The Year in Poetry (Vol. 86)
The Year in Poetry by Allen Hoey
The best news of 1994, the publication of The Great Fires, Jack Gilbert's third collection issued over the past 32 years, is genuine cause for celebration. Gilbert's poems are as spare as his output, written in a style he has refined since Views of Jeopardy (1962), on through Monolithos (1982), trimming back the few excesses the early poems allowed, tempering them and remaining constant to his earliest influences, poems from The Greek Anthology and Waley's Chinese translations.
Typically, his poems begin in the middle of things and establish situation by accretion, so that it may be necessary to reread them immediately to get the fullest sense. The opening of "Measuring the Tyger" serves as an example:
Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.
Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud
outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.
The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel
through the dingy light and roar to the giant sheer
that cuts adamantine three-quarter-inch plates
and they flop down.
Details—absolutely specific but apparently unrelated either temporally or geographically, linked in the poet's mind through their scale, yet the action is not merely external, for, by extension, "The weight of the mind fractures / the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out / the heart's melt." All of the noise and incandescence a figure for the vastness of loss within—in this case, as throughout the book, the death of the poet's wife. He rebuffs those who would comfort him, suggesting that in time he "will / love again"; all that remains is "[d]ay after day of the everyday. / What they call real life, made of eighth-inch gauge"—paltry when compared to "three-quarter-inch plates." What he wants is something other than newness, "[i]rony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry," something stricter:
I want to go back to that time after Michiko's death
when I cried every day among the trees. To the real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.
Yet the point is neither grief nor pain, nor mindless pleasure, but the awareness of being alive; not even ecstasy, for Gilbert "does not want / to know rapture by standing outside himself. / He wants to know delight as the native land he is" ("Thinking about Ecstasy").
Although Gilbert has spent most of his adult life living abroad, the poems do not read like the travelogue of an academic's Guggenheim year, in part because he has preferred isolation and subsistence. Like the monks in "On Stone," Gilbert seems to have "petition[ed] to live the harder way," seeking a "scraped life" that includes "pull[ing] water up / hand over hand from thirty feet of stone." Yet poverty is not a martyr's badge; if he must "scrape the burned soup from [his] only pan / with a spoon after midnight by lamplight" ("The Lives of Famous Men"), he also remembers, in "Man at a Window,"
the cold and hunger as he walked
the alleys all night that winter down by the docks
of Genoa until each dawn, when he held the hot bowls
of tripe in his numb hands, the steam rising into his face
as he drank, the tears mixing with happiness.
We find no self-pity in these poems; Gilbert seeks a life apart that he might be able to find "a base line / of the Lord" ("The White Heart of God"), because "[t]he discomfort of living this way / … makes / death and the world visible. Not the harshness / but the way this world can be known by pushing / against it." He has reached an age where, as he writes in "Me and Capablanca," "There is not / enough time left to use it for dissatisfaction."
At the heart of the collection is the death of the poet's wife, commemorated directly in such poems as "Married," "Michiko Nogami (1946–1982)," and "Michiko Dead." Among the more striking is "Alone," which begins:
I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody's dalmatian.
Characteristically, from this almost surreal premise, Gilbert develops a moving poem that seems not merely credible but necessary:
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other's eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.
Rather than strain to convince us of his sincerity by attempting to explain "the mystery," Gilbert concentrates on the details, keeping his language simple and his voice low, trusting the "real nouns" to do the hard work. (See Jack Gilbert, "Real Nouns," in 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate, edited by Philip Dow (San Diego: Harcourt, 1984), pp. 3-8. If this essay served as a primer in creative writing classes, most of the problems associated with contemporary American poetry would be eradicated.) The poems in this collection push past easy surfaces, getting to the heart, seeing the suffering and madness, and saying, as he does at the end of "A Stubborn Ode," "nevertheless." The publication of The Great Fires confirms that Jack Gilbert is one of the very few absolutely essential poets writing today.
Although Louise Glück does not mention Jack Gilbert in any of the essays in Proofs & Theories, much of "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence," in which she specifically addresses a poem of George Oppen's, might as well apply to Gilbert's work. Like Oppen's work, Gilbert's is "fiercely economical…. Each turn is distilled, each movement essential." This might as easily refer to Glück's own approach in these essays. She wastes little time, compressing considerable intellection and analysis in a short space, a method that demands the reader approach the essays with full "attentiveness to the path of thought" ("The Best American Poetry 1993") and "receptivity, which begins with the self's effacement" ("Disinterestedness"). If we retort before we understand, forming opinions before working through the fullest implications of her ideas, we likely miss her point entirely.
