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December 1, 1998
Eight new poetry collections.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20
"In the thicket of Ashbery's work, "a-bristle with doodads," there have always been deeply embedded signposts, "shattered ornaments to truth," to orient us. These surface more and more, as Ashbery has been looking over his shoulder at least since Flowchart(1991). Here he writes of being "so fearful of the first-person singular / and all the singular adventures it implies." Auden warned O'Hara and Ashbery about "confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue," and Ashbery himself appears to confront the fatigue in this extremely moving, autumnal collection: "Remotely the unnamed keeps up with me. / . . . Yes, and I'm about out of breath. . . ." Assertion and listlessness are still the poles: "it was my way, the one I chose, even if I didn't choose it," but the plaintive urgency finds a newly charged pitch to confront "the extraordinary onus of finishing / what's set out for him." Even when the reader must be spurned, it is with tenderness: "I've brought you a box of candied chestnuts, for the great voyage / into the technical dream you will learn to read." For there is more to offer, and to receive, "my hand blotted with crystals, your breath calls."
Jeanne Marie Beaumont
Beaumont's blend of contemporary insouciance and alertness yields an appealing irony: neither wit nor wonder are sufficient to acknowledge that "There are reasons why we cannot sleep." Isolation is less a cause for pathos than for play, as the goldfish speakers of "Two Bowls" suggest: "Goblet-bound / we drink and binge. / We are not dainty. / We are never bored." "[S]uckers for intricacy, repetitions," Beaumont's speakers binge on wordplay and optical illusion. Beaumont is Elizabeth Bishop's descendent in this pursuit, drawing not only on Bishop's skill with domestic detail ("hysterics of a neighbor's teakettle"), but on her acute sensitivity to the view that obstructs the view-the limits of vision. "Rorschach" images are observed and revised: "A house that can't be seen / from the road-no, what hides it." Memory, this collection repeatedly points out, is as elusive and susceptible to refraction as is vision. Beaumont sifts through the terms of the past (dolls, dress, diary) in what amounts almost to a metaphysics of girlhood, ever aware, however, as "Visual Field Test" observes, that "this focal point makes us / difficult to sneak up on."
Grove, $20, $11 (paper)
Poems in the voices of scientists and explorers are not without precedent, and one hears echoes of Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Kenney, or even of Robert Penn Warren in this debut collection, the first in the Grove Press Poetry Series. As in Bishop, the odd combining of the scientific with a primitive vision can be very effective; Lindsay's imagination is caught between the surreal and the ironic as she plays out her particular relationship to strange terrain. Her poems are propelled by a narrative that doesn't always fulfill the promise of its impetus, and her imagery can detract from the strength of the rhythm and syntax, which work to make the focused poems vivid and strange. In "Dinosaur to Dragon," evolution is made palpable as "[t]he back sprouts feathers, the feathers have feathers / . . . . gladly intricate / . . . its infinite edges intimate with air." In "Of What Earth Has Eaten, Something May Yet Be Found," an archaeologist hopes to release "some crucial tooth to the sun," to remove "dust from the mountain range of jaw" and "touch the place for its tongue." This kind of moment, fragile and lucid, is rare in poetry today.
University of Chicago, $12 (paper)
In his first book of poems, Longenbach lays bare a continuous quest for connections between people and landscapes, parents and children, past and present selves, addressing "the suspicion there's nothing missing / Under surfaces." Longenbach's formalism is subtle and effective, especially when unrhymed couplets, a favorite mode, allow for greater internal resonance and deft movement between stanzas, as in "My Other Self," "The Lucky Ones," and in the following lines from "Another Person": "The body lurches as earth turns over once // To let it through, eyes shut tight, arms flailing / In the atmosphere as if to churn / The world into compliance." Many poems are crowded with the adventures of young, lost, maimed children, either recalled, presumably, from the poet's youth ("The Grace of the Witch") or fictive versions of offspring. "In a World Without Heaven" quietly and powerfully opens with an image of the youngest of three sisters singing a lullaby "mimicking / Her sisters' voices until the room is scoured / Of its emptiness." At times Longenbach's attention dwells too self-consciously on its own ambivalence, but his genuine, honest interest in how "things accumulate / As if from nothing," confronts the uneasy consequences of trying to map one's ideals onto the world.
