Copper Canyon Press, $16 (paper)
In 1977, Olga Broumas was the first non-native speaker of English to receive the Yale Younger Poets award for Beginning with O.This collection established her as a poet of high lyricism, steeped in the Sapphic tradition, whose English free-verse line was tinctured by her native Greek. Broumas’s poems have never failed to be, in her own words, "nostalgic for salty idiom." The selections in Rave,taken from her eight collections and collaborations (with poets Jane Miller and T Begley), celebrate the sensuality of lesbian love, mine ocean spaces, and continually bathe in the materiality of words, or "gypsy vowels / unshackled from the lips." Broumas’s massage therapy practice has also uniquely served her poetic gifts. Her volume Perpetua (1989), which grew out of that practice, remains her most stunning contribution to date. Here Broumas’s characteristically incantatory diction actualizes a degree of compassion unseen in her work before: "The friends of the dead lie on my table. / I do what I can / with their breath and my hands." Marked by the loss of loved ones to AIDS, the poems from Perpetua highlight Broumas’s deft handling of enjambment throughout Rave, as well as her talent for elegy, or "song without skin to hold."
University of Georgia Press, $15.95 (paper)
"We librarians went to Baja last weekend and sat in the sun / Ho! Ho! It’s funny, isn’t it?" The first line of Stephanie Brown’s Allegory of the Supermarket lets one in on the specifically American joke that seems to govern the spirit of this author’s first book–arrestingly irreverent observations skewer modern attitudes and pin them, bulletin-style, to disarmingly neutral corkboards: for example, the faux-naïf persona that debates itself over a hypothetical painting in "Aesthetic Questions": "What is she wearing? (She’s nude.) / What is she planting? (Old shoes.) / What does the garden represent? (Hey you.)" Versions of this disembodied narrator wander through suburban strip malls, assembling apoetic but compelling dramatic situations out of the familiar details of mass production, as in the title poem: "Day-Glo death, / Potato death, / Death of strawberry, / Death strapped into a hand-six-pack / Death in vodka, scotch, the vitamin-fortified cigarette cough." However, Brown does not condemn herself to a monotonal irony: "It’s time to fall into the arms of God. / The century’s ending, the meter’s running. / All those we communicated so deeply with / didn’t listen. Their mirrors / were as thick with toothpaste advertising as ours were. / We didn’t hear, did we? Maybe God hears?" Yet it is in the moments of deepest irony, as in "Interview with an Alchemist in the New Age," that we see Brown at her vicious best: "You’ll never know for sure if you were really a monk once, / but if you were–well, wow."
Coffee House Press, $13.95 (paper)
In his new book, the author of Elemenopy has a bone to pick with language, a contention made explicit in his "Quarrel with Language Poetry." That’s "Quarrel," as in Lover’s: one prompted by and suffused with a father’s death. Coffey is conspicuously defiant about taking on such loss: "Is this not a fit subject for poetry?" Well, of course it is, as are "Dad’s Shoes" or "A Dilapidated Foundation in Clinton County" (both titles here). But the question is: What does language make of thesubject? Or, since he’s talking L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: What does language make? Coffey never disengages this question (one at the heart of Elemenopy), but he never really takes it head-on either. In 87 North, the focus is on the "language of the sea" or "[wind’s] speech across the grass," not the stuff of philology. While more concerned with things than words, however, Coffey is still self-conscious about his medium. From poem to poem, form shifts–narrative to lyric, prose reportage to short-lined rhyme. The shifts feel fidgety, almost desperate. "It is our forms that fail us," he explains, "with some purpose." What purpose: To reveal a different, more permanent substance than body or poem? Whose purpose: God’s? (Some poems explicitly, ingenuously address "Him".) "I still don’t know / what lasts of what’s written," admits Coffey. Thus suggesting his real argument with language: its unknowing. As he says near route’s end–the poems having passed from Long Island through Manhattan on to points upstate–"Maybe / it’s spirit I’m after and not / the words."