Glück admits that she is not by temperament drawn to the essay form; in "Death and Absence," she writes, "I don't trust my prose, except in letters." Yet these essays do not have the feel of being pulled from her like impacted teeth, though many were written for specific occasions. Perhaps because she lacks the comfort of facility, she is more able to bring to these pieces rigor of thought and unstinting honesty. And such scrupulous examination begins with herself; discussing an early poem, she notes that it "has ferocity without depth" and that "it reads … now as the degeneration of a set of discoveries into a set of mannerisms." One can think of few of Glück's contemporaries capable of noting such flaws in their early work, much less confessing them in terms so devoid of apology.
Taken in sum, Proofs & Theories serves as a place to begin assessing the shortfalls and liabilities of contemporary poetry. She explores such pernicious problems as the emphasis on "sincerity" as opposed to authenticity, the valorizing of obsession as "courage" in the critical lexicon, the promulgation of the subjective, and, as she writes in "Invitation and Exclusion," "the proprietary obsessiveness of much contemporary poetry which stakes out territorial claims based on personal history: my father, my pain, my persistent memory." Of these, the notion of "sincerity," of telling the truth—or at least seeming to—perhaps most pervades discussion of contemporary poetry; one strives to affect a sincere tone, to modulate one's voice such that the sincerity cannot be called into question. In "Against Sincerity," Glück notes the "gap between truth and actuality" and argues, "The artist's task … involves the transformation of the actual to the true." And, further, that "the ability to achieve such transformations … depends on conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty or sincerity." Equally "unnerv[ing]" is "the thought that authenticity, in the poem, is not produced by sincerity." Here, she posits a careful distinction; that which leaves the aftertaste of authenticity—that which strikes us as credible, reliable, as true—may not be voiced in the saccharine tones of excessive sincerity. David Dooley has expressed much the same distinction when he noted that a particular poet "employs a rhetoric of sincerity, which leads to quite different results than if he had employed a rhetoric of plausibility" (see David Dooley, "The Contemporary Workshop Aesthetic," in The Hudson Review XLIII, No. 2, p. 272). The failure is as much a failure of character, or at least of imagination, for, as Glück posits, "the processes by which experience is charged—heightened, distilled, made memorable—have nothing to do with sincerity. The truth, on the page, need not have been lived. It is, instead, all that can be imagined." While this might well be addressed to any number of working poets, and to quite a few herein reviewed, Dooley's remarks are directed toward a poem by Stephen Dunn, "The Routine Things around the House," which Dunn esteemed enough to include in his volume of selected poems.
New and Selected Poems 1974–1994 gathers poems—gathers them generously—from each of Dunn's eight previously published collections, along with a goodly number of new poems. Most of the poems are marked by the rhetoric of sincerity; Dunn wants to convince us that he is a decent man, a thoughtful man, the kind of man, as he writes in "Beyond Hammonton," "on whom nothing is lost." Yet that is the kind of someone, in the poem, the speaker merely wishes he were. In fact, much seems lost on the speaker whose voice drones through this tome, perhaps because he is, instead, the kind of man who believes that "mood invents landscape" ("Round Trip"), who finds "comfort in [his] own noise" ("Sympathetic Magic"), who feels "so importantly sorry for [him]self" ("Night Truths"), and who asserts that "honesty [is] the open yawn / the unimaginative love / more than truth" ("Mon Semblable"). This last is interesting in light of Glück's suggestion that honesty—sincerity—is a trope of failed vision.
Dunn also believes that mice bed down at nightfall ("A Petty Thing"), apparently unaware that they are, by and large, nocturnal rodents. He begins another poem, "I place a dead butterfly on the page, / this is called starting / with an image from real life." I presume we are supposed to find this witty, charming, yet little in the book convinces me that he knows any better how to start "with an image from real life." After all, in "Midnight" he admits that "[o]n TV the other night / the South Bronx had no life / I could recognize," and few of us, I dare say, could imagine much in the United States that reeks more of "real life." In much the same vein, Dunn asks in "Loves," "Aren't facts / essentially loose, dull?… / It's the personal makes things count, / steadies a fact into importance."
Other people fare little better. In "Truck Stop: Minnesota," Dunn complains that a waitress "looks at [his] face as if it were a small tip," but, instead of "com[ing] back at her / with java," he "say[s] coffee, politely." The poem seems to want us to credit the speaker for his restraint, yet what compassion does he show for a woman laboring at a thankless task, for minimum wages, who faces each night truckers calling her "Sweetheart…. / Honey. Doll." If, as the speaker asserts, "[s]he is the America [he] would like to love," what stops him? Failed empathy? Self-absorption and self-pity that would pass themselves off as introspection? "[T]here's an advantage to limitation," Dunn writes in "Moralists," "as long as one doesn't make a career of it." He seems not to have taken his own advice. At nearly 300 pages, this collection displays any number of limitations at greater length than it would profit most to read.
