The Year in Poetry by Allen Hoey
In ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound defines epic as "a poem including history." While not the most exacting definition, it provides a starling point; by "including history," we infer that Pound does not mean isolated historical events which could be contained within or supply the context for a brief poem. Rather, he means the panoramic sweep of poems like the Iliad or Odyssey or Dante's Commedia or Paradise Lost, poems which, by their very nature, recount the tale of the tribe, place a people in a broader perspective, providing an underpinning and unpacking mythology and metaphysics. Of course, we infer much of this from the example Pound himself offered, his Cantos.
If we accept, at least provisionally, this first premise, I will forward a second: the character of the specifically American epic derives from Whitman. He discards the linear narrative structure of previous exempla, as well as the highly structured metric of the non-Hebraic models. Instead, Whitman builds his epic following the model of musical composition: theme and variation, modulation, movement, and reprise; a great lover of opera, he learned more about organizing his poems from that model than from any of his poetic ancestors. We do not find the narrative continuity of Wordsworth, Whitman's closest precursor; images, voices, threads of thought and story counterpoint and interfuse.
Taken together, these premises establish a working definition of an American epic. The poem will tend toward musical composition in terms of melodic line and continuity: the metric will be guided by the ear, employing a flexible measure; the structure will be episodic if not fugal in organization. Linear disclosure is out; the form will allow opportunities to scan broadly and focus narrowly and will as easily yield to personal observation and reverie as to more objective reportage and also provide opportunities for multiple voices and presences, as well as a fluid sense of time. The American epic will also look as much forward as back.
By these criteria Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend (Copper Canyon), gathered for the first time in a single, corrected edition, fits comfortably in the fold. Long out of print, this volume joins McGrath's Selected Poems and the various collections by Hayden Carruth as part of Copper Canyon's conservancy of neglected U.S. poets. A separate essay could be written about why some poets—arguably major poets—have been relegated to the status of also-rans. While this is not the place to explore the possible reasons, we can assume that McGrath's unapologetically left-populist, pro-labor (he was a life-long Wobbly) stance plays a significant role in his neglect. (The same is doubtless true, as a partial determinant, for Kenneth Rexroth and Carruth). Begun shortly after McGrath was blacklisted by HUAC, Letter cannot be divorced from the political and historical context in which it was composed. Over the course of the three decades McGrath worked on the poem, the world as he saw it became a slum in the wake of U.S. military and political expansionism. The poem's motive force is to place then-current policy firmly in historical perspective and to personalize the movement of history into one of its products, himself, anchoring past, present, and potential in particulars rather than letting them drift hopelessly in the abstract.
The poem opens both evocatively and specifically, establishing a place, a voice, and a scope:
—"From here it is necessary to ship all bodies east." I am in Los Angeles, at 2714 Marsh Street, Writing, rolling east with the earth, drifting toward Scorpio, thinking, Hoping toward laughter and indifference. "They came through the...
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passes, they crossed the dark mountains in a month of snow, Finding the plain, the bitter water, the iron rivers of the black North….
He establishes his position, both in literal time and place and in historical context: he lies at the farthest reach of American expansion across the New World, recognizing the cost, in human lives, of the push west that sent bodies, as well as profits, cast. A few lines later, he makes the connection explicit:
I do not know what end that journey was toward. —But I am its end. I am where I have been and where I am going. The journeying destination—at least that … But far from the laughter.
This last is a somber note that the poem does not maintain. In fact, erudition and humor couple throughout, including passing puns like "Rand Corpse" and extended parodies, particularly those involving a Midnight Mass and youthful confession.
Many of the strongest passages recount McGrath's childhood on his father's farm in North Dakota. He adeptly manages the delicate balance between lyricism and narrative disclosure, evoking sentiment without veering into the sentimental. His influences are too many to list, including Dylan Thomas, among his contemporaries, and I hear echoes of his fellow Midwesterner, two years his senior, the Weldon Kees of "1926," in this passage near the beginning of "Part One":
Out of the whirring lamp-hung dusk my mother calls. From the lank pastures of my sleep I turn and climb, From the leathery dark where the bats work, from the coasting High all-winter all-weather Christmas hills of my sleep. And there is my grandfather chewing his goatee, Prancing about like a horse. And the drone and whir from the fields Where the thresher mourns and showers on the morning stillness A bright fistful of whistles.
Yet economic realities are never far; this is not the edenic apple-lit innocence of "Fern Hill." "[T]oo soon, too young" he "entered the brilliant alien arena" of field work, "dragged by a team of roans, / (Whose names should have been Poverty and Pride) / Into the world of men at the age of nine," where he met Cal, his "sun-blackened Virgil," "[t]he last of the real Wobs." This education prepares him for the world in which he writes as an adult, including "the troubles of the stinking street! / First neighbor on strike since Come Monday, and Second / Neighbor on strike Come Tuesday." Cal's instruction serves him well in his career as union organizer in post-World War II New York, an experience recounted more fully in his novel, This Coffin Has No Handles.
The agrarian and working class emphasis should not distract from the erudition of McGrath's poem. A Rhodes scholar, McGrath's command of his literary precursors, including Homer, Dante, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, and Whitman, to name just a few, is impressive. As is his familiarity with economics, politics, world religions, and Native American ritual. In short, Letter to an Imaginary Friend is exactly the sort of smorgasbord that we expect from distinctly American epics, which is also to say that the quality is not consistently high over the course of 400 pages. The first two parts seem overall strongest to me, though I wouldn't forego the mock mass in Part Three. Like others of its kind, McGrath's book is perhaps best read quickly over, marking the passages to which we wish to return and relish. It's publication in a single, reasonably priced volume preserves an American treasure.
