Zoland, $14 (paper)
William Corbett affirms "no revelation / at the crack of an ax / and drumming rain." Corbett’s brief, plainspoken lines sketch the everyday rewards and discontents of friendship, teaching, and, especially, writing (he longs for "the poems / that I cannot write, the / real poems that is"). Perhaps even more than the New York School, with which he is often associated, Corbett’s voice recalls William Carlos Williams, whose "The Last Words of My English Grandmother" Corbett invokes in "My Mother-in-Law’s Last Words": "Sorry to take so long." This sad humor echoes in his portrait of "Ernie Hurst," who sang "‘As Time Goes By’ / whistling words he did not know / ‘The world will always….’" The whistled ellipsis that replaces "welcome lovers" is vintage Corbett, mouthing the absurdity of losing the world one word at a time. If this book has a weakness, it is its strenuous sociability: certain poems are glutted with proper names. But when the poet describes a puppy as "a russet, dainty / pawed, stubby thing," this beautifully broken chain of adjectives teaches us the precise and unexpected way in which "poetry / loves a list."
HIV, Mon Amour
Sheep Meadow, $19.95 (paper)
We might curb our mortal agonies, writes Julia Kristeva, by "naming suffering, exalting it, dissecting it to its smallest components." This describes Tory Dent’s method in her second book, though not its effect. Rather than restraining, Dent’s lyrical excess harnesses—hijacks and rides out—suffering’s untenable velocity. In "Fourteen Days in Quarantine," an injected medication "sting[s] me into inter-galactic awakeness," a hyper awareness Dent tunes to all the "galaxies" of body chemistries and constellations of experience and language attending the supreme "affront of annihilation" (in "HIV, Mon Amour, XV"). Dent’s voice recalls Job’s lamentation from the pit of ashes, ceaselessly cataloguing visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory effects of sickness as they ravage the body, and burn, without guarantee of consummation, the soul. But unquenchable desire in the face of physical dissolution is Dent’s most driven theme. Sex and death entwine in simultaneously repulsive and gorgeous passages, loaded with desperate, brilliant, fetishistic and hyperbolic language. In "Cinéma Vérité," Freud’s pleasure principle and death drive meet in an end-of-the-millennium Danse Macabre: "a Jewish couple on the train to their death camp who fornicate before strangers / on metal and straw, damp with urine and menstrual blood and fresh feces. / Your great hands mash the filth into my hair as if into my brain when you come. / You murmur my name in its primal structure, solely made of vowels and consonants. / The silence pierces my womb. My lips swell, maroon as hard, wild cherries. / I crawl down to taste our secretions in my mouth, a form of truth serum."
The Confetti Trees
Sun & Moon, $10.95 (paper)
The 35 "Motion Picture stories" in Barbara Guest’s The Confetti Trees are dedicated to the vision of Los Angeles’s émigré artist community during World War II. Each of her sketches for film is part homage, part flight, part explication. In the first scenario, "Overboard," Guest explains how the action is of less interest than the "artistic trick" used to film the action, and maintains that a viewer fluent with such tricks will always have a predilection for the "poetry of the moment." Guest’s filmmakers are seekers who grapple with the "intrusion of the physical world and its weather," but may find their poetry in the form of a hurled book or strange wind. The wind, in the title scenario, "brings packets of colors like confetti," which "pellet the trees." In this book, color can crumple the pavement, and a film cutter can hear the sound of hair caught in scissors as he clips cells. Even while a director laments that "films are the enemy of words," and a writer is told that "Imagination was harmful and always messed up the set," Guest writes her pictures, and of an interior landscape so changed as to make the palm trees of Los Angeles celebratory.
What the Living Do
W. W. Norton, $21 (cloth), $11 (paper)
"There is no such thing as family," Marie Howe wrote in her first collection, The Good Thief (1990). This indictment could well serve as epigraph for What the Living Do, which chronicles the poet’s survival of childhood domestic abuse and her brother’s recent death from AIDS. Howe’s second collection functions more as a novel in verse than a collection of confessional poems, and its page-turning emotional power accretes in sequence. Minimizing obvious poetic device, Howe sustains a degree of characterization unusual in a volume of poetry. Her brother John’s aloofness rings in well-chosen—and often last—lines. "I know he can hardly bear to touch me," she writes of John at seventeen. And when she expresses her love for him in his dying days, his pragmatic reply lacerates: "Maybe you’d better start looking for / somebody else." John critiques the family’s crippling incestuous desires, but he is also unable to love "without irony or condescension"; and these poems maintain an excruciating elegiac ambivalence. But Howe is also unafraid to break the reader’s heart: "I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep / for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: / I am living, I remember you."