While Dunn, particularly in early poems, occasionally mugged for the neo-surrealist camera, James Tate, in Worshipful Company of Fletchers, his twelfth collection, demonstrates that a career can be made of this limitation. No introspection here, no pretense at facts, no distracting forays into the actual. Instead, we hear "endless palaver, the well-wishing / like a blue smoke circling," and we realize, with Tate's speaker, that this "wasn't a stage [he] was going through" ("50 Views of Tokyo"). I refer both here and in reviewing Dunn to the "speaker" of the poems, but in both cases tonality and what is called "voice," the rhetorical attitude toward both poetic material and subject, vary little from poem to poem, insignificantly enough that the distinction between poet and speaker is smudged for the reader. So much so, the unkind reader is inclined to take almost as an ars poetica, at the least a badge of pride, this passage from "Becoming a Scout":
My mind is drifting, as if on a leaf, on a wave,
a warm current is pulling my brains out, away, away from me.
Therefore I must proceed in a thoughtless, indeed brainless,
fashion, which could prove painful,
though I shall barely notice.
And that reader barely suppresses the urge to wonder, painful to whom?
In general, neo-surrealism, with its unusual phrases and bizarre juxtapositions, seems too facile a way to achieve "poetic effects." Reality—the lives we lead quite apart from pages in books, where we get up and go to work and return home and quarrel with our spouses or suffer and rejoice at the lack of them, albeit a concept anathema to some strains of critical theory—can be strange enough that we hardly need, if we observe, synthesize, present clearly what goes on around us, to ornament or augment its strangeness with rhetorical parlor tricks. Surrealism, at its purest, uses the unlikely to illuminate this quality of life, but we seldom encounter surrealism at its purest in post-Deep Image poetry. Instead, tropes exist for their own sake or in order that we might admire the imagination and skill of the poet.
In his best work, John Ashbery appreciates this distinction, employing his enviable craft, surety of line, and frequent command of tone, for purposes of illumination. He describes this quite well in "Bromeliads":
It's as if the people
who brought you up were to abandon you in your best interests
so as to bring on a crisis of enlightenment—
and then jump up from behind furniture and out of closets
screaming, "Surprise! Surprise!"
Everything familiar, yet nothing familiar, and Ashbery tries to render the shock of waking to the surprise of the ordinary in poems that achieve
of the dream turned inside out, exploded
into pieces of meaning by its own unasked questions,
beyond the calculations of heaven.
Alas, in And the Stars Were Shining, his sixteenth collection of poems—his third in four years—Ashbery rarely manages this high level. Instead, the poems seem retreads of those in April Galleons, Hotel Lautréamont, or any of his books since Houseboat Days, enough that readers might well experience the sensation described in "Till the Bus Starts": "It seems strange I read this page before, no, / this whole short story."
The possibilities of Ashbery's poetic task—and, as I argued concerning Flow Chart in CLC-70 (1991), he has one—are constrained by the endeavor's limits: "the systematic probing and undermining of our accepted notions of how syntax and semantics wed to make easy sense." By its nature, this pursuit will tend toward the abstruse and lend itself to the mandarin. Having explored this through at least half a dozen volumes since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery seems to have declined from mandarin to camp, a habit of mind that distances from the material; the one who winks is never entirely engaged. One too often feels, reading And the Stars Were Shining, that these lines from the title poem too accurately describe Ashbery's current mode of composition: "Rummaging through some old poems / for ideas—surely I must have had some / once?" The urge to explore and exceed the limits of language to express cognition seems too often reduced, as he writes in "The Mandrill on the Turnpike"—one of the more amusing poems in the collection—to a mere "what if": "well, you know, what I call the subjunctive creeps back in, / sits up, begs for a vision, or a cookie." How sad, given such mastery, to settle for a cookie.
Problems of stance—the poet's attitude toward the poem, its material, and, by extension, the reader—also mar Edward Hirsch's achievement in Earthly Measures, his fourth collection. In "Earthly Light," he describes an epiphany when he "turned away // from the God or gods I had wanted / so long and so much to believe in," culminating in the realization that
this world, too, needs our unmixed
attention, because it is not heaven
but earth that needs us, because
it is only earth—limited, sensuous
earth that is so fleeting, so real.
