Exactly What Happened
Purdue University, $13.95 (paper)
If the title of Brouwer's first collection, its echo of Lowell evoking the specter of confessional poetry, strikes fear in the suspicious mind of the post-Saussurean reader, the epigraph by Chico Marx immediately assuages that fear, placing us on more familiar, if less stable, ground. In Brouwer's world, "to seem is to be"—or is it? Artists, scientists, storytellers, and, above all, tricksters and magicians, wield the power of deceptive magic, and even the revelation of their methods cannot detract from the wonder of "that instant…the bird flying wild and oblivious." These tutelary figures, at once comical and mystical, admit that "no one can know what comes next," yet they spin elaborate fictional webs for their spectators, even as they know they are "never to be fooled [themselves]." Such comforting illusions provide crucial support and escape in a world defined by newspaper headlines (Brouwer's titles of choice) and their array of modern instruments of destruction—shrapnel, genocide, serial murder, the AIDS epidemic, mid-age despair. Brouwer, critic for The Progressive, Harvard Review, and other publications, is well-versed in everything from nineteenth-century history to Disney to circus animals and their desertions, and while he displays this knowledge quietly, fear of arrogance leads him to turn vacillation into an aesthetic decision: "believe this or that, / as you wish." "Content with indecision," he wields a gentle irony that washes over world famine and lost loves alike. While the politics behind this equalizing ideology are sound, Brouwer's live-and-let-live poetics lead him all too often to a glib, luminous moment—"her mind drifts into snow." At his strongest, Brouwer eschews ambiguity and generalization for the personal and poignant; his clever and ironic ode on shrapnel is outdone by the scene of young students playing paintball, their throats "shot blue." This is an intelligent, masterful debut, and surely time will increase the breadth of Brouwer's gaze and teach him to deploy that gaze more decisively.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22 (cloth), $13 (paper)
Boss Cupid, Thom Gunn's twelfth book of poems, is his first since the critically acclaimed 1992 volume The Man With Night Sweats, which chronicled the ravages of AIDS in a set of searing elegies. The poet of Boss Cupid is a "survivor… / Recording so that I may later read / Of what has happened," sorting through both the ruins of the heady "sexual New Jerusalem" of earlier days and the fluctuations of the present. These meditations, sketches, and elegies are tinged with a survivor's guilty ambivalence: on the one hand "beaming a life charged now / Doubly because restored" and on the other, forever fighting the tug of "my dear, my everpresent dead." But above all the poems in this cohesive, artfully constructed volume are devoted to "Cupid, devious master of our bodies." With characteristic formal skill and variety, and the same "potent mix / of toughness and tenderness" he confesses to seek in men, Gunn evokes our half-comic, half-tragic thralldom to love and desire. Tender affection and selfish lust collide and overlap in Gunn's world; a couple kissing in a diner are "weak, greedy, lovely in their greed, / Shakily locking mouth to mouth, / Where mutually they start to feed." But the book's dark hymn to the lover's hunger to possess reaches a climax in its most daring, disturbing movement, a series of "songs" sung by serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who chillingly explains "As you turn to go / I know that I must keep you, and know how." Although chastened by time and loss, the seventy-one year old Gunn valiantly declares "age is not simpler / Or less enjoyable, not dark, not whitewashed"—"it's not like that for me," he affirms. For Gunn, the teeming world remains—like the poems in this remarkable volume—bracingly "vivid," "as pungent and startling as good strong coffee tastes."
