Seven Short Reviews of First Books of Poetry
--In Posse Review Poetry Editors Kathryn R. Farris and Ilya Kaminsky.
"I believe in the theater of bodies.
The ability to shift voices and the speaker's attitudes so fluidly allows Schley to investigate multiple personalities, pointing his diverse interest in the experience of each, without ever repeating himself. He is a man-orchestra, who is can to play on several instruments at once. In the heart of the collection is "Nine Portraits As Muses," a sequence of odes to the nine Muses: Euterpe, Clio, Terpsichore, Calliope, Melpomene, Thalia, Urania, Polyhymnia, and Erato. To say here that Schley has undertaken to re-invent the formal ode is to say very little, for what is an ode? It is, strictly speaking, a poem written for an occasion or on a particular subject, which has always been rather dignified and more serious as a form than others forms poetry. Taken from a textbook, such definition means very little in our post-modern times, when Schley's contemporaries have written odes to such various subjects, as "Ode to Old Age," "Ode to Meaning," "Ode to Jewishness," "Ode to Tomatoes." But to write odes to nine muses in our days and actually get away with this as gracefully as Schley does would certainly take a lot of effort. This poet's particular gift is his ability to fill the old forms with richness of texture and fresher experience, to find a language of paradox and beauty which can both surprise and sustain. To succeed in a project like this, he must be able to speak in several voices at once and shift his tone at any given moment, to sound solemn without being boring, to be playful and surprising without being obscure. And Schley is doing just that. For instance, in Ode to Thalia, the Muse of comedy speaks about the possibility of having never learned to laugh:
If I'd never learned that antiques habit, to write
In this sequence Schley is alive and playful, he surprises us when we least expect it -- his Muse of dance, Terpsichore, suggests that she "came so belatedly to dance" that "could never be sure to arrive right on time / that instant when tempo and footfall coincide / under rippling arch of horn..." while Polyhymnia, Muse of sacred song admits: "Never had I known the rhyme or reason / for that genuine resemblance between / living woman and bowed instrument..." The odes are full of ideas, recollections, musings. Thus, Calliope, Muse of epic poetry traces the "round-about routes to Boston, / battered harbor town where a revolution began, / at first rhetorical, ultimately bloody" while Schley addresses his Muse of history, Clio, with: "How many do you greet, Grace, / with Sweetheart?" and then follows up to gracefully suggest: "Your face // is illuminated by that phrase / of Transtromer's: We have not / surrendered, but want peace."
Other poems in the book have similar vitality and grace. Schley never tires of playing with different rhythms and voices, he begins the beautiful piece "Three Lullabies" with "Reapers and sowers, gleaners and droves: / All go to sleep. / Plowers and fleecers: twelve o'clock mowers: / Go to sleep, to sleep. // As far, as far as we know. / As far as we know." These musical lullaby rhythms are combined with the surreal, dreamlike images where the element of surprise is always present. What begins with: "When you've taken into yourself / the tiredness, the darkness, the depths themselves / saturated, and ready: // This is sleep; this is yours. / You are yours..." goes on to say:
"Enough of today,
But just as his playful moves can always find a footing in his spiritual voice, Schley's spirituality is full of tenderness. In a prayer for his family, "Devotional," Schley addresses his wife, observing: "...Because simply / arranging our daughter's bedclothes, with a tug / on the linen releasing / perfume of perspiration and chamomile soap / will set off such trembling... then folding your clothes / just laundered.. / the sense of smell is ravenous." Here, in the final poem in the book, this poet with a gift for different voices is able to bring them together, intensively, devotion and desire becoming one: "Hear one plea / when I pray, that each of us three / will live to be old// Willingly as I would I / place faith in vacant air."
C.J. Sage knows how to surprise her reader and does so well. In a piece called "You are not a poet," she writes, ".... you opened me / reciting cummings as you drove / my body with your body / then bringing your big thick/ hardback book to my bed.... i swear / by the flesh of one hundred opened tulips / you never wholly kissed me." In these lines her eroticism and irony combine to produce most wonderful effects. Further in the book, in poems like "Say you love your husband" she does this again, and even better: "Say you love your husband // but you want better sex -- / sex where you're soused, / where you're topped / off full with long thick breaths / that lift the body's work.... Sometime you think / you're going insane -- you know / you're not, but you think too much / repetition has damaged your brain....Those apparitions / are like a room full of horny men / closing and opening your shutters / in a weird reverse Morse code / that says to you: / Say you love your husband. / Say you want it, want it all." The poem's the images, its ironic voice and masterly use of repetition all bring us towards its glorious end where we no longer know whether to smile or to agree submissively. And in this lies C.J. Sage's special skill and gift.
