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W.W. Norton & Company, $23.95 (cloth)
The poems in Rebecca Wolff’s second collection, Figment, are witty and sleek; it’s hard to doubt their authority. At the same time, it’s just as difficult to warm up to them, or to find their speakers all that . . . well, likeable. “When you know the right people,” Wolff writes, “they send you over onto the next / in line. They return your calls.” The brash, unshakeable confidence of these poems, which chiefly take the self as their subject, is attention-grabbing—some might say to a fault: “ ‘To what do you attribute / your success?’ Talent and genius.” To her credit, Wolff is not afraid of challenging lyric propriety or of risking the censure of her less intrepid readers. She leaves it to us to discover that the source of this blasé, self-obsessed irony isn’t unchecked arrogance but a gimlet-eyed despair—what lies at the heart of Figment is a dejected (and satire-laced) postmodern critique. A poem titled “Sunday Morning; or, Instead of Services,” for example, declares that our poetic forebears thought “practically the same idea” that we do, but “none of us can believe / the same simple truths, / the gems.” Wolff’s work is packed with the trademark signifiers of our age: allusions to pop culture (“I grow power hungry / as Demi Moore does in Disclosure”), crafty wordplay (“It all happens so fast— / ovulation, creation, cremation.”), and amusing moments of pointed self-consciousness (“The stink of the mid-eighties / is on you and there is nothing you can do”). But even as these poems fulfill the expectations of the postmodern masterfully, they reveal its fundamental limitations. The Adrienne Rich–inflected final poem, titled “An Arch Dolefulness Has Taken Me This Far,” renders this most acutely, declaring that we are “stuck out here in the devastation of the forest / in the middle of fucking nowhere.” But Wolff has not quite given up yet: we grow “more songlike,” she tells us—and that’s mostly a good thing—“the further we row / from our figmented shore.”
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