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The Penultimate Suitor
University of Iowa Press, $13 (paper)
"What good does it do / to note / aqua-gray sky, oak leaves / soaked orange" Mary Leader asks in The Penultimate Suitor, a volume that is concerned throughout with the ability to find and to name a correspondence between art and experience. Part of the answer, of course, is in the asking itself, in the particulars that are named, and Leader has a keen eye and a suppleness of vocabulary, tone, and voice that allows her to summon forth the world around her. But behind that summoning, there is always an awareness that experience and its telling cannot quite match up. Almost every poem in the volume takes as its subject one, or several, of the arts: photography, painting, music, poetry. Perhaps even more central to the volume than the relationships among the arts is the theme of longing and desire. The arts become an instance of unrequited love, a disjunction between desire and the object of desire, between the world of the physical, the body, and the numinous world of thought, emotion, and longing. To explore her difficult but urgent subject matter, Leader deploys many voices and techniques, always actively trying new approaches. One section of "Depiction of a Game as if by Peter Breughel the Elder," entitled "chits" is made up exclusively of pictographs (hands, bikes, telephones, scissors, etc.). The poems "Love" and "Art" (the volume's two central themes), both consist solely of a dotted line across the middle of the page, marked, parenthetically, and perhaps punningly, "tear here." Most of the time though, Leader is lyrical, and her poetry is the record of a probing mind actively thinking: "One assumes that the boat is receding" Leader writes about a photograph by Irving Penn, "But then you realize— / Right—you're way ahead of me—if we see the—yeah— / Rower from behind, of course: the boat's approaching." Such reversals and oblique approaches abound as Leader takes us with her through a process of close observation and discovery.
—Nadia Herman Colburn
Lovers in the Used World
Carnegie Mellon University Press, $12.95 (paper)
In his writings on Rodin, Rilke remarks the capacity of the master's sculpture to appear as "bodies which were like listening faces" as well as "like arms about to strike." This duality, that of the contemplative and mundane juxtaposed with the ominous and sublime, is central to Gillian Conoley's newest book. The poems, functioning much like broken-up stills from a neo-film noir, place the reader at a moment just before the shower curtain is drawn or the shadow of a pistol passes across the window, then—cutting sharply to the monotonous reality of domesticity—one finds oneself suddenly "in the tear of the pattern," and left "in a climate of suspicion." ("Unsuspecting people shooting a playground with guns. / Never caused // any trouble before. I don't get it. No matter whether // I buy the orange one, or the magenta, or the chartreuse, / I've gone west, and I feel tranquil, not elated.") For Conoley, it's the mediation of the event which hold interests ("not the thing itself / but the culture that produced it"), our harrowing ability to become "someone flipping the radio putting voice over abyss." And it is from this abyss of strip malls, gas stations, and movie theaters, where "Many people are doing the same thing period. // When one has no feeling for harmony," that Conoley (echoing passages from John Cage'sSilence) asks, "What if there is not enough nothing?" This is answered later in the book with another question, one seemingly put to the author herself: "Are you a handler, a healer, or an eater?" By delving into the contemporary cultural landscape with a fragmented, cinematic sensibility, interlacing the poems to create a structural narrative, and looking head on into "the mirror / with its grand so what," Conoley moves from handler to healer, leaving the rest of us with a full stomach.
—Noah E. Gordon
The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight
Adventures in Poetry, $12.50 (paper)
"Strictly between us two," confides a speaker in Charles North's The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight, "I'm the Steinway of strange mischief." The book, the poet's eighth, eddies with mischief, as if to suggest that making meaning itself is a type of mischief, a tryst between risk and the rebels in a mouth that may give way to something prior: a condition of Being, possibly a hat size. North's agonistics are defined in part by parataxis, wit, and withholdings; with a lightness of touch, he cantilevers and clips utterances according to whatever sifting-through-the-medium is in order. His language sharpens its teeth on consciousness as it produces "hints of yet-to-be instantiated structure," on objects coincidental or intentional, not to mention the funny bone. He pursues the miching-malicho lyric and the possibilities it offers, but always with an acute sense of how to true the comic impulse that vitalizes his sublime as well as kickshaw modes. Take pectin, soluble substance that is converted into para- and meta-substances as fruit ripens. North heats the word with ways of hearing: "Use pectin in a sentence / They were pectin like sardines / The robins pectin the trees all day and all night." Although long associated with the New York School, the poet has often seemed diffident about the taxon. "I like the idea that the air is too close to either prove or disprove its existence," he writes in Landscape & Chardin, "and that it has no stake whatever in the issue." This book is graceful and subtly complex. The longest and perhaps most dynamic of its seventeen poems, "Day after Day the Storm Mounted. Then it Dismounted," rests just a little way in, a kind of floating nest; and all these poems have what Mandelstam called the tar of honest work—what North would call hornet work, which entails standing on one's head, "not to mention endless attention."
