by Emily Fragos
Grove Press, $13 (paper)
According to the International Labor Organization, in 1999 the United States surpassed Japan as the industrial nation with the longest workinghours—1,978 per year. Small wonder, then, that time is the commodity that most of us feel we have entirely too little of. Yet time is exactly what Emily Fragos has taken with her stunningly graceful first book of poems, Little Savage. A 1996 graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, Fragos (who is in her 50s) has waited until this year to make her book-length debut, and from the unrhymed sonnet “Apollo’s Kiss” on the first page to the haunting “The Other Place” on the last, this scrupulously crafted collection proves well worth the wait. Permeated with sympathy for both humankind and nature and peopled with outcasts, artists, misfits, and musicians, Fragos’s confidently voiced poems exhibit a delicate, mature mastery of language. An amateur cellist and pianist, she uses her finely attuned ear to work subtle internal rhyme throughout virtually every piece; her sense of rhythm and pacing are impeccable, and she moves through time with poise and assurance, from the distant past of “Pompeii, A.D. 79” (“You will imagine our face as the fire overtook us”) to the quotidian but no less uncanny present of “Antarctic Night” (“I’ve found a job writing letters, / long and puzzling, on pale / pink stationery, for the woman / with glass eyes”). Whether she takes as her subject such famous figures as Glenn Gould or Maria Callas or else such ordinary individuals as the girl who “said the landlady was deranged, / had slapped her, set her German shepherd upon her / for no reason on thestreet,” Fragos takes pains to treat each of her fragile subjects with dignity, compassion, and a grave attentiveness. The poems inLittle Savage are so smooth and radiant with thought that one gets the sense that they were tumbled around in the mind of the poet until completely polished, and we would do well to take the time to read them with equal care.