Effectively crafted lines articulating an understanding that has produced much of the best poetry in the Romantic tradition. Yet this urge must be coupled with a capability to shuck the constraints of the self, to immerse the self, Whitman-like, in the mundane, promiscuously, with abandon, to exult as Wordsworth did. Instead, Hirsch seems distanced, overly conscious of the higher enterprise; if not quite mandarin, immersed more in erudition than the actual (as three packed pages of notes, providing source material and background, on half the poems in the book, bear witness), closer kin to Henry James, as Hirsch imagines him, young and in Rome, in "The Italian Muse," than Hirsch might care to recognize:
Where else were one's prodigious walks in line
With the perpetually transcendent attention—
Call it taste, fancy, perceptive emotion—
Of St. Ivo and St. John Lateran?
Hirsch leaves it to the reader to experience either the chummy glow of the erudite or the blush of the dunce, according to whether they understand this reference or not.
As well, Hirsch seems prey to the current notion that "real" poems abound with metaphors. As Jonathan Holden writes in The Fate of American Poetry:
When the traditional, metrical, sonic means of foregrounding the verbal surface of verse is not available, a poet will turn, instinctively almost, to semantic means: stock lines with metaphors and similes, as if to compensate in the domain of "sense" what he has given up in the domain of sound.
And stock Hirsch does. He demonstrates a clear taste for personification: "the bridge unlocking its steel shoulders" ("Orpheus: The Descent"); "the shattered spine of a bridge" and "the ruined breath … of a factory" ("In the Midwest"); the thoroughly original opening, "Once more the clock tolls like a heartbeat" ("In the Midnight Hour"); "the swollen eyelids of daybreak" ("Roman Fall"); "the skulls of churches" and "the lungs of a tunnel" ("The Watcher"). Such overwrought and trite metaphors blur the focus, because they are so imprecise. Yet precision seems to be what Hirsch's "ars poetica" demands, as articulated at the end of "Sortes Virgilianae":
"… If you want to become more than a shadow
Among shadows, you must carry back the memory
Of your father disintegrating in your arms,
You must bring words that will console others,
You must believe in stairs leading upward
To summer's resplendent, celestial blues."
Such words must bear weight—not the weight of scholarly apparatus or figurative afflatus or fancy: the weight of the world seen, touched, lived, embodied, and envisioned.
Fancy and afflatus describe too often the work of the late Amy Clampitt, as much in earlier works as in her fifth volume, A Silence Opens. Clampitt describes her mode astutely in "Syrinx," the first poem, tracing the evolution of vocal expression:
Syntax comes last, there can be
no doubt of it: came last,
can be thought of (is
thought of by some) as a
higher form of expression:
is, in extremity, first to
be jettisoned: as the diva
onstage, all soaring
takes off, pure vowel
breaking free of the dry,
the merely fricative
husk of the particular, rises
past saying anything, any
more than the wind in
the trees, waves breaking …
In this, she seems one of those writers not by nature inclined toward syntax, who, Glück observes, find it "stultifying … a language of rules, of order. Its opposite is music, that quality of language which is felt to persist in the absence of rule" ("Education of the Poet"). The "danger," as Glück observes in "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence," is that "the expansive poet is prone to premature linguistic satiation, by which I mean that the sense of something's having been made comes into existence too readily. The ratio of words to meaning favors words. The poem exists in its adornments." Too often, one feels that Clampitt's logophilia becomes something less pleasant, devolving, as she describes in the ten-page "Matoaka," into an "interminable, / fatiguing catalog."
In the course of her rhetorical arias, the real world, the seen world, becomes blurred, her observations imprecise. In "White," for instance, Clampitt evokes a ravine in language that seems, in its use of geometric terms and biological nomenclature, exact:
of conifers the far
side of the pass with
lopsided falling things
or substances or stuffs
Stuffs? If she intends to enshroud the seen world with mystery, Glück's reminder in "On George Oppen" serves as a rigorous corrective: "precision is not the opposite of mystery." Poets too much in thrall to blurry evocation of "mood" should blaze this motto on their foreheads.
