Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century
edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin
Sarabande Books, $24 (paper)
The title of the new anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century alludes to a quotation from Robert Frost, the all-purpose cranky uncle of American verse. Frost insists that the writing of a poem requires us to get into “danger legitimately” to give us the opportunity to be “genuinely rescued.” Along those lines, these poems are presented under the sign of true and meaningful risk. In the introduction, the editors, Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, tell an illustrative story about attending a lecture by the novelist Alan Gurganus: “All writing is about seduction,” Gurganus begins, and follows by asking an audience member to take off her shirt.
The poems Legitimate Dangers collects tend to aim for a similarly direct and self-reflexive seductiveness. But, knowingly risky, they often toe a fine line between poetic authority and its less interesting cousin, attitude. Consider, for example, the passionate address of “Sweet Reader, Flanelled and Tulled,” by Olena Kalytiak Davis:
Reader unmov’d and Reader unshaken,
and unterrified, through the long-loud
I creep toward you. Toward you, I thistle
and I climb.
Davis permits a certain amount of fertile disorder to permeate her poems and make them unpredictable, but she is also emotionally intense and willing to speak clearly. From its inception, the poem assumes both the presence and resistance of the reader. This is true of a great many of the poems in this robust congregation: their authors cover an ample range of styles and sensibilities, but they ask the reader to enter into an experience situated quite clearly in the now. This is canny, but it can wear thin. And such directness can seem overconfident. Who says that I’m unmoved? Who says I’m unterrified? No one likes being told what they feel.
The following lines from Tracy K. Smith’s “History” try a similar gambit with a more sinister tone:
There is a We in this poem
To which everyone belongs…
We's a huckster, trickster, has pluck.
We will draw you in.
Look at your hands:
Dirty. You're already in.
Even though poems like these say they’re about us, the readers, they’re not really. They are performance scripts that demand our presence, but not our personhood. That is, we are not asked into the poem to react to a specific event or set of identifiable feelings; as Marvin and Dumanis write, “Neither of us feels that a poem needs to hold the reader’s hand or be ‘about’ something, especially about a specific event, thought, or experience.” Poems like Smith’s and Davis’s also seem to value our anonymity. They speak from little context and immerse us in an ambiguous emotional condition, one whose drama is most possible on the page or in the imagination.
Finally, let’s look at the ending of “Whoever You Are,” by Matthew Zapruder:
…wherever I am I will see candles
on the ritual arms of two dark canals
and you will allow me to step I believe
into the mechanism
and tear off your wings
Davis’s poem is in a lush high style; Smith’s poeticizes street jargon; Zapruder’s uses an image-twisting, mild surrealism easy enough to find in contemporary poetry. But all three poets articulate a desire to convert the assumed distance between the poem and the reader into an extreme proximity. With their seductive gestures, these may be versions of the love poem, but their seductions don’t urge us toward intimacy as much as they threaten, demand, and require it.
It is more than a little surprising how consistently this is the case, given the book’s capaciousness: Legitimate Dangers features 85 contributors, including some of the most exciting poets of the younger generation, and appends a list of additional recommended reading at the back. But reading the book cover to cover I was struck by how the editors’ emphasis on identifiable acts of formal risk-taking has made a diverse group of writers seem falsely limited in practice and sensibility. Though the editors say they looked for “poems that engaged the reader both emotionally and intellectually,” the poems gathered here do not always extend their formal adventures to successful and consistent intellectual and emotional seduction.
Indeed, many of the poems in Legitimate Dangers seem less about love than about work. In their rhetorical structures, they like to ask the reader to do a lot of imaginative labor—and to do that labor self-consciously. This also brings us very close to the compositional instincts from which the work emerges: we feel as if we’re seeing the poem’s bones. In “Long Goodbye,” by Carrie St. George Comer, the imperative mood forces the poem out of the speaking self and into the mind of the reader:
See the body. It is small and thin.
How the bones show through the skin.
See the flecks of polish on the nails…
One thinks of John Donne’s imperatives, or, more recently, Jorie Graham’s, and the feeling that both poets capture of how the life of the senses generates a drama of submission to a perceptual tide. Imperatives place the reader at the poet’s mercy. Still, so many of Donne’s imperatives leave him in the submissive role (“Batter my heart, three-personed God”). Comer’s imperatives threaten, here and in the rest of the poem, to remain mere commands.