Very different in the ways they employ the lessons of Pound are both Geoffrey Hill's new book-length poem The Triumph of Love (Houghton Mifflin) and Frank Bidart's Desire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), especially the 30-page "The Second Hour of the Night," which continues the meditation begun in his 1990 In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90. In the interview with Mark Halliday that concludes that book, Bidart provides insight into why Pound has had such a pervasive and wide-ranging influence. Although, as an undergraduate, Bidart preferred Eliot,
Pound was the more liberating … in the way that they say that anything can be gotten into a poem, that it doesn't have to change its essential identity to enter the poem—if you can create a structure that is large enough or strong enough, anything can retain its own identity and find its place there. Four Quartets is more perfect, but in a way its very perfection doesn't open up new aesthetic possibilities—at least it didn't for me then. The Cantos, and Pound's work as a whole, did; and do.
Of the two, Hill's poem more directly echoes Pound (although Hill is decidedly not an "American" poet), both in its poly-lingual word play and bursts of undiluted anger. For Hill, the brief "cantos" of The Triumph of Love provide a vehicle for the variety of voices in agreement and contention. Occasionally he employs editorial comment as a rhetorical trope, a device that serves both to distance and, oddly, to render more intimate the poem. We feel that we are overhearing a dialogue of an intellect quarreling with itself over the proper expression of rage without needing to moderate out of concern with an audience; the "editor" can mediate or ameliorate when necessary.
Hill's epigraph, a passage from Nchemiah presented in Hebrew, Latin, German, and English, establishes the prophetic stance from which the poem emerges. Other references to Old Testament prophets, especially Daniel, are salted through the poem to emphasize the point. The targets of Hill's diatribe include most representatives of the twentieth century: politicians and poets alike; in this, he bears resemblance, as well, to Dante (not to mention Michelangelo, who also placed his enemies in Hell within the duration of his life). Chamberlain may be an easy target, but for an Englishman, a moralist, who endured World War II, he is likewise a necessary one. The moral position of the prophet suits Hill in this regard, for moral laxity, the willingness to make peace with convenience and indulge the comfortable, lies at the root of his outrage. Also, that authority befits this century, as he notes in Section XI:
It is to Daniel, as to our own tragic satire, that one returns for mastery of this business; well-timed, intermittent terror.
Inasmuch as the twentieth century represents a "moral landscape," that means for Hill "increasingly a terrain / seen in cross-section … in which particular grace / individual love, decency, endurance"—all values implicit and explicit in The Triumph of Love—"are traceable across the faults." The faults, we surmise, refer as much to the moralist as to the rugged geography.
Among the poets Hill singles out for "splenetic" attention, Rilke receives severe rebuke. In Section XCV, Hill begins by distinguishing his English countryside from more "Romantic" locals, then progresses to a critique of the literary darling, with a side-swipe at Yeats along the way:
This is not Duino. I have found no sign that you are visited by any angel of suffering creation. Violent sensitivity is not vision, nor is vision itself order. You may be possessed of neurasthenic intelligence as others have been tormented by helpless self- knowledge, though I doubt it. In any event I would not parade comparisons. Naked experience as you preen it is a mild indecency, like old-style London revue.
The predominant speaker of the poem, however, gets off little better in his own regard; in Section LXXC, he "confesses" to the auditor of much of the poem, the so-called "Vergine bella":
I am too much moved by hate— pardon ma'am?—add greed, self-pity, sick scrupulosity, frequent fatal regression, and a twisted libido? Oh yes—much better out than in.
Similarly, later in the poem, the mention of "the donkey Nehemiah" seems acutely self-directed.
The greatest danger the poem faces is that it will collapse under the weight of its own erudition rather than be drowned in the deluge of anger, becoming another of the "incomprehensible verse sequences" he derides. For the most part, however, Hill avoids the pitfalls. He balances both knowledge and rage with measures of humor and compassion—the latter what the title leads us to expect. The substance of the poem delineates over how much love must triumph. Yet where the poem begins and where it ends are not much different. The first section reads in its entirety: "Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain-scarp." After 150 sections, the poem ends in near-Joycean recursion: "Sun-blazed, over Romsley, the livid rain-scarp." After all that language and all that umbrage, a single shifted article. In the space between, we are lead to see the value of such apparent distinctions. From the indefinite to the definite is, after all, a far piece to go.
In Desire, readers familiar with Frank Bidart will find almost none of the signal typography and sprawling lines of his earlier books; the poems suffer no loss of Bidart's obssessiveness, however. Instead of his earlier formal practice, Bidart makes extensive use of what he calls "pre-existing forms," by which he means not sonnets or villanelles but something more like ideas or intellectual structures. He first introduces the term (though not the practice, which pervades the volume) in the piece titled "Borges and I" after Jorge Luis Borges' short story of the same name. The premise of Borges story is that the author's other, non-writing self is given the opportunity to comment on his relation to the writing self. This premise allows for what Bidart calls a "seductive" but ultimately false construct, in which an authentic, otherwise silent self provides an "intimacy and honesty … denied us" by the posturing artificer. In his piece. Bidart turns the premise not quite inside out but alters it significantly by recasting it in terms of "Frank's" relationship to "his" poetry:
Frank had the illusion … that when he made his poems he was changed in making them, that arriving at the order the poem suddenly arrived at out of the chaos of the materials the poem let enter itself out of the chaos of life, consciousness then, only then could know itself.
His poems "cruelly replaced his past," and "finally they were all he knew of it though he knew they were not, everything else was shards refusing to make a pattern." In fact, "at the second of writing," he could not differentiate between "the universe of one of his poems" and "what seemed his own universe." After time, the poem came to "disgust … him a little," and that allowed him to write once again.