Modern Poetry After Modernism
Oxford, $45, $18.95 (paper)
In this study of how twentieth-century lyric has contended with "an Eliotic inheritance more varied and accommodating than most readers recognized," Longenbach assesses the complex reactions of nine poets from Lowell to Graham to their modernist predecessors. He identifies crucial conversations, actual and implicit, between critics and poets, and between poets and their past and present imaginative influences. In chapters arranged by individual poets, Longenbach sketches the unfolding of Bishop's deep social awareness from early prose to the Brazil poems, examines Jarrell's difficult relation to questions of gender (and his important admiration of Bishop), and defends Richard Wilbur from the charge of aloofness in that his "poems take their shapes precisely because of his respect for the magnitude of the world, both lovely and horrific, outside the poet's mind." A fascination with change and the non-linear experience of passing of time, valued by Clampitt in "Nothing Stays Put" ("The world is a wheel. / All that we know, that we're / made of, is motion"), Richard Howard, and Ashbery, who appreciated Stein's and James' "embodying a constant sense of temporal flux," makes for one of the book's more subtly drawn arguments on the preoccupations of contemporary poetry. Perhaps because of the broad evidence marshaled for this theme, readers may find themselves wishing Longenbach had defended his choice of poets, but this omission also serves to affirm his capacious sense of how poetic agendas are shaped.
The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995
New Directions, $18.95 (paper)
Selecting from a collection of works such as Palmer's can be problematic: it brings much "lost" material back into print, but also impairs the gestures of a poet who has worked in series within, and sometimes across, such volumes as Blake's Newton(1972), The Circular Gates(1974), Without Music(1977), Notes for Echo Lake (1981), First Figure (1984), and Sun (1988). It's impossible to overstate Palmer's importance to a contemporary Language-centered-and perhaps more urgently, to a post-Language-centered-poetics. If his work has inspired a certain Wittgensteinian orthodoxy among parts of the current avant-garde, it's not his fault: while acknowledging the influences of Zukofsky and Creeley, Palmer has always drawn on the more sensual traditions of French Symbolism and Surrealism, and maintains a dialogue with his post-Tel Quel contemporaries in France. Like Susan Howe, Palmer combines a radical attention to the surfaces of words with a dramatic transformation-not reduction-of their reference. The result is not a revolution, but a signal revision of our tradition. Those who have so far managed to remain ignorant of Palmer's work should find this volume a good place to start.
Sun & Moon, $10.95 (paper)
"When something is in the very process of shattering, all internal conflicts cease," writes Swensen, and the poems collected in this impressive seventh book present a meticulously nuanced exposition of this statement's strange logic. Each poem rings changes on sets of words, images, narrative fragments, or syntactical motifs, many of which recur throughout the book. The result is a rhetoric of juxtaposition and association that simultaneously arranges and deranges the idea of presence-of a speaker, of a reader, of a body, of another's body, of a grammar, of the natural world, of the divine. When Swenson writes, "The beauty of the world is an immutable thing and there is nothing that touch can't cure," she isn't sounding the tonic chord of lyric resolution, she's merely charting a point in a continuum. Her method infuses much of the book with a beautiful, hallucinatory quality: "He was playing with his child out in back of the house when the child suddenly got enormous and he couldn't recall the word." And while Noon doesn't seek to prove that language (poetry) is redemptive, Swensen seems to affirm her existence among life's cross-currents in the book's opaque final lines: "Some rivers burn-they say this isn't good, but I'm no one to judge, and I think it's got its points."
Dark Sky Question
Beacon Press, $12 (paper)
The voice in this first book, winner of the 1997 Barnard New Women Poet's Prize, is alternately prophetic, matter-of-fact, impassioned and wry, as in "Solar Wind": "Leave if you're leaving / Leave plain mud. // I don't know what else / is on your beard. / It would be mercy, God // I grow weird in the field." Szporluk's poems ask what might be adequate to heal the inevitable injuries of being-not by confessing the details of an individual life, but by creating archetypal narratives. Controlled by a God who "pierces nature to make things grow," the voice is forced to move constantly between a vatic mode and a highly engaged, intimate sensibility. This innovative tonal range creates many darkly funny moments, especially when the poems take on the divine or the beloved, as in "Death by a Thousand Cuts": "your hand can turn your hatred / into smoke. Keep waving / at your husband. Feel the sizzling." The messy worlds of nature, love, and human and divine agency can only be truthfully discussed, Szporluk seems to say, from a place that is both founded in human emotion and hollowed out, "a cage whose interior flew," or a "flow without a vein." This compelling new voice illuminates an injured, absurd world that is nevertheless inhabited by loveliness and divinity, creating, as Szporluk aptly puts it in "Axiom of Maria," a "feeling of the greatest voice as it ceased."
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