The book is filled with beautiful poems and one wants to quote line after line, poem after poem. Such pieces as "She was like Persephone," or "Birth Ghazal truly deserve to be quoted in full and discussed at a great length. Due to the lack of space, however, I can only offer one full poem, "Bridge Ghazal":
My love and I reside upon the belly of a bridge
I've heard of songs that rise at night from pitch-black oceans.
My love and I do landscapes for the gardens of the sea.
Once I saw a Sufi breathe in seabirds, and send them out again.
My love's old love, he says, had tried to douse him in a moat.
The masters speak of magic at the middle of the rings
My love's new love, some say, makes far too much of things
Here, C.J. Sage uses the strict form of ghazal to unfold her narrative. Each couplet offers us a new surprise, and yet the poem returns onto itself, enriching the previous line with every new step. This poem, I think, is a wonderful example of how formal poetry can enrich itself, how a modern poet can still write a lyric which extends the form, instead of abandoning it. Ms. Sage's gifts are immense and rewarding. Her formal skills are very strong and varied in their scope. Her voice is both playful and revelatory.
If I would say here that the tone of his poetry brings to mind the Modernists on whom Longenbach has written several important books of criticism, I would mean this only in the best possible light. Wallace Stevens's ways of investigating inner landscapes by writing about the outer ones has always attracted a large following among the poets of Longenbach's generation, but no poet had actually succeeded in coming closer to Steven's mystifying grace. While obviously enchanted by Stevens, Longenbach has no illusions about imitating the elder master; he is very much his own poet. The formalism of Longenbach's lyric and his attention to the tradition never constrains the poet's subjects in the book. Quite on the contrary, he is able to extend the limits of form by bringing the intimacy of fresh and compelling voice. The deft movement of his unrhymed couplets and stanzas makes his formalism effective and allow the internal connections between individuals and landscapes ("A hawk, wings too lofty for this wood, / descends to look at me; its head turns once / before the branch it rests on breaks away"), children and their parents ("...As in The Death of Abel by Bonnat, / Eve wondering how it could be-- / With everything we know about heaven, / That children understand the means / And ends of suffering before their parents do.") to have a new, fresher but also more difficult resonance. Throughout the book, Longenbach deals with mystery as the given subject where "everything I've heard about heaven is true." His exploration of strangeness creates a musical but fearful landscape where "our faith is faith / in someone else's faith" and the world is seen "as if the body were no longer single / but a colony of disparate parts, / as if the center, where the heart once ruled, / were overtaken by a strange democracy--". This is exemplified best in his wonderful sequence, Threshold of the Visible World, a long poem that circles onto itself in a manner of a crown of sonnets, where formal repetition plays a tune distinguishing the imagined and the recalled, visible and seen:
"...By the time he recognized the world outside
Much of what the poet discovers is darkness, and his fear manifests itself in such images of moral conflict as: "A woman wandering the halls at night // Washes her hands again and again / Although they are not dirty. I am not free / To speculate on motives any further." But precisely this unwillingness to speculate, this concentration on what he does know intimately is this poet's special gift, even when in the struggle with himself "Inventing systems he remain[s] a part // Of systems till he walk[s] so far he stamble[s]." Only having faced himself, having "...realized / He knew nothing of the universe. / So as the children do, he began to learn."
As Robert Pinsky rightly noted, Longenbach's first book "is a book about fear, particularly the fear that outside the charmed circle of normality disaster waits." However, because Longenbach is able to confront this fear without speculation, and is intimate without the slighest trace of sentimentality, the fear is presented in a language so joyous and delicate in its texture and music that the book is natuarally a pleasure to read. To explain this justly, I can find nothing better than to quote in full. Here is one of the very few poems of praise and joy by a debute poet that I have found moving and successful in recent years:
Answers to a Question
Why, why do we feel
Because our being in the world is not
A stuttering, fortitude disrupted
Because by asking we convince ourselves
Because we've traveled half the way, we know
Each of us moving forward in single thought,
Opening and closing on our solitudes.
