The Year in Poetry (Vol. 99)
The Year in Poetry by Allen Hoey
Part of what keeps a round-up reviewer going year after year of reading volumes of predictably mediocre and too often inane work, both in terms of poetry and what passes for intelligent comment on poetry, is occasionally stumbling upon passages that articulate precisely and concisely exactly what one has thought. Such was my reaction while reading W. S. Di Piero's new collection of essays, Shooting the Works, This excerpt from the final section, "Out of Notebooks," consolidates wonderfully much that needs to be said:
What's wrong with our poetry is that it's worried about being right. Heartthrob platitudes, huggy anecdotalism, outraged stridencies over injustice in countries to which the poet migrates in search of worthy subjects, scrupulous self-censorship in the interest of preserving morally pristine responses to the facts of experience, lines that confuse form with metrical or sentimental purity, agonies endured (or sworn to) entirely for the "appropriate dramatic fullness" of a poem, classroom vocabularies that determine the formal emotional deliberations in the writing of poetry, valiant eloquence in defense of poetry—"our" poetry—against philistines who ask who killed poetry…. Poetry needs to be defended most against those who most righteously defend it and who identify the life of poetry with the life of a career. Does it matter?… Poetry has nothing to fear from advocates of any new formalism for whom formal mysteries exist as occasions for polemical opportunism, for ever more gleaming correctness. The new decorum declares that no argument, no line or phrase of song or great speech, disturb the pieties of the interested party…. Those who feel that poetry belongs to them, and that American poetry is their share of cultural real estate, may smell of success in the world and shine with the friction of praise rubbed on their surfaces by so many hands. Poetry belongs to them, and that is part of the scheme of rectitude and valor, and so may they never realize that they do not belong to poetry. Then it will be sure of going on, needless, unannounced, unprotected, unheard of.
To those whose bristle or bluster at the thought that this means them specifically, smooth your hackles or relax your pectorals and reread the paragraph. Take note: poetry is bigger than ideology (however much individual poetics may be subject to the pressures of specific ideologies), more capacious than pseudo-professionalism, more expansive than polemics and propaganda. It has weathered the exigencies of political subjugation; it will survive the annoyance of poetasters.
Our most enduring exemplar of the polar opposite of those Di Piero lambastes is Hayden Carruth, the fruits of whose forty-five years' labor as critic and literary journalist have been gathered in Selected Essays & Reviews, the third volume in Copper Canyon's conservancy of Carruth's work. This volume contains a generous sampling of Carruth's reviews and essays, with the exception of those concerning jazz, which have been collected in Sitting In and specifically autobiographical pieces which, the author's preface indicates, will be published "in a year or two." Among the exclusions, "Influences: The Formal Idea of Jazz" and "Suicide" (available in Suicides and Jazzers) regrettable. The latter is one of the most excruciatingly moving treatments of suicide—Carruth's own nearly successful effort—as an affirmation of existence I've read.
More pertinent to the current selection, "Influences" offers a formal definition of jazz, which provides perhaps the most succinct statement of Carruth's poetics available: "… the idea, in the Platonic sense, of jazz is spontaneous improvisation within a fixed and simple form, usually improvisation by more than one musician at a time, even if the ensemble comprises no more than a solo instrument and a rhythm section." This describes the working principle for most of Carruth's poems, especially the substantial oeuvre, including "Contra Mortem," "Paragraphs," and, his master work, "The Sleeping Beauty," composed in the "paragraphs" of his own devising—fifteen-line, rhymed stanzas which consist of lines of variable but determinate length. The "rhythm section" against which Carruth counterpoints his solo improvisations is, essentially, what he calls "the grand community." The paragraphs, for instance, take their unique definition against the ground of the sonnet; like Paul Goodman, to whom Carruth devotes a lengthy homage, he "reache[s] backward to go forward": "Better than anyone else [Goodman] understood the poet's need to exist consciously in the continuum" (emphasis mine).
Carruth's essays, taken either individually or as a whole, betray the pervasive influence of a variety of thinkers, including Nikolai Berdyaev, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Albert Camus. Carruth's prose meditation on Camus, After the Stranger, is long out of print, but it does point to the primacy of Camus's thought to the development of Carruth's critical biases. Existence precedes essence; life comes before form, and the poet has multiple considerations, as Carruth writes in his remarkable "A Meaning of Robert Lowell," "prior to poetry." Precise definition is crucial for Carruth, and he is both ruthless and exhaustive in rendering meaning clear. And clarity is the point, not the studied murk of hyper-attenuated critical theory. Carruth demonstrates a near-encyclopedic memory for literature and philosophy (notably Western), but the essays never seem cerebral set-pieces; his knowledge operates as an instrument for ethical discrimination. In this regard, he is a disciple, as well, of William James, not in the sloppy application of relativism but in the clear regard of context and applicability. Special note should be made, in addition to the essays already mentioned, of "Ezra Pound and the Great Style," "The Writer's Situation," "The Question of Poetic Form," "The Act of Love: Poetry and Personality," "Mystery and Expressiveness," and "The Nature of Art." The last provides a representative taste of Carruth's pragmatism; of the relationship between nature and art, he notes:
no relationship pertains between nature and art at all…. Relationships can exist only among things in nature, and art is one of them. Nature is everything, ok? It is all material reality, and material reality includes absolutely everything, all there is, not merely stones and oceans, butterflies and flowers, but ideas, poems, dreams, spiritual intimations. I neither know nor need a supernatural, an other-than-natural. The supernatural is by definition inconceivable, and the inconceivable is of no use to poetry—or to anything.
