In 1982, Alfred A. Knopf published the sixth and seventh volumes in their new poetry series. These volumes turned out to be the most successful first collections to have appeared in many years. Antarctic Traveller is number seven in the series; number six, Brad Leithauser’s Hundreds of Fireflies (1982), is reviewed elsewhere in this volume. Both collections were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Antarctic Traveller received the award.
Katha Pollitt is acquainted with the techniques of traditional metrics and works within them when subject, occasion, or mood demands; she is perhaps more at home in the kind of open form or free verse which has itself become nearly traditional. It is a kind of free verse in which appreciation for line-breaks must be purely a visual experience, unavailable to one who only hears the poems; it seems designed to encourage matters of line and stanza to withdraw into the background, so that imagination and word choice, for example, may come to the fore. Most of the time, this approach works well for Pollitt, but it poses a few problems. One problem is that the strongly metrical poems in this book tend to be the best, so that one wonders whether metrical writing is the most effective way Pollitt has of forcing herself to pay prolonged attention to each line of a poem. This impression is borne out by the realization that the handful of underachieved poems, those that went in to fill out the book to a decent length, are all unmetrical. Every book of poems is likely to contain a few poems that found their way in only because there was room for them; the poet strives to eliminate these, but finally the desire to get a book finished overcomes the poet’s perceptions of that which is passable but inferior. That is not a serious problem. The problem here is that Pollitt somehow suggests by the shape and arrangement of the book that free verse is significantly easier to write than metrical verse—as of course it is, unless one is doing one’s best.
When she is doing her best, metrically or not, Pollitt is very good indeed. She has a sharp and loving eye for details that can convey the speaker’s attitude, not only toward the thing observed, but also toward the world in general. She understands the many ways in which living and loving are difficult and necessary.
The arrangement of these poems is generally intelligent and effective: two longer sections framing a brief central section. The first part of the book is chiefly concerned with moods of loneliness, or desire for the unattainable, or the isolation one feels in the city. The middle section, “Five Poems from Japanese Paintings,” takes the poet out of herself toward the poems of the third section, in which the lives of others are imagined, sometimes with moving empathy, sometimes with humor.
Three of the strongest poems in the first section are “Ballet Blanc,” “Archaeology,” and “Chinese Finches.” Each of these draws on unusual, even exotic, subject matter to illuminate experiences which will be familiar to many readers. “Ballet Blanc” is a brilliant evocation of the way a member of the audience at a ballet may become so involved in the beauty of the production, the surroundings, that she begins to imagine herself the center of attention:
You glow, you sway,it’s as though the audience were dancing tooand with a last, stupendous tour jetéturned for a solo suddenly to youand you become the Duke, the Queen, Giselle,and waltz in a whirl of white through the painted grove,your gestures as extravagant as tulle,as wild as nineteenth-century hopeless love.
After the ballet, however, as the enraptured person goes home, things begin to change back, unnoticed:
You float upstairs and into bedand into dreams so deep you never hearhow all night long that witch, your evil fairy,crows her knowing cackle in your ear:
(The entire section is 1789 words.)