In the prose poem "Ghost-Harm," Michael Burkard writes, "When one is as self-centered as a planet one can lurk in the dark like I did, pretty harmless to others … but who knows if some minor ghost-harm is being inflicted on one's own or not." What's most admirable about Entire Dilemma, Burkard's seventh book, is the author's shifting towards direct language. In these new poems, Burkard's speakers try to forge connections with others while retaining the syntax-magic and mystery of his earlier poems. In "A Kiss and a Star," the result of a nervous kiss is "silence so loud / inside my head that / even across the years / I wonder what was // I doing, or trying / to do …" Entire Dilemma is full of such encounters, connections often made with the self. In "Another Infinity," Burkard writes, "One moment more for either my father's sperm or my mother's egg and / … someone like me with just a part of my face and a part of my leg might be walking / up a hill in Peru." The book is also concerned with place, and with escaping harmful places, both literally (as in the title poem) and metaphorically, as in the gorgeous "The Boy Who Had No Shadow," whose protagonist is murdered "(l)est the shadow he had not, / which he had been murdered for, / escape in the river and flee."
The Visible Man
In his fourth collection, Henri Cole has submitted to the unsparing self- examination and self-generated demand for change in his work that mark the true artist. Here, in a remarkable departure, Cole's mastery of technique allows him to subsume it to the purposes of a voice compelled to reveal its most private truths. The voice that breaks the poems open frees itself in a crucible of confession and absolution, through poems that incorporate history, art, religion, family, and sexuality. They also interrogate the poet's aesthetic. In "The Blue Grotto," the poet admits "Once again, description, / unemotional shorthand / for sublimated wisdom, / fails to conjure what we felt; / the poem yearns for something more." In "The Color of Feeling and the Feeling of Color," the poet speaks of "a little Apollonian room, / the zone of art." "'Beauty is not structure,' / it seemed to say, rebuking me, / 'but structure & carnage, / hurting and consoling us at once. / Neither one subordinates the other.'" These poems are marvels-unbuttoned, riveting, dramatic-burned into being. Cole has internalized his influences: Keats, Yeats, Stevens, Crane, Moore, and Bishop. He succeeds in his ars poetica, "To write what is human, not escapist."
Faber & Faber, $13 (paper)
Six years after his Frank Lloyd Wright opera, Shining Brow, Paul Muldoon has written a second, less "literrific" libretto, set on the U.S.-Mexico border. Bandanna is loosely based-as "a neon motel sign, minus its M" wink-winks-on Othello.The eponymous kerchief, given by the Latino sheriff, Morales, to his white wife, Mona, makes its lie-embroidered rounds as did Desdemona's. But for the moral black-or-whiteness of Shakespeare's characters, Muldoon substitutes gray halftones. "The lines that once seemed so secure / begin to blur," not just because Lieutenant Jake and labor organizer Kane connive à la Iago, but because, in this 1960s version, Mona has "played fast and loose" in the past. Jake's vague excuse for abetting illegal immigrants-"about how we must refine / the 'sacred' and the 'profane' / into something rich and rare, / how we must combine / their separate strains / so they intertwine / into one thick skein"- bespeaks Muldoon's and composer Daron Hagen's collaborative designs. One should not expect from a libretto, necessarily plot-driven and meant to be understood in one go, what one does from a collection of this trickster's vertiginously associative, allusive, often exquisitely clever poems. Aiming at Broadway, Muldoon has ceded much of his verbal razzle-dazzle to the musical score and staging. Signature traces remain: fuzzy rhyme (arroyos/ Juarez,sleep/solapo), punning ("nothing is certain / except death and, maybe, Texas"), and the phonetic remote control of Annals' "Incantata" and " Yarrow." Listen for the rhyme-schemes which bind the duet, trio, quartet, five dance numbers, sestet, and their unannounced reprises; you will find Bandanna’s weave most intricate.
