unless the best defense involves giving offense: at least half of Gudding’s poems consist, in whole or in part, of deadpan sarcasm, smirks, fireworks, and poop or fart jokes—especially fart jokes. In a poem called “Robert Lowell,” we learn that “grandmother farted / and sent the dog hurtling backward / in a blast of combed away fur” while Gudding’s persona “stood in the pieces of her skirt / and readied myself to face / the fart-combed dog.” Verse parodies have to be either affectionate tributes or demolition jobs: Gudding prefers the latter, which limits his range. His deliberate translationese, his consciously awkward periphrases, and yes, his fart jokes suggest that all language, or all poetry, might be as artificial and arbitrary as his own: why not redo “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” as spoken by a senile Ronald Reagan? Why not rewrite “Resolution and Independence” this way: “I // had an oven of gladness / in which I baked / days of boo-hoo and sadness”? Why not call it “The Lyric”? Wasn’t Wordsworth ridiculous, boo-hooing in sad-sack poems, and don’t these rewrites simply bring his impotence out? Well, no: they demonstrate instead that Gudding, along with many of his peers, seeks a poetic language in which nothing he says sounds like something he means. (“Your work,” he tells a woodlouse, is “to have no faith.”)
Gudding’s self-presentation (sometimes blankly clinical, sometimes as desperate as a stand-up comedian’s) suggests the alternation of hilarity and despair that thinkers fifteen years ago dubbed postmodern—the fate of the man who has to live by applause. His real interest comes when he abandons parodies for longer verse-essays and verse-letters; these sound, surprisingly often, like Paul Muldoon. Take “Coalman,” with its repeated end-words and puns (“wearing only a jersey,” “Guernsey or Jersey”). Or take “Daybook to Oyster, His Infant Daughter”:
I heard my own heart banging
like a lost cart through
the summer’s giant district
or the summer like a cart itself
lumbering in its oxenness, its own wool and oil.
These strangely exuberant, strangely defensive poems finally do present a personality, perhaps a new one for poetry in English: manic and snotty up front, shy and sad far in back. Why else would he imagine an “‘independent’ vocal cord” in the anus, “a kind of larnyx of the nether regions,” or offer us “a colostomy bag of song”?
In a crowded field, Gudding’s work demands attention; less obviously ambitious first books run far greater risks of being overlooked. Beth Roberts’s very appealing and (so far as I know) universally neglected Brief Moral History in Blue offers some brilliantly-wrought additions to the once empty, now fast growing stack of good poems about being a suburban new mom. Roberts also writes about children in groups, cigarettes, exurban midwestern landscapes, and adults in pairs; though we believe what she says and can feel as she feels, she stands out mostly for her command of sound. “Keep House” ends with a striking play on a hoary song:
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear,
a river in the foyer. There’s a heart in the kitchen
where you harried. There are souls in the closet
that are married, and twins in the coat
tree in the bedroom, albeit buried.
Unconvinced? Try “Burned House”: “The bad neighbors in the insulation-colored house who shot / the sky, drank brunch and burned whatever was at hand / have burned the hand that held them.”
Roberts can also show off with puns and internal rhymes (“an anger I harbor. . . an arbor”), write an accomplished poem on a Stevensian January, or dial down sound effects to focus on logopoeia: “And now the moon, / with whom we share a responsibility.” Exactly because she has no ambition to reinvent poetry in general, nor to create a large-scale stylistic signature, she can concentrate on the sonic and tonal inventions specific to each poem, even to each stanza:
We want the parts of the body to wear
like those gilded strands of Shire’s hair
stolen from the field
where the horses yield
all day their quivering hides to the lonely.
They drew our field of vision out from
the field. Go and find your own piece of pony.
It’s a frustrating book, not as confident as it should be, burdened by amateurish titles (“Late Orpheus and Recent Eurydice,” “Thelma and Louise Saving Privates”) and workshop experiments. It’s also full of wonderful lines, strange and meant and apt to their unsettling suburbs—“What do the Christian rockers do with a day like this?” And it contains as many nearly perfect poems as any other debut of the last few years.