Dionisio D. Martínez
W. W. Norton & Company, $22 (cloth)
These muscular prose poems present the Prodigal Son as Zeno's arrow—always approaching, never arriving. Here boundaries are not so much crossed as stepped into and found to have their own expansive and confounding properties. Each title posits the Prodigal Son in a specific cultural location—"The Prodigal Son gives blood," "The Prodigal Son on a bus in New Delhi"—but each poem spirals crazily away from its seed-site. The stacked density of the sentences makes it impossible to read ahead, ensuring that the reader will be as surprised as the protagonist of "The Prodigal Son forgives his brother" when he learns from a shoe-boxed cricket "to speak Cricket the way some singers learn to sing in a foreign language: phonetically and with complete ignorance." The wondrousness of these poems derives not just from their "plot" twists but from their language. Martínez's gift for metaphor and phrasing dresses skill as serendipity; in one instance, "every cypress in the marsh kneels like a bride." Improbably, this poet's self-invented, frequently self-inverting universe provides context for the kind of truth-telling statement most contemporary poetry resists. Thus the most shocking moments of this book come not from the outer orbitals of postmodern unlikelihood but from epigrammatic lines like "a farewell is merely an unfinished greeting finally put to rest." This volume is further girdered by its continuous thematic puzzling over the discontinuities of time, history, and personal experience. As a result of the book's sheer stamina, the Prodigal Son comes to occupy, however briefly, nearly every conceivable position in the global society he frequents. He is less exile, then, than Everyman—an example of our human dizziness, our singular selfhoods imperiled yet vitalized by investment in plural identities. "This brings us to the body, a single unanimous body wearing itself inside out."
Coach House Press, $16.95 (paper)
If you are a graduate student studying Wittgenstein or a fan of Marjorie Perloff (whose essay on differential poetics in Goldsmith and Kinsella appears in part here), dust off your whistles and bells; this one's for you. Poet, artist, alternative radio DJ, and cool-man-about-town Goldsmith was commissioned by the Whitney to spend Bloomsday, 1997, speaking his body's every movement into a dictaphone, which recording was transcribed and presented variously as a multi-media installation, a java applet, and this book-length poem. Half-performance art, half-semiotic game, Fidget lives equally under the sign of Leopold Bloom's ode to mechanical reproduction ("have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house") and that of alien sociologist Mork's habit of translating his facial expressions into words. Goldsmith very effectively makes it strange: Fidget reads at first like an exercise in decoding oblique strings of words into a coherent narrative: "Right hand moves palm upward. Back of hand holds as thumb and forefingers grab." The near-impossibility of doing so is reflected by Goldsmith's own growing frustration with the strictures of his task; by hour five, clinical descriptions become subtly contaminated with interpretation: "Dots appear blue." This linguistic bursting-at-the-seams, for which Goldsmith attempts an antidote in hour eight's single verb sentences, precedes a complete breakdown (fueled only partly by alcohol), as the rigid protocols of a project trying its darnedest towards objectivity (no personal pronouns, no human contact, tape recorder) are defeated by body, mind, and language, each remarkably resistant to containment. True to its title, Fidget encourages a restless perusal of its multi-media incarnations; but, while both the operatics of the song-and-dance version and the simultaneity enabled by hypertext more effectively mirror bodily excess, the print version best reconstructs the constricted narrative space of the original exercise, and gives us the unmitigated beauty of the exuberant—and defiantly individual—body and mind overflowing such narrow confines.
She Didn't Mean to Do It
University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95 (paper)
It might be misleading to say that many of the poems in Daisy Fried's first volume, winner of the 1999 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, are written from the body. Perhaps it is safer to say the body is never outside of their circumference. It is grounds for multivalent discussion. Although alert to the "gonging of thrills," it can at times produce estrangement: "This springtime of eggs finishing tick, tick, tick, / out of my body"; it is aligned with "hard knowing" and the accidental; left to its quarters, it becomes salty, or "dry and normal and future," or near to opaque in what Robert Hass has called the "mother air of what we want." These poems can be at once brash and subtle, and their idiom suggests that an articulation of the intuited life is deserving of a language drawn from the "signal, letter, clay wad, smoke" of the lived life. Like Whitman, who has influenced her sense of prosodic contours, Fried goes for pleasure and inclusion, always alert to the whelmed effects of relationships, work, and political events. The poet has described herself as an "incorrigible plunderer, and inventor, of other people's lives," but those depicted here are not denatured by artifice or sentimentality; on the whole, they are a befitting exhibition of what it means, as she writes in "The Bombing of Serbia," to "search for a lost thing / in dark water." While the lost thing is often protean, the impulse toward it is a kind of retrieval: "A girl down there showing her teeth / to a man, her voice all made of sirens / and rocks and dirty butter and cheap stockings, / preg again or out of dope or don't hit me / or don't leave me or what will I do / or take me with you and silence."
