A poet of the city and of academe, Irving Feldman has long since garnered the collection of pronouncements about his work which attest to his importance. For several years, in fact, it is quite possible that his reputation has been inflated, and that the bravado of much of his verbal noisemaking has partly concealed a deeper failure of nerve: the risks he has taken with language have hidden an unwillingness to take more genuine risks to the psyche. Of course this judgment is made in full awareness that, as risks go generally, those taken in poems are not of a high order. In writing poems, one risks seeming foolish, failing to achieve desired effects, or possibly going mad; it is not the same as in construction work or automobile racing.
In his new book, however, Feldman tries more bravely, and more successfully, than ever before to work near the limits of his fine intelligence and hardearned skill. Two or three of these poems are Feldman’s best so far, and these succeed in ways that give promise of even finer work to come.
As collections of individual poems go, Leaping Clear is extraordinarily unified; theme and subject foreshadow an expanding technique as the book progresses, in a genuine growth toward fulfillment of promise. The first of the book’s four sections contains poems of becoming, and poems of celebration, sometimes of unpromising occasions. The opening poem, “The Handball Players at Brighton Beach,” describes the aging denizens of the city as they transcend their surroundings with a festive concentration on the game; it is a poem that begins in wisdom and ends in delight. The same may almost be said of the whole first section, to the middle poems of which we will return in a moment. The final poem of the group is a deeper celebration of the life of the city, but this time the emphasis is on Brooklyn as seen from the distance of the Heights; from the close “underworld” of packed lives, one may leap, like light, clear to a broader view which takes in God’s creation, even where a city has all but obliterated it. These two poems of profound observation, ostensibly directed outward, provide a convincing frame for the three middle poems, which are directed inward. “Was. Weasel. Isn’t. Is,” a four-part exposition of an individual’s growth, is striking in its evocation of the developing reason, and the later onslaught of urges less cerebral than glandular. “Stanzas: The Master’s Voice” is composed of stanzas that shrink by one line from one to the next, until only one line is left at the end of the poem; in this delicately balanced monologue, a writer moves from inchoate impressions and sound awarenesses that assure his future as writer, on to a terrifying competence which makes his writing almost mindless and effortless; the last lines are:
From the black shore behind the words, a small child,a last master, is saying something he can’t quite hear.There is no time, this line has not been written.
This poem hovers brilliantly between satire and solemn meditation of a genuine danger.
The fourth poem in the first group is one of the two most ambitious in the book. “Beethoven’s Bust” has a narrative base to support its more than 250 lines: at a soiree of wonderfully self-conscious fashionableness, guests are gathered to greet four famous musicians after one of their tour concerts. After a couple of pages in which the scene is set with almost embarrassing wittiness, the central encounter of the poem takes place; “somebody’s poet” is introduced to “somebody’s mother,” an aging lady of Junker background. At first they talk of the holocaust, and of her husband’s “precocious” martyrdom in the 1930’s:
“He was not evena Jew. Ach, go read about itin Shirer, if you like!” . . .. . . And has he,he wonders, been accused, impertinent Jewwho did not die?
Here the poem takes a shift in tone, toward a moving and distinctive evocation of an old theme:
So it is better to speak of poetry—their theme, aptly, Death and the maiden—while the dark eavesdropper, the finalhusband, sidles closer in the shadows,a mock-martini chilling in his hand.
Certain ambiguities, nourished by blurred lines in the narrative, make this passage richer than it can appear, lifted out of context. The “final husband,” for example, is hard to identify precisely: is it the image of...
(The entire section is 2018 words.)