After I Was Dead
University of Georgia Press, $15.95 (paper)
The Tales of Horror: A Flip-Book
Kelsey Street Press, $12 (paper)
In After I Was Dead, Laura Mullen proceeds from near void ("These layers / Are great: this white, off white and off off white in a dense / Application") into a powerful reconstruction of self. The book’s central crisis is represented in the speaker’s totemic Banyan, "a tree lost in the forest of itself," roots anxiously stationed between air and earth. Mullen’s afterlife is polyphonic, its chorus prismatic, from colloquial fragments to the parenthetical subconscious. The address here is often disembodied, a layer of surfaces that ghost in and out of the subject. Likewise, After I Was Dead is wildly versatile formally, restlessly roving from verse to prose to epistle and back. Taken collectively it reads as resistance of structures, a theme that pervades the book in various forms—against doorways, houses, the body. "I had a sense of things as fragile / Myself as well / Threatened, but also / Part of the threat." These are hard poems of re- entry, of a speaker returning to a former world through its fragments. Throughout, Mullen repudiates the lyric and picturesque in favor of plain and thorough excavation. No flashy surfaces or vistas here, only a steady, determined unsurfacing, especially evident in the moving "White Painting" series toward the book’s conclusion. At its best,After I Was Dead is pastiche as predicament, as in "35 1/2": "the camera / Keeps running. Don’t worry, we can edit it out. // I got out and I didn’t get out." Exactly. "‘But she exists in pieces, if she exists at all, this woman,’ he had insisted frantically. And so we were roped into searching for clues. ‘I must build her up,’ he added, ‘out of these fragments.’"
And so the challenge is laid in The Tales of Horror, Mullen’s richly textured gothic send-up. The "she" here is the specter at the center of the book, a young woman whose death and haunting follow the speaker, a poet trying to piece together the events of her life after getting a really good deal on a really spooky house. Mullen skillfully apes all the generic tropes—its breathlessly suspended dialogue, baroque detail, grossly overburdened metaphors and flimsy characters. Everywhere the resemblances are eerie, right down to the maid who arrives on cue every morning to serve brains or blood pudding. But what compels The Tales of Horror beyond irony are its poetic assertions. Like all good detectives, the story’s characters aspire to a single proof in a locked room. Instead, what we get are elliptical fragments and postmodern tactics, which result in something simultaneously short of this and greater. The book’s experimental conceits, while not new, are, nevertheless, especially apt. Limitations of language and representation, a shattered narrative, the "meta" forays of the text: it could all be the natural extension of a mind clawing for reason in the throes of terror. Mullen’s greatest achievement may be that she has made experimental poetry and the gothic horror novel seem like long lost lovers. There are plenty of clues, but the proof is seldom, and at the center of everything there may never have been anyone at all.
In Divided Light
Loess Hills Books/Mid-Prairie Books, $22 (cloth)
Jan Weissmiller’s first book is filled with poems of delicate observation and experiment, with a speaker whose hyper-attentiveness shades into wariness. Just beneath the surface of the quick, descriptive language, is often something truly frightening: "As the glacier melted, / the water pushed the sediment just a little bit / ahead." Connections in this work are always tenuous, whether between an "I" and a "you" or a snail and a leaf: "Out of the kitchen window / with you / (you were there / behind me then), / the snail on its leaf / in the wind." And though this is a world populated by hostas, deer, light and colors, this is not "nature poetry" in the vein of contemporaries like Mary Oliver. It is more like Dickinson—completely unsentimental, and always thinking. In this description of a buck, she categorizes its parts according to artistic periods: "The proportion of the body to the neck / was medieval, / and the arc of the points / of the horn, / surreal." There is also a withholding in this work, as in "Voyeur" ("She has seen someone in a pickup truck / Do something extreme"), as well as in "Still Life" and "Presents"—in both poems, the title’s object is described through metaphor and fantasy, but never named outright.