This insight leads to awareness of ultimate devastation—death. And such awareness leads to "lucidity" and "authenticity," terms borrowed from Camus and Sartre, respectively: "the two ideal virtues toward which conscious humanity, personally and collectively, must strain, coming even before honesty and ordinary decency, immensely important though these are." This spirit animates all the pieces gathered in this overdue compilation as completely as through his collected poems.
In tandem with his essays, Carruth has published his first collection of lyrics since his Collected Shorter Poems was issued in 1992. Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, the National Book Award winner, extends Carruth's already considerable accomplishment and reveals a heretofore underdeveloped aspect of Carruth: the depth and breadth of his sense of humor. While many of his Vermont poems display characteristic Yankee wryness and dryness, Carruth's humorous repertoire includes the epigrammatic, such as "The Last Poem in the World":
Would I write it if I could?
Bet your glitzy ass I would.
The sequence "Faxes to William" contains bad puns ("They have unmade / their beds and they must schlep in them"), farce, and a generally self-deprecating stance. Sly humor also runs through the moving sequence, "A Summer with Tu Fu," in which Carruth conducts a dialogue across centuries and an ocean with the Chinese poet, a chat between friends over chilled white wine, looking over their respective vistas:
A swallow here
zooms across the pond, becoming
a winter jay on the farther shore.
Snow whirls in the pass, torrential
rain drenches the cabbage fields,
the palace grounds are enshrouded
with mist. Old age and final illness
come with the swiftness of the Yangtze
flooding in springtime, or like
the quick unreeling cinematograph.
Note the compression of time and space, the seamless movement through seasons and eras, and the adept cross-cultural figures for rapid, ineluctable change. Even the doubling of the final figure reinforces the distance between our culture and that one, the displacement of a natural metaphor by a mechanical one. Also, the specific technological reference is not just mechanical but a mechanism for producing artificial imagery that itself displaces immediate experience. More than mere difference is implied, more than impoverishment.
Many of the poems speak of age and infirmity, but even in this regard Carruth is more humorous than not, as in "April Clean-up":
He isn't quite a eunuch, but that's
what he calls himself, this old
two-beat codger on this spring
afternoon picking up the winter's
crop of twigs and bark from the lawn
to make it "look nicer" …
Little here suggests that this "he" ("the man I am always writing about," as Carruth notes in "Sex," from Collected Shorter Poems) is anyone other than the poetic stand-in for the poet himself. This character's much younger wife bears the same name as Carruth's, and she, like the book's dedicatee, is also a poet. Yet, for all the apparent seamlessness between autobiography and art, rarely does the book seem self-indulgent and never merely "confessional." These poems from late in the author's life show vigor, rigor, experimental suppleness, and rare candor. What seems to have provided the rejuvenating spark is this relationship found late in life, celebrated in the commonplaces of their rural life together, as seen in "Birthday Cake," which begins with the speaker eating "the last of [his wife's] birthday cake":
The cake was stale.
But I like stale cake, I even prefer it, which you don't
understand, as I don't understand how you can open
a new box of cereal when the old one is still unfinished.
So many differences. You a woman, I a man,
you still young at forty-two and I growing old at seventy.
Yet how much we love one another.
It seems a miracle. Not mystical, nothing occult,
just the ordinary improbability that occurs
over and over, the stupendousness of life.
Always original and thoughtful, in this book Carruth realizes himself even more fully than before, like Yeats' "wild old wicked man," coming into his element without apology and with the confidence that only the enthusiasm of the constant beginner can engender and only life-long devotion to the art and craft can support.
Rather less satisfying, W. S. Merwin's fourteenth separate collection of poems (excluding his Selected and the two tetralogies of early books), The Vixen, stands in stark relief to Carruth's volume. Where the latter employs a variety of forms, the former extends the same shape and basic size through page after unpunctuated page. While individual passages flicker with vitality, the whole becomes a monotonous blur. To his credit, Merwin almost completely eschews the vatic posturing that swamped his work beginning in the late-sixties and returns to the lyric structures which show him at his best; alas, narrative, with its demands for clarity of sequence (the sentence is the prime model for narrative structure, and Merwin's perverse insistence on erasing the traffic signs of syntax suggests the impediment to that impulse) and subordination of surface texture and color to the demands of the coherent whole. In the lyric, Merwin's eye for detail, for baroque elaboration, is not so conspicuously distracting, since the need for the reader to participate constantly as redactor, while consistent with postmodern theory and some minimalist practice, is distracting enough.
The poems are set in the South of France, where Merwin lived for much of his adult life; most seem written from the point of a view of a speaker whose sensibilities resemble those of the poet; of two exceptions to this rule, "François de Maynard 1582–1646" and "Peire Vidal," the latter, with its consistent syntax-to-line correlation, is among the least challenging to read, in the most absolutely literal sense. The poem "Substance," with its almost Hopkinsesque reification of a version of divine presence in the particular and contingent, provides a clear, brief sense of the detriments and benefits of the volume:
I could see that there was a kind of distance lighted
behind the face of that time in its very days
as they appeared to me but I could not think of any
words that spoke of it truly nor point to anything
except what was there at the moment it was beginning
to be gone and certainly it could not have been proven
nor held however I might reach toward it touching
the warm lichens the features of the stones the skin
of the river and I could tell then that it was
the animals themselves that were the weight and place
of the hour as it happened and that the mass of the cow's neck
the flash of the swallow the trout's flutter were
where it was coming to pass they were bearing the sense of it
without question through the speechless cloud of light
This might have been more satisfying had he dwelled more on "the mass of the cow's neck" than on the self-congratulatory perception of the ineffable and relied more on the studied accumulation of detail than on syntactic trickery to achieve intensity.