Sarabande Books, $12.95 (paper)
Pennsylvania Collection Agency
New Issues Press, $14 (paper)
In the best poems of Unsleeping, Michael Burkard steadies on the buoyline perilously separating the swells of memory from the discrete present, the mess of consciousness from the momentary clarity of language. From this bravely unheroic posture, the unobvious shape of the self is felt, and truth about the self is earned. The first two lines of the collection ("Two copies Denis Johnson's / Jesus' Son, write song instead") catch both the words of the poem and the moment apparently recorded therein, stutter-stepping across the barrier of the poet's processing brain. Substitution is in this case not employed to prove the poet's virtuosity but to force open the apertures of the poem to show a consciousness at work. Thus the lyric spaciousness that swells the end of the poem is a breathtaking but smooth departure, launching itself from the inner resources of the poet's heart: "Love you are like / a mile in the day-sky." Again and again, these poems move from an attempt to get a certain moment or portrait factually or emotionally 'right,' to a state of willful and exalting lyricism. This most often feels like wishfulness, as in the poem where a portrait of an abused woman trapped in an apartment ends with a prayer to "moon and train" to "pull her, pull, her, pull her," or when "fragile Michael," musing on family ghosts and the depravity of roses bred to have no scent, solves this aesthetic problem by pulling all the words used to describe the various elements of the poem back to himself: "You are / the hand of a ghost. // You are a half mask / You are the rose which still / smells like a rose." There is self-pity here, and a kind of emotional extravagance which may unsettle some readers, but there is truth as well. The most spectacular poems of Unsleeping, such as the crushingly elegiac "Kafka Tom," depart from Burkard's established flight-plan, twisting and twisting again. Surprisingly, here it is playful language that is most pained, most bare, as in the chant-like list that begins the poem: "Kafka Tom / Kafka train. / Kafka bowl. / Kafka coin." Burkard feels his way into a mourning ritual which is secular but highly spiritual ("Lonely little star. Half man. // The dream is a wage. / Moon wages. / Big Boy walks into prison like there ain't no sorrow"). Through alternating waves of lyricism and exposition, the iconic "Kafka" becomes a sad hard clump of syllables, becomes the coin with which Burkard has bought his way into the Underworld by carrying it in his own mouth. This choice permits the production of the poem, and also becomes the choke-stone around which the words must be forced. In "Kafka Tom" and its peers, a single word becomes burnished as it is turned over and over in the poet's torrential mind. Strange treasures like these are the wealth ofUnsleeping.
Pennsylvania Collection Agency is less satisfying because it is both less and more 'true.' In this earlier, withheld volume, Burkard is closer to confessional, and often fearlessly frank: "I am saying out loud tonight god help me / for the broken places I have made." These poems are not simplistic, and are often rangily beautiful, but they are poems with exquisite moments, rather than exquisite poems. Here Burkard has not yet found the formal line to walk that will let the reader feel the sense of necessity, of living risk, that volatilize the poems of Unsleeping. "I am dead, I is dead, I wish I wish upon a star / and a voice returns always in silence, and now I wish in silence" typifies the drowned, aquamarine loveliness of this volume, as Burkard's speaker-as-anchor drifts in a world as cool and blue as he is, his still eyes permanently open.
With some sixty books to Tanikawa's credit in over half a century of writing, one may be compelled to ask why it has taken so long for a representative sampling of the Japanese poet's work to appear in English. Indeed, his plainspoken manner and abundant good cheer have clear links to American influences, including jazz history and Charles Schultz's Peanuts comic strip, for which he has long served as the Japanese translator. But readers looking for rhetorical and emotional heft veiled in simple language, such as we have come to expect from some of our best contemporary foreign-language poets (among them Wislawa Szymborska and Bei Dao), will likely be disappointed by this collection, where the nearly powerful thought quickly diminishes with rereading. This is especially the case in the many instances when the poet addresses the act of writing: "That is where the human battle is joined. / For no matter how low I sink / I am not beholden to tree or bird. / It is a word—one mere word—that makes me human." Similarly hollow moments of authorial self-regard are part and parcel of Tanikawa's poetics, which concerns itself more with limpid musings on "words, words, words" than with the things they might describe, illuminate, or enliven. And while language and the power of speech are the most consistent themes, the execution of the poems themselves—or at least of their translations—tends toward mere prosiness. In one of the later poems, Tanikawa asks, "What's wrong with having details in our lives?" Yet it is the absence of concrete, compelling details that allows these poems to get bogged down in their juvenile fascination with the verbal act as such. In his introduction, translator William I. Elliott argues that Tanikawa's prolificacy helps demonstrate his greatness. For this collection, however, a sharper vision would have been a kinder virtue.