Many of the poems employ "as building blocks" bits and pieces of translations by other writers, redacted passages from various sources, and "a 'found' poem carved out of anonymously-published prose," as the author's "Note" informs us. If the purloined title of "Borges and I" points toward one of Bidart's concerns in this volume, another is indicated in "The Return," a free borrowing and reworking from Tacitus' Annals. In this piece, curiously objective in its narrative stance, we read the story of a Roman commander who, returning to a site where "the savage Germans / sacrificed the tribunes and chief centurions" from an earlier sortie, decides "to bury the dead men's bones of three whole legions." The reactions back in Rome are mixed but not positive:
Cynics whispered that thus the cunning Stale enslaves us to its failures and its fate.— Epicureans saw in the ghostly mire an emblem of the nature of Desire. Stoics replied that life is War, ILLUSION the source, the goal, the end of human action.
The poem concludes by putting the actions in perspective that differs from the politically or philosophically motivated second-guessing. After a lyrical description of the burial, the previously effaced narrator states, "I have returned here a thousand times, / though history cannot tell us its location." Memory, even historical memory, is more vivid than politics or philosophy and, as such constitutes the stuff of poetry. Yet, as the final brief section recounts, the actions have their own poetic resonance: "Arminius, relentlessly pursued by / Germanicus, retreated into pathless country." We are invited, with this closing, to consider the entire poem an extended metaphor or meditation on the nature of consciousness, memory, and desire.
The long poem that constitutes the volume's second half, "The Second Hour of the Night," takes a more personal tack, though, after the opening reference, the personal basis moves to the background. Much of the first section of the poem consists of a redacted version from Berlioz's autobiography concerning his wife's death. We are left to ponder the significance of this, and all that follows in the poem, in relation to the speaker's prefacing of the story:
On such a night, perhaps, Berlioz wrote those pages in his autobiography which I first read when my mother was dying, and which to me now inextricably call up not only her death but her life.—
What follows are two tales of misplaced and thwarted desire: the "broken heart" and "vanished beauty" of Henriette-Constance Berlioz-Smithson, an actress robbed of fame and beauty by a near-crippling accident, and the elaborated tale, from Ovid, of Myrrha, namesake of myrrh and mother of Adonis. The poem leaves it to us to wonder how these brutal stories, full of both adultery and incest, respectively, reflect on the death and life of the speaker's mother. In what way did the circumstance of her life and her death model or effectuate the workings of desire? How should we interpret the confabulation of the speaker's mother with a story about the mother of Adonis? Such answers as we can find, we will find only in repeated readings of the poem. Like "the inhabitants of the temple of / delight," the poem may "assume … for each of us one / profile, different of course for each of us." Desire reconfirms that, however long the wait between Bidart's volumes, the poems are worth the wait.
Much less satisfying is Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Czeslaw Milosz's twenty-fifth volume in English. Described in the jacket copy as "poems and essays, aphorisms and anecdotes," the book consists primarily of pieces that conform to the second set of doublings. The scant handful of poems are less than memorable, and nothing quite achieves the scope of an essay, particularly if we recall the depth and breadth of his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, The Witness of Poetry. The first of the two sections is the most aphoristic; more than anything, it resembles musings along the lines of Wallace Stevens' "Adagia," though one waits in vain for the sort of "gists and piths" one encounters in Stevens, such as "Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully," or "A change of style is a change of subject." Instead, Milosz's fragments seem less musing (i.e., gnomic or Heraclitan) than admonitory. "The Language" typifies the mode:
The desire for truth is confronted with poems, with talcs written by you long ago. And then you are ashamed, because it was all sheer myth. Neither did any of it happen, nor did you feel the feelings contained therein. The language itself unfurled its velvet yarn in order to cover what, without it, would equal nothing.
Elsewhere, and often, Milosz affirms his Christianity (though eschews calling himself a "Catholic poet") and his classicism.
The second section, called "Subjects to Let," consists of anecdotes, sketches for longer pieces, whether essays or poems. As he notes in the first piece, he "lets" his subjects to others because he is "old and will not be able to make use of them lhim]self." As I read through them, I am reminded of prose poems by Robert Hass, the co-translator (with Milosz) of this collection. In particular, Hass's "Novella" from Human Wishes presents a condensed version of what could be (just add water) a much longer piece of fiction. In this case, however, the skeletal construct seems less a matter of poetic choice than a sort of literary last will and testament, putting out into the world subjects Milosz believes deserve more time than he can give them. To find these pieces less than enthralling is not to slight Milosz's previous achievements.
Hayden Carruth's collection of autobiographical pieces, Reluctantly (Copper Canyon), while similarly extemporaneous, offers more enduring substance. The two sections of autobiographical "fragments" frame Carruth's excruciating study of his own near-successful suicide, tilled simply "Suicide." Not since Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus" has an author examined this issue as directly and bluntly. Carruth neither sentimentalizes his act nor shies away from painful detail, a masterful achievement of balance. Finally, he believes that he "discovered in suicide a way to unify [his] sense of self, the sense which had formerly been so refracted and broken up":
Suicide is not only what I did but what I was capable of doing. Elemental though it may be, it still gives shape, integrity, and certain fullness to the figure of myself—minuscule, of course—that I see out there in history. It isn't much, but it's more than I had before. And this is a real and significant feeling in me, no matter how other people may recoil from it, as I myself would have recoiled if it had been presented to me in my ante-suicidal ignorance.
The other fragmentary pieces, though less pervasively intense, provide an insight into the life and mind of one of the great poets of our age.
