Edited by Thomas Dilworth
Enitharmon Press/Dufour Editions, $25.95 (cloth)
These are the lost poems of the lost modernist, David Jones, a man whose allusive obscurity won him fans like Eliot and Auden but robbed him of his place in college curricula. It is easy to forget how much modernity upset the often backward-looking modernists, making them compulsively quote the poetry of the Western tradition, those fragments of the past which Eliot shored against his ruin. Jones was in precisely such a mood in 1940, when he composed the Wedding Poems, celebrating the wedding of two best friends during—underneath—the blitz. The couple have “spread in a vault their bed of unity, to mock / the unmaking.” They are “bird-song, beneath the / trajectory zone.” These lines are from the shorter poem, “Prothalamion” (Greek for “before the bridal chamber”). The longer “Epithalamion” (in the wedding chamber) is more reaching; it catalogs manifestations of an abstract Aphrodite, divine and lusty, like the Lady of the Pool in Jones’s masterpiece, Anathemata (as the worthy editor, Thomas Dilworth, points out). “Heloise, her mastering limbs you must / search for among the taut syllogisms // (yet we guess / where wisdom bleeds).” Each instance of the goddess is set against suffering, whether it is the wife in Waterford lace giving to the poor “whose sweat her Whiggish husband / harnesses to make the wheels go round,” or the cockney whore who cries, “don’t-pretend-ter-not-ter-know / where she lies in her loveliness.” Jones liked the grace of these girls and found them heroic against the violent economies of history. Although he regrets that money, not love, makes the world go round, he is not terribly shocked by this. These two poems do not have the leverage of his masterpieces, but they do have the shock and the peculiarity.
W. W. Norton & Co., $22 (cloth)
April Bernard’s third collection of poems boldly grapples with the nature of joy, suffering, and the recollection of times past in lines that hum with physicality and fervor. In the first of four meticulously ordered sections, speakers declaim, “my throat [burns] with, well why not, joy,” and that laughter promises to “unsew me, sawdust doll.” Here, to be alive is to be faced with two “alternatives: To inhale the world / into the magnificent misery of the solitary, / who feeds and grows thereby, or else, or else: / To fling the particles of person wide, awash on the blue.” At their most electrifying, Bernard’s poems portray our physical selves in union with our more rarefied desires for sublimity (“Straight from the sun the light shoots up, / through my hair, ecstatic”), admitting playfulness and humor into moments of sobering wisdom. The hallucinating speaker of “Large Crow” acknowledges the crow’s commands to accept suffering and cultivate flexibility, but confesses wryly that she “did not want to talk with an oversized bird / but there he was occupying the extra chair in my study.” Bernard’s “Songs of Yes and No,” a “memoir-sequence” recapturing the poet’s life in the East Village in the 1980s, strikes tenderness even as it resists nostalgia. It often risks statements only to pull back and re-evaluate them, as if to lay bare the difficulty of pinning down one’s past. About guns, Bernard writes, “I didn’t like to look at them. / I mean, I did like to look at them.” What drives the painstaking labor in these poems is revealed in “Coffee and Dolls,” which is introduced with a colloquial off-handedness that only magnifies its force: “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been looking for a narrative in which suffering makes sense.” It is the task of a lifetime, and the poet accepts it valiantly.
—Tara Neelakantappa Safronoff
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited
Riverhead/Penguin Putnam, $19.95 (cloth)
“We go back to Hamlet because we cannot achieve enough consciousness,” Harold Bloom instructs us in the final pages of his most recent book, which testifies to his own obsessive inability to get enough of the play. Bloom informs us that he wrote the monograph as a postlude to Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, where his discussion of Hamlet was restricted to a comparison with an earlier Ur-version, generally ascribed to Thomas Kyd. Hamlet: Poem Unlimited crystallizes, in twenty-five brief chapters, Bloom’s “meditative surmises” on a drama he considers genre-bending. The book reads like a love poem, and it is for this reason that it proves difficult to summarize. Bloom’s excursions into Shakespearean territory are more armchair musings than sustained, analytical efforts. Although briefly incorporating casual historical and cultural contextualization,Hamlet: Poem Unlimited is very much a one-man show, motored by a romanticizing impulse to locate in Hamlet “the prime origin of Romantic self-consciousness.” This recycling of an old saw—Shakespearean inwardness and the birth of Western selfhood—flavors the book’s anachronistic bent. Coupled with Bloom’s populist, Johnsonian approach, it makes for a book that is often blandly conventional; at times, one feels as if one is reading another installment of Bloom’s Notes. Bloom’s sincere exuberance for his subject is often consolatory; his suggestions on dramatic stagings, character psychologies, and brief asides on the nature of tragedy are urbanely reflective. But as a “late-Bloomer” on the circuit as a Shakespearean scholar, Bloom’s under-performed simplicities in this latest little book prove wanting. “[W]here is there such exaltation in this soliloquy?” Bloom writes of the “To be, or not to be” speech. “And the answer is: Everywhere, in each phrase, in each pause, as this grandest of consciousnesses overhears its own cognitive music.” One wishes Bloom would leave his insulated Hamletian world in favor of elaborating more upon the “cognitive music” of his own tremendous song.