For some of the same reasons, Jane Kenyon's Otherwise: New & Selected Poems makes a less eloquent testimonial to her too brief life than might have been hoped. Her attention to detail, unlike Merwin's, rarely falters. Too often, however, Kenyon's generosity of spirit, which elevates the commonplace to numinosity, is not matched by mastery of craft. The poems accumulate as too much the same: the same kinds of lines, the same versifying strategies, the same mood—at once melancholy and exultant. Probably the poems gathered from her second volume, The Boat of Quiet Hours, and her last separate collection, Constance, are the best; the former because she was past her freshman awkwardness, the latter because she was operating with the mastery of a poet who had come into her own. The selection of New Poems is perhaps most moving read in the context during which they were composed, Kenyon's terminal leukemia. Too many of them seem incompletely realized, despite her efforts at revision; we can only imagine the ways in which her mind, without the distraction of illness, might have worked them just a little closer to fixed shape. The difficult task in reviewing a volume that is as much elegy as compilation is to separate the altogether necessary human and emotional response from the equally crucial critical remove; failure to manage that separation results in sentimentality, which serves no one. Among the most fully realized of Kenyon's poems, "Peonies at Dusk" occurs toward the end of Constance:
White peonies blooming along the porch send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.
In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.
The ranks of serious poets have been that much reduced.
The poems of Terrance Keenan, a Rinzai Zen monk, also imbue the natural world with an almost mystical quality—although "imbue" suggests enhancing or adding to something not already present in full. Instead, Practicing Eternity, which gathers a smattering of poems from a previous full-length collection and two chapbooks with a body of newer poems, seeks to peel away the layers that separate us from the perfection already completely present in all things. No snowfall falls in an inappropriate place, one Zen case declares; even the broken watchband is perfect—if it could be otherwise, it would be. This is the world Keenan inhabits and of which he provides glimpses. And, at his best, his poems register the commonplace mystery through delicate rendering of detail, as in this passage from "Milk Jug":
Morning slants across the table,
flickers shadows beyond
the clear early air.
This old clay jug sits here
filled with meadows
or just empty,
space in and around it
the same vixen wind.
Clay is the last touch
of fractal dust adrift—
no jug, no table, no wind,
and void healing sweet
all things together.
Other than the, to my ear, misstep of "vixen wind," the poem inheres entirely in specifics. Let the ear enjoy the music of "Clay is the last touch / of fractal dust adrift": this melody exacted from the scientific terminology exceeds what Ammons manages, precisely because Keenan presents without preciousness a snippet of an extensive vocabulary.
Where the poems go wrong, they do so from an apparent urge to testify; they seem too self-consciously vatic, abstracted from the concrete details from which revelation or insight must emerge. Consider "Knowing a Friend on the Road":
If I start from here
to seek you out
there will be nothing
among my intentions.
If you look for me
you will find only
self satisfying gestures.
When we finally give up,
like old dogs
we will know each other by smell.
Jack Gilbert in his essay "Real Nouns" argues in favor of words that present "concrete particulars," language that can be bitten "like people used to bite coins to see if they were genuine." Where in the first seven lines can we test the poem's reliability? Only in the last stanza does Keenan steer back to the demonstrable, with a kind of wit evidenced in the first brief poem of the collection, "The Axe":
This is the best axe
I've ever had.
It's lasted fifteen years.
It's had only two new heads
and six new helves.
God damned good axe.
In its simplicity, we might overlook the absolute compression of language, the appropriate pitch and diction, and, once more, the music of right language—"heads" and "helves"—all of which serve a wry humor akin to but not clearly derived from Carruth's. Still, the best of these poems shine with a light of understanding and call us back and back in an act of reciprocal benediction.
Three other volumes of Zen-inspired or-related poetry have come out this year. Philip Whalen's Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek, subtitled Buddhist Poems 1955–1986, contains no previously unpublished poems but gathers a generous sampling of poems that directly derive from or reflect Whalen's devout practice. Like Keenan, Whalen is ordained and has, in fact, received transmission as a roshi, a Zen master. Not surprisingly, given the collection's focus, this aspect of Whalen's interests takes center stage; the texture of the verse, however, seems cut from the same cloth as Whalen's poetry in general, which is to say that his roots in the Beat movement remain integral to his poetic practice. If, in general, I tend to prefer the earlier poems in this volume (as in Snyder's, a review of which follows), that reflects my general preference for the early energy evidenced in Beat poetry. While a certain self-consciousness pervades most Beat writing—if nothing more than a self-consciousness of the rebellious nature of the work—something vital leaked out at some point in the sixties through the seventies. Still, Whalen's quirky perceptions and quick-cut transitions often produce effective, moving poems. This passage from "Sourdough Mountain Lookout" gives a taste of the kind of music Whalen makes at his best:
Fire and pressure from the sun bear down
Bear down centipede shadows of palm-frond
A limestone lithograph—oysters and clams of stone
Half a black rock bomb displaying brilliant crystals
Fire and pressure Love and Strife bear down
Brontosaurus, look away
My sweat runs down the rock
Evident here are influences of both Pound and Kenneth Rexroth. While not the best poet of the Beats still active, Whalen is well worth the read, and this selection provides a good sampling of his career.
Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End purports to be a book-length poem but seems more a selection of poems on related topics. Lacking is the unity of form that characterizes successful long poems; even Pound's Cantos (issued this year for the first time in paperback with several previously uncollected pieces) demonstrates a kind of continuity of formal concern, though, as Hayden Carruth has argued, the book may be best read as Pound's collected poems from the second half of his career. The pieces that compose this volume were written between 1956 and 1996. The initial inspiration was Chinese scroll landscapes, which provided, as he notes in an afterward, a vision of "how the energies of mist, white water, rock formations, air swirls—a chaotic universe where everything is in place—are so much a part of the East Asian painter's world." From this, Snyder has produced a scroll-work of poems that traverse the planet, including trips by freighter, hitching, and walking. Framed by a Zen sensibility, these Beat wanderings take on something of the glow of the mendicant monk, though the idiom is clearly American. The earliest of the pieces here appeal to me most, especially those, like "Night Highway 99," that capture the colloquial speech of those met on the road with an almost blues-like rhythm:
Toledo, Castle Rock, free way four lane
no stoplights and no crossings, only cars
& people walking, old hitchhikers
break the laws. How do I know …
the state cop
told me so
Come a dozen times into
on the bum or
late at night
The variety of the pieces included demonstrates greater range of expression than does Whalen's selection, a fair comparison since each book gathers poems drawn from several decades of practice. In part, Snyder seems to have a genuinely more synthetic imagination than Whalen; what he borrows, he assimilates, and his borrowings seem more eclectic, his sense of the world thus that much more enlarged.
Finally, Jim Harrison's After Ikkyu, his ninth collection of poems, like Snyder's volume but even more so, demonstrates the seamless continuity between the sacred and profane characteristic of Zen. Ikkyu was a fifteenth century Zen master and poet, notorious for his unconventional attitude toward authority and devotion. True to this inspiration, in his poems, Harrison (who "does not remotely consider [him]self a 'Zen Buddhist'") combines a naturalist's keen observation with an iconoclast's melding of the spiritual and profane:
Just before dark
watched coyote take a crap
on rock out cropping,
flexing hips (no time off)
swiveled owl-like to see
in all six directions:
points of compass
in two half circles.
And there is no distance.
He knows the dreamer
that dreams his dreams.
At times, Harrison's verse lapses into too prosaic discursiveness, a consequence of his more profitable career as novelist, and his poems betray a too easy smugness about the world, again a tendency less detrimental over the course of a several-hundred-page novel than in a smaller, tighter poem. Still, at his best, he manages the compression characteristic not only of his Japanese inspiration but of good lyric poetry in general. This is the first section of the volume's title poem:
Our minds buzz like bees
but not the bees' minds.
It's just the wings not heart
they say, moving to another flower.
For fans of Harrison's poetry, this collection is a welcome addition from a writer whose energies too often go elsewhere, and it's a good introduction to an underrated poet for readers otherwise new to his work.
A devotional strain has been evident through all of Denise Levertov's eighteen separate collections of poetry, but that tendency has become more pronounced in her most recent volumes and reaches a crescendo in Sands in the Well. Like Harrison, Levertov has an acute eye for nature though her temperament seems quieter, more attuned to the "parallel world," as she calls it, though nature alone is not the apparent reference, since these poems as much concern the parallel world of the spirit as nature; most of the poems in this collection, at least the successful ones, concern Levertov's "Sojourns in the Parallel World," times when
we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane …
At these moments "something tethered / in us, hobbled like a donkey … / … breaks free" into a transport that allows us to re-see and re-claim a world of "Primary Wonder," as she titles another poem, an interlude in the course of days when "[p]roblems insoluble and problems offering / their own ignored solutions / jostle for [our] attention." This "mystery," however, is not unauthored; she concludes this poem, and this volume, with a note of genuine praise:
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
In the face of belief this passionate, no wonder that, however melancholy the moment, Levertov cannot maintain an attitude "strictly sad."
If not all of the poems rise to the heights of the best, this is to be expected. At times the awe seems almost formulaic, and the political poems rarely transform her sense of the sanctity of life into other than relatively propagandistic terms in which, for instance, all underground nuclear tests are "Hiroshima blasts." Still, these poems, in particular, occupy only a single—the briefest—section of the book. For the most part, her eco-activism is implicit in poems that celebrate the too often overlooked splendor of the natural world, as in the delicately handled "Threat," a poem about how one can live in proximity to nature, in this case a large pine, without appreciating fully its power. The poem concludes:
Only when, before dawn one year
at the vernal equinox, the wind
rises and rises, raising images
of cockleshell boats tossed among huge
advancing walls of waves,
do you become aware that always,
under respect, under your faith
in the pinetree's beauty, there lies
the fear it will crash some day
down on your house, on you in your bed,
on the fragility of the safe
dailiness you have almost
grown used to.
This collection, with its "shards / of memory, scraps of once-heard lore, intimations / once familiar" ("What Goes Unsaid") is the strongest Levertov has brought out in some years.
The lineaments of Jeredith Merrin's world are much more distinctly human. In Shift, her first collection, we are treated to poems that track relationships, many rather different than the usual suspects in a first volume. In place of poems to parents, we have poems about a step-father from whom the speaker is "still hungry for his / never-spoken 'I love you'" ("The Best Cook"), the speaker's first lesbian encounter—"A massive shifting, / as of plates rearranging / along a continental shelf" ("Shift"), and an errant, early liberated grandmother prone to take off "for weeks / to Palm Springs and her trailer / in the desert, alone" ("Gram"). Merrin has no characteristic form—the poems range from relatively short-lined poems to roughly metered tercets with irregular rhyme—though her "style" is generally intimate, confidential, though hardly confessional, a term that suggests either shame or pride in whatever actions spur the revelations. Merrin's approach is measured, her language careful; her poems are the residual search for "The Right Words," as she titles one poem, "that finally // make up for childhood, / make the right one love you." And the elegiac mood that permeates the collection seems to emerge, at least in part, from the consequences of finding that "right one" only to have her suffer from a life-threatening illness. The frustration at being unable to effect change in matters that matter most is articulated in "Sublunar," where the speaker admits, "If something isn't right you try to fix it; / when Chance grips big things, you control the small." Finally, unable to find answers in the macrocosm, against which personal "tragedies are insignificant," she concludes:
I don't know how to end it. My mind wanders,
then focuses on helpful minute chores,
making the coffee, laundry, next week's meals
—then drifts again. The satellites and planets,
glowing with various colors in black space,
with names from ancient myth or Shakespeare's plays,
go about their rounds the way she goes
about her work: writing and revising,
indifferent to pain. Moons spin; lovers
love as best they can; a writer writes.