Fire & Flower
Alice James, $11.95 (paper)
The poems in Kasischke's third collection form a kind of ghosted, liquid dream. While, at first, the landscape of the poems might seem familiar enough-Midwestern farmland and family, hostessing and husbandry, kitchens where mothers spin confections-these domestic scenes are rendered so eerily, so full of apparition and milky light, that they are no longer recognizable. We find ourselves cast back on the drifting surface of events, unsure of who we are. Most of Kasischke's poems are meditations on birth: things are restlessly cocooned, shuddering in their skins and emerging, in gradual shock, from their sleep. Those unexpected moments when everything creaturely seems to lose its impermanence, when the surface ignites, are when we are most aware that we did not make ourselves. In Kasischke's murmurous world, there never was a time before creation, before inception. Here the muffled songs are buried deep inside the earth, "a warm / fleece of them [rising] / from the lawn, smell / of rheumy lace," the lullaby reaching back as far as we can remember: "Song of a million years. Song / of milk & mouths turned to white blossoms / in walled gardens. / Sleep, like a swan boat drifting / down a bowery stream. Long / feathers on the water in our bed's unfolding flower."
Stealing Glimpses: Of Poetry, Poets, and Things In Between
Sarabande, $24 (cloth)
High among the pleasures available to readers during National Poetry Month is Molly McQuade's first collection of essays: 27 excursions, investigations, meditations, and gatherings of insights about everything from "The Poetry of Paucity" (which is really about Anthony Minghella's film adapted from Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient) to "The Poetry of Goats" (which, believe it or not, is really about how to find "as sure a roost in a poem as a goat discovers in the trust of her hooves, wattles, spine, fur, sprite-tail, unfurling throat, and quizzical glance"). Out of so many delights, it's hard to choose. There's a marvelous piece on Pilobolus Dance Theatre and body imagery as poetry; there's a sobering piece about just what we mean by the value of poetry; there's a thoughtful piece about Emily Dickinson and the technique of partiality-of being less than total. Any one of them is well worth the price of admission. A contributing editor for Kirkus Reviews and for Graywolf Press, as well as a columnist for Booklist, McQuade has been called (by Dana Gioia) "one of the most quietly influential intelligences in American poetry." Eavesdropping on her thoughts about "The Small Press Muse and its Difficulties"; listening to her dream conversations with E.B. White; discovering-through her comments and reflections on such diverse poets as Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop-just what has been going on in poetry and poets over the past decade or so, readers will find Gioia's judgment just and apt.
-Robert C. Jones
The Snow Watcher
Ontario Review Press, $20
"Road Tar," the unforgettable opening poem of Twichell's fifth collection, establishes fire as a sustaining metaphor, both seductive and eradicative. A child is tricked into chewing hot tar, "and a girl with a burned tongue [is] conceived." The recurring sacrifice is the childhood self, the payoff a lyric form riveting in its economy and depth. Or as Twichell sometimes calls it: the "blunt elegy," an unpredictable space where "the being / speaking to you … will likewise disappear." Influenced by the tanka and other traditional Japanese forms, these poems also refer to the meditations, interviews, and practices of Zen Buddhism. Wisely, the poet's instincts insist upon an obstinate, phoenix-like speaker, inseparable from a ruthless natural landscape. Avoiding total refuge in Buddhism, she acts as a kind of arsonist, a role opposed to that of the spiritually respectful elegist. Twichell is less convincing when she attempts rhetoric and ars poetica; these poems are testimony enough. Such moments are negligible aberrations, however; this book, on the whole, is a searing triumph.
with each clouded peak
Translated by Rosemarie Waldrop and Harriett Watts
Sun & Moon, $11.95 (paper)
Mayröcker, a prolific Austrian poet in her mid-seventies, has little sympathy for those who come to poetry looking for themselves: "do they really always expect a mirror when they reach for a book"? In this work, stories nest within stories like Russian Matrioshka dolls; events are told in freeze-frame narration and each piece of language seems to have been fed into a democratizing kaleidoscope so that the refrain "he said" becomes as important as the image of the "tinny old pianner." Mayröcker can also be delightfully surreal: "for instance when she came out of the anesthesia and asked what day it was. / then it's his birthday, she wailed, and he won't get a card"; "she was taken aback, he said, when a strange woman in the subway asked if she had seen the giant rabbit leaping out of the tunnel. / fossilization, he said, gradual." The poems have a technical brilliance that serves rather than conceals their humanity: "it's always on our abstract side, he said, that we wish to be touched…."