The Incentive of the Maggot
by Ron Slate
Mariner Books, $12 (paper)

After a poetic dormancy of more than 20 years, Ron Slate has gifted us with the product of his creative suspension, a slim first volume of poetry. In one of his more self-referential poems, Slate remarks, “Once I fumed at my own silence, / incapable of employing it. / Now I produce the unexpected sound / of something tangled in your hedge / after a wild tide.” In contrast to the roar of oceans and economies, the technologies and information transfers that form the background of much of his work, Slate’s own voice is understated and, as he tells us, “in no hurry.” A poet-turned-businessman-turned-poet, he chooses words less for their surprise than for their precision. And yet Slate is in command of a varied tonal repertoire. He is at times caustic, as in “The Plan for Cyprus,” which imagines an orchestra assembled to play in the island’s neutral zone to move an audience of international luminaries “beyond the political”: “The logo of our sponsor will snap / in the wind above the stage. / To marvel at our mission / is to salute the courage of commerce.” Or he can be thoughtful, as in “Turbulent Ferry, Evening,” a meditation on labor and leisure: “To ease into the slip / so many times in a lifetime / that the act becomes imponderable. / So ingrained in its restraint / like a future saint moving into marble.” Slate carries off both effects equally well, with a studied distance and an elegance of idiom reminiscent of Mark Strand. In the book’s title poem, a young nurse examines gangrene: “She may feel contempt for a journalist’s catalogue / of atrocities, genitals beaten with a ruler. / Not because they are not actual, / but because someone looked and discovered nothing.” This ethic is Slate’s own, refusing “to use grief for the purpose of edification” or even for art, and these poems are the better for it.