Most poets these days who want to challenge their readers treat childhood memories and family members as the least promising of subjects. These next three poets instead aspire to reinvent the poetic memoir for an anti-narrative age. Richard Greenfield’s book of mostly-prose poems, A Carnage in the Lovetrees, weaves evasive, vivid commentary around a mother, a father, children, and the disappointments those characters shared. Greenfield offers memoiristic poetry as baroque and disjunct as new poetry on any other subjects (or on none): “I thought the certitude of the self was contrived,” he muses, “but the making of myself was not distinct from the knowing of myself.” At his best Greenfield makes it hard for us to decide what scenes his poems remember (at his worst, he makes it impossible). In “Avatar in the Shape of a Wing” (I gather) the car he drives has struck a bird:
The engine knocked in its cavity. Beneath the hood, the coded need for maintenance. In a field-burning haze, the midriff of the sky provides neither ascendancy nor grounding. Between two indifferent pressboards is our sovereignty, the smeared wreckage of the cumuli.
There was a fatal figuring against the last wing, the untamed eye, the will—
but tickety-tickety, a ticker pumps more than blood.
Greenfield’s self-making depends neither on euphonies nor on arguments, but on a counterpoint of sentences, a music of grammar (as in, for example, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns). Greenfield makes cinematic cuts not just between scenes but between tones, including the discomfited and the comic (“tickety-tickety”). He also pursues psychoanalytic patterns; one of the clearest and longest poems here likens Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom, on the one hand, to Greenfield’s relations with his late mother, on the other: “the child entered the contest & won with his interpretation of saint as pincushion.” Greenfield’s distinctively serious mien sends him out on consciously risky searches for the obtrusively beautiful; his emotions, by contrast, emerge through understatements: “Pale evening duns make clouds in the platinum river shine. . . . The hatch is a mass among many, you never get the girl, you live far from others.”
The fluent prose poems of Donna Stonecipher’s The Reservoir also try to revivify autobiography: Stonecipher, however, enjoys explaining and elaborating almost as much as Greenfield enjoys leaving bits out. Stonecipher gives her poems both the texture and the structure of a continuous meditation on her own best, strongest, or prettiest memories: “Some nights aren’t savable. Stars have their price. A boy buys a starbook with a certain girl in mind.” Stonecipher spent part of her youth in Tehran, and some of her twenties in the Czech Republic. Unsurprisingly, she enjoys writing about place; ultimately, though, all her poems are meditative, inward, remotely Proustian (“Silver Spoon” even names its prose blocks after volumes of A la recherche). Accused of Orientalism, Stonecipher might answer that her poems of childhood simply show what it’s like to grow up in a place your parents call foreign: “The dolls in their national costumes are straining their eyes through the dark of a cardboard morgue in my mother’s basement, even as we speak.” Nor would she mind being called self-dramatizing: what is lyric (she might ask) but the drama of words internal to the self? “One’s own story fascinates such that others are only echoes,” Stonecipher explains, recalling “the cycles of attraction and disillusion whirling through the charged expanse—thanks to sentences and their trestles, vaunting what in certain light appear to be bridges.”
The Body calls itself “an essay by Jenny Boully,” but we might equally call it an exploded memoir, or a book-length prose poem, with bits (not much more) of narrative and essayistic analysis poking out through its attention-getting conceit: Boully’s poem consists wholly of footnotes, about 160 of them, arranged at the bottom of pages left blank at the top. “Everything that was said was said underneath,” note 1 explains, and as we continue we discover the concealed emotions and the retrospectively-articulate thoughts of a bookish young woman’s collegiate and post-collegiate years, including her studies in film and ancient Greek, her stage experience, and her potential affair with an older man. Rather than pretending to tell a life story, or reconstructing its memories, Boully’s poem glosses events it admits we can’t see. Both footnotes and lyric poems, Boully suggests, address stories that take place elsewhere, and to which readers lack firsthand access.
That implied equation (lyric poem equals footnote) lets Boully intermingle autobiographical fragments, metafictional feints, and suggestive aphorisms or lyrical phrases. One example (aphorism): “It wasn’t that the ice-cream man came everyday: he came whenever the child heard his music.” Another (lyrical phrase): “Not a casket but an envelope; not an envelope, but a window; not a window, but a sigh.” Yet another (metafictional feint):
Although the narrative is rich with detail and historical accounts, the author is blatantly supplying false information. For example, the peaches were not rotten and there were no flies or rain for that matter.
