Archaic Figure

ARCHAIC FIGURE is less impressive than its predecessors, which were actively involved with nature and philosophy to the extent that one critic suggested that Clampitt would be the offspring had the poets Marianne Moore and Gerard Manley Hopkins ever mated and reproduced. Although this may be a grotesque conceit, it does capture the weird sort of ingenuousness and quirky seriousness that characterize these poems. Clampitt’s title poem is about a Greek sculpture in a museum in Berlin, and she treats many familiar figures of Greek mythology, such as Perseus, Medusa, Athena, and Atlas, as though no one had ever treated them before. Even the Greeks had a sense of irony about their gods, but Clampitt is always straight-faced in her evaluation of the deities.

There is a similar tone of unctuous respect in the section of poems devoted to figures of English literature, such as George Eliot, Margaret Fuller, and Dorothy Wordsworth, a certain pale historicity that suggests a diluted version of Richard Howard’s poetic re-creations of Victorian English sensibility. Clampitt’s choice of words is always able, but her tone will win few readers who are not already fanatical admirers of the writers in question.

A final section, the best, is about travel, and it includes a long poem about a train trip through Yugoslavia, where the discomforts described will strike a chord in every hardened traveler’s heart. Based on real-life experience, this poem glows with a vivacity that most of the others in this collection lack.