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)
Nick Flynn’s second book of poems, Blind Huber, begins with the sightless eighteenth-century French beekeeper, Fran<0x00E7>ois Huber, and his assistant, Burnens: “I sit in a body & think of a body, I picture / Burnens’ hands, my words / make them move. I say, plunge them into the hive / & his hands go in.” Later, we are invited into the hive itself, where the bees speak—the queen bee, the worker bees, the collective hive. A radical departure from Flynn’s first book, Some Ether, whose speaker is seemingly personal, Blind Huber celebrates the imaginative effort to assume other perspectives, other voices. But the way these poems weave in and out of one another like a swarm, the way Flynn’s speakers dissolve into others, elevates Blind Huber from a tour-de-force portrayal of the supposed life of bees to a fierce, often hypnotic meditation on human longing for and exile from nature and the divine world. The poem “Twinned,” speaking of love, ends, “How do you live / with this distance? I have you, she / thinks, or, I know you, / but she can never say, I am you.” These poems approach that gap, that place of longing, and in seeking a language with which to cross it, cultivate a relationship with what we fear, with what holds us in awe. Huber says, “I no longer know what is outside my mind / & what is in.” Elsewhere, the queen bee admonishes, “We pollinate the fields / because we are the fields.” Flynn finally suggests that the imagination lets us wander outside ourselves, that language can be an action like love, which is stronger than fear. And we depend on that. Something like every third thing you put in your mouth is there because of a bee. Burnens says of Huber, “Who else / to make his words real? I wander room-to-/ field, do his bidding. None of the / rooms connect, except by months, his room / a jar, clear as air.”
Complete Poetry of Catullus
Translated by David D. Mulroy
The University of Wisconsin Press, $15.95 (paper)
Catullus, the great lyric poet of Caesar’s Rome, is known to many as the author of the “Lesbia” poems, drum-tight epigrams in which he beats his explorations of love, longing, betrayal, and loss. But readers willing to plumb his collected works will discover a great deal more, and University of Wisconsin classicist David Mulroy offers his Complete Poetry of Catullus as their guide. With an ear to the street and a wink to the plodding forms of the day, Catullus and his group of neoteroi (“New Poets”) turned Latin poetry on its head with their elegant, ironic and profane verse. Epithets on the order of “Diffututa mentula” (“drooping penis”) and “emulso labra notata sero” (“semen-spotted lips”) find their way into poems about corrupt political figures and romantic rivals, nearly always rubbing elbows with historical, mythological, and literary references while at the same time keeping pace with the rigors of Hellenistic meter. Mulroy’s driving rhythms and compact vocabulary capture this brazen energy expertly, even if the lines feel clipped at times. Catullus begins “Poem 101,” the famous elegy to his brother, “Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus,” which Mulroy rushes through with “Through many a sea and many nations borne.” “Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux, / nox est perpetua una dormienda” in “Poem 5” becomes “Our light is brief and once it fails, / we have to sleep in the dark forever,” a rendering which neither captures the rich sounds of the original nor conveys the exquisite artfulness which is so much a feature of Catullan verse. If you are going to read only one complete text, Charles Martin’s excellent The Poems of Catullus (Johns Hopkins, 1990) is still the one to reach for, but Mulroy’s lively verses do pack a distinct punch. Complemented by informative and judicious line notes, this edition serves as a good introduction to the work of an unabashedly unique poet.