A clear effort at canonization, even without Harold Bloom's prefatory note, Robert Penn Warren's 800-plus-page Collected Poems (LSU), compiled and edited by John Burt, defies comment in a round-up review. The volume contains both previously uncollected and collected poems from 1922 until 1989, the year of his death; fifteen separate books, including four selected poems, are represented. As gathered, the volume affords an overview of one tributary of mainstream American poetry over the course of most of the twentieth century. The introduction to the 200 pages of notes, including emendations and textual and explanatory notes, provides one of the most succinct comments on the varieties of collected poems I've read; it bears quoting at length:
A Collected Poems can be one of two things. It can be like an author's autobiography, representing the author's career as it looked from the end of it, with all of the blind alleys and false turns elided (or marked out as necessary lessons and difficult preliminaries). Or it can be like an author's diary, representing the author's intellectual life as it unfolded, with no certainty, but with many provisional intuitions, about how each event will fit into the big picture. A Collected Poems of the first type should include only those poems the poet, at the end of his or her life, felt were worthy to represent that life, and it should represent the texts, in the absence of compelling reasons not to do so, as they stood when the author last gave considered attention to them. A Collected Poems of the second type should include all the poetry the poet published, and it should represent the texts, in the absence of compelling reasons not to do so, as they stood during the period of the poet's career with which they are most strongly associated. In the first case the scholarly editor seeks to establish the author's final intentions for the oeuvre, and must make a case either that all of the author's work is of a piece or that the author was able to the end to retain special access to the intentions he or she entertained earlier in life. In the second case the scholarly editor seeks to establish the author's settled intentions at particular periods of his or her career, and must make a persuasive case about what counts as a settled intention of the author and about what counts as a period of the author's career.
Burt makes clear that, while this volume represents a Collected Poems of the second type, he has incorporated in the notes various changes Warren indicated for a projected Collected Poems of the first sort. Burt's dedicated editorial work makes a powerful argument for the importance of Warren's achievement.
Among the inevitable raft of selected poems are volumes by two relatively neglected African American poets, Gerald Barrax and Clarence Major. Both writers, I infer, are in their early sixties, both published their first collections in 1970, and both evince considerable technical range. Barrax's poems gathered in From a Person Sitting in Darkness: new and selected poems (LSU) take root in the circumstances of daily life, which include marriages, fatherhood, romance, gardening, and aging. There the similarities end. Apart from formal resources that include sonnets as well as free verse, as well as the technically and emotionally brilliant sequence "Cello Poem," Barrax's attack is less likely to be as self-centered; even in poems in which the speaker operates as "hero," the posture is apt to collapse upon itself by the end of the poem.
Choosing "representative" passages from a poet as diverse as Barrax is nearly impossible; the best one can hope for is to represent a couple of his strengths. To that end, "Reunion: Our Common Language," demonstrates verbal felicity, formal control, and encyclopedic knowledge brought to bear on a poem about late love:
What kind of poets have we become, to let Love dig up our language from its ground? Like epiphytes growing in the rain forest Canopy, roots drawing nourishment from air And rain, our letters rioted in italics Of orchid desire and bromeliad magic. The love we had abandoned all hope for, bewitched us Out of the craft we had lived so long to learn "We will lean into a circle of raging mystery and recognize it for its secret callings…." "I'm on the verge of a cataclysm of passion with you …"
The masterpiece of the volume is the previously mentioned "Cello Poem," the last poem in the selections from Leaning Against the Sun (1992), the last of his four previous collections. This seven-part sequence includes sonnets, terza rima, prose, and varieties of free verse—a compendium of Barrax's technical virtuosity. More impressive, however, is the maturity of vision and emotional depth he brings to the poem which takes as its subject lost love. This passage, taken from the first part, details the speaker's stay at "[a]nother guest room on the poetry circuit":
Yesterday a woman whom I will always love drove twenty-seven miles to hear me read her poem Afterwards we delayed outside at her car in an operatic November night so mild and unbearable I felt relief that our past would remain where we'd left it She drove away ten years further back than she'd come Alone in the heavy room six years away from hometown neighbor Pittsburgh and unreachable from Raleigh I remember Cincinnati's WLW and American Airline's Music in the Night lights off hours after midnight except for the glow when radios had tubes and were warm and hummed at my bedside I turn and find it Everything turns I hear the violincello
LSU is to be commended for its effort to bring Barrax's work to a wider audience.
Laboring in even greater obscurity, Clarence Major has published most of his eight earlier collections with fairly small American and European presses. Even those poems from published collections will doubtless be unfamiliar to dedicated poetry readers. This work, however, represents only about half of the present 300-plus page gathering. The rest of Configurations: New & Selected Poems 1958–1998 (Copper Canyon) contains a selection of previously unpublished poems drawn from the volume's inclusive dates. Poets with a thematic approach to composing a unified collection of poems, in which the whole the book makes is seen, as Frost noted, as a poem in its own right, often find many excellent poems left on the cutting room floor; Hayden Carruth made a remarkably strong volume of some fifteen years of such poems in If You Call This Cry a Song (1983). While not all of Major's poems hew to that high standard, most are well above average in their scope and achievement.
Like Carruth, Major locates himself in the lineage of Ezra Pound (poetically, it goes without saying, not politically). This debt is most apparent in the poems from his 1988 collection, Surfaces and Musks; the fourth section pays a direct if left-handed homage to il miglior fabbro:
He gave the Fascisti salute when he stepped off the Cristoforo Colombo, 1958– there would be, I knew— if nobody else ever knew—an endless Sordello; and poor "Eleanor" and all the dream-dreamt Grecian faces I could scare up, the cries in the nightmares, the Acaetes-announcements …
The second half of the book provides some of the best material. Major is not a poet whose essential stance and strategies have changed much over the course of his forty-year career; he has consolidated his influences and matured in his handling of technique and attack. If the most impressive statement among these poems is the longish "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage," in which many of the Poundian touches have been assimilated to better serve Major's voice, perhaps the most satisfying achievements include the shorter, more lyrical poems that involve his painterly eye. The opening of "The Dispute," a retelling of the story of Solomon and the two mothers, shows off his skill:
The garden is dark green and the king has set up his kingdom here for the afternoon. Wailing for the next case, he sits on his throne of stone. Clouds move in circles above. Red berries hang from the overhead profusion of foliage. The king is cornerstone and supreme shadow here. But is that a winter sky or just a chain saw working at the sun?
