The Seven Deadly Sins

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

David R. Slavitt’s poetry does not employ rich sensuous imagery or musical sounds. Instead, Slavitt has developed a clear, unadorned, workmanlike style close to prose. One might say of him, as Matthew Arnold said of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, that, even when he writes in verse, Slavitt is a classic of prose. Indeed, there is some justice in comparing Slavitt to the neoclassic poets Dryden and Pope. Just as they represented an age of prose and reason, according to Arnold, so Slavitt’s rationality stands out. Although not as sharply satirical as Dryden and Pope, Slavitt does indulge in wit and humor. Most of all, in his allusions and translations, Slavitt looks back to classical Greek and Roman times as did Pope and Dryden. In fact, Slavitt has published more volumes of classical translations of poetry and drama than he has of his own poetry.

A prolific author, Slavitt has produced more than eighty volumes, including novels, essays, translations from modern languages, and even a memoir of his 2004 run for the Massachusetts state legislature titled Blue State Blues: How a Cranky Conservative Launched a Campaign and Found Himself the Liberal Candidate (and Still Lost) (2006). The fact that he has written so voluminously and produced so many translations might help explain Slavitt’s poetic style. It is a style that can be written quickly, smoothly, and efficiently.

Whatever the ease with which Slavitt writes, his poetry has its attractions, even if those attractions are not as apparent in the beginning and ending of The Seven Deadly Sins as they are throughout most of the rest of the collection. It perhaps takes a confident poet to begin his collection with “Sleep Set: A Sonnet Sequence” and end it with translations of minor literary relics from French, Latin, and Sanskrit. Even the relatively dull beginning and ending say a lot about the volume as a whole.

The fourteen-sonnet sequence “Sleep Set” focuses on the speaker’s troubles falling asleep and then, once asleep, on the nightmares that waken him. The sonnets reveal a prime candidate for a sleep apnea study who finds relief in daytime naps that bring “the unsought visit of that god you pray for/ so fervently at night.” More generally, the sonnet sequence reveals the speaker’s, presumably the poet’s, underlying anxieties about the contingencies of life.

The poet’s anxieties that come out during sleep connect with other poems in the collection and suggest a floating paranoia. Two poems, for example, concern the Holocaust. “What Is Poetry About?” includes a visit to Auschwitz, where the poet recalls a friend who survived the Nazi concentration camp there by eating grass. “Acknowledgment,” written “for G. G., obit 2006,” recalls another person who survived concentration camp “selections” by “marching around/ nakedtrying to look as though/ she were still healthy. . . .” “Gator” is about a Florida woman who takes a walk and perishes from an alligator attack, which confirms “that our first/ fears were justified when we ventured down/ from the trees. . . .” “Herald” announces forthrightly that “Empires shudder/ and fall, and any yutz can be the occasion.” “Glimpse,” about a “garden hose” mistaken for a “menacing serpent,” sums up the whole phenomenon: Such Shakespearean “misprisions” or Wordsworthian “intimations of otherness” develop

a keener awareness of dangerthat lurks not there where we thought but just out of sightand that we’ve avoided if only by blind luckwe understand we cannot trust.

Like sleep apnea, such undefined anxieties tend to accompany old age, of whose advances the poet is only too well aware. In “Fog,” Slavitt imagines aging as a “dense fog” that lifts to expose “on every side the dangerous chasms” then closes in again: “It was no dream but the waking truth of aging.” “Acknowledgment” recognizes that “In time, we are all selected [for death]. . . .” At their deepest level, then, the sleep sonnets are premonitions of death, just as the final sonnet, “Waking,” celebrates the achievement of “heavy protesting flesh” in getting up each morning: “each day’s triumph, however unlikely, is cause/ in a losing war for modest celebration. . . .”

Slavitt offers few consolations for the contingencies of life and the certainty of death. He himself seems to find little...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 17.