Me with Animal Towering
Black Square Editions, $14 (paper)
In his second collection, Albert Mobilio continues to cast a philosophical eye over urban drama and disposability, to “configure // a vibratory language from kerosene & / handmade scars.” With an energy and speed reminiscent of the Beats and a self-referentiality common to contemporary work, the poems race down the page—“As rootie-toot music wraps up another hunt my fast / twitch muscles fire in time / to the xylophones.” At times, one senses that velocity is a primary strategy of abstraction: language is moving too fast to be pinned down, “the reception’s bad and one station’s always bleeding into another.” Throughout the dynamism, Mobilio’s poems resist a predictability or consistency or (“or” or “of”?) form, and one may find blocky tercets and quatrains as well as extended prose poems and explosions of scattered fragments. Ultimately, the heterogeneous structures compliment each other and, unexpectedly, suggest a unified presence. As one speaker asserts, “no matter // which way you move you will end up resembling / yourself, minus actual Size & your always / revolving mask.” The book’s personae are best developed, though, in the prose poems, which evoke the conceptual forms of short fiction writers like Lydia Davis and the whimsy and imagination of poets like Russell Edson. On any given page, one may encounter a boy in parochial school or a model for pornographic photoshoots, an accidental conceptual artist or the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, downcast and demoted to life in urban America: “The Pharaohs were lost. Woebegone and intricately lost. They sipped diet soda and contemplated their situation. They had lived within the language of a sky-heavy land and now the blackboard was wiped clean.”
The Girl Who Married the Reindeer
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Wake Forest University Press, $10.95 (paper)
“Like the infant / that dances out of the womb / bursting with script”; so, it seemed, did women emerge onto the Irish poetry scene which in the mid-eighties still consisted mostly of men writing fierce lyrics of land, loss, and revolution. Against this tradition, Eavan Boland’s domestic histories and Mebdh McGuckian’s dreamy wanderings recused the lyric to private spaces and oblique non-narratives. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s best work (of which this collection is unquestionably part) spins these elements in a liminal landscape between this world and another, far more marvelous one. “Her other house” and “other Ireland” meld the illogic of dreamscape with specific detail: “it is the dead who serve us, and I see / My father’s glass and the bottle of sour stout at hand.” Here the “scholar” (reader, writer, and critic), penned in by his books, is given a task: rather than “hunting for keys,” he must travel to that linguistic endzone where difference no longer signifies possession—“no word for his / No word for hers”—and relinquish meaning’s stability for mystery of the “small locked door.” Ní Chuilleanáin uses language to create a space that “leap[s] over lines,” that delineates only to break its own limits, characterized by references to myth, fairy tales, songs, popular traditions, and linguistic history. The romance-type narratives circle around a point that cannot be pinpointed, pushing back against the teleological and nationalistic. Ní Chuilleanáin’s questions at first sound rhetorical—“When is the wave’s return?”—but have in fact no conceivable response. The sense of loss in the wave’s absorption into the greater sea, “drawn by the future tense,” is only the starting point, and the desire to place a moment of specific return is devalued in the face of the ability to suspend disbelief for a moment. In the end, “the voice of the wave will be all / We will be expected to understand.”
The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth
Edited by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow
Copper Canyon Press, $40 (cloth)
Kenneth Rexroth influenced scores of poets who went on to decorate the canons of English-language poetry, and his Complete Poems shows that we have to make room for him alongside the poets he put there. Born in 1905, Rexroth was initially a late modernist, and was published in Zukofsky’s Objectivist Anthology(though Rexroth saw himself as a cubist). By the 1930s he abandoned cubism for a poetic resembling human speech. He soon became heralded as an early postmodern poet, influencing the careers of then young poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, William Everson, and many others, winning accolades from the likes of William Carlos Williams, who called Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) “one of the most completely realized arguments in a book of verse in my time.” Rexroth was an erotic mystic who thought the relationships of the natural world were as holy as human love, and the present collection includes some of Rexroth’s best love poetry, such as “As We With Sappho,” and “Floating.” Hamill Morrow’s scrupulous edition pulls together everything inNew Directions’s Collected Longer Poems and Collected Shorter Poems as well as such later collections as In Defense of the Earth(1956), which includes the poem “Time is the Mercy of Eternity,” the most complete exhibition of this philosophy in his work. As he had with modernism, Rexroth later abandoned postmodernism to become an eastern classicist, and in the 1970s he published a book of translations of a Japanese woman poet, Marichiko; however, upon learning they were up for a major translation award, he admitted they were his own. Readers will also find here many early and uncollected poems, such as the delightfully surprising “Prufrock in Wonderland”: “These sky-rocket etchings are my life / and behind them lies the thing / you fall through in your dreams, / along derisive elevator shafts that meandering, / lead to an overwhelming. . . /white rabbit.”