The static poise of the opening is initially counterpointed against the phrasing of the sentences across the lines. This tension is brought to the surface in the startling anachronistic closing image. Major has labored long and well in relative obscurity; this volume should begin to shed more light.
Karl Shapiro's work requires little comment; it has stood the test of time for more than a half century. Stanley Kunitz, building on a start by the late David Ignatow, has done yeoman service in representing concisely and trenchantly Shapiro's achievement in Wild Card: Selected Poems, Early & Late (Illinois). The volume garners all the gems, from the early and justly celebrated "Auto Wreck"—
Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating, And down the dark one ruby flare Pulsing out red light like an artery. The ambulance at lop speed floating down Past beacons and illuminated clocks Wings in a heavy curve, dips down, And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
—to his "declaration of independence" from traditional forms, "The Bourgeois Poet":
The bourgeois poet closes the door of his study and lights his pipe. Why am I in this box, he says to himself (although it is exactly as he planned). The bourgeois poet sits down at his inoffensive desk—a door with legs, a door turned table—and almost approves the careful disarray of books, papers, magazines and such artifacts as thumb- tacks. The bourgeois poet is already out of matches and gets up. It is too early in the morning for any definite emotion and the B.P. smokes.
Sadly, this poem offers as genuine a glimpse into the workings of most poets as it did thirty-four years ago when it was first published. The Foreword by Stanley Kunitz and Introduction by M. L. Rosenthal round out this wonderful compendium.
Finally, And Still Birds Sing: New & Collected Poems by Lucien Stryk (Swallow) provides a complete overview of the work of another largely neglected poet. This volume gathers from all of his published collections of poems, starting with Taproot (1953), and, even more importantly, provides a plentiful selection of his various translations of Japanese poetry, classic and contemporary. Always a "quiet" poet, Stryk has developed both acuity of perception and concision of expression over the forty-five years his career spans. His earliest poems reflect the formal penchant of the fifties while avoiding any verbal excess, as in the opening stanza of "The Stack among the Ruins":
The tangled brush and bombed-out fields reflect And blur into the sky; harsh thunder Rings the image to the raging sea. War Reels again to staring eyes, where thoughts collect In webs of fear stirring musty brains And hearts then shudder through the victim veins.
By the time he wrote the title poem, such verbal tics as "raging sea" have been eliminated. The first of three sections, "Snapshots," begins:
Here we are together, clearing out the past: old letters, cuttings, photographs, crossing our palm with memories, rich as wildflowers, making room for what will be, sum of our ups and downs. Naked as shadows under a waterfall of rose and silver flashing between clouds, we stumble in and out forgotten streets….
Particularly notable is the way that Stryk is able to move his idiom toward the colloquial without sacrificing his formal poise. Readers unfamiliar with the range of Stryk's contribution should avail themselves of this handsomely produced and thorough gathering.
In nine years reviewing the year in poetry for this space, I have remarked previously on the essential role that small presses play in maintaining the vitality of United States poetry. This year is no exception. Of the eighteen volumes reviewed, only five were issued by major commercial publishers, and those five represent only two houses, both of which have substantial stables of poets. Three more were published by university presses (all collected or selected volumes), and the remaining ten were published by independent presses. As in previous years, Copper Canyon Press has the greatest number of titles represented, a testament to the extraordinary devotion of Sam Hamill. Copper Canyon's repertoire included the preservation of established though often neglected poets (most notably, Hayden Carruth), as well the promotion of new works by less well-known writers. Remarkably, Hamill is able to continue writing and translating despite the enormous effort of running the country's foremost poetry press.
Most of the poems in Hamill's new collection, Gratitude (BOA Editions), display the formal influence of his interest in oriental poetry. The five-line stanzas in which more than halt the poems are composed use the syllabic count of the Japanese tanka (five-seven-five-seven-seven); others are in written in haiku stanzas and a few work with couplets derived, apparently, from Chinese verse. This influence extends beyond the surface, however, and informs the spirit of the poems, as even the title indicates. Gratitude toward all things reflects the devotion of a Buddhist, as docs the practical compassion at the heart of the volume. In Zen scripture, the word "shin" does not readily translate into English, meaning as much "mind" as "heart," as though one cannot exist without the balance of the other. This intelligent feeling pervades Hamill's collection.
The volume's introductory poem, "Preface: Ars Poetica," establishes both tone and tenor for the rest of the collection. "Some say the poem's / best made of natural speech / from the inner life," Hamill begins. Others, he writes, "say the poem / should rise into purest song," expressing balance and formality "through complex structures // derived from classics." Granting the conditional truth of all these claims, he insists, "The poem / … is a failure // elevated in- / to triumph." The poem blends form, truth, and human frailty and passion into a revelation of "the tragic human spirit / … / imagining itself / cured of the sickness of self." In a more sophisticated variant of MacLeish's dictum, Hamill argues:
The poem cannot, finally, be explained nor defined. The true gift poetry bestows begins and ends with humility before the task. All the suffering of the world can be truly felt, absorbed and transcended, just by the act of listening to that deepest voice speaking from within.
For all his conviction, Hamill's ars poetica contains more than a hint of irony. "Forget / hagiography," he proclaims; "All the great masters are dead." As well, "[f]orget words, meter, / diction, whole syllabaries— / the literary." Yet the rest of the collection contains poems about and addressed to "great masters," and all of the poems demonstrate Hamill's keen awareness that the best way to balance the pulls of the "heart-mind" is through the judicious involvement of form.
