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December 2000/January 2001
The World’s Wife
Carol Ann Duffy
Faber and Faber, $22 (cloth)
From Eurydice to "Elvis’s Twin Sister," this book comprises thirty persona poems spoken by wives, mothers, sisters, and paramours of both historical and fictitious heroes. Duffy humorously renovates familiar narratives (Tiresias’s wife blow-dries his newly female hair), often pulling the proverbial rug out from under her readers’ expectations. These poems strut, flourishing curt and pithy rhymes ("I came home with this pastel of Niagara / and he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra," from "Mrs. Rip Van Winkle") and a gnomic archness ("they’re bastards when they’re Princes. / What you want to do is find yourself a Beast"). There are echoes of Anne Sexton’sTransformations here, and the disparate characters’ monologues feel narrated by a single pert, contemporary voice, much in the manner of Sexton’s inaugurating "middle-aged witch." The universality attributed to the "world’s wife" risks becoming a feminist cliché. Yet Duffy’s rhythms are impeccable, and some of these poems boast astonishing conceits, as when "Mrs. Midas" dreams of bearing an ore child, "its little tongue / like a precious latch." Though Duffy’s poems often seem over-fueled by bravado, they can also rise to a memorable lyricism. "Penelope," "Anne Hathaway," and "Demeter" tantalize, suggesting new worlds that open when Duffy disarms her own cleverness.
Point and Line
New Directions, $14.95 (paper)
The title of Thalia Field’s debut collection refers to Kandinsky’s theory concerning point and line. According to this theory, outside pressure converges upon the point, forcing it to lose its integrity and to become "the Line" with "a new independent life in accordance with its own laws." The verse and prose pieces in Point and Line, arranged playfully as in a nineteenth-century categorical work, succeed at varying intensities at capturing that tension. In "A \ I," Field’s configurative use of association deftly captures the narrator’s use of therapy to achieve intimacy. "Confession is the climax of seduction," she reports, "I feel a constriction … that kind of transparency is suffocating." "The Compass Room" deconstructs an I Ching-like interplay between social behavior and geographical locus. Here the position of lines, broken and unbroken, refract lovers’ positions, glass and steel, misplaced encounters, necessary pleasures. "Walking" is an evocative transcription of the anti- "solitary walking mind" of the nineteenth century, an identification with "strangers who seem to / go where I’m thinking." The appropriation of everyday movement allows the narrator to see while simultaneously separating herself from the surroundings: "in the going which is always / detaching landscape." At the edge of this motion, a suicide occurs, "sealed in a Horizon we should / choose not to open." Less successful are Field’s categorical polemics that end the book. Style and the relentless lists of estimations become a poor substitute for import; reading more like a "compost heap of unfinished thoughts," the tension whose point these pieces recall is lost between author and audience.
Love and Scorn
TriQuarterly Books, $16.95 (paper)
Carol Frost’s collection of new and selected poems is, as its title suggests, remarkably balanced in its perspective of the natural world and the inner lives of its speakers. The first poem of the collection, for example, deals with guilt and ecstasy as if they were two halves of the same emotion. Sensitive to complexity and contradiction, Frost portrays the interaction between humans and animals (for animals appear in a striking majority of these poems) as at once tender, instinctive, and fierce. Her reverence for nature does not ignore the reality of violence. One poem tells us that when a horseshoe crab is smashed open, "something that looks like brains, / A gray tapioca that smells sweet, comes out," and another poem lovingly details the deaths of two turkeys the speaker has just shot: "one dying outright, the other baffled, half rising in the brown light and batted / to the ground." The group of poems at the book’s center, "Abstractions," attempts to unravel slippery concepts like "self," "joy," and "nothing." Humans and animals share a particularly pronounced intimacy in "Abstractions"; the idea "pure" is described as a man who "saw that the white-tailed deer he shot was his son." Frost boldly writes poems about difficult subjects (mortality, sin, the possibility of paradise), and reveals along the way a world of mystery, beauty, and cruelty, a world forever "verging / on the vacancy in which we have no place."
Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems 1969-1999
BOA Editions, $15 (paper)
The title Laugh at the End of the World is the perfect introduction to this varied volume of Bill Knott’s light, scary, bitter, hilarious, and deeply serious poetry. What other qualities would one expect from poetry identified with laughter at the world’s end? In one sense, these poems fulfill the most traditional definition of the word "comic": they are funny. They also revel in a linguistic playfulness reminiscent of some hybrid of Wallace Stevens and Dr. Seuss, as they continually jolt the reader out of the realm of the expected with a complex pun or an abrupt turn at the end of a line. In "An Augur’s Airs," for example, the speaker "scale[s] an alp/map / that copies the entrails of a phoenix who / loves to drop Sylvia Plath on Hiroshima." All of Knott’s poems exhibit such cleverness and riddling, and the taunting swagger of the limerick. However, the more traditionally "comic" elements are balanced with startling moments of solemnity and insight, such as the vision of Christ at the end of "Brighton Rock by Graham Greene." This Christ’s body is "yelled at / and made to get a haircut… // to do each day like the rest / of us crawling through this igloo of hell." Comedy becomes a vehicle for apocalyptic visions of the future, and for darkly revealing visions of the world, or "this igloo of hell," as it is now. Bill Knott, speaking as the ultimate "Outremerican," appeals to the Outremerican in every reader, enticing us with his upside-down, inside-out version of the world, a version which may appear to be cleverly amusing at first glance, but soon reveals itself to be illuminating and frighteningly true.
Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry
Edited by Timothy Liu
Talisman House, $24.95
This anthology may lead a reader to ponder just how painstaking an exercise in compilation and research it was (given the number of obscure and even "underground" poets within), and at the same time leave him or her wondering why the grandeur had to be tainted by seemingly lesser moments–poems with little technical or sonic prowess, included ostensibly only because they show up on the "gaydar." If, as Liu writes, the notion of a "gay sensibility" is questionable, one could presume a key criterion for admission in Word of Mouth was artistic achievement. Does a writer move beyond journal-like reportage (David Trinidad’s "Byron jumps up, Ira sits / down and massages // my feet. ‘You guys.’ My / spirits are lifted by their / tulips, kisses, licks" comes to mind, as does the blunt minimalism of John Giorno) and achieve Robert Duncan-like "resonance," or some other level of dexterity? Perhaps some poems do not satisfy as "poems," but they certainly work as "documents." Simply put: the aggregation of poets concerned with either slice-of-life talkiness and/or "craft" is of utmost importance, because they assert (and wrest away from straight society) the right to create and define the Gay mythology. The fusion creates a fascinating insight into the myriad gay lifestyles, whether illustrated by moments of domesticity and ordinariness, sublimity and revelation (Gerrit Lansing’s "Of sea-stoned altitudes the constellated swing / salts my gloried eyes, makes free"), or defiance and bitterness (Justin Chin’s "Lick my butt / cos I’m an angry ethnic fag" and "Sometimes your heart tastes better when you drown it with Buds and blow cigarette smoke through the cracks"). This anthology, with Ashbery, Ginsberg, O’Hara, and Spicer sharing space with younger poets like Reginald Shepherd, Mark Bibbins, and Rafael Campo, is more a definitive collection than obiter dictum, and should serve as an important sexual, cultural, and artistic document for years to come.
New Directions, $14.95, (paper)
This volume is made by Toby Olson, poet first, novelist second, at his most limpid and accessible. In his first collection since Unfinished Buildings, published by Coffee House Press in the 1980s, he has brought his series of jazz standard-based poems and his "sprung" canzone form to new levels of polish. This poetry, balanced with music, demonstrates a mastery of prosody that deepens the pleasures of the page instead of interfering with them. The book begins with "and came down to the city on our sled," a line derived from the first line of Ezra Pound’s Canto I, "and then went down to the ship." The poem, "Sled," repeats and varies this line and incorporates fragments from Binjamin Wilkomirski’s writings until it ends in the canzone valediction, the book’s title, "It’s human nature." The following poem, "Spring is Here," recovers the ship, moves from Pound to Williams, and quotes from Paul Blackburn, "Not that I was the green thing in the house." As in the last words of California preacher Thomas Starr King–"keep my memory green"–Olson’s poetry of memory, experience, and art is alive, lyrical, changing, and growing–both in the long sequence, "Wanda and I," and through all his work.
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)
An ontological imperative underlies Carl Phillips’s Pastoral; these sonorous and precise lyrics are posited as vehicles for the exploration of a spiritual romance, a communion with self and other. The poems are self-reflexive, musical, referential, educated, and passionate. Phillips layers references from literature, myth, and history. The coded tropes associated with the Metaphysicals, the religious and lyric tradition–birds, stags, fish, horses–appear and reappear throughout this collection, turned by the poet’s careful hands into evolving figures that reference the past and accrue contemporary meaning. Many of Phillips’s poems are arranged in carefully packed, small stanzas; they are small rooms for linguistic and musical events; they burst with syntactic compression and surprising elisions. Other poems convey the exploratory capacities of open-field form. In all the poems there is a sense of exacting lyric freshness. The language is made to yield up pleasure through its quality of concreteness; words, lines, and stanzas shape themselves, and assume a quality simultaneously formal and organic. Lines seem cut and trimmed, composed of syntactic arrangements and reversals. Unusual gaps in syntax, parenthetical suspensions, and juxtapositions convey evasive meanings that are complex and circular. Phillips has indentured himself to a poetry that is sacramental, a high art, and as readers we share in this transport: the body is a vehicle for articulating the soul. As a volume, Pastoral is consistently good, full of superb poems: "The kill feels monumental, ratcheted to purity."
Carnegie-Mellon, $24.95 (cloth), $12.95 (paper)
Like John Ashbery and James Tate, Mary Ruefle investigates the multiplicities and frailties of being with an associative inventiveness and a lightness of touch; the purposefulness of her enquiry never eclipses the remarkable beauty of her work. Like her previous collections (this is her fifth), Post Meridian is largely composed of monologues whose various speakers occupy a strange past or an equally strange present. The oddities of Ruefle’s internal countries are always organic to the poem and to the collection as a whole; she never indulges in gimmicks or strangeness for their own sake. Sometimes Ruefle and Dean Young recall one another. (Post Meridian is, in fact, dedicated to "Dean.") Both write poems that make great leaps and loops, swinging between, and eliding, terror and joy, but Ruefle’s temperament–while possessed of great tenderness and pity–is of a darker cast than Young’s. Her poems stare into a great crevasse, unwilling to flinch or move toward safety. Post Meridian is frequently grim, mindful of mortality and how "the human heart … has its limitations." In another poet, this tendency toward the negative could grow tiresome and oppressive, but Ruefle is funny–one poem opens "My sock drawer is perfect. / Why is it not eternal then?"–and her strategies are so varied that one finds joy in their diversity alone. In Ruefle’s worlds, hilarity and deep sorrow lie very comfortably together, and the humor offsets at least some of the despair, as does the tightly controlled language. Post Meridian includes more personal or intimate poems than Ruefle’s earlier work; this is especially true of "The Passing of Time," "My Mother and I," and "A Moment With My Father." Seemingly autobiographical in content, their scope goes beyond the autobiographical, and Ruefle’s austerity and restraint add to their terrible weight. These poems do not provide relief, but their inclusion is a humanizing gesture that adds further richness to a very rich book.
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