And one more (autobiographical fragment):
After my sister and I stared at the magazine, we were, the both of us, afraid to part our legs or even to pee. For months, we were inseparable in the bathroom, but then, we became brave and decided to look for our holes, and if the spider did in fact come out we would kill it.
Though it’s less cumulative, and slightly more repetitive, than a reader might wish, The Body coheres as the book of a personality, entertaining, slightly brittle, prematurely jaded, pleasantly brassy (“In the morning, the doves cooed their fuck-yous”), and excruciatingly self-conscious. Despite hints, the volume never becomes (<0x00E0> la Nabokov’s Pale Fire) a puzzle in which we can learn what happened: part of Boully’s point is that we can’t. We may, however, know how she reacted, and what structure of feelings those reactions create: why shouldn’t they suffice?
Where are the heirs of Richard Wilbur? If you don’t care, skip the next two paragraphs; if, like me, you admire Wilbur’s meticulous poems but haven’t cared for most of his imitators, you’ll want to meet the North Dakota farmer Timothy Murphy, whose chiseled epigrams make him the most formal, and perhaps the most interesting, new “formalist” in some time. The best poems in his second book of verse, Very Far North, all draw on his plains locale. “The Last Sodbusters” remembers the first farmers to settle Montana:
‘Rain follows the plough!’
the pamphleteers proclaim.
Does grass follow the cow
or wind, the weathervane?
Care furrows the brow
and bows the straightest frame.
Thistle follows the plough,
and hail threshes the grain.
“Nature” in North Dakota offers Murphy few comforts and no illusions; the comforts appear at home, through labor and skill, signs of erotic and parental love:
Two foundlings whom we foster
have bedded down together,
each searching for his brother
creature in the tender
features of the other.
Each takes me for his teacher
but sees me as his father
and calls my lover “Mother.”
Such compact forms enunciate, as they reflect, an ethics: farming, like poetry, is no respecter of persons, and requires both smart planning and long labor for a product (grain, hogs, couplets, wisdom) whose end-users may never know how much work it took. A skilled Dakota farmer (like a Murphy poem) therefore wastes no syllable, no bit of dirt. Murphy can use other preindustrial crafts (hunting, sailing, animal husbandry) as subjects and analogues for similarly well-made poems. Though he takes them seriously too, Italian travel, gay male seductions, friendship, and Tibetan Buddhism do nothing for his work, since they neither enact nor describe the labor he prizes. When Murphy sounds bad, he soundsobviously bad, like bad late Frost—but his good poems are poems Frost, or Jonson, might have admired.
If Murphy wants very much to look like an outsider, Matthew Zapruder is, like it or not, on the inside. The weaker half of Zapruder’s American Linden looks a lot like the weaker half of many books Verse Press, which he directs, has released—offhand and unidiomatic quips interspersed with image-based late Surrealism, and shuffled into a pagelong so-what non-order: “Men in the trees. / She wishes to wish without contrivance. // Why are these implements so unerotic?” “I am a sail driven by a well- / meant yet partially foul exhaling / from the widow.” Zapruder can often do better, sometimes without trying. “The Artist Must Incline His Head Just So” wouldn’t sound out of place in McSweeney’s, being a compilation of fun self-deprecating remarks: “My lack of compassion astounds me / and must not come to know itself. . . I have dream after dream and forget each one.”
Yet Zapruder’s best poems offer far more emotional gravity, and attract familiarly weighty subjects, however much they pretend to mutter or wander. “I Go Out to Meet Them” could fit in Mark Strand’s first, best books: “Light and wind / put me down in this room. / Night has only one use for me.” “Sometimes Leaving” becomes a love poem as delicate as a hologram: “I swear I won’t doctor you, / or make you better, or even good.” “Right Now is a time,” Zapruder explains laconically, in a poem (“Ten Questions for Mona”) which finds the delicate point halfway between immediacy and retrospective longing, erotic approach and regret:
What flower do you bring a flower?
