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Things Are Happening
American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon Press, $23 (cloth), $14 (paper)
Gestures of affirmation in the face of uncertainty mark Joshua Beckman's Things Are Happening, winner of the 1998 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. In scope and generosity, the six lengthy poems which comprise the book recall at times Whitman and the Williams of Paterson, as well as O'Hara's genius for the daily and Lorca's and Machado's musicality. Beckman's poems, though, make their own mysterious sounds in varied scenes of travel and domesticity. In "Purple Heart Highway," a great road poem, the speaker falls asleep at the wheel and "[wakes] up to a plate full of no options / echoing through the cupped ear of my life, / spinning the wheels that wouldn't, / for anything, take me away." The contemplation is typical of how familiar moments and landscapes are made extraordinary by the speakers' strange internal journeys through them. Things Are Happening gives us plenty of darkness. "[T]he kitchen opens up / …the staring promise / of something completely hollow." And "Winter's Horizon" wryly advises us of the voice within "say[ing]… / that if you try / and you will try / you can expect a not inglorious / moderation / from the rest / of your life." But Beckman's characters muddle through, refusing didacticism and despair, comforting themselves when they must: "There is no one to tell me this / but everything's going to be all right."
-Lisa C. Beskin
Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25 (cloth)
"Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground." From this first line of "The Glanmore Sonnets," Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney derives the title of his new volume of selected poems. Opened Ground supplements Heaney's Selected Poems of 1990 with excerpts from Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996), and his verse-play The Cure at Troy (1990), as well as his Nobel acceptance speech, "Crediting Poetry" (1995). The volume also includes an increased number of poems from Heaney's earlier collections. Opened Ground stands as an archeology of Heaney's own archeological lyric vision, which mines more than the material world. It ranges from the famous "Digging," in which the poet's pen becomes a metaphorical spade opening Irish turf, and his series of imaginative meditations on unearthed ancient corpses ("The Tollund Man" and "Bog Queen"), to his both terse and elegaic rescripting of Agamemnon's tragedy in The Spirit Level. Tellingly, the phrase "opened ground" is not unique to the first Glanmore sonnet: in an earlier poem, "Act of Union," it describes a woman's body made raw by childbirth. Such is the versatility of Heaney's musical "ground." His poems harness the formal to the everyday to become, in the poet's own words, "not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a retuning of the world itself."
Knopf, $22.00 (cloth)
In the long title-poem of Hirsch's fifth collection, we find such literary titans as Diderot, Apollinaire, H.D., Emerson, and Lorca making sense and song of Eros as only they can (or could). Especially well-voiced are Oscar Wilde (citing Shakespeare), Milena Jesenská (friend and translator of Kafka), and Gertrude Stein (sounding more like herself than her own sweet self). Still, however keen these monologues, however authentic these personae, what makes them compel and impress as poems is Hirsch's ever-dexterous versification. An agile, plainspoken lyricist with a penchant for engrossing narration, he is fully equipped to pull off villanelles entitled "Margaret Fuller" and "Tristan Tzara." But "On Love" is only part of the volume, and–perhaps surprisingly–it is the poems in the other part that more acutely enchant. Love is every poet's trump card, but Hirsch's verse also has much ado about memory, art, America, music, and other such muses–and it's these articulate if subordinate themes that haunt and heighten On Love in ways Eros flying solo can't (or couldn't). In the sturdy blank verse of "American Summer," the forthright yet otherworldly imagery of "Blue Hydrangea," or the spooked, disjunctive tercets of "Hotel Window" ("the passengers flinging themselves into cabs / never noticed they were setting forth / on a voyage away from their bodies"), Hirsch seems driven more by mood or emotion than, say, irony or conceit, so his gift for balancing form and feeling comes across more clearly. "On Love" is the big centerpiece of On Love, but it's the other lyrics whose scents linger longer.