As a creative writing teacher, Philip Booth stressed the maxim, "Sequence must lead to consequence." Whatever details are gathered should function clearly and precisely as means to an end, rather than as an end to themselves. If "consequence" gets lost in Clampitt's "tendency to ramble / and run on" ("Paumanok"), Andrew Hudgins, in The Glass Hammer, seems to lose a sense of consequence in the rush of confessional purgation. These poems, weaker and flatter than any published in his three previous collections, take as their subject Hudgins' Southern childhood. We read of racial tensions, brotherly disputes, class consciousness, and family skeletons: "Which uncles drank and where they hid the bottle. / Which cousin lost a child or had to marry" ("Mending Socks"). Many of the details establish place and time strikingly, like the "black thread pilfered from the mill" that steers "skeeter kites" in the poem of that title, or, in "Blemishes," the mother "lift[ing] / the lukewarm rag and popp[ing] [the speaker's] zits / between her red thumbnails." Yet, like this last image, many details seem designed to shock or titillate, the frequent profanities in the closing line or two of a poem too often gratuitous. Here, for instance, are the last lines of "The Social Order," a poem about his family's racism: "I love some of these people. / Let Jesus love them all. Let Jesus / love every fucking one of us." Or the conclusion of "My Father's Rage":
But now his crazy anger's gone
to whole days watching teevee, watching
golf, football, weather—gone to whole days
watching the fucking all-news channel.
And I, goddamn him, I want it back.
Glück, once more, provides incisive commentary: "When we speak of honesty, in relation to poems, we mean the degree to which and the power with which the generating impulse has been transcribed. Transcribed, not transformed. Any attempt to evaluate the honesty of a text must always lead away from that text, and toward intention" ("Against Sincerity"). Hudgins in "Afterword," provides insight into his intent; "As a child, I swore I'd tell my story / while I was still angry," he begins:
Now, having told, my story, said my piece,
I'm not as angry as I was,
but tired. And guilty. All telling's betrayal,
I've learned again: selection, rounding off,
From the poet of Saints and Strangers, we might have expected much more acute "selection" and "rounding off," interpretation of a life rather than airing of dirty laundry.
Selection and interpretation make James McMichael's Each in a Place Apart, his fourth collection, a wonderfully concise and moving narrative. This book-length poem, gathered in untitled sections, chronicles the author's second marriage, from its beginnings as an adulterous affair between a married man and a significantly younger woman, a member of the church youth group he sponsored, through the dissolution of his first marriage, their marriage, and the slow dissolving of their relationship. The details are carefully sifted, presented in muted, balanced tones, with full awareness of tone and irony. McMichael restrains whatever anger he might feel—toward her, toward himself, toward fate or circumstance—and gives us the simple facts of their life. One section begins:
Except when there's fog,
we can see from our long front window the huge
supertankers and the half-day boats. There are California
gray whales in the winter. I'm through writing by
lunchtime usually if I've gotten a good start,
and on afternoons I'm not at school, there's
reading to do. When I'm at my best with it,
its phrases as much in league as I want
things for us to be. When I follow to the letter first
this phrase, this one, and now this and this,
they feel looked back on from a time so ample
that whatever has been hoped for is made whole. I'm not
married now. Linda's not alone.
No straining to enlist our belief in his sincerity; the sincerity is plain from the low tones of a man recounting only, but completely, a life lived, considered, and finally revealed.
Although less systematic and unified than Each in a Place Apart, What the Body Remembers, Adèle Slaughter's first collection, presents a life story through these relatively spare, well-crafted lyrics. The book's analytical, rather than exclusively purgative, bent is signalled by the section epigraphs, two from psycho-analytical texts and the third from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Grounded in details, the poems evoke the experience of growing up as an army brat with an abusive, alcoholic father, yet Slaughter does not revel in self-pity or excoriate her family; instead, the poems attempt to make discriminations, to separate the essence, as she writes of eating Concord grapes from her grandfather's unkept vines, "gather[ing] the seeds with lips, tongue and teeth, / trying to separate the thick mucous from seed" ("American Summer"). Experience is refined and distilled through memory, which heightens the flavor, like "the taste of spaghetti, better the next day" ("Body Memory"), but the aim is to find a myth to accommodate the details, to weave them into a whole which will allow greater sense to be made of the parts. She remains alert, however, to the pitfalls of such mythologizing, as she writes in the seventh section of "Marriage":
But what is the story here? I hide behind myself
giving you images—dominos, flies,
bell-shaped flowers, milk-fed veal and dolphins.
I become a little i and twist my rings
denying them, a whole life doesn't exist.
Little i wants ten thousand lovers;
The little i buries her left hand deep inside her pocket.
The married i relies on dreaming hands
to hold the way of dreaming.
"But stories do not end in dreams," she begins the next section, a clear-headed recognition. This volume announces the presence of a careful, capable poet.