Merrin apparently accumulated the poems that comprise this volume for a long time; the care in selection and crafting shows.
David Mason's The Country I Remember does not suffer from the same degree of sophomore slump as the second collections of many of his New Formalist colleagues, in large measure due to the long title poem that occupies the first two-thirds of the collection. None of the poems in the second section, sadly, come close to the verbal and metrical fluency of the best of Mason's first volume, The Buried Houses, most notably the remarkable "Blackened Peaches." This poem, like the best of the work in both collections, is written in Frostian blank verse and spoken by a persona clearly not the poet. As a rule, New Formalists seem to fare poorly at the personal, a peculiarity a critic might profitably explore. For the purposes of this review, however, suffice it to say that Mason is at his best in the braided monologues that compose the title poem, whose speakers are modeled after the poet's relatives. In this poem, two speakers, Lt. John Mitchell and his daughter, Maggie Gresham, each recount tales of their separate escapes, he from the confines of both Libby Prison in the Confederate South and the bounded existence of a midwestern farmer, and she from the confines of sheltered life in the family home. In both cases, the tales are told at the end of a life, with the prospect of death close. To Mason's credit, he creates a believable fiction—the first measure of any story-teller. The details seem exact, the ways of speech credible. This latter is perhaps the weakest element of the poem, for the two speakers' voices are not as distinct as one might hope; the modalities of meter, including variations, caesurae, and enjambments, do not pattern speech rhythms as clearly individual as one might hope.
On the plus side, Mason handles an iambic, largely pentameter line with considerable agility. Consider this passage from the section titled "Acoustic Shadows":
We climbed Sand Mountain and could see the dust
raised by Bragg's army beating a retreat.
That night we saw the flash of cannonfire
but didn't hear a sound. "Acoustic shadow,"
the Colonel called it, hillsides all lit up
like summer lightning, but only a drizzle
hissed and the men were too dead tired to hear.
At heart, the poet's labor is to preserve and celebrate a family connection that, if worked well, will transcend the individual need and speak to a segment, at least, of our society at large. Mason allows Mrs. Gresham, in the section called "The Country I Remember," to articulate that aim:
I thought my whole ambition was to make
the past and present come together, dreamed
into a vivid shape that memory
could hold the way the land possesses rivers.
They in turn possess the land and carry it
in one clear stream of thought to drink from
or water gardens with.
These passages convey well both the strengths and limitations of Mason's craft; he usually manages a very fluid metrical line, avoiding the metronomic beat evidenced in the first line of the second sample, working within the acceptable range of substitutions to keep the numbers smooth but unobtrusive. Still, the rhythm and locutions of "Blackened Peaches" seem a step beyond the poems in this collection.
With Trespasser, R. T. Smith moves into new territory. Most of the poems are set in Ireland, where Smith is a decided foreigner. One of the collection's many virtues is that Smith never pretends otherwise and is able gently to mock himself for his "real-life" pretensions to the contrary. "Waterford (County Cavan)" provides an early sense of the book's tone and stance; while the speaker's Irish "hostess fetches tea," he handles a piece of her crystal,
the flawless polish with immigrant
glee and giv[ing] it
all my reverence for skill
and a pilgrim's mixed envy,
till I hear the kettle's
whistle and the hall
clock gongs four. Almost calm,
but finding I have nicked my
finger on one corner,
I long still, here on the northern
border, for the wintry
clarity of this Irish
vessel, fragile and dazzling
in my trespassing hands.
In another poem, drifting into sedation after breaking his arm, the speaker realizes that he "was only / a graceless tourist // who imagined somewhere / nearby … a terrorist's device." Toward its end, the poems in the first section migrate closer to home, including the poet's tender recollection of his mother, "Black Shawl."
Most of the poems in the volume's first section are relatively short-lined lyrics that run fluidly down the page, treating description with succinct detail and the loving care the speaker gives the piece of Waterford; the poems in the second section are somewhat more gnarled in appearance, as befits the subject of the poems, the fictional character Gristle, part Crazy Jane and part Crow. Gristle is a mystic bard out of Irish folklore, roaming the rocks and crags and woodlands, taking on the spirit of whatever he perceives. Interestingly, a poem that, in somewhat earlier form, more "personal" in its context, seemed overly self-conscious, now, slightly revised (though how telling "slight" revisions can be; see Carruth's discussion of Goodman's changes to "The Lordly Hudson"), the poem takes on different coloration as spoken by Gristle. Even the title reflects the new aspect: from "Self as Trout" in The Cardinal Heart to "Gristle Trout." Consider what a changed stance the new costume gives these lines:
Soon I will be beheaded,
a slit saint, my milt
and viscera greasing newsprint,
my eye eclipsed with a brittle
lid, armor singed in
the black skillet, yet
the glib gill persists.
"Glib" we may still find the speaker, but the changed persona makes all the difference in how we perceive that glibness, no longer a perhaps unself-aware critique of preciousness but a distanced comment on a somewhat disreputable figure. More contemporary poets should learn the value of finding the appropriate stance and angle from which to cast a poem. If the craft that goes into the poems of this new collection shows the same workmanship apparent in Smith's earlier volumes, the new strategies of stance and tone show increasing poetic maturity.