Concealing what we thought to share.
To revoke the question posed-why,
To serve me tea, two porcelain cups
You by the window, do you feel it now?
Beside her mumbling incoherently,
Ambivalence released me where asphalt
The body like an offering but seeps
"the paltry bundles those fine wives make
Woodworth brings imagination and invention into the landscape of pastoral elegy in an interesting attempt to expand it. His question, "When did the city exceed the grasp of its makers?" becomes an answer in itself, "that hard sound echoing beyond our understanding." Reading Woodworth, one wonders if we can only come to understand our past seeing it as a distant landscape, the city estranged from its makers-and, if it is so, perhaps "we imagine only what has left our sight."
These questions are important in Woodwoorth's collection. In his monologue of Leo Tolstoy's wife, "Sophia Tolstoy At Yasnaya Polyana," the poet wonders "How far we are from all that's happening now," offering a beautiful, reaffirming reply:
"......Weber at night
There are many such clear, lyrical moments in the book. For instance, in "The Heron," Woodworth offers "Unlikely haiku: the heron's courtly pose / described against this cold Maine cove..." the poet says that the heron is "hard to see / a gray not much more blue than rock" yet the poem is very clear, transparent: "he's barely moved in half an hour. / He trains his eyes on shadows and wake-traces / in the eel-grass shallows, fishing at dusk," beautifully concluding:
"...and I am nearly past the awe
from some far kingdom of pure form
He hasn't come for me-but as we share
solitude, I recognize how instinct
austerity can claim its charm.
Then breaks the water with his beak..."
"Converted to your religion of pure movement" begins another beautiful poem in the book, "After the Dance Concert." We have no space here to quote at length, but two last stanzas are certainly deserving of praise:
"...how much our bodies weigh on us..."
Past your dancer's discipline
or played out friendship in some adult dream
My favorite piece in "Arcade" is an imaginary account in both prose and poetry in "Herr Soma Relates The Circumstances of His Breakdown Before Making of The Knife In The Tarn." Herr Soma, an imaginary filmmaker, offers his insightful glimpses on the process of creation:
"...That was the summer I became an artist-the same summer I went mad:
The first physical sign of my collapse was a sore on my tongue."
"...In my dreams, waking or sleeping-it hardly mattered-I returned again and
The prose sentences in this poem mix irony and naivete with bold statements on art and images, dreams. Herr Soma relates his sexual awakening and artistic losses, explaining how "I've come to need the separation afforded only by the camera." Woodworth opens the landscape in "An Uncut Scene From Herr Soma's Last Film" with:
"Take after take, he never gets it right-
fucking his mother on the imperial bed,
...what stays buried keeps
and manages to finish "Herr Soma Relates..." with: "Since making that film, a great success as you know, I have been healthy as a farm boy." Reading "Herr Soma" one is reminded of Borge's and Kafka's parables and perhaps of Italo Calvino's late experiments, but Woodworth is playing his own game, engaging in his own struggle. One wishes for more imaginary poetry of this kind. Autobiography has long been a curse for our literature and it is our hope that more gifted younger authors like Mark Woodworth will bring the imaginary landscape back to its high place.