For Linda Gregg in Chosen by the Lion, her fourth collection, the myth seems compounded from the Attic, the Gnostic, and the Christian. The poems take as their subject a failed adulterous affair but conceive of that affair as emblematic of the failed Eden of a passionate life. "The gods," she writes in "The Ninth Dawn," the opening poem, "want the honey in the hive, are willing to have / the lovers destroyed. There is a grand design / pulsing around their perishing." In these poems, Gregg attempts piece by piece to delineate what she can of that design. The body of the abandoned lover is, in a reversal of the orthodox figure, like the body of the dead Christ: "The body without / God inside. The spirit exited, Jesus all body now" ("The Spirit and What Is Left Behind (After Giotto)"). Pure and earthy, grand and ordinary, Gregg's vision of love seeks to reconcile these opposites. On the one hand, she "want[s] the world to be made / out of passion and grace" ("Official Love Story") and argues, "The form / of love was purity. An art. An architecture" ("Looking for Each of Us"), yet the "one delicate thing," she also writes, "is found / in life's rudeness. The design of beings married together" ("The Delicate Thing"). Further, she "wanted [love] made of actual things. Dirt / and corpses even." The difficulty of her task is reflected in two facing poems, slightly more than halfway through the book. "The City of God" begins,
What thou lovest well is felt violently.
Stays on in us. I know Paradise is not
the cypress tree God showed me as his heart.
Is not the country, is not beautiful.
It is the city streets in bad weather.
Small dirty shops with custard pastries
and coffee and steam-covered windows.
I do not speak the language of that paradise.
For all its ordinariness, this paradise is reachable, unlike the paradise in "Sometimes," which "is always the impossible / grown in the heart. / Until, fully formed, it escapes / as pictures on wooden panels / or on the plastered ceiling." Reading these poems, one never doubts Gregg's earnestness or the depth of her loss; comparing her poems with those of Jack Gilbert, her mentor, one sees the remnant of indulgence, a hive plundered before the honey was quite ripe.
The ordinary world fascinates Jane Hirshfield, as it does Gregg, not because it is a template for a lost paradise but because in "this visible world … all is transformed" ("The Wedding"). The poems in The October Palace, her second full-length collection, celebrate that world through references thrown even wider than those of Gregg and with what seems considerably greater erudition. Hirshfield's net gathers Zen monks, Cycladic figures, Modernist painters, Praxilla, Grant's Common Birds and How To Know Them, and a car named Big Mama Tomato. Her knowledge never seems donned like a valedictory robe, however, but serves to illuminate recesses of thought, not resting on elegant surfaces, for, as she begins "'Perceptibility Is a Kind of Attentiveness'":
It is not enough
to see only the beauty,
that pools aluminum
in the winter branches of apple—
it is only a sign
of the tree looking out
from the tree,
of the light looking
back at the light,
the long-called attention.
But the things of this world do not serve only to "distract / in their sweetness and rustling"; the body is also a "net": "The one / we willingly give ourselves to … / each knot so carefully made, the curved / plate of the sternum tied to the shape of breath, / the perfect hinge of knee …" ("Of the Body"). The real world, the made world, "reveals itself in iron" of raised nails in flooring, "to be pounded down again, for what we've declared / the beautiful to be" ("Floor"). What Hirshfield hopes to help us see through these poems is a way, as she titles one poem, of "Meeting the Light Completely." The goal of Zen practice is to see the world as it is, just as it is, not other than an ideal world of enlightened experience, not quite the same: "Not one, not two," a Zen saying insists. But in the details, banal as "the chipped lip / of a blue-glazed cup" (and pause just a moment to reflect on the sensual beauty of those lines as verbal music), we see the beauty of "the found world," which surprises as profoundly as being able, in those odd moments when we are truly present, to recognize the former "unrecognized stranger" in "the long beloved," leading us to say with "all lovers," "'What fools we were, not to have seen.'"
What Carolyn Forché wishes us to see in The Angel of History is less the spiritual underpinning of the ordinary world than the inherent political dialectic. This third collection represents a dramatic departure from the relatively short-lined lyrics of her earlier books; instead, her lines reach and fracture across the page in their effort to contain history, to record the voices of the dispossessed, whose "ordinary world" means "bootprints in clay, / the persistence of tracked field. // What was here before imperfectly erased / and memory a reliquary in a wall of silence." In "The Notebook of Uprising," she returns to the Czech Republic and traces the experiences of her maternal grandmother during World War II and the subsequent Communist occupation, including dislocation and terrorization. In one section, one of her relatives speaks:
Put into question others, put into question God.
Whatever can be taken away is taken
to allow suffering to remain.
Autumn. That autumn. Other autumns.
It was as if we'd been given to walk through a world to come.