Something of a novel in verse, A Ballad for Metka Krasovec chronicles Švalamun's trip to a writing colony in Mexico in the late 1970s and the ensuing correspondence with his wife, who provides the book's title. It is a man's challenging appraisal of the unstable conditions he chooses for himself (marriage and artistic direction, foremost) and those he has been granted (political and national identity). In light of current conditions, such issues are as topical and poignant today as in 1981, when the book was first released in Svalamun's native Slovenia. An apt expression of the poet's disjunctive and roiling surrealism, Metka showcases a schizoid persona that's behaviorally and attitudinally unpredictable. A politically- and emotionally-exiled dissident, the "Tomasz Svalamun" of this collection grapples with a trying love life filled with a cache of soul-mates and one-night stands, the artistic fame with which he has been anointed in his homeland, and a raving and fantastic self- and world-view. Svalamun is the world's ultimate resident ghost in Metka, each poem a patch of skin ardently returning him to the realm of the flesh: grandiosity ("Everyone I touch becomes / the food of this flame"), bellicosity ("I feel the hand of God on my neck. / Who is it that dares to crush my head!"), political optimism ("My hands shine. America is my fate"), and stridence ("And any / enemy / who plans / to mess with my Slovenian / nation has been / forewarned"). The result—triumphant defiance, fearful self-loathing, warm self-effacement—is a gripping and multi-faceted confessional. Quiet yet also strangely exuberant, Svalamun's lyrics are invigorated with the dissonance of outburst and metaphysical reflection, fusing public utterance and interior meditation in a way rarely seen in a poetic culture so consumed by a now-hackneyed "post-Postmodernism."
The mutable realm inhabited by this second collection of poems shifts seamlessly between loss and redemption, despair and exaltation—the navigation of a world in which "there is / no difference / between the dark // and the light / and what you know." Mead is "making flypaper out of history. / —Personal and cultural," collecting and recollecting particles of a shattered past that coalesce, ultimately, into a testimonial to her passion for life and to the power of historicity. The austere lyricism of Mead's spare lines are edged with "irony holding [her] / words together" and a "wedge of sarcasm // keeping you sane, keeping you / distant." This distance enables Mead to reconstruct past suffering into art, into "something / a person could live by." The collection's centerpiece, the long poem "House of Poured-Out Waters," takes its title from a translation of the Hebrew word Bethesda—the pool in Jerusalem where Jesus commanded an invalid to "Rise, take up thy bed, and walk." Here Mead's words attempt to resolve the schism between her body and her soul; she confronts the disconnect "between the life that is // yes and the life / that is no" while hovering at "ground-level as the ever popular life / that is maybe." According to Mead, what matters is "not / just the story, or even how you read it— /— / but how it travels, that it travels"—the desire for life that such movement indicates, and the space for freedom and healing that such movement creates. Rather than portray herself as a victim of circumstance or experience, Mead depicts "the body / in the song, broken // and free." Her poems evolve from a confessional nucleus devoid of self-pity, conducted by supple lexicon, and "when you listen to the words / you know they want life / just like we did, only harder."
