Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, $12 (paper)
“What kind of wilderness / takes bread and milk / from a blue willow saucer?” begins Miranda Field’s first book of poems,Swallow, winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference 2001 Bakeless Poetry Prize. Field’s poems live in the dialectical, inhabiting and investigating such dichotomies as the wild and the cultivated, the house and the garden, the hunter and the hunted. This thematic interest also informs her precise, measured lines, which unravel into music as they take hold of meaning, seeking at once rootedness and flight. Rarely does a poet’s debut reveal a voice so confidently her own, even as the poems fork and turn, hawking in surprising directions. Swallow takes in art (the artist, the audience, and art itself) and its strange, dangerous alliance with objectification, but also its relationship to intimacy and mystery. “They want to occupy these foreign ranges,” Field writes of the visitors at the Museum of Natural History. “[T]he faces press in close, as if they’ve found the crack / through which a broken moment can be seen entire.” Later, in a poem on hunting and painting, she writes: “The heart of the hunter / heavy as the hunted’s. And the chambers divided: / I & thou. And the passage narrow.” Yet Swallow engages questions not only of craft, but of the intellect as well—how we construct meaning from experience, how we come to know and judge, what we hold on to and let go of, what we forgive. Field writes, “The heart creates / its quarry. . . . / It aims its arrows. . . . / You shape your kill. And what you’ve known comes down. /Falls far. Falls far from you. Wherever it will.” In the end, Field is interested in nothing less than what it means to be human, and hers is a book full of risk, awe, and daring. “Some urgencies are tenured to the earth, its treasures,” she writes. “But some forget us. Some go farther.”
Combinations of the Universe
Ohio State University Press, $44.95 (cloth), $18.95 (paper)
In another life Albert Goldbarth might have been an alchemist, or perhaps an eccentric inventor, “conked on the thinkum,” incapable of resisting the impulse to dismantle things and reassemble them in skewed, unexpected ways. But Goldbarth is a poet, and as such he can only connect. And connect and connect. In this, his gazillionth collection, Goldbarth continues to explain it all for us. The alluvium of history, cosmology, religion, archaeology, sex, death, human frailty, and cheesy science fiction wash up from his poems in abundant, frothy waves—conglomerates of memory and memorabilia that, for all their references to pop culture, channel the “great, incomprehensible directives / that the genes force on our species.” The volume of trivia at his command seems inexhaustible, and in the aptly titled “The Song of Too Much”—which interleaves a meditation on a couple’s separation with what might as well be Goldbarth’s ars poetica—he conflates his own artistic impetus with biological imperative, proclaiming that “existence / wants an ever-thickened density of knowledge / and connection.” In this same poem he coins the word “overloadium,” defined as “the element / most commonly discovered in an opened human life.” And indeed it’s the personality and openness of their curator that keeps dust and must off Goldbarth’s crammed exhibits—his genial willingness to step into and out of omniscience, to be simultaneously in our world and distanced from it, like (to use a boomer-era reference he’d appreciate) Uncle Martin on My Favorite Martian. If he loses us from time to time it’s because his glib patter, the “slangy rat-a-tat tirades” and mothballed argot (“noggin,” “shmear”), overcompensate to offset the weight of his ideas. But then how many poets work as diligently to capture the whole cosmos and pass it, hot and brimming, into our hands?
Center for Literary Publishing, $14.95 (paper)
About half of the poems in Sally Keith’s debut collection attempt an impossible, if not altogether unfamiliar project. Sprawling sentences tumble through a syntax that longs to become a precise map of perception, unspooling in clauses linked or interrupted by dashes, parentheses, ellipses, caesurae: “I would want it, / if my hand knew this, if / there were a track, a rut, a trammel, or / something— / some (necessary) leading to— / the explanation adorned with a name, hackneyed / hackneyed crocus bud, // named—.” Watching herself watching herself watching, the speaker’s stance falls ever backward, seeking an unimpeachable ground for knowledge. At its best, when she acknowledges its futility, Keith’s persistence can be bracingly moving: “I need / to understand // (the mind is divided, but) the passing / we never see. // What is (need) / watching?” More often, the present moment toward which these poems obsessively point (“here” and “now” are among Keith’s commonest words) merely dissolves in a flurry of gesture, the attempt precisely to track the movement of perception too often deadening and overwhelming perception. In their ambition, and in much of their style, these poems clearly show the mark of Keith’s mentor, Jorie Graham; but the poems that seem most indebted to Graham seldom attain the frenzied, existential urgency of Graham’s best work. Far more successful are the brief “Notes” that form a counterpoint to Keith’s larger meditations. “(Slow // my tongue, slow / my speech),” she writes in “Note: 20 November,” with an altered pace which allows for gnomic, careful, often gorgeous poems that inhabit and revise an imploring, devotional address. Interrogating the desire, in the larger poems, to find a certain, transformative knowledge through perception (“What ascension / in things?”), these “Notes” lay bare the unanswerable human need that fuels all inquiry; echoing Vaughan, Keith writes: “Knit me— // One star, one pearl (Listen—of what / am I made?).”
