The Secularist
Claudia Keelan
University of Georgia, $15.95 (paper)
Addressing the spiritual void of a Godless society, these deliberately elliptical poems probe daunting ontological mysteries. Keelan imagines a deity who is "howling and dirty from the listening," one who is paralyzed, polluted and disseminated throughout the secular world, where only "machinery transcribes deceit." The dominant question soon becomes "Does the God we believe in want us?" Alternately defiant and plangent, these poems refuse to "take [their] place beside" the fixed, indifferent icon glimpsed in such unlikely forms as a scarecrow and a Civil War photograph. The book is framed by two title poems, both of which explore the secularist's reluctance to find the answers to her questions. As "the spirit of matter" moves across the human terrain, it conceals as it consoles; "coal muffles the birth-cry" of a mother about to kill her newborn child. It is to Keelan's credit that she can illuminate an entire series of such meditations without resorting to sentiment or facile resolution.
–Michael Tyrell
Falling Water
John Koethe
HarperCollins, $22, $12 (paper)
Koethe's fourth collection revisits the Californian and mid-Western landscapes of his "imaginary childhood" and his recently ended marriage in order to record thoughts prompted by love, loss, and loneliness, all part of "the ordinary course of things." A practicing philosopher, Koethe searches for a mode of being in the world that contains "the experience of memory / Drained of its vivifying imagery / Until the pure experience remains." The combined influence of Stevens and Ashbery on this collection is profound; their admirers will recognize the ubiquity of well-placed allusions and recurring motifs of time, change, and especially the penetration of the mind by its own, persistent reflectiveness. Sometimes Koethe risks being too thoughtful at the expense of memorable detail, however, as the landscapes of fluid, expansive lyrics quickly dissolve into a world elsewhere, unaffected by our projections onto it. The long, final, title poem is the most successful, taking Frank Lloyd Wright as a pretense for reviewing: "the murmurs of an age, of middle age / That help to pass the time that they retrieve / Before subsiding, leaving everything unchanged."
–Jenn Lewin
Inventory: New and Selected Poems
Frank Lima
Edited by David Shapiro
Hard Press, $12.95 (paper)
Inventory opens with "Scattered Vignettes," a raw, hallucinatory work about Lima's mythopoetic origins. The poem records a striking mosaic of abuses at the hands of parents, priests, and various controlled substances. But such stories are not the key to this book. "Poetry," after all, "is pinker / than nature," and the past matters less here than the present and future: "every day is a new instrument." That is, he's got work to do. Instead of holding up a mirror to life, Lima holds up "fingers popping with eyes." These poems don't make sense-nor love-so much as they make for love through the senses. Although love is his great subject, some of Lima's traditional love poems drift lazily into flat cliché. His most wondrous feats are object poems such as "Geranium" and "The Hand"-expansive empathies that suggest a sensually surreal George Herbert. It's here that we taste "the terrible flavor of love." For Lima, a working chef and former New York School bad boy, "Poetry is an expressive cut of meat." So we do sit and eat.
–Tom Thompson
Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters
Marjorie Perloff
University of Chicago, $16.95 (paper)
Written when many critics still considered her subject more of an "art world" figure rather than a serious poet, Perloff's brilliantly organized study has been reissued with a new introduction. O'Hara's brief but prolific career distinguished him as a "master of peripheral vision . . . [who] devised linguistic structures that anticipate the work of our own moment." Blending biographical and critical resources, Perloff discusses O'Hara's friendships with poets as diverse as Ashbery and Ginsberg, his mixed-media collaborations with several New York artists, and his surprising range of influences. These essays persuade us that his fascination with surrealist poetics, action painting, and the cinema enhanced and deepened his poems, both stylistically and thematically. Literary criticism is rarely this lucid and warm. We are fortunate to have Perloff's book in print: not only was it the first to articulate O'Hara's important and complex role in American poetry, but its witty political and poetic observations retain their original power.
Michael Tyrell
From the Devotions
Carl Phillips
Graywolf, $12.95 (paper)
These graceful, magical lyrics should confirm Phillips's well-deserved reputation for exploring the spaces, moods, and metamorphoses of desire. Gathering energy from forms like the alba, and a witty classicism apparent in his "Renderings" of Anacreontic fragments, the poet arranges in his characteristically small, precious stanzas the gently persistent longings of the body, as in "The Sybil" where he self-consciously contributes a "third gate" through which dreams come: "the flesh, what / cannot help but / fail, come bone // come shine." Other poems pay homage to domesticity, and are populated with animals-deer, horses, bees, the luna moth-whose needs, hopes, and hungers are cleverly mapped onto the poet's own. Witness this from "On Restraint": "One would like nothing / more than to forget it all: how beautiful he was then, like a man, not a horse. / -but very like a horse, how he ran." The last section moves from the gods of the living to the remains of the body in death, where Borges, Dante, Isaiah, and even fellow riders on "The Flume" at an amusement park provide haunting devices, especially in the bitter, astounding title poem, through which flesh becomes ash.
–Jenn Lewin
The Falling Hour
David Wojahn
University of Pittsburgh, $25, $12.95 (paper)
Having fashioned a career out of infusing poetic traditions with the vicissitudes of historical events and popular culture, Wojahn ranges in his fifth collection from O. J. Simpson to Gilgamesh, from compelling narratives of cult fanaticism to snatches of psalms and rock songs, to sonnets owing some wry, colloquial force to Lowell ("God of Journeys and Secret Tidings"). Events in the news gain urgency from the combination of deftly quoted lyrics and Wojahn's verbs, which are almost always in the present tense. In the second of "Five Eschatologies," Blake's "Jerusalem" permeates the 1976 Georgetown setting: "the exiled Prince Stephen Jones / arrives, his mission to prepare his Father's way," and the narrator of "Hey Joe" listens in a bar to Jimi Hendrix's song about a man who "shot his woman down" while watching the O. J. Simpson trial. Other poems are more personal; "Excavation Photo" and the series "The Shades" feelingly trace an awareness of mortality, an "inheritance of guilt / we can never talk to death." Where less capable poets are heavy-handed in treating trendy subjects, Wojahn succeeds again and again in being both formally interesting and morally sophisticated.
–Jenn Lewin
The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995
Richard Wilbur
Harcourt Brace, $25
Readers of this second gathering of Wilbur's occasional prose may be surprised by melancholy undercurrents swelling below the book's expectedly sane and sunny acumen; beneath a tempered surface creep, like Milton's Lucifer, darker subjects. One of the most emotionally complicated pieces is a commentary on his own "Cottage Street, 1953," a poem recounting his strained first meeting with a young Sylvia Plath. Set into relief by the collection's other discussions-Longfellow's "troubled, wavering Ulysses," for example, or Robert Frost's "mental instability that was part of his inheritance (as of mine)"-the poem seems to relate not only an "actual visit," but Wilbur's ongoing encounter with depressive tendencies: "I am better acquainted with depression and alienation than some who romanticize them." Wilbur's analyses of the life and work of poets "shame the Devil" with their sympathetic lucidity, and effect their own particular triumph over despair, that "arch-negator, sprung / from Hell . . . dragging down / And darkening with moody self-absorption."
–Mary Maxwell