The Owl Press, $12 (paper)
"She added broke even to the list, the rip that hooked itself." This confident, speedy opening sentence in Szmatowicz's "She Pockets Things" from her prose-poetry collection Zoop is followed not by breathing space or explanation but by another, weirder leap into dream logic, or else a cavalier step into the house of the non sequitur: "I don't think we should let a little thing like fish spoil us, do you?" This poem is consistent with the rest of the collection in its unrelentingly zany twists and turns, highlighting the perspective of a narrator who is whip-smart, a quick draw with surreal images, and just as quick to distraction as to obsessiveness. Szmatowicz's speaker asks a lot of questions ("Why all this hunger fright? Where did I leave my claws?") and then turns her attention elsewhere, as if the real inquiries of the poems require observation in a parallel universe. The speaker also has a breathtakingly hyperkinetic way of pronouncing what is real, half know-it-all, half fly-on-the-wall: "You buy a house, plant a tree, Winnie makes a quilt, Anna talks and reads the use of the spoon." In the quieter poems, Szmatowicz displays her gift for what seems like effortlessly incandescent imagery. Poems such as "These are Green Flames" do not need the higher, appropriately frantic pitch of poems like "Stirrup Love" or "Thick as Either," but even here (with lines like "There are green flames outside the door. Voices carry like skin on water. The valley looks around.") it's never simply dreamy. The otherworldly qualities are punctuated—punctured, rather—with the narrator's mother saying, "There's not enough water in that dog to fill a bowl." The great delight of Zoop is this very zooming and swooping, up into the narrator's very peculiar and unique brand of outer space and back down to earth. And when a reader may feel dizzy with just one too many giant leaps for mankind, Szmatowicz usually offers a bit of dialogue or otherwise organically grown detail from planet Earth, to make us feel at home in her eccentric, exuberant language.
Ma Langue est Poétique: Selected Work
Christophe Tarkos, Edited by Stacy Doris and Chet Wiener
Roof Books, $12.95 (paper)
Since the wane of Surrealism, there hasn't been a truly compelling French poet for Americans to champion; the writers we have valued from Tel Quel have mostly been in prose (Barthes, Blanchot, Kristeva) and the poets have seemed mostly matters for those-in-the-know (Cadiot, Albiach, Roche). This slender volume—a selection culled from over twenty-five books by a writer still in his mid-thirties—may revive some interest here in contemporary French poetry. Tarkos writes with ambition, abundance, and vigor, and, not inconsequentially, is onto something about our data-laden, overdescribed and often humorless age. "Process" is a series of linked prose-paragraph blocks that juxtaposes scraps from contemporary news and history with subjective expressions (usually through a stereotypical idiom) of the soul in need: "I woke up, up this mornin', cryin' canned heat 'round my bed, run here somebody, take this canned heat blues—." The final impression is of the chance selection a satellite hurdling toward earth might make of the radio waves that assault it—the pathetic, sublime, and the trivial mixing easily—but it also suggests a lighter-hearted, prose Cantos. Some poems are like plays, such as "hurt: a libretto," which is minimal—stylistically and philosophically—in a way suggesting the later Beckett, but with a subject matter right out of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: "pain settles in the center / and what's felt / is to feel." Others, like "Train," seem to be scores for abstract, sound-based recitals (Tarkos is in demand as a performer; he toured fifty-one European cities in 1999 alone), while "Toto" is a prose fiction—a single run-on paragraph—with a nightmarish, hallucinogenic quality reminiscent of Walt Disney, Henry Darger, and the Brothers Quay, with a touch of Pulp Fiction. Edited by Stacy Doris and Chester Wiener, with translations by the editors and several accomplished poets, and including an interview with Tarkos, Ma Langue est Poétique is a full but brief overview of a poet who could bring about a revolution in our sensibilities.
—Brian Kim Stefans
Memoir of the Hawk
Ecco/HarperCollins, $25 (cloth)
Like the bird of its title, James Tate's new book of poems soars on currents of language, departing the everyday in curlicues and corkscrews, skewing perspective and escaping disenchantment. Even within a single verse, a sharp divergence in direction can transform the landscape: "A day which started off rather dismally / turns a sharp right and there up ahead / is the prospect of something sweet"—or often, something sour. For the transfigurative power of words can turn ominous, leading to the suppressed violence of interior landscapes, as in "My Private Tasmania," or to alternate realities, as in the book's epigraph, from Beckett's Molloy: "Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining." Memoir of the Hawk teems with a menagerie of beasts, animals living by instinct, doing what they do ("When / [ducks] quacked it really meant quack"); but language—the Eve's apple we all bite into—can betray itself, or veil a rift in consciousness. It leads us into, not out of, the inexplicable, both explaining and further concealing. Many of Tate's characters say one thing, then do the other; in "I Surrender," the speaker is given a dog by a woman who then beats him with her purse for accepting it. Words can conceal unspoken intentions or unconscious desires. All sorts of things lurk in the mind; "rooting around in the basement," we realize that "a separate life had been going on without / us." This sensation of powerlessness, as other personae strive to assert themselves, tinges Tate's playfully conjured world with more somber shades. These poems can be both tenderly melancholic and achingly funny, often at the same time. They underline this poet's ability to upend life and reveal what is hidden on the flipside: possibility, "the interstellar space between teacups in the cupboard."
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