Wesleyan University Press, $12.95 (paper)
In this volume, subtitled "Notes on Literature," Barbara Guest has crafted a long, flexible poem whose subject is the difficulty and act of poetic composition. As one reads and re-reads the book, the title re-establishes itself as perfectly apt: Guest displays the "rocks" used to build the poem via the delimiting fact of the book itself, the "platter." The rocks are poems within the poem, stories, and the quotations (from Hölderlin, Hegel, Adorno, and Samuel Johnson) that begin each section and conclude the book. Though the poem is a formal experiment, "a poem and a poetics," and thoroughly allusive, the tone is intimate and often funny. Guest writes about evasion, the power of the audience/patron, recalls Williams, Rilke, considers films and includes this section: "Tradition // Tantamount to theory // treacles // of tender truckland /// near Trebizond. ////TRIUMPHS. // A TREMENDOUS TUNE-UP. ORTHODOXY. / tremendous tune-up /// tra-la-la." In other hands, this poem could be blindingly private or archly condescending, but after certain pauses in this work, one encounters the next word as if Guest had just turned a stone in her hand so she could push it toward you.
Jeannette Montgomery Barron and Jorie Graham.
Scalo, $34.95 (cloth)
By rendering cogitation visual, Jorie Graham’s poems have always stitched the sensuous to the abstract. Jeannette Montgomery Barron’s black and white close-ups of still life–withering sunflower heads, cut stems in a glass of water, the back of a mirror–reveal the abstract forms inchoate in material things. Their collaboration offers no easy correspondences but instead rewards with a difficult effulgence. In Photographs & Poems, Graham’s language is less descriptive than associative: Barron’s photographs haunt these eight poems only in discrete recurrent words–"mirror," "atoms"–much as "ghosts / not having / lived / alive now." Barron’s lush images elicit starkness from the poet, including shorter lines sometimes riven by blanks ("I have severely trimmed and cleared"; "Locations are omitted"). In her anaphoric repetition of the imperative "explain" throughout the series, Graham highlights language’s asymptotic striving in the face of the visual ("explain hidden life"; "explain echo"). Yet these poems mirror more than the writing process. The oracular "Two Days" and "For One Must Want / To Shut the Other’s Gaze," a refraction of Dickinson’s #640, both sketch an isolation chafing at the borders of human love. And the final Psalm-like "Underneath (7)" warily embraces the world these photographs have cropped, or "the bough springing back into the tree."
Peggy O’Brien, editor
Wake Forest University, $19.95 (cloth)
This anthology by the reliably good Wake Forest Press presents extensive selections from the work of nine contemporary Irish women poets; its uneven result proves far more informative than those collections that include only five-star "anthology pieces." We are able to trace the evolution of Eavan Boland–probably the best-known poet in the anthology–from Plathian personal lyrics to earnest meditations on history and feminism, and to question the cumulative success of Rita Ann Higgins’s colloquialisms, which sometimes eschew sound for sense. The remaining seven poets include Eiléan Ní Chuilleana, Medbh McGuckian, Nuala Ní Dhomhniall, Paula Meehan, Moya Cannon, Mary O’Malley, and Kerry Hardie. Collectively, these poets are not as formally inclined as their male counterparts (among them Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon), not as burdened by Yeats’s legacy, and more burdened by questions of identity. McGuckian and the Irish-language poet Ní Dhomhniall, however, have achieved a poetry that goes beyond formulations of selfhood–among other things, they have less affection than the other poets for words like grievance, longing, and body. McGuckian’s appealingly cryptic poems have been compared to John Ashbery’s work, but her invocation of the private enchantments of language is far more sensual than his: "Whatever rivers sawed their present lairs / Through my lightest, still-warm rocks, I told them they were only giving up / A sun for sun, that cruising moonships find / Those icy domes relaxing." Ní Dhomhniall’s wry poems, which delight with their reeling velocity, are translated to best effect by Paul Muldoon, giving us "the brill- / iant slink of a wild animal, a dream- / cat, say, on the prowl, / leaving murder and mayhem / in its wake."
Littoral Books, $11.95 (paper)
Alphabets is a series of abecedary compositions, worked out over a period of eleven years with a variety of constraints and procedures. From the straightforward acrostics of Los Alephs (1986) or the bestiary A Life (1991) to the more submerged devices of Rhum (1995), the result is an admirable success, playing the arbitrary order of an index against the lyric pathos it threatens, like a cento from a dictionary come to self-consciousness: "H, like heart, is a commodity. / I is for the innocence I won’t insist upon." Wisdom is half learning to relax, and these poems pan little truths from the discontinuities and contretemps of organized knowledge. "Devices are no better than cannons, mocks my turkey, or dashes or cousins crassly asleep on a willing sea." Risked here is, of course, a tedium that is the dark side of inviting your reader’s active collaboration: Alphabets is meant to be read slowly, day by day, not in a breathless consumptive rush. When it succeeds, this work reminds us that poetry comes not from the sky but from social texts and conversations, and that poetic composition requires no epiphanic seizure to obtain genuine mystery.