The Scarlet Tanager
by Bernadette Mayer
New Directions, $14.95 (paper)

Bernadette Mayer has always delighted in experiences that require a degree of abandon: dreamscapes, drugged states, syntactical splurges. The best poems in her newest book are those in which the associative qualities of language seem to carry the poet, even while the reader is aware of a meditated shapeliness. “Words That Rhyme With Disease,” one of several collaborations in the collection, begins in absurdity, hat tipped toward the surrealists: “i’m glad i didn’t get it from the landlord / i know i couldn’t get it on a fjord / i have lyme disease / just like rice & beans / it’s as simple as a slice of cheese.” But the poem finds its way to a moment startlingly befitting linguistic insanity: a war trauma of “d.d.t. which wreaked equivalent / havoc on steve’s cerebral ease so please / if you encounter him under a piece of cheese, pretend it’s a / series of locust trees & wish him sweet dreams.” Politics and propriety are particularly dominant preoccupations in The Scarlet Tanager. In addition to a few full-length attacks on Bush, several poems take a turn in closing lines such as “you won’t have to use the fire extinguisher / under the kitchen sink nor will you / have to explain this to erudite muslims / or anybody america is currently at war with” and “war what is it good for? / absolutely nothing.” Mayer is not a particularly subtle poet (one reads her because she’s brassy), and to orchestrate the sudden inclusion of political remarks in poems largely of a different tenor requires a delicacy that she just doesn’t have. Many poems, particularly the epigrams that constitute much of the collection, are slack: “Do you live with a man? I do. / Has he ever taken over / The cleaning of the bathroom? / Why do men find these chores / So demeaning?” On the whole, Mayer’s imagination, like O’Hara’s, does best with an accretion of particulars. Hers is a world of combinations such as “The Tree House Aquarium Cathedral Room”—inventions that, when given life in a poem, are “much more amazing / than they could ever be.”