The mythological frame for Louise Glück's Meadowlands is considerably different, though, more accurately, one should speak of "mythologies," for Glück uses the tale of Penelope, Telemachus, and errant Odysseus to explore the myth of contemporary marriage. While less lyrically effusive than her ground-breaking The Wild Iris, she successfully builds on that material. If the poems are less rhapsodic, they accurately register the tensions of a couple whose distances are measured by more than miles. As early as the second poem, Glück sounds the essentially elegiac note of the collection. In "Cana," the woman laments the dulling of passion; looking about the home and grounds previously "lit" by forsythia and hyacinth, emblems of their love, she now realizes:
And all of it vanished,
reabsorbed into impassive process. Then
what will we see by,
now that the yellow torches have become
Not that the world has become blackened by the loss, merely reduced to less saturated coloration. Counterpointing the poignancy of poems like the one above are poems that see through our rehearsed poses of loss and betrayal, such as the first poem voiced by the son, "Telemachus' Detachment":
When I was a child looking
at my parents' lives, you know
what I thought? I thought
heartbreaking. Now I think
heartbreaking, but also
The subtle shift in register from the first "heartbreaking" to the second prepares for the wrenching "insane" and also for the startling, but finally more wrenching, "very funny." The funny but terrifying dynamic between the woman and man is revealed with unnerving acuteness in the several dialogue poems in the volume, none of which are entirely self-contained, for Glück builds one exchange on the previous, forcing us back and forth through the poems, allowing us to gain increased insight with each perusal. The only one of these conversations brief enough to quote in its entirety is "The Butterfly," in which the indented lines are the woman's:
Look, a butterfly. Did you make a wish?
You don't wish on butterflies.
You do so. Did you make one?
It doesn't count.
Such cruelties are allowed the perverse laugh of self-recognition they will doubtless bring to many readers. In her work beginning with the publication of The Wild Iris, Glück has demonstrated herself to be one of the very few strong voices of her generation.
If Donald Hall has never quite matched his career high of The One Day, his two separate collections since have displayed the consistent craft of a master, and in The Old Life he demonstrates an emotional openness missed in 1993's The Museum of Clear Ideas. Life circumstances have certainly helped push Hall in the direction of intensified emotion; the premature death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, which, although unacknowledged until the penultimate poem, saturates the mood and seems a slant reference of the volume's title. Each of the four longish poems included takes a different form, from the loosened iambic pentameters of the colloquial "The Night of the Day," in which Hall gives us a small vignette of country life through the lens of a late-night conversation regarding ownership of a group of stray cows; to the continuation of "Baseball" from his previous book in the thirteen-syllable lined, thirteen line stanzas of "Extra Innings," an offering prompted by one reviewer's comment that no one would "wish for a thirteenth" inning of the earlier poem; to the alternating three- and four-beat lines of the title poem, an autobiographical study prompted by his own disdain for McPoems—"boring prosy little anecdotes out of memory, where the poets look back on themselves, often in childhood, with such affection and pity, and with a continual, crepuscular melancholy"—and apparent desire to see if he could avoid the pitfalls; to the concluding elegy, "Without," written in loose pentameter but "without punctuation" or capitalization, which results in a breathless deluge of feeling.
The final poem is perhaps the most interesting, for it seems to explore distinctly different regions from his previous volumes, this form resulting from the need to find a new mode of expression for the unbearable weight of grief. The subject of the poem first enters, in the rush of the opening stanza:
we live in a small island stone nation
without color under gray clouds and wind
distant the unlimited ocean acute
lymphoblastic leukemia without seagulls
or palm trees without vegetation
or animal life only barnacles and lead
colored moss that darkens when months do
The poem accumulates the way the year of the inferred subject's death does—"without punctuation"—seasons essentially meaningless when life is lived at the bedside. Even the violence of the world at large, encapsulated in "bomb shoot shell / strafe execute rape retreat and attack," is diminished by the closer "pain vomit neuropathy morphine nightmare." And, afterward, life lacks savor:
no cathedral no hobo jungle the same women
and men they long to drink hayfields
without dog or semicolon or village square
without monkey or lily without garlic
This volume constitutes as powerful and moving an elegy and romance as one could bear to read.
The poems gathered in The World at Large: New and Selected Poems, 1971–1996, demonstrate a range of forms and idioms almost as impressive as Hall's. Although James McMichael has published only four separate collections over the course of the twenty-five years this volume spans, the breadth and scope of his achievement more than warrant the attention a selected poems asks. If the earliest, short poems seem a piece with other brief lyrics of the time in their neosurrealist personification of vegetables, they display a tighter craft and more lucent syntax than was common in the period; also, they accumulate with the force of careful analogy, in which the assorted greens treated in "The Vegetables," from McMichael's first collection, come to represent the growth of the fetus and child who will become the poet. By the time his second collection was issued in 1974, McMichael was already straining against the confines of period style, most eloquently in "Itinerary," the longish poem which looks forward to his two book-length poems. This poem begins with an impersonal voice surveying the contemporary West Coast and moves progressively eastward and backward to the seventeenth century through several speakers, modeled apparently on historical figures as diverse as Meriwether Lewis and Cotton Mather, whose presences in the poem are never clearly signaled; each voice subtly modulates into the next. The retrospective journey expresses not only the increasing purity of the land (or, more conventionally, the increasing pollution from then till now) in terms as grounded in the specific as the muddy runnels of contemporary California compared to the paradisal river waters of colonial Virginia. The subtext of the poem's movement concerns equally eros and loss—the explicit sexuality of nature poised against the active spirituality of nature. Not surprisingly, the final destination of the poem, or its point of nativity, is a garden in New England, in which the hand of God is discernible in every lineament. Meditating after Sunday service, the speaker confesses, "after my devotions / a walk in the garden can do much / to fill my heart with clear obedience." His relations to the earth are seen in terms of congress and procreation:
… I would
look upon such country as will show me
nature undressed, the strata of the land,
her lays and beds and all her privacies.
For my wonder tells me I should be
promiscuous, should learn by all the
laws of bodies and by where they are
the joyful news out of the newfound world.