That world, we take it, is our world, full of terror and uncertainty. God is no longer sure, leaving us, as she suggests in "Elegy," nothing to cling to, even "[t]he page is a charred field the dead would have written." In these poems, the personal and historical are collapsed, history seen not in terms of troop movements, military strategies, economic curves, or abstract body-counts but in the lives those remains once lived. History at its best, recorded by Walter Benjamin's angel, provides a sense of "how incomplete a moment is human life," as she notes in "Book Codes: II," "though," she cautions, "this is not a fairy tale explained in advance." These poems challenge our expectations of poetry, bearing closer resemblance to the recent work of Jorie Graham than to Forché's earlier poems, especially in embedding fragments of other texts in the tissue of the poems. Unlike Graham's work, however, Forché is deeply concerned with the human beyond what we usually take to mean the "ordinary": a world of suburban luxury; instead, she attempts to sink her poems in the ordinary brutality of our century, even though her sheer erudition at times distances from the pathos.
However much satisfaction readers of poetry experience from repeated readings of favorite poems, they, too, can become as impatient and anxious for a new volume by a favorite poet as any other member of our consumer society. So I await each of Galway Kinnell's new books, savoring whatever information I garner regarding its movement toward print. Frequently, however, what we await most impatiently cannot satisfy our expectations. The poems in Imperfect Thirst, Kinnell's twelfth collection, do not instantly grab me, shake me up, make chills run up and down my spine, take off the top of my head. And Emily Dickinson's visceral criteria have always seemed best, since the ways a poem moves each individual reader, the depth and breadth, is the truest measure of its having tapped the source. Except in moments, these new poems do not affect me in ways that a good half dozen in The Past do, increasingly on repeated readings. Still, if even two or three poems in a collection have that effect on me, I consider it solid, and this new collection exceeds that requisite minimum.
First, to complain: too many of the poems seem derivative—of Kinnell himself—exercises in familiar modes, like the long-lined "The Pen," "Proem" to the volume, which lacks the vitality of "The Road Between Here and There," for instance, or, from When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, the movingly humorous "Oatmeal." Similarly, the longer ode-like poems in section V, particularly "Holy Shit" and "Flies," seem more concerned with revelling in surfaces than grappling with depth, mere poetic parlor games; "Holy Shit" begins with three pages of epigraphs before getting to the poem, which occupies only slightly more space. This is not particularly different from other volumes; Kinnell is not always the best judge of his work upon initial book publication, which is why his work benefits from such revisiting as last year's Three Books.
On the plus side, however, when Kinnell nails it, the satisfactions are enormous. In this volume, "Trees," "Rapture," and "Neverland" score highest marks. In "Rapture" the description of waking, making love, drowsing, and waking again to watch the lover dress poignantly evokes the eros of the ordinary:
She takes a piece of silken cloth
from the drawer and stands up. Under the falls
of hair her face has become quiet and downcast,
as if she will be, all day among strangers,
looking down inside herself at our rapture.
Even more, "Neverland," an elegy for the poet's sister, explores the uncomfortable territory of watching a loved one die, knowing, as life fades, that one "could take off right now, climb the pure forms / that surmount time and death" to "hurtle" into the arms of a lover and "taste … the actual honey of paradise." Instead, he stays, watching and waiting. By the end, "as they ratchet the box holding / her body into the earth," he hears
calling back across the region she passes through,
in prolonged, even notes, which swell and diminish,
a far landscape I seem to see as if from above,
much light, much darkness, tumbling clouds,
sounding back to us from its farthest edge.
Now her voice comes from under the horizon,
and now it grows faint, and now I cannot hear it.
Poems like this can fill what, in "The Striped Snake and the Goldfinch," Kinnell calls the "unfillableness in us," providing the satisfactions that lead us to poems in the first place.
Readers familiar with the work of William Everson, who also published under the name Brother Antoninus, from a few scattered anthology pieces will be gratified by the depth and range of the work gathered in The Blood of the Poet: Selected Poems. Albert Gelpi has gleaned from the extent of Everson's career, organizing the book in three sections that correlate with the three volumes of Everson's collected poems: "The Residual Years," "The Veritable Years," and "The Integral Years." Gelpi's "Afterword" also provides a clear history of Everson and his work, including his relationship with Catholicism, particularly of interest given his stint as both lay brother and ordained monk. Like Rexroth, with whom Everson was associated in the Fifties, and Robinson Jeffers, whose imprimatur is plain in these poems, Everson is a poet of nature, particularly the hills of California. From the earliest lyrics to the recent meditations, Everson cannot regard nature without seeing God or consider God without incarnating Him in fields, rivers, bears, or deer. His eye is not judgmental; he seeks not to discriminate good from evil in the natural world but to see the fullness of God's grandeur:
And the strong weed
Seeds, and the weak weed
Scatters, and I see in them each
A glory of God …
In these lines from "The Falling of the Grain," I hear a resonance with Kit Smart, another "renegade" influence along with Lawrence, Whitman, Blake, and Jeffers. The volume includes very recent work which shows no diminution of poetic power or vision; the details remain sharp, reaching beyond the literal to embrace the inherent Incarnation:
Suddenly a kingfisher swoops between.