Houghton Mifflin, $27 (cloth)
The Boys at Twilight
Houghton Mifflin, $14 (paper)
Maxwell's ambitious and lively novel-in-verse, Time's Fool, traces the story of young poet Edmund Lea who, after one crucial misdeed, wakes memory-less, eternally condemned to ride a ghost-train through a dark, fen-like netherworld. For Edmund, who remains an eternal seventeen, the lone glimmer of hope resides in the train's return—every seven years on Christmas Eve—to Edmund's hometown. Written in deft and casual terza rima, the poem propels itself along any number of rails, of dialectics: authorship and agency, the atemporal space of the train and the world it touches tangentially every seven years, the language of high-lyricism and the dialect of middle England. The main preoccupation, however, is our twinned desire to name and to form: "I would close / that book on nothing"; "I am unspoken. I am a dead language"; "this new town / of black and white, the page." The lines of the poem are, for Edmund, both mnemonic device and totem against "the deathly white beyond the poem" that is death and the death-in-life of the amnesiac. Maxwell's tale is mimetic of the train; its aisles full of ghosts: Auden's breeziness and Larkin's coy directness are sourced, Coleridge's Rime invoked ("mind / …as blank as the frozen sea") as well as Eliot, whose Prufrock is likewise victimized and neglected by time ("lamps in the fog along the frosted lane"; "they come and go / the men, they come and go"). The poem best displays Maxwell's gifts—and the malleability of metrical form to the homespun colloquial—in the sections devoted to Edmund's septa-annual Christmas returns. These offer a sharp combination of satire and nostalgia and yank Edmund and the poem out of the quasi-surreal lyricism of the train passages. Though Maxwell's poem spans nearly fifty years, one gets the sense that the writer is exploring his own unchanging territory: a cloistered, frustrated poet's longing to surface from his world of memory and text. Condemned to a vertiginous existence of eternal youth and eternal isolation, Edmund poignantly sums up The Poet's plight in an imaginary conversation with Happy Hour, his ghoulish bartender: "We're gone / Happy Hour, we're gone. Why so we are, Edmund, we're the goingest of men."
The Boys at Twilight, which collects poems from Maxwell's first three books, foreshadows many of these same concerns. In "Out of the Rain," he is already pitting the desire to remember and cohere through form ("I have to hum that song / to haul it back") against a washed-out (Biblical) apocalyptic landscape. The poems here are alternately playful and political, veering confidently between public and private spheres. Equally impressive are the early, narrative poems, which frequently undo their own cinematic virtuosity to reveal a heartbreakingly personal touch. In "The Mayor's Son," for instance, a black trilby hat that represents a teenager's foolish audacity—and draws the narrator's scorn—is transformed by the end of the poem into a shared symbol of lost innocence, offering an unabashed moment of grace in a narrative of erasure and omission. Maxwell proves equally adept at a disquieting, percussive, metrical regularity. In "The Boys in Twilight" he uses a metronomic line and strong rhyme to transform the wistful, lilac-tinged romance of adolescence into the desperate hopefulness of young men at war. Throughout the collection, Maxwell charts the uneasy journey to responsibility and adulthood—the ultimate "authority"—and draws a wavering line through violence, childbirth, and love: "There's a boy tomorrow and a boy today, / words they are going to remember to say… / They have no idea but they feel them again, / Who are going to be boys, who have had to be men."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22 (cloth)
The guiding image of Phillips' fifth volume—the rope used to train a dangerous harrier to heed its falconer—so permeates this work, one feels the tether's tug at each edgy enjambment, in the way each poem swoops down, across, and is finally fastened to the page. Sometimes the voice soars breathlessly; other times it swan-dives at breakneck speed: "we moved / closer, / in, // to the blue barn's / advertisement— / flaw, // weakness." What keeps Phillips awake are the most urgent preoccupations; he laments while praising the knowledge that comes too late, love and beloved(s) lost, the death of the body, the last days of Rome, honoring even the smallest pleasures that console us, however brief. Other times, in an almost chillingly lyrical voice, he sings a disabusing music for the flawed, testifying to the small but certain evidence of our breaking: "I admit to // —also—the body as mere / story / whose ending, // like the story itself, is / small." These poems emerge seamlessly of necessity and rarely fail to hold us at each turn, and even if the speaker in one poem aligns himself with those who live "less on the edge—more among those who sleep out of sheer exhaustion" still Phillips, like Prometheus, manages to bring back what we need. One may be tempted to read the following lines as the poet's own modest self-assessment of his strengths (from "A Force, And Would Consume Us"): "steadfastness remains / one of my two gifts, the other / less gift, perhaps, than simply a matter / of I can't help it, / namely a knack for making anything mean something." But we should never take a poet at his word. The Tether finds Phillips, one of his generation's most prolific and gifted poets, writing his most moving and memorable poems to date.