This walk is news.
The ironic culmination of this urge to go forth and be fruitful is where the poem begins, and we return to the beginning to read again with different eyes.
The shape and contents of the book are somewhat peculiar for a selected poems, which bears some comment. McMichael chooses not to organize his volume by either chronology or reverse chronology; instead, he weaves older and newer to interesting effect. We see the changes in his approach in dramatic relief but observe as well the continuity of theme, the death of the poet's mother while he was a child. The mother is the unidentified subject, along with the child present only by analogy, in the first group of poems, but her death and its import is announced directly in the first section of his most recent separate book, Each in a Place Apart, published in 1994. Such juxtaposition cannot be accident. This book-length poem, one of two he's issued over twenty-five years, marks another of the book's irregularities; while cullings from his first two collections seem scant, he reproduces both long poems in their entirety, a choice justified by the nature of both poems which recount narratives in a somewhat recursive and indirect form. Any excerpt would not do justice to the way the wholes accumulate. This, too, is the reviewer's burden, especially with regard to Four Good Things, a poem that begins with autobiography but moves through more than a simple summary could indicate, meshing personal meditation with larger social and political concerns in nearly seamless segues reminiscent of those he used in "Itinerary." Above all, McMichael works in both long poems with an unerring ear for a loosened pentameter yet manages that line to very different effect in each. Four Good Things, particularly, also displays McMichael's ability to include information—dense and expository information—without losing the thread of either the line or the through-line. Consider this passage from a little more than midway through the poem, a description of warehouses at nineteenth-century Liverpool docks:
They were still in that plain geography of
"things in their places," of bales on
hoisting-pulleys and in ship-holds and, along the quays,
the dry white scudding that they lost as waste.
They were looking for the samenesses that make us feel we've
broken through to something, through those
unsure things that happen in a place in time to
something like our safe impalpable and self-sustaining
plans that are always future.
Taken in its entirety, this volume demonstrates an intelligence and artistic will and talent determined to make "the most of what we / know and go on learning." With both of his long poems and a tight selection of his lyrics available in a single volume, McMichael's work may begin to draw the attention it deserves.
Finally, a native Californian from further up the coast and current United States Poet Laureate, Robert Hass has brought out Sun Under Wood, his fourth book in twenty-three years, the same period over which McMichael published his separate volumes. That said, a reviewer might seek other principles of comparison, and they could, indeed, be found. Like McMichael, Hass has a good eye for detail and a broad knowledge of nature and culture; like McMichael, he writes with loving attention to the California landscape; and, like McMichael, he has a keen ear for the music of language as it combines with syntax and the poetic line. Unlike McMichael, and as he acknowledges in the final poem of this new collection, Hass has little facility with metaphor or analogy. He sees things best when he sees them clearly, for what they are and what they might mean—signify, not represent. If McMichael most effectively deals with over-powering emotion through distraction into peripherally or tangentially analogous systems or incidents, Hass has tended to veer away, displacing emotion into weak, often trivial and reductive—frequently extended—metaphors. Few of these obtrude on the poems in this collection, which seems, in fact, to confront matters of personal life with greater honesty and openness than in earlier collections. For all the naming of names in earlier poems, the reader was left with little sense, other than generally, of the turbulences of the life out of which those forcibly moderated poems emerged.
Two of the personal circumstances brought into poetic light represent conflicts from childhood and from the present, first with his mother's alcoholism and, second, with his separation and divorce. Both experiences are traumatic enough that indirection and non-disclosure are understandable strategies; however, the force they exert also seems to require some release, the shapes of which are long, mixed formal sequences occurring toward the beginning and the end of the volume. The earlier conflict is first raised in the second poem, "Our Lady of the Snows," in which the speaker recalls "slip[ping]" into church "[w]hen [his] mother was in a hospital drying out" to light a candle "and bargain for [them] both." She appears again, more directly seen, in the next poem, "Dragonflies Mating," in which the poet confesses his humiliation when she would appear at basketball practice
with her bright, confident eyes,
and slurred, though carefully pronounced words,
and the appalling
impromptu sets of mismatched clothes she was given to
when she had the dim idea of making a good
impression in that state.
Hass explores this painful topic at even greater, more direct length in the following sequence, "My Mother's Nipples." Writing about this poem, Hass comments that when the topic was first proposed to a friend, "My first idea was to make fun of the idea, my second was the painfulness of it. These suggested a form." The "form" includes both long-lined, meditative poetry; brief, parodic lyrics; and prose passages, which circle the subject at times and at times narrow to harrowing directness. From its opening lines, the poem announces the tendency against which it will struggle:
They're where all displacement begins.
They bulldozed the upper meadow at Squaw Valley,
where horses from the stable, two chestnuts, one white,
grazed in the mist and the scent of wet grass on summer mornings
and moonrise threw the owl's shadow on voles and wood rats
crouched in the sage scent the earth gave back after dark
with the day's heat to the night air.
What all this has to with the theme announced by the poem's title we might wonder until we realize that the lyricism demonstrates the very evasiveness of displacement. Not until the first of the prose sections does the poem approach the pain more directly, with two memories of the mother's institutionalization. At the climax of the poem, Hass recounts his father's death and his curiosity "to see in what ratio [his mother] would feel relieved and lost." This longest of the sections narrates the poet's trip to locate a copy of his parents' marriage license, at the end of which he discovers that they wed at the last moment before his older brother's birth and feels sorry "that their life together began in a negotiation too painful to be referred to again." In the final prose passage, Hass exemplifies his desire as a child for a normal life, against all indications to the contrary:
I came home from school and she was gone. I don't know what instinct sent me to the park. I suppose it was the only place I could think of where someone might hide: she had passed out under an orange tree, curled up. Her face, flushed, eyelids swollen, was a ruin. Though I needed urgently to know whatever was in it, I could hardly bear to look. When I couldn't wake her, I decided to sit with her until she woke up. I must have been ten years old: I suppose I wanted for us to look like a son and mother who had been picnicking, like a mother who had fallen asleep in the warm light and scent of orange blossoms and a boy who was sitting beside her daydreaming, not thinking about anything in particular.