What Gewanter accomplishes in many poems of this book, particularly in "Goya's The Third of May ", "Conduct of Our Loves", "My Father's Autopsy", "English 1", "Bleish the Barber", "Shield" and the marvelous, Borges-like piece of short prose, "Bill" -- is the invention of his own brand of lyricism, a strange mix of such sensibilities as Heaney and Amichai, or perhaps Simic and Gunn, where soundings and voices, ironies and details create the poem, where the abstract is never loudly pronounced but is nonetheless deeply realised, where the poet's "I" can be both serious and full of light humor. Let me quote from the second and third parts of "Bleish the Barber," where Gewanter's technical mastery and emotional weight are in a full display:
...When Miriam phoned, we were leaving for a wedding;
...these two old grackles were once your girls:
Gewanter's sinewy syntax works quite well here to show that what would be awkwardly colloqual in other hands is very musical in his ("Hear me? This is Grandpa-- How are you? How are you?"). His careful ear and stunning diction make a lyric from what might have been a "narrative" poem in other hands. Gewanter is tender without being sentimental, honest without being brutal ("these two old grackles were once your girls: / guard them by your shop's infinite mirrors"). He is never afraid to bring the joke in his poem ("our shocked "Oh no!" and then, "Oh God--the wedding!"), to tell something "unpoetic." Precisely this unpoeticism is what makes him interesting since he is able to extend the limits of the lyric, to bring in the fresh, unexpected detail. In a way, one can see this "unpoeticism" as an attack at what is sometimes called "beautiful" in poetry, but is, most often, winsome. Gewanter is first of all a realist, the way Philip Larkin, for instance, was a realist. Gewanter has no interest in being "beautiful," he is interested in saying what he things should be said. His use of irony, grotesque and black humor along with musicality and light lyricism certainly does remind Larkin's and, even earlier, Thomas Hardy's Modernism. Gewanter is an interesting poet for a contemporary critic to observe because he does not struggle against Pound and Eliot the way some poets of his or earlier generations did -- he simply ignores them. This absense of struggle with the giants of Modernism adds heavily to his struggle with the self, and helps to explain his burning passion for life. Here is how Gewanter writes of the art of painting in "Goya's The Third of May ": "here, hand me a butterknife / to scrape with, I'll show you how / he painted bullets / inside the painted guns." And here is his view of love in "Conduct of Our Loves": "And how should we conduct our loves? Black and white / judgments still beget grays, like baptisms / of the photograph: / developer is Need, stop-bath Guilt, the fixer / Memory". Although there are many stories in this book, Gewanter--unlike someone like Sharon Olds--never exactly tells the story of the self. Instead, he attempts to expose the stories behind the self. His poems are never locked in the past, but take place in the present tense of the lyric. And, in this, unlikely as it may seem, Gewanter has something in common with Frank O'Hara's work. Just like O'Hara, Gewanter can never be classified as a "confessional" poet. In Gewanter's work the language is made memorable not by bold confession or surrealist image but by something else, an emotional territory carved out of the imagination.
Allow me to quote in full one poem, English I , spoken in the voice of a man teaching English abroad. Here, Gewanter performs the investigation of loss and desire both with light humor ("I taught him how to ask her out, / taught her how to say now, nicely;") and very seriously ("a little book of tears, burns, escape-- / And still I mark the blasphemies / of punctuation,") with a true and convincing tone of voice. In other hands this easily could have been a political poem or a poem--like so many others in Gewanter's generation-- about an American poet in exile abroad. But the range of this poem is so impressive that to speak solely of its "political" inclination or "dislocation" would be worse than reductive. This is a poem not about alienation or war or communism or capitalism but about death and joy of dating and learning and our strange inner complexity. The dislocation may be at root of "English I", but the dislocation is recognized, examined, and realized--in the form of wonderful, memorable poem--by a poet whose work serves as a lyrical fusion of self and the world. There is the sense of "finish" in this poem, as in many others in Gewanter's book, there is the sense of necessity:
FIRST, We tied to each other
What grade does this exercise deserve?
And still I mark the blasphemies
Rickety Hmong boy, flirting simply
taught her how to say now, nicely;
the checks I make for right answers,
out of trouble instead of smiling
Saigon chemist, cowed Haitian, miming
"...We are swimming
Here, Ward answers Williams' demand for "No ideas / but in things," with a motley assortment of objects. This collection of objects seems to be related only randomly, and if they do connect, their effect is something like a wild motion picture where the surprise follows surprise. Everything has equal significance: champagne, Polo, neighbor's pool. Yet what ultimately makes these surprises a poem, "the machine made of words," is its concluding shift in tone, the last two lines, where Ward's irony and light humor affirm the positive meaning of things, but refuse to impose a recognizable order on them. This diversity of tone is a wonderful gift that Ward has. He possesses a sensitive ear, which is immediately apparent in the energy of the lines, their musicality.
Playful, alert and romantic Ward has, nonetheless, very little room for heroism. Here are the lines from his poem, "Stray Dogs, Foaming" where Ward leads the reader with a list of such dark images as "sick woman has drunk a river," to say:
Not all are guilty, but all
These lines' tragic irony placed against Dostoevski's words cleary state Ward's disbelief in the false rhetoric of the heroic stance, there is no big "I" in these lines. Through the poem, Ward's voice, briskly and unapologetically moved from one example to the next. Yet he offers no critical apparatus, no explanation for the specific choice of his examples. The objective tone of these is only a fiction, of course, and the last lines I quote here remind the reader that a "we" does exist-that the poem is not simply a recital of many historical episodes, but presumes a understanding between the poet and his readers. Ward takes identical position in his quietly spiritual, elegiac "Only the Traveler Can Change the Journey," a poem in memory of William Stafford: "...this / earth that we touch, / old friend, it lies down." Here, Ward is ready to affirm the poet's calling in only few words:
...And the question of solitude
This, perhaps, can serve as Ward's own ars poetica. But what it means to be a poet in America in our time, is alas, a question, which can only be answered with other questions.