D. A. Powell
Wesleyan University Press, $26 (cloth), $12.95 (paper)
The minotaur presides over D. A. Powell's second volume, appearing in verse and in illustrations throughout, but the true ghost-form behind the poems of Lunch is the cinema. The ability of that medium to distort, graft, reopen and reanimate lost time permits these poems their exquisite, darkly funny dissections. The volume is divided into sections, each devoted to a making and remaking of memories and situations through the use and reuse of certain startling phrases. The opening poem, "[second fugue]," features a nostalgic consideration of an adolescent or even preadolescent male body, on which the speaker reflects, "I must say grace over his thighs." The ambiguity of this phrase—benediction? preamble to seduction?—is mobilized thirty pages later, when it is re-issued in the voice of a minotaur about to devour a youth. Yet Powell is not content with this single, clever turn; by recycling the phrase, he turns it again, affording even the speaker-minotaur some (ambiguous) tenderness: "I must say grace over his thighs / for there may be no path back to him." Such manipulations give the poems of Lunch the dazzle of double-exposed film, but this style has substance, mimicking as it does the fickleness of memory itself. Powell's formalism is not only distended and sonic, but also the product of subtly tailored typography and syntax. Bracketed first lines serve as titles, hovering over their doubles; mercurially reappearing colons frustrate the stability of conventional grammar. In the book's final, explosive section, the HIV-positive speaker, caring for himself through his own catastrophic illness, reels perspectivally between God and infant, victim and deadly agent. So surgically deft is Powell that this pivot is often made in the space of a single period. As one line in this polished yet troubling volume has it, "[y]our wallet can afford you. some protection."
The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention
Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (cloth)
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand begins inventing his "weather of words" with "A Poet's Alphabet" (where E, for example, stands for "endings to poems, last words designed to release us back into our world with the momentary illusion that no harm has been done"), pauses in mid-stream with "Notes on the Craft of Poetry" (during which he unsettles us by suggesting that those "transactions" we call "craft" are "the sole property of the individual poet and cannot be transferred to or adopted by others" primarily because "they are largely unknown at the time of writing and are discovered afterwards, if at all"), and liberally laces these fifteen essays with provocative and thoughtful insights. How "the vividness of Wordsworth's landscape was born out of urgency. It is the experience of loss that permits the artist to recompose." How one's life is often "one of constantly shifting weather" with "the world within…rarely in sync with the world without"; and a poem's value is that it "permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves." How "[w]hat we want while reading a novel is to get on with it," but a poem works the opposite way: "It encourages slowness, urges us to savor each word." And how "the purpose of the poem is not disclosure or storytelling or the telling of a daydream; nor is a poem a symptom. A poem is itself and is the act by which it is born." Strand's whimsical "President's Resignation" (first published in The New Yorker) closes this carefully selected collection of writings on poetic invention by reminding us: "The blessings of weather shall always exceed the office of our calling and turn our words, without warning, into the petals of a huge and inexhaustible rose."
—Robert C. Jones