I’d curl up in the wrist, but there’s a cat
already named there for luck and howling.
What flower do you bring a trouble?
In the course of a sleeping farther away
dawn grew your hair.
I watched you grow younger.
When I look up you will be across from me.
This time I’m sitting where you were.
Zapruder majored in Russian and alludes to Mayakofsky, but his real mentors—the poets behind his good poems—are the now unfashionable heart-on-sleeve intuitionists of the seventies, from Strand and James Wright to Denis Johnson, who might almost have written his achingly not-quite ironic “Summer Camp” or the pellucidly tearful “So Be It,” or this superbly pointillist portrait of Brooklyn’s “Park Slope,”
Where down at the corner
of afternoon and 4th
children have been invented again.
paroled from daytime
bend among the lounging bodegas,
filling their starry
implications of sundresses,
climbing a few rungs
of spanish without me.
John Berryman wrote that the first requirement for any poet is “to sound as if he meant it.” Though Tracy Philpot might look askance at that “he,” her second book, Distance from Birth, sounds moremeant than anything in ages: she can sound—wants to sound—raw, loud, and occasionally rambling, but she makes each of those qualities work for her, in choppy short-lined poems or in big run-on paragraphs like this one:
The longer lasting morning was promising as light spread out across the unmade bed like a blue field under snow its scars hidden after the boys left I had myself all to myself and misheard “quails and later tambourines” broadcast and also “400 boys escaped from the Bangkok Romance Center” which just goes to show the farther you are from the radio the more inventive the news
Among her most talented contemporaries, Philpot can seem like a wolfhound among housecats: she wants lines and poems as urgent and as resistant to intellect as her favored subjects, and at her best she gets them:
I wish you were as hairless as a child
then I might love you more originally
or ravenously since your face would be luminous
in the scant light night tosses off
like the last layer of silk before nudity
oh surely the night must be as tired as I am
of being used as a metaphor
tired of prayers and assignations and boozy fights
committed in pursuit of its uncertainty
Another poet would choose between the abstractions and the bedclothes: Philpot shouldn’t, and won’t.
Philpot writes, and writes well, about bodies, motherhood, blood, sinews, domestic strife, nature worship, abjects and extremes—about love, sex, sexuality, and bisexuality (four subjects, not one) and about fauna, weather, and landscapes in rural Alaska, where she lives. She not only invokes “ripening sleep-swollen sex,” but finds verbal means right for that invocation: she not only promises, but brings “Good/Bad News from the Physical World,” and (like her probable model, C. D. Wright) she can hook her sexual poetics into terse social comment: “when we opened to the shelter for abused men / no one came.” In her worse moments Philpot paints herself into cliché, becoming just one more woman who runs with the wolves: a few poems seem one draft shy of their destination. Usually, though, Philpot has the strength Blake dubbed “organized innocence,” and just enough knowledge of the roads she will refuse: “the body is a strange star / so desperate / in its past to us,” she declares in “Everything Depended Upon Being Lost,” and the celestial metaphor seems only what she deserves.
When we read a first or second book of poems, we seek (ordinarily) evidence of promise, imagining a poet’s potential oeuvre, directions in which her work could lead. Yet no poet wants to be read for her potential: she has produced the best poems she could write, and wants each one considered on its own terms, whether or not it augurs better work later. Philpot’s seems to me, in a year of accomplished books, easily the most vivid, and the closest (despite its stylistic debts) to finding form for one life’s distinct sensibility. Other books would take the palms for subtlest, most outlandishly inventive, most playful, most intricate, or greatest internal variety (that last one a goal more poets should consider). Which book will look best in a decade, or herald a great career? Who knows? W. H. Auden, when he served as Yale Younger Poets judge, wrote that he considered a first book good if he liked one-third of its poems. Auden’s selections famously included first books by Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin, and James Wright, along with John Ashbery’s Some Trees. All these volumes from 2001 and ‘02 combine individual achieved poems with book-wide promise of more accomplishment soon. None of them look likely to change the style of a generation, but then, in 1956, did Some Trees?
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April 01, 2003
18 Min read time