Another small-press gem is Stephen Berg's long-awaited Shaving (Four Way Books), pieces of which have appeared in two previous volumes by Berg (New & Selected Poems and Oblivion), as well as in many journals. The collection consists of fifty-one single-paragraph prose poems, several of which extend onto a third page. The title suggests the domestic intimacy of the pieces, as well as their close reflective quality. Taken as a whole, the volume seems almost as consciously autobiographical in intent as Carruth's Reluctantly; the signal distinction seems to be that Berg's pieces involve the compression—the condensation—we expect from poetry rather than the openness of even tightly crafted prose. Many of the poems involve the family drama writ large, including the illness and death of the poet's father and the tensions between surviving son and mother, as well as the mundane strains of a long-time marriage. The cast of characters will be familiar to readers of Berg's pieces, as will the stringent analysis Berg brings to bear. What differs is the inherent ranging quality of prose as contrasted to the emphasis on local effects particular to poetry. Berg's choice to cast each piece as a single uninterrupted paragraph (with the exception of the title poem, written in five sections) further eliminates division and dilution of effect.
Because the individual pieces are so much a sustained effort, no passage can give a clear sense of the cumulative effect. Rather than attempting to excerpt, then, let me present in its entirety the briefest of the pieces, "Dog Smelling Men":
An image sketched in a void, delicate pencil lines forming a street: a man flat on his back, arms out, head lolled over, a mutt sniffing the man's neck under his chin, some witnesses. Above the faceless face, lapsed away from the spectators, a shape persists like the breath of a miscreated god, like a burst of exhaust in cold, a ghostly residue belonging to a different, finished story that hovers near you the way thought docs when it occurs as a phrase that explains something unseen connected to something known then fades to a sliver of memory. Once in a dream I saw my life take shape, a story whose entire meaning is easily understood—who, what, where, why, when—about real people and things, essential to the world, and when I woke everything—sheets, blankets, rugs, chairs, walls, shoes—were radiant like men in myths who killed and drank hard and hated death and were consumed by envy of the Gods because they existed and infused humans with their impossible immortal glory.
Typically, Berg begins with a commonplace, a scene or, in this case, an image and explores the directions inward and outward in which the premise carries him. The process resembles improvisation. And, like the best improvisation, it involves more than "the spontaneous overflow of feeling"; it involves a practiced sense of form and the knowledge and willingness to rehearse the improvisation, as the greatest jazz players do, in session after session, finding the ways to bring the piece most powerfully home.
George Drew's second collection, So many bones … (RARUS), represents an unusual case. The first publication is a bi-lingual edition with a Russian translation of the poems en face, in a volume published in Russia. The poems document a trip the poet made to the sister city of Troy, New York, where Drew makes his home. Individual poems deal with the various surprises inherent in extended travel, both the expectations realized and those burst. Certainly material poverty, particularly from the point of view of one accustomed to life in the United State, is pervasive. Much that we take for granted in an industrial country is lacking, and reminders of twentieth century history abound. Most remarkable in the collection, however, are the large number of friends the poet seems to have made, the openness and willingness of those he encounters, from guides to mayors, to move beyond the superficialities of civility into the intimacy of friendship. Such friendship, of course, co-exists with the knowledge that all such intimacies are necessarily brief. His "first real kiss in Russia," as he titles one poem, comes only at the moment of "the necessary goodbyes":
Russia wept, she said, patting exactly the place within her heart where I would be. And I understood, it was Russia—my first real kiss would be my last. I made my vows.
Unfortunately, this rewarding collection will be difficult for most American readers to obtain.
A much more permanent inevitable departure lies at the center of Donald Hall's newest collection, Without (Houghton Mifflin). Anyone familiar with recent poetry in the United States will be aware of the premature death by leukemia of Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in 1995. Hall and Kenyon had shaped an idyllic life together on Hall's maternal grandparents farm, a life they shared for close to twenty years and celebrated in their volumes of poetry issued over the course of those two decades. Not that their lives were free of the sufferings common to the rest of us: their poems documented, as well, Kenyon's long-term bouts with depression and Hall's own hospitalization for cancer and recovery shortly before Kenyon's ordeal began. Still, the bedrock of comfort and love afforded by this life supported them through all else. Hall's previous collection, The Old Life (1996), at once commemorates that life and signals in the last poem, reprinted as the title poem of this new volume with some revisions, the end of that existence.
Inter-cut between other poems, the episodic "Her Long Illness" seems to pick up and extend the title poem of the previous volume which ended with the first reference to Kenyon's leukemia; even the form seems the same: alternating lines of two or three beats with a longer line of four normative beats. Sections run from fewer than a dozen lines to nearly a page. Like the earlier episodes, these are openly autobiographical, despite the poet's use of the third-person pronoun to refer to himself. The other principal characters bear the same names as their real-life counterparts, and the sequence of events parallels those of the persons involved. That said, the story told is as harrowing as one might expect from the broad summary. The use of a consistent form and the distancing strategy of a third-person narrative allow Hall to explore the minuti' of pain with near-clinical candor. At times the reader might wonder how Hall could bear to commit this much suffering to paper this soon; at other times the reader might wonder how he might have survived if he hadn't.
Apart from the emotional challenges of the project, Hall had as well to confront the technical vocabulary intrinsic to such illness. And, of course, maintaining poetic equilibrium throughout. One of the sections from the middle of the sequence demonstrates both the challenges and Hall's ability to face them:
Discharged at last, she returned to sleep with him again in the fiat jerry-built for bald tenants and their caregivers. He counted out meds and programmed pumps to deliver hydration, TPN, and ganciclover. He needed to learn from Maggie Fisher the nurse how to assemble the tubing, to insert narrow ends into wide ones. "From long experience," Maggie told him, "I have learned to distinguish 'male' from 'female.'"