In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era
Edited by J. Kates
Zephyr Press, $19.95 (paper)
The 32 contemporary poets in this bilingual anthology represent a dizzying array of backgrounds, prosodies, and voices in post-Soviet literary culture, ranging from the intensely personal, baroque quatrains of Akhmadulina ("I'm the ballerina of your music! / I'm the frozen puppy of your frost") and folk singer Okudzhava's wistful ballads ("Ah, Nadya, Nadyenka, would that the bus fare were / the token granting entry to your soul"), to the stark minimalism of Nekrasov ("I really want to go to Leningrad // Only I really want to go // To Leningrad // And back"), Iskrenko's erotic free for-alls ("hair on the chest and in the groin // hair in the tomato sauce in a duffel on the beach / on the velvet bodices' border just over run / and immediately abandoned"), and Dragomoschenko's effusive pyrotechnic disjunctiveness ("a boundless knife point / (o procrastinating blades…) // The fir is heavy with eyes"). The editor emphasizes innovation and experimentation, summarizing recent trends as "a break-down of establishments and a break-up of language." Twenty-nine translators further complicate this mixture of aesthetic persuasions and fail to resolve the difficulty of translating metered, perfectly rhyming Russian verse. Despite omissions and odd ordering, the inclusion of much previously untranslated verse makes this an invaluable introduction to the poetic renaissance fostered by the fall of communism.
Half Angel, Half Lunch
Hard Press, $10.00 (paper)
This first full collection not only relies on the juxtaposition of the surreal and the mundane, the "sardonic" and the "sanguine," but also on the idea that the origin or "bones" of each poem should remain visible. This insistence on leaving process exposed allows Mesmer to envision "The Rose of Sharon" as "hominy," "homebound," "fatherless in the dark," and an "ankle birthmark where the wings were"-without claiming that any one association is more real or important than the next. Through a use of eerily convincing multiple voices, Half Angel, Half Lunchreveals the "brain's multiple pathways," achieving moments that feel as if Mesmer were voyeur to her own creation: "You are seeing the mirror that reflects the place of the place, which is your face." Her poems are collages of "syllables flying off, frayed, hasty, in jerks," of talking and listening, of the "Word made fleshy," and of a broken singing that appears to be sung from "a plastic-covered couch" as much as any angel's podium. Never shying away from declaratives, Mesmer interrogates the language that love depends on until it is darkly funny and brutally raw, until "The whole of Chicago is a shrine to his first romantic line: / 'Is that your real hair color?'"
-Sabrina Orah Mark
Harvard , $22.95 (cloth)
In Seamus Heaney, Helen Vendler reads Heaney's poems with characteristic insight and extraordinary sensitivity to poetic language. Responding to critics who have read Heaney solely in thematic or political terms, Vendler focuses instead on his development as a poet: the evolution of his form, syntax, and lexicon from the richly material rural "anonymities" of his first three books to the many faces of stoicism outlined in The Spirit Level. Vendler charts each volume's poetic "argument" in specific poems and lines. Yet she brilliantly complicates her own schema in a series of chapter codas entitled "Second Thoughts." These Second Thoughts discuss Heaney's later revisions of the poetic positions each chapter treats, and in this way they insist on the poet's "vigilant willingness to change." The pace of the book is lively, but Vendler's vision is comprehensive; and though she never reads Heaney's poems as political statements, she remains attentive to the historical and social forces–particularly the violence in Northern Ireland–informing a language "unusually rich in simplicity as well as ornateness, each where it suits." This quotation also aptly describes Vendler's elegant prose.
Deepstep Come Shining
C. D. Wright
Copper Canyon, $14 (paper)
"To see and to feel WHOLES" is one of many phrases that recur in Deepstep Come Shining, C. D. Wright's tenth collection of poems, and the pun (whole/hole) instructs: many of the language-strands woven through this book-length piece concern blindness, loss of vision, loss of the eyes. The book's achievement is to make its preoccupation with eye-holes into a meditation of and about wholeness. Wright accomplishes this by combining and recombining bits of southern vernacular, idiosyncratic observations ("Cold eyes are bad to eat"), song lyrics, literary and medical references, and a host of images and phrases (a white piano, a God named Louise, and Vidalea onions, to name a few). The result, while resolutely non-narrative, is nonetheless a "light-bearing path" to a place that is, among other things, Milledgeville, Ga., and the place "between the a and the t[in the word at]." Here, language-consciousness and non-sequitur don't destroy intonation; in Wright's hands the associational weave illuminates in a way that is devoid of sentimentality and feels very nearly autonomous. In the poem's final section Wright articulates what we have already seen feelingly: "In the hither world I offer a once-and-for-all thing, opaque and revelatory, ceaselessly burning."
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