The World’s Last Night
Carnegie Mellon, $12.95 (paper)
Schilpp begins one of her debut collection’s three sections with a quote from Cicero, the Roman orator credited with helping to transform the Latin tongue from a simple, practical, economy car of communication into a high-powered, off-road SUV, rivaling even Greek’s precision when trailblazing the wilds of persuasion. Schilpp, like Cicero, has keen interest in the ways language limits and extends our mental constructs, and in The World’s Last Nightwe find moral quandary as well as imagination’s opportunity in the fact that we can use language only to convince rather than to evince, only to represent rather than to present actual experience: “the stars keep turning out to be / only the idea of stars / before their light can reach us.” Schilpp’s imagistic expressions of such ideas dazzle when executed with painterly precision, making for poems of intellectual depth and surprising candor. Although her bold palette’s intriguing tropes sometimes embellish a line of thought too easily- or hazily-drawn, used to best advantage, they add dimension to deftly-composed expositions of the paradoxes inherent in any struggle for meaning. Many poems here also delight in demonstrating a mind actively perceiving—and making comprehensible—appearances. What Kant described as the phenomena effected by the noumena of the objective world Schilpp offers up with fine, sensual allure: “what lodges / in the limbic brain, honey / and cactus<0xF8E7>sweet prickly afterworlds / erasing themselves into surroundings.” Schilpp attends to the mind’s subjective experiences as “episodes in the story, not the whole / story”<0xF8E7>sketches of the complex of past and present perceptions from which we needn’t expect to discern a unified identity or an objective, stable reality: “the world keeps us from knowing / too much.” Still, this poet is persuasively appreciative of those brief moments of awareness that arrive, often as respite from<0xF8E7>rather than as the result of<0xF8E7>our intellectual or emotional perturbations, “when the air parts / and produces a grammar / of solitude.”
Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets
Edited by Tod Marshall
Eastern Washington University Press, $19.95 (paper)
Most interviews aim for a modest glimpse into the life of a popular or intriguing personality. In Range of the Possible, a collection of twenty interviews with American poets born between 1941 and 1959, Tod Marshall sets out to attain a broad understanding of contemporary American poetry. In talks with such figures as Linda Bierds, Li-Young Lee, and David St. John, Marshall poses a number of questions in service to these aims: Whom would the poets name as their influences? What are their politics? How do they perceive the role of the artist in the modern world? How do they conceive of the poetic line? and so on. This approach may seem less than spontaneous—perhaps even a tad too academic—but almost all of the poets here are university professors, able and ready for critical discourse. Indeed, Marshall’s interviews reveal this representative sampling of America’s poets to be a very learned group, endlessly intelligent and articulate. (The interviews with Robert Hass and Edward Hirsch are especially remarkable.) This isn’t to say thatRange of the Possible is a purely intellectual project. Several of the interviews focus on matters of spirit and emotion; Dorianne Laux declares passionately that “All poetry is witness,” while Li-Young Lee speaks at length about the “mutual divinity” of God and man. Even the more scientific-minded Bin Ramke describes himself as a religious poet. The nature of Marshall’s inquiry tends to preclude the interpersonal chemistry one expects to find in an interview; only a handful of the talks in Range of the Possible reveal personality in an intimate way, notably the interviews with Kim Addonizio and Yusef Komunyakaa. While some readers may wish that Marshall had approached more of the poets on a less formal, more conversational level, what he has assembled here captures valuably the great variety and intellectual vitality of America’s poetic milieu.