In midflight he sees us, veers sharply,
Utters a sudden electrifying screech,
The ineluctable tension cruxed at the heart of things
Splitting his beak, the mystery
Out of which life springs and from which it passes.
("Stone Face Falls")
Though not a major poet, Everson stands as an accomplished journeyman, the sort of poet whose service consolidates in order to extend and expand the possibilities of the art.
W. H. Auden, in his introduction to 19th Century British Minor Poets, established five criteria for being major, of which a candidate must satisfy at least three and a half. The poet must be prolific, demonstrate "wide range in subject matter and treatment," evidence "originality of vision and style," show mastery of verse technique, and continue maturing as a poet until death. Hayden Carruth meets all these conditions, as his Collected Longer Poems demonstrates by itself; taken together with his Collected Shorter Poems (1992), it marks Carruth as a preeminent master. The poems were composed between 1957 and 1983 and have been published in various collections, only one previously unavailable except in a fine-press edition. Three are written in Carruth's trade-mark "paragraphs," rhymed, variably metered fifteen-line stanzas, including The Sleeping Beauty, the heart of Carruth's oeuvre to date. Other poems in the collection are written in sprawling Whitmanesque lines, tercets, free-verse lyrics, and loosened blank verse, the chosen form answering the demands of the subject matter. Few, if any, of Carruth's contemporaries—or immediate predecessors or followers—have demonstrated such extensive mastery.
Carruth's mastery, scope, and development can be shown by comparing passages from the three poems in "paragraphs," beginning with the first poem in the book, "The Asylum":
And is not the whole earth
Asylum? Is mankind
In refuge? Here is where we fled in birth.
Yet what we fled from we shall find,
It fills us now. And we shall search the air,
Turning drained eyes along the wind, as blind
Men do, but never find asylum here.
The variable iambic lines, elevated and stiff as the diction may be, are flexible and fluid, varying the caesura, alternating end-stopped and enjambed lines to affect pace and phrasing, positioning inversions to intensify the signal as well as vary the beat. The rhymes are clear and clean but unobtrusive. For all that, the poem never entirely rises free of period style. Compare this with a passage from "The Moon," in Contra Mortem (1966):
Reflected light reflected again on snow
but beauty is lonely beauty The snowsurface
is hard gleaming vitrescent blue
without crest or crevice
extending beyond anywhere for long ago
the horizon crumbled in an indeterminate glow
and the night has stillness
Carruth's extensive vocabulary is again evident, but his treatment of the form markedly differs: lines more frequently enjambed, rhymes more slant, the meter considerably loosened, losing in some places entirely the iambic pulse, then reasserting it subtly. Here, however, the style is less period academic and more reminiscent of the "other" school of American poetry, resembling the work of such post-Poundians as Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley. Finally, this passage from section 94 of The Sleeping Beauty:
The poem moves.
After fierce intention,
The exalting, reaching and thrusting through lust,
Through densities of image, to explode transcendence
From a broken language, to touch
Everyone's wordlessness, to crush what was meant
Till it dances clear of language like forestfire bent
And flaring in the wind—
Like fire sometimes, windblown.
Flexibility of line, including caesura and enjambment, emphasis and phrasing—in both poetic and musical senses—remain constant. Yet, around a consistent armature, Carruth alters the way he handles the poetic clay.
If such diversity puzzles a readership obsessed with a poet's one "true voice," Glück again offers insight: "for the writer, thinking and writing (like thinking and feeling) are synonyms. Style changes when one has got to the end, willingly or not, of a train of thought" ("The Idea of Courage"). Carruth's fundamental concern with the tough issues of being is clear enough from the passages quoted, yet they are issues in plural, a life's work to ponder and puzzle, to grapple with again and again. Madness, the riddle of being, the paradoxically ennobling and damaging Romantic myth—"An aspect of relentless intelligence," Glück writes in "On Hugh Seidman," "is that it finds no resting place…." Certainly, for Carruth, "the poem keeps moving," fluid, flexible, bearing witness. His Collected Longer Poems finishes gathering his past work, though, as the last section of the Collected Shorter Poems indicates, the body of his work continues to grow.