But Ward attempts to place both the answer and the question in the same sentence. In one poem he can speak with all seriousness and joy about the Fax Machine, mixing in the poem such things as "sex and body politic" along with "what words will excite the Palestinians / and not upset the Jews." He establishes the pattern he will continue to follow for the course of the poem, moving from the actual object of the Fax to the imagined scenes of its production and us and then back again. By the end of the poem, the plain fax machine becomes a mythological object of flames and blessings, placed in the poet's kitchen. Ward notices the history within the intimate and the daily, which becomes the necessary record of the poet, bringing back to William's memorable "Not in Ideas but in Things". Ward, however, knows that that line in itself is an idea. This is how he ends the poem:
"Because it's possible that history
and our task is to wait on the street
What I have enjoyed most in this book is its author's gift of combining the various voices and directions with the tone of light, gentle erotic. Ward can be both historical and erotic, meditative and erotic, elegiac and erotic, playful and erotic, conversational, distinctly American and always erotic. An example: "Walking Down This Mountain". The delicacy and sensibility of Ward, as exemplified in this poem is a distinct joy to experience. Not many poets in Ward's generation find as much pure energy in Eros and such rich intensity of feeling:
Walking Down This Mountain
I'm coming home
Boyer's project is wonderfully ambitions - to create one human voice--as wry, honest, and combative as Ginzburg's-and to speak of her time in the book of contemporary lyric poetry is a worthy, interesting, and, alas, an impossible undertaking. Many contemporary poets have recently tried to re-invent the glory of Frost's and Brownings dramatic monologue as a device of "breaking the bread with the dead" which W.H. Auden had relentlessly advised. In Boyer's work, however, the arguments with the self--the linguistic clashes, confrontations-open the internal drama of much larger proportions. The book which one first sees as wonderful fantasy, an "Imaginary Life", on a second glance proves to be a very, deep, laborious study of (for the lack of the better word) a human condition. For instance, in a brilliant poem "He Hates, He Loves," the voice of Natalia Ginsberg speaks:
My friend loves the poor, really loves
My friend loves the bridges of Rome -
So the poem proceeds, skillfully using the repetition to portray the
My friend fears his lover's wife, hates
....He hates the charade of romance, indulges
The drama suggested earlier in the poem reveals itself in a powerful, striking end: "He hates and loves, loves and hates, / hates the loving, loves the hating. / He loves what I hate. I hate his loves. / He loves men. I love him." This conflict of the self, the controversy of feeling and being is deeply classical in its origin. Boyers, while speaking trough the voice of Italian Natalia Ginsberg, is also wonderfully alert to earlier poetic voices of Rome - Propertius and Catullas whose "He hates and loves" is beautifully re-played here.
"Hard Bread" is a tough book. The toughness is not imagined but clearly, laboriously lived through. What makes Boyers dramatic persona differ from many other contemporary dramatic monologues is that she offers us the strangest of combinations: a dramatic voice traditionally very close to Frost's "North Of Boson" combined, surprisingly, with what appears to be Marcel Proust's late 20th Century catalogue of tireless, deeply felt search and re-examination. Calmly, Ginzburg's voice begins the poem:
It was after our wedding I began
But as the translation from French into Italian turns into our daily translation-aging-Ginsberg's voice admits, with what is perhaps a sense of regret:
...I never mastered
But what is psychological here also becomes erotic-
Such erotic gesture on the speaker's part is gained and believable precisely because it is deeply "thought." In most contemporary poetry such blend of thought and erotic feeling is uncommonly rare. Many other wonderful poems in Boyer's collections, such as (my favorite), "Coat," (unfortunately too long to quote here in full) confirm my belief in this poet's gift-her ability to bring Natalia Ginzburg's voice of stoicism and intelligence into a body of language that insists on being memorable.