Blank (The Invisible Poem)
Translated by Anthony Barnett
Allardyce, $15 (paper)
“Little sentences, little thoughts, little bits of flotsam between two seas”—the attention in Roger Giroux’s Blank (The Invisible Poem)to the visuality of words and the empty “sea” of the facing page is unabashedly Mallarméen, and Anthony Barnett’s translation successfully negotiates this materiality into English. What the translation cannot capture is the linguistic concept behind the French title, “Blank (le po<0x00E8>me invisible).” For Mallarmé, Anglo-Saxon words had an originary significance, a privileged claim to motivation; Giroux’s “Blank” thus becomes an indexical sign, an imitation of its meaning. Epigrammatic, apocalyptic, admittedly prosaic, this “notebook”—published after the poet’s early death from cancer—is haunted by the search for the proper name (“‘To find the Word again’ or clinical poetry”), the quest to “recharge the greater Self,” a task possible only in a subversion of language: “the Word is curved. It never achieves its pursuit of the soul. Only S-i lence is straight.” This hymn to opacity—the word’s interior shattering, the silence of empty space—turns to a disruptive use of English (French in Barnett) where words like “L’impasse” become visual barricades. Following Krishnamurti, Blank calls for the abolition of discrete meanings, isolated egos: Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” becomes Giroux’s mystically inflected “I am nothing, not even another.” In this poetics of temporality and élan vital (“read Bergson,” he reminds himself) the poem is an elusive, vital emptiness, “this place where nothingness comes to see, comes to breathe.” If the tone tilts toward the sentimental (“the child lives in contact with the riches of the unconscious”) it is because poetry has become a living cell, a pure becoming: “poem: an egg. A perfect geometric form. . . containing the embryo of a being that, if viable, will break the shell in order to be born into the world of the bird.” The embryo’s disruptive immanence in a world of geometric space is the birth of the Self from the “tyranny of the intellect,” the breaking of the printed word into the life-world of poetry.
Hands Collected: The Books of Simon Perchik (Poems 1949–1999)
Edited by David Baratier
Pavement Saw Press, $30 (paper)
Perchik is a poet who can hand us a few loaves and fishes, and out of that offering an abundant feast is laid across our table: “The table too has come to stay / though each morning its crust / is ground for flour, sifted, stones / unfolding into arms, legs, breasts.” The son of a silk weaver, Perchik was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1923, and like his memory of the twin sister he lost in childhood, the poems shadow Goethe’s observation that the content of poetry is “the content of one’s own life”: “Every flash is that silk / every pain a spindle broken :a rope / bleeding with banners, tags, bulbs / shining across the street :a roadblock / cheering the return that goes no further.” Perchick has been referred to by one reviewer as “the most widely published unknown poet in America,” and Hands Collected gathers work from no fewer than sixteen previous books along with fifty-nine new pieces, including “All the huskies are eaten”: “. . . my knuckles / reek from gangrene, the sled :beds / have their limits and the nurse / leans as if I could read the chart / would turn back and the scented ink / only flames make legible.” Perchik’s signature use of the displaced colon alerts the reader that a metaphor is taking place, and there’s music here—but no soothing cadence. Instead, words clash and clatter more in the manner of plates breaking, and commonplace images such as stones, cups, and apples leap into the extraordinary: “he must dread the splash / is trained to wade slowly and where / the waves are buried, where these stones / harden, climb to that same altitude / they once flew—a sky / still slippery, filled all at once / with 12 dark-green stones.” For the poet, matter is ever-changing—skies become mountainsides, ice and valleys become drops, then mourners—as is life itself, and we are asked to remember that we “come here to leave / and this rain before it dies / at its loudest, calls you into the sea.”
W. G. Sebald
Translated by Michael Hamburger
Random House, $21.95 (cloth)
At the time of his death in December 2001, German novelist W. G. Sebald was everywhere recognized as an imposing, even miraculous talent, and was thought in some circles to have been Germany’s clearest hope for its next Nobel Prize in Literature. With the publication of After Nature, his first book in verse, the question of Sebald’s place in German poetry may arise, but it will fail to bother many, largely because such a place would be so slight. His reputation, which will surely endure, will remain based almost entirely upon his novels. Sebald was not distrustful of language, as important poets have been for at least a century, and while writing the book-length After Nature, his concerns remained those of the novelist. (The book might be best described as a “prosy poem” rather than a prose poem. USA Today declared: “for those who fear poetry, these are for you.”) Comparable in appearance and purpose to the poems of another transcendental prose author, Jorge Luis Borges, the defiantly searching After Nature is unmistakably of the same hand as the novels, and Sebald’s creeping, arch-baroque arrangements are plainly in evidence. Still, they continually go slack and will enervate the sensitive reader. His method of extended—and cautiously uninvolved—metaphysical navigation works excellently in the dense chapters of such novels as Austerlitz orRings of Saturn, but not so well here. Uneven and tending to mill about, grinding at the reader’s attention, the first and second thirds of the book are devoted to the painter Matthias Grünewald and polar explorer Georg Steller respectively. Sebald seems more at home in the final third, in which he shifts to the first-person documentary technique familiar from his novels. It is here that he feels most secure, understandably, but even here one will be delighted with the thought of returning to Vertigo or other novels.