After this, the poet admits, "You are not her singing, though she is what's / broken in a song." Trying "to think of some place on earth she loved," the poet can "remember she only ever spoke happily / of high school." Evasion and approach—the poles between which Hass struggles with this demonic angel.
Often Hass begins with this effort at displacement against which the poem finally defines itself. "Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer," the longest and most inclusive of the sequences, opens with the writer's effort to find words to express experience and the failure, in abstraction-laden apothegms, to realize his desire. The rest of the poem grows from his determined sitting "down to it," from which he can state lucidly and without self-pity about "the year [his] marriage ended":
I don't think I could have told the pain of loss
from the pain of possibility,
though I knew they weren't the same thing.
What follows is the difficult process of distinguishing between these two kinds of pain and two kinds of emptiness: "one made of pain and desire / and one made of vacancy." Or, as he notes later:
one is desire, another is the object that it doesn't have,
Everything real is nourished in the space between these things.
The poet's meditations carry him from Friday night restaurants in Berkeley filled with divorced parents and their noncustodial children to the cave of the Sokkaram Buddha in Korea, from the unpremeditated loss of his wedding band to the unexpected discovery of a new relationship with its "desperate kissings, wells of laughter." Yet the new discovery might only, at times, accentuate the old loss, felt as "pain. Physical pain, fluid; it moved / through [his] body like grassfire spreading on a hill." He comes to realize:
I didn't know you could lie down in such swift, opposing currents.
Also two emptinesses, I suppose, the one
joy comes from, the one regret, disfigured intention, the longing
to be safe or whole flows into when it's disappearing.
After building such structures of conflicting feelings and impulses, the poet confronts the difficulty of finding an appropriate conclusion, and Hass is often not at his best with what in the trade is called "closure." Here, he attempts, in a characteristic gesture, to ground this complex of emotions in a simple physical act; in the open market of a Korean town, the poet has a mug of beer and barbecued baby chicks. The poem ends with enumeration and fragmented phrasing:
Two pancakes. A clay mug of the beer. Sat down
under an umbrella and looked to see, among the diners
feasting, quarreling about their riven country,
if you were supposed to eat the bones. You were, I did.
Such elaborate structures beg a more satisfying, less patent conclusion.
To his credit, however, Hass seems more than passingly acquainted with his short-falls, as he elaborates in the volume's final poem, the tellingly titled "Interrupted Meditation." The poem opens with the kind of lyrical description of nature at which Hass excels:
Little green involute fronds of fern at creekside.
And the sinewy clear water rushing over creekstone
of the palest amber, veined with a darker gold,
thinnest lines of gold rivering through the amber
like—ah, now we come to it.
Just what "we come to" will take another two pages of dialogue between the poet and an unnamed Polish survivor of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw that treats the relation between experience and language in the context of extreme suffering. This leads to the remembered referent of the opening, in which the unnamed interlocutor speaks:
Of course, here, gesturing out the window, pines, ragged green
of a winter lawn, the bay, you can express what you like,
enumerate the vegetation. And you! you have to,
since you don't excel at metaphor. A shrewd, quick glance
to see how I have taken this thrust. You write well, clearly.
You are an intelligent man. But—finger in the air—silence is waiting. Milosz believes there is a Word at the end that explains. There is silence at the end, and it doesn't explain, it doesn't even ask.
Notice how what could be taken as self-congratulation on Hass's part—praise of his skill at writing, his intelligence—is rendered as left-handed compliment, the way in which it was offered. If Hass cannot, at least cannot yet, completely rise above his flaws, he at least can recognize the truth when it's articulated.
This poem makes for an interesting comparison with "On Squaw Peak," the closing poem of Hass's previous collection, Human Wishes. Although in general I like this poem very much, in it he is guilty of many of the same ploys of displacement and avoidance but without this level of self-knowledge, which leads him, instead of facing pain directly, to slide off into one of his lyrically inappropriate metaphors, as in this description of the place to which aborted fetuses go:
I wanted to tell you
that when the ghost-child died, the three-month dreamer
she and I would never know, I kept feeling that
the heaven it went to was like the inside of a store window
on a rainy day from which you watch the blurred forms
passing in the street.
How much more powerful, more honest and—more to the point—more plausible this passage from the new poem in which the poet remembers "the failure of [his] marriage, / the three or four lost years just at the end and after":
She sat on the couch sobbing, her rib cage shaking
from its accumulated abysses of grief and thick sorrow.
I don't love you, she said. The terrible thing is
that I don't think I ever loved you.
Less lyrical, certainly, but the emotional gain is intense. If Hass is unable to sustain this pitch through to the conclusion of the poem, at least, now, he realizes that flaw, too:
A vault of blue sky, traildust, the sweet medicinal
scent of mountain grasses, and at trailside—
I'm a little ashamed that I want to end this poem
singing, but I want to end this poem singing—the wooly
closed-down buds of the sunflower to which, in English,
someone gave the name, sometime, of pearly everlasting.
The exponential growth in self-awareness evidenced in Sun Under Wood, along with Hass's demonstrable lyrical skill and intelligence, mark his movement from one of the best poets of his generation to one of the best poets working in America today; we could all afford to learn from his penetrating self-criticism, doubtless a consequence of his refusal to publish too much and too soon, and follow as he continues this slow but sure growth to poetic majority.