Sometimes the self does seem to emerge as the subject of the poem. But then the real subject quickly reveals itself to be the difficulty of composing or discerning that self: self-scrutiny turns to confusion, not self-understanding, leaving personae, not persons, to predominate. Persona poems make it their project—sometimes playfully, sometimes less so—to meditate on the difficulty of having a self at all. But more often than not, we find ourselves face to face not with a true persona but with some amalgam, neither completely interested in shoring up the remains of autobiography nor totally committed to presenting an imaginative fiction. Monica Ferrell’s “Geburt des Monicakinds” courts this tension:
I woke. A tiny knot of skin on a silver
Set in the birth-theater, blinking in the
Of electric lights and a strange arranged
Passel of faces: huge as gods in their
I was the actor who forgets his lines and
On stage suddenly wanting to say, I am.
The self in many of these poems becomes more a concept to be imagined into or out of than a condition of being or a way of understanding. Similarly, Joyelle McSweeney’s lines from “Persuasion” have a beguiling integrity in their near meaninglessness: “Others were more economical than I. But I / had my red marble. I had action / figures weighing down the drapes / on tiny threads. That twisted and grew smaller.” McSweeney and Farrell both write with great authority and confidence. There is no reason to believe that they are not capable of applying that authority to the attainment of greater emotional and intellectual rewards. Here, however, it is authority itself that takes center stage.
But this is not always the case. Many of these poems temper the freedom of free verse with formal discipline, and the best of these gambits force the writers into fascinating encounters with musics that are more thought out than improvisatory. The syllabics of Robyn Schiff’s “Chanel No. 5,” for example, stain the writing of the poem with a relentless energy paralleled in the poem’s treatment of fashion, history, and animal life:
Waterfall gown with water–
fowl sleekness embroidered so as to rise
the speed of light while
not in motion; slit placed
to stride from standstill to escape
as a leopard, monkey, or fox might hear
emy in the dark brush…
Schiff shares much with Marianne Moore, her formal precursor. Her poems likewise tangle and untangle lists in the service of yoking disparate vocabularies, and her version of total immersion in image and speed works extraordinarily well. In the end, Schiff’s poems transcend their formal constraints, and their stepped syllabic stanzas force diverse concerns to speak to one another.
But an interest in form does not guarantee an interesting style, and some of the poems included in Legitimate Dangers appear to exist for the sake of experiment alone. It is unclear to me, for instance, what the first four lines of the following poem by Joshua Beckman, identified by the editors as a sonnet, have to do with the form of the sonnet, and why it might matter that they do:
I like your handsome drugs. Your pleasant
drugs. Your frozen fingernails. Your
fingernails. That man screamed out. “The
karate chop of love,” before tackling that
Some might argue that formal play has its own rewards, and the nearly nonsensical freedom of a poem like Beckman’s will please those readers for its sheer joy and inventiveness. These lines fit the editors’ expressed desires for “visceral, daring poems that challenged the readers’ sensibilities.” They play with form; they have a pyrotechnic energy; they jump from one perceptual moment to another with great speed. But they leave the reader unsatisfied because these strategies do not appear to come from a discernable condition of mind or soul, one that might place enough pressure on the sonnet to elicit interesting comment on its traditions and practices.
Legitimate Dangers presents an argument about where literary history has gotten us: through the selection it offers and, to a lesser extent, with an introduction that quotes Eliot as well as Frost, the book consistently restores poetic ambition to the rank of lyric virtue. So it would be wrong to suggest that this anthology yields no wisdom about poetic history, especially since some of the individual poets included have such interesting readings of their recent American forerunners. The inclusion of Dan Chiasson’s wonderfully cluttered “Stealing from Your Mother,” “My Ravine,” and “Song for a Play,” comparatively non-confessional poems from a neo-confessional poet, made me consider how Robert Lowell’s person-centered poetics also presented a rickety and postmodern bric-a-brac Americana and an impulse to pile up the names of things and things themselves. The poems of Robyn Schiff, Srikanth Reddy, and Matthea Harvey reminded me how Elizabeth Bishop’s emotional restraint also fosters a surrealism of the everyday that stops just short of not wanting to make sense. A good example of a poem that presses formal play into the service of an idea, while also engaging tone and feeling, is Harvey’s magical “Abandoned Conversation with the Senses”:
In the back they are collecting
bullets so do you really want to talk
about love? When a bee is on my chin
should I not mind it? Shall I let
the pretty water sink the boat?