After this sequence, the volume concludes with a series of letters to the deceased spaced over the course of the next year. If at limes the poems seem, as Hall describes them in one poem, "syllables [set] / in prosy lines," that does not diminish Hall's accomplishment in confronting this articulately the anguish of loss and documenting the will to survive.
Death is less the subject than the context of William Matthews' posthumous eleventh collection, After All (Houghton Mifflin). Completed before his fatal heart attack at fifty-five, the poems in no way reflect on his mortality more had been Matthews' wont in earlier collections; knowledge of his death, however, cannot help but filter our response to the poems. In time, as that initial reaction fades, we come to appreciate the ways in which Matthews demonstrated his ability to grow, to refine and expand the formal tools by which he realized his expressive wit and intelligence. Long a student of jazz, in his most recent poems Matthews had come to understand more clearly the role of predictable structure as an armature for poetic improvisation. Most impressive in this collection are the nine sonnets, six of which, set at taverns or hotels, comprise a kind of sequence scattered through the book. The first of these, "The Place on the Corner," displays not only Matthews' skills as a versifier but his self-deprecating and ironic humor:
No mirror behind this bar: tiers of garish fish drift back and forth. They too have routines. The TV's on but not the sound. Dion and the Belmonts ("I'm a Wanderer") gush from the box. None here thinks a pink slip ("You're fired," with boilerplate apologies) is underwear. None here says "lingerie" or "as it were." We speak Demotic because we're disguised as ordinary folks. A shared culture offers camouflage behind which we can tend the covert fires we feed our shames to, those things we most fear to say, our burled, unspoken common language the only one, and we are many.
I particularly like the sly line break from "ordinary" to "folks" which underscores the point. Here, Matthews demonstrates how well he has learned to adapt the strategies of free verse (local emphasis through lineation) to the constraints of received form. This poem, like most others in this collection, indicate the force Matthews gained from working within rhyme and meter. As a last testament, it serves his reputation well.
The back cover proclamation to the contrary, I get little sense that "John Engels is increasingly recognized as one of America's finest poets." And that's too bad, for, as the poems in Sinking Creek (Lyons Press) clearly show, his range and ability warrant that level of recognition. From his earliest volumes, Engels has displayed both a large and powerful vocabulary and a driving syntactical prowess that moves the poems across lines both short and long. "Early Morning Poem," significantly revised from its original publication twenty-one years ago, exemplifies both vocabulary and drive. The poem begins:
Mightily detained and allured I've listened to music all night, Bix and Tram to dispel austerity, Bechet to inform the manner, Wild Bill Davison, then Messiaen, Hayden [sic] for grace and comeliness, a little Chopin for the continuity …
The varied list of musicians and composers speaks to the range of Engels' sensibilities. The poem concludes:
Everything is late beyond late, tonight this music has been something of an answer, the dense speechless collisions, the mind delicately bellowing from its fixed centers. When I turn back into the room I hear strings everywhere, horns sonorous in the corners, tympani like something bearing on the doors, and no voice to trouble me.
In an age when the music of much of our poetry rarely rises to the level of Barry Manilow performed by elevator orchestras, a tonality this rich fails to find its appropriate audience.
Joseph Stroud is even less well known than Engels. In large part, this may be attributed to the long interval between the publication of Below Cold Mountain (Copper Canyon) and his last book, Signatures (1982), as well as to the fact that each of his three collections has been issued by a different independent press. The poems are no less impressive for their lack of wide circulation. A Californian, Stroud shares with other poets associated with that state (Rexroth, briefly his teacher, among them) an influence from the Orient discernible in the compression and relative surface accessibility of his poems. Like Jack Gilbert, Stroud has traveled widely in less than luxury, and, like Gilbert, his poems reflect that experience without the patina of the self-aware "fellowship poem." The poems in his new collection show greater formal variety than those in his preceding books and explore a territory marked by opening and closing poems that concern the death of the poet's parents.
The long opening section, "A Suite for the Common," consists of sixty-two six-line poems. While the theme is broad, Stroud does not treat the subjects simplistically. Typical is "Love's More Difficult Translation":
About five years into the marriage he thought his heart had finally translated it. But it was like that night at the Foreign Film Festival halfway through a movie when suddenly it switched from subtitles to dubbed English & for an instant he thought he understood Romanian.
Apart from the humor, the figure is highly appropriate. Both subtitles and dubbed translations pretend to render into the familiar argot something that the media will not allow. Anyone who has watched foreign films has experienced the three word subtitle that translates the several second speech or the dubbed English trimmed to match the length of the part regardless of how much is left out. For Stroud, much of what he experiences, both at home and abroad, reflects this dissonance.
Ultimately, Stroud's concern is to determine how to manage intellectually and emotionally to imagine the contingent world. Everywhere he goes—"everywhere," as he emphasizes in one poem—he confronts beauty and terror and does not always know how to carburet the mix. The fairly brief poem "Craft," whose title points us in several directions at once, expresses the problem:
The boy playing in the plaza is now being beaten by his father. A terrible whipping and the boy is screaming, sobbing. The other Gypsies look on with indifference, except for a burro who has turned, still chewing, and gazes with its large eyes from some other world. Who knows what the child has done. The father drags him off still howling, but without fervor now, the worst of it over. The silence of the noon gradually returns as the heart calms. The mind continues its labor chiseling away at the Andalucían light, carving out a day in a mountain of days, working at it, considering whether to shape the cries and the burro. Or not.
Notably, the speaker removes himself from the action, displacing himself first onto the burro then into the impersonal workings of "the heart" and "[t]he mind." In the face of a brutal but beautiful—or brutal and beautiful—world, this stance affords the opportunity to wrestle with the problem rather than either to succumb to equally brute revulsion or denial. Stroud's collection contains many poems of this accomplished merit.