Houghton Mifflin, $22 (cloth)
Glyn Maxwell’s latest collection, his seventh, finds the poet setting loose his considerable technical skills on American scenery and events. In these traditional, mostly iambic lyrics, Maxwell carefully selects stanza forms and varies line lengths to great effect, forcing sentiment and breath through short lines and letting them sun a bit in longer ones. But perhaps most impressive is the precise control he exhibits over pace, regardless of form. When he writes, for instance, in the final lines of “An Earthly Cause,” “We hurried on / Along the path in patterns of late sunlight,” the long last line hurries prettily, just as it should. One always feels poised on the edge of Maxwell’s diction, riding on the energy created by the difference between the rhythms of his lines and the rhythms of natural speech. This linguistic play is hardly empty: The Nerve is remarkably rich thematically. One zone returned to again and again is the border between nothing (a word that pops up remarkably often in this collection) and something, a border Maxwell often pictures perceptually—as he says, “We like to see / stuff strain at us from nothing.” And so we see meteor showers and waves and traveling fairs assault our perception and, before we know it, recede, in movements that recall the Robert Frost of a poem like “For Once, Then, Something.” Maxwell is also consciously and pleasantly aware of his current cultural surroundings, but a couple of the newsier poems ( pulled from television or newspaper headlines) are the weakest in the collection; his diction sometimes seems just a little too stiff to render effectively the raucous, popular, grosser facts of American life. These poems subside beneath the weight of Maxwell’s general excellence, though; his best poems are subtle and timeless, and will reward the careful reader who approaches to see them strain.
bk of (h)rs
Apogee Press, $12.95 (paper)
Many of today’s most innovative and important women poets participate in the tradition of H.D., whose poetry reanimated myth and revealed scripture’s hidden anima, displacing patriarchal pronouncement as the seat of poetic practice. With bk of (h)rs, McCarthy joins such writers as Susan Howe, Cole Swenson, and Rosmarie Waldrop in re-visioning historical texts and re-voicing what has suffered omission from sanctioned history. In three distinctly different sections, bk of (h)rs opens conduits between a humanity long occluded behind medieval iconic images, canonical texts, and ritual practices, and a modern life’s intimacies and observations. In diction that juxtaposes archaisms with a lyricism that defies easy explication, McCarthy offers not a simple subject position but a widening pool of imagistic encounter. Each phrasing further floods the constraining shores of syntax, expanding the breadth and depth of this conflux between the present and the textual or visual representation of the past: “their faces / are monochromatic in grizzled caterwaul. / her arm, the length of everything intended / nothing. meant nothing in its own context. / reached toward<0xF8E7>extended into / consequence / which had little to do with her arm, its / length chiselled / out from one another & yet still one / another yet still intertangled, / pulling weeds from the neck of my sweater.” McCarthy also confronts our inevitably flawed systems of language, thought, and religion, which have for centuries tempted us with the paradox that we might use the mind to reach a state beyond mind: “. . . the thing / is magic, unimaginable. // that was someone falling : once/ asked, there’s no retrieving it. / that syllable drops into hostile / genuflection.” Rather than being constrained by preconceived purpose, McCarthy’s syllables are active with alchemy, exposing the beauty and poignancy in our continued attempts to “mediate between unruly etyms & intention / so that we can admit to being human, / volatile, & glottal.”
J. D. McClatchy
Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (cloth), $15 (paper)
Hazmat, the “hazardous material” evoked in J. D. McClatchy’s fifth volume of poetry, ostensibly conjures images of disintegration and bodily invasion in poems such as “Cancer,” “Feces,” and “Jihad,” which consider the intermingling hazards of the body, of language, and of social warfare. Yet the hazardous material McClatchy confronts might also represent our own psychic resistances to, and ignorance of, ethical contemplation. The ideological emptiness evoked by “Jihad”’s “Dummies of tanks with silhouetted infidels / Defending the nothing both sides fight over / In God’s name, a last idolatry / Of boundaries” also describes the self’s menacing confusion of compassion and desire with its own blind, colonizing intrusiveness. For McClatchy, such emotional disorientation suffuses our lives, as in the Audenesque “Pibroch,” where suffering is experienced as an everyday occurrence: “But not that I am used to pain / Its knuckles in my mouth the same / Today as yesterday.” Speaking of the heart in “Fado,” McClatchy asks, “Suppose you could watch it burn, / A jagged crown of flames / Above the empty rooms / . . . Would you then stretch your hand / To take my scalding gift?” Hazmat is an extraordinary achievement and extends McClatchy’s conceptual powers beyond the scope of his previous volume, Ten Commandments, which similarly brought together affective sensitivity and erotic suffering with the piercing clarity of an attuned moralist. It is this latter stance which proves therapeutic since contemplation acknowledges rather than evades despair. In “Ouija,” an elegy for James Merrill, McClatchy accepts his own ritualized mourning, rather than remaining stranded by it: “Your hand moving steadily back and forth / Across the board seems like a wave goodbye.” In Hazmat, McClathy’s moralism goes hand in hand with an aesthetic imperative to taste, evoke, and judge—the hallmark of a combative confessionalism that consistently remains above mere posturing.