Learn something from me for once
will you. A tent inside the barn
may be just what we need.
The bull shakes the snow off its back.
Yes its meat is nice to eat.
No it's not a snowstorm.
All this explaining exhausts me.
I'll be leaving some traps in the forest.
Do come admire the trees.
“All this explaining exhausts me” indeed. Though these lines include the kind of postmodern jump cuts and shifts between personae the editors clearly favor, they also use those shifts in the service of an engaging problem that is as ancient as it is postmodern: how to receive conflicting data from the senses and the intellect, and how to manage that data in moments that seem astonishingly ephemeral. Though the couplet has become the contemporary form for poems of Deep Thinking, this kind of thinking works through the senses as much as it seeks to explain or abstract them. Interestingly enough, Harvey’s poem also enters into the history of a vital genre of lyric, the debate poem, often written as a dialogue between self and soul, remade here into a debate between the self and the senses.
Some of the best poems in this anthology break traditional forms less than they fulfill them. This kind of poem may bear the traces of postmodern fragmentation, but it also leaves the ashes of traditional form smoldering inside itself. D.A. Powell’s devotional elegies, studded with disco quotes, strand the singing mourner in a world where everyone and everything is dying but not yet dead, and where collages of popular song lyrics re-imagine a communal sensibility. Juliana Spahr’s associative scripts, meanwhile, combine quotidian life and politics, changing both by making both strangely liturgical. And Emily Wilson’s lyrics are written under the sign of reluctance and gentle self-chastening; they merge a lesser Romanticism with a minimalism rare in this generation of poets:
Wind in bares veins
rifling the flowerpot
the shattered pine from
the tulips thrust
standards out of walnut
trash and what now
crazes the gardenside
elms a neighborhood
you come to starved
shy at the door I
wish for this
world I did not welcome.
While many of the poems in Legitimate Dangers achieve their intensity through self-isolation in the present tense, Wilson’s lyric travels light. It succeeds because the poet actually changes her mind mid-course. Her personality, questioned by the data of the senses, shifts and shows its perishability, humility, and openness truly, strangely, and clearly. This is an honest predicament, where life invests form with energies that necessitate fragmentation and hesitation, instead of form merely making liveliness its cosmetic goal.
Make no mistake: Legitimate Dangers is a valuable document for American poetry. Its comprehensiveness makes it a good value for readers, and its editors’ enthusiasm for their peers might be the book’s most successful seduction. But I wonder if a more extensive selection of a smaller number of voices might be more tempting, and more informative, for new readers of contemporary verse. Why should the promising careers of individuals as different as the Native American surrealist Sherwin Bitsui and the animal fabulist Oni Buchanan become homogenized by an emphasis on formal risk? Risk is seductive when we see why it’s done, when we too are “rescued” by the poem. And if we like to be rescued by persons, or by that peculiar form of person a poem performs, then we should expect formal risks as different and unpredictable as the persons they come from. One of the anthologies that Marvin and Dumanis mention in the introduction as a model, Paul Carroll’s The Young American Poets (published in 1968 and including poets as varied as Clark Coolidge and Louise Glück) is dedicated to “that young poet who happens to come upon it in some bookstore or in the apartment of a fellow poet and who may feel hurt or angry because he wasn’t invited to submit work and be included among his contemporaries.” Carroll’s anthology didn’t reach out to a community: it assumed that poetry was a community and that poetry did the work of community-building on the level of the individual. Though that book lacks the copiousness of Legitimate Dangers, reading its dedication made me long for an anthology for our times that might imagine poets not only as ambitious artistic peers, devoted to innovation and newness, but as persons standing in some sort of relation to each other, and to ourselves.