Although better known as a novelist than a poet, Jim Harrison's poetry represents, he states in the Introduction to The Shape of the River: New and Collected Poems (Copper Canyon), "the portion of my life that means the most to me." For those of us who have been following his career since before he made it big as a fiction writer with Legends of the Fall, this has long been apparent. The concerns of his fiction, whether novels or novellas, never stray far from those articulated in poems which have appeared in eight previous collections, beginning with Plain Song in 1965. His sensibility never strays far from the countryside, whether his native Michigan or the Southwest, particularly the mountainous regions of Arizona near the Mexican border. His strongest poems explore the relations of humans with the natural world, though even the most celebratory of his work would not be confused with a valentine to nature; an experienced hunter, fisherman, and outdoorsman, he is acutely aware of the perils explicit and implicit in the interface between the two.
The earliest poems collected here already show his rural grounding. His keen eye for the natural world balances against the literary leanings of the novice poet, with results as uneven as the description suggests. Many of the poems seem sketches drawn from his autobiography; others, among the more successful, cast about the natural world looking for connections. Of these, "February Suite" looks forward to the suite form or sequence of sections associated by image or theme which will characterize his strongest work; this form dominates his second book, Locations (1968). "Suite to Appleness," "A Year's Changes," and "Locations" remain among Harrison's most striking poems. Equally impressive from this volume is "Walking," a poem cast as a single sentence that carries the reader across the Upper Peninsula landscape and into the poet's mindscape, inhabiting the marginal territory where the two overlap:
… walking dumbly, footsore, culling into evening through sumac and blackberry brambles, onto the lake road, feet sliding in the gravel, whippoorwills, night birds wakening, stumbling to lake shore, shedding clothes on sweet moss; walking into syrupy August moonless dark, water cold, pushing lily pads aside, walking out into the lake with feet springing on mucky bottom until the water flows overhead …
In its ability to maintain a propulsive forward movement, encapsulating a full day and, by extension, an entire life, the poem as a tour de force signals that Harrison has entered the ranks of journeymen.
His third collection builds on these materials and introduces his interest in the briefer form of the ghazal, a poem composed of at least five couplets in which, he explains, "[t]he couplets are not related by reason or logic and their only continuity is made by a metaphorical jump." As such, they constitute a compression of his strategy in the longer sequences. His next step, however, represents a move neither forward nor entirely lateral. The centerpiece of Letters to Yesenin is a set of thirty-one poems, progressively more prosy, addressed to the Russian poet. As a whole, this sequence develops the downward spiral into depression and ultimate movement back up as powerfully as any other document I've read. In these pieces, Harrison first weds his wide-ranging interests successfully: literature, nature, and Native American history. Against the depressive indulgence and suicide of Yesenin, he introduces the nobility of Chief Joseph; in section 8 he addresses the photograph of Yesenin he keeps in his granary study:
You had a nice summer in the granary. I was out there with you every day in June and July writing one of my six-week wonders, another novel. Loud country music on the phonograph, wasps and bees and birds and mice. The horses looked in the window every hour or so, curious and rather stupid. Chief Joseph stared down from the wall at both of us, a far nobler man than we ever thought possible. We can't lead ourselves and he led a thousand with a thousand horses a thousand miles.
As effective as the poems are, they introduce a laxity in the line that Harrison will struggle with for his next couple of collections. Never a practitioner of received form, he lacked a strict armature to help steady him against the pull of prose rhythm and accumulation; apart from the longish suite Returning to Earth, which marked a retreat back into the natural world and its processes, the poems too often seem relief exercises when he needed a break from writing prose.
This changed with the publication of The Theory & Practice of Rivers (1985, reprinted in 1989 as The Theory & Practice of Rivers & New Poems). The opening of the title poem immediately announces a return to and development of his earlier poetic practice:
The rivers of my life: moving looms of light, anchored beneath the log at night I can see the moon up through the water as shattered milk, the nudge of fishes, belly and back in turn grating against log and bottom; and letting go, the current lifts me up and out into the dark, gathering motion …
Equally impressive is his ability to find "poetry" in technical language:
A "system" suggests the cutting off, i.e., in channel morphology, the reduction, the suppression of texture to simplify …
In order to "simplify"—rather than to make simplistic—one must understand first the complexity. This same reclamation of his earlier compression of a complex of thought, feeling, and perception is expressed in "The Idea of Balance Is To Be Found in Herons and Loons," a poem whose movement involves an eidetic image prompted by a nature show on television:
It isn't the signal of another life or the reminder of anything except her call: still, at this quiet point past midnight the rain is the same rain that fell so long ago, and the loon says I'm seven years old again. At the far ends of the lake where no one lives or visits— there are no roads to get there; you take the watercourse way, the quiet drip and drizzle of oars, slight squeak of oarlock, the bare feet can feel the cold watermove beneath the old wood boat.
In its quiet evocation, this poem is a deserving companion to Hayden Carruth's "The Loon at Forrester's Pond."
If the poems in his 1996 collection After Ikkyu & Other Poems do not always rise to this watermark, they serve to reinforce Harrison's basis in Zen practice, a commitment of over twenty-years' duration. This volume also continues to make clear his increasingly sophisticated awareness of the deep linkages between spirit and nature, an awareness that points the new sequence, "Geo-Bestiary," that closes the volume. The final section of this suite brings the volume (and this review) to an apt conclusion:
Not how many different birds I've seen but how many have seen me, letting the event go unremarked except for the quietest sense of malevolence, dead quiet, then restarting their lives after fear, not with song, which is reserved for lovers, but the harsh and quizzical chatter with which we all get by: but if she or he passes by and the need is felt we hear the music that transcends all fear, and sometimes the simpler songs that greet sunrise, rain or twilight. Here I am. They sing what and where they are.
Harrison's work deserves the wide readership this handsomely prepared volume may claim for him. He is one of our current best.