Monday, December 31, 2007

GHOSTS, SEX, AND PHYSICS: Devin Johnston & Pattiann Rogers.

Two recent poetry collections offer a range of pleasures.


by Peter Campion and D. H. Tracy
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE

Aversions, by Devin Johnston. Omnidawn. $14.95.

by Peter Campion

Devin Johnston's second book takes the title of his new collection from the rite that ancient Romans performed to placate their dead. His is a book of hauntings: deceased loved ones, childhood bullies, ancient poets, and ideal selves all ghost these pages at one time or another. But ghosting's not so much the subject matter as the formal method. In poem after poem Johnston turns away from the world at hand and moves into a kind of hushed borderland, even as he redirects our attention to the here and now. Like the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, to whom he pays homage, this poet can't get enough of those seemingly mundane spots in time when some subtle presence arrives, thrumming in over the wires. The image of an audible silence traversing telephone lines appears, in fact, as a central motif in the book.

This is also a book about language itself. Yet there's none of the fashionable reflexiveness you might expect from "a book about language itself," none of the knowing distortions of idiom so many poets employ to disguise the lack of genuine thought. Johnston's linguistic introspection is the real thing. His attention to his medium is part and parcel of his feelingful engagement with those spectral presences. Take the first two stanzas of "Early Spring," his adaptation of Horace's Soracte ode:

The hardest of winters will crack
at the tap of spring and milder systems:
performance yachts
are winched from dry-dock storage;
chafed by confinement,
the amateur botanist hates his apartment,
and city parks no longer shine with frost.


Venus ascends through the elms
as the moon swings closer
and teens entwine
their fingers as they ramble,
sandals abandoned; a night-
shift employee waves her scanner,
restocking surge suppressors
of summer lightning.

These lines have a fine acoustic, maintained by a precision and condensation which Basil Bunting or Lorine Niedecker would have admired. These are not "mere" formal talents but vital aspects of Johnston's vision. He sees language as one way that the dead live through us: we receive it from them as we receive our dna. His poems are dignified by deftness and quietude, but they're also great feats of enlargement: they act as conduits, allowing the past and the present to replenish each other. Large also are the pleasures they give their readers.

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.

© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.



Firekeeper: Selected Poems, by Pattiann Rogers. Milkweed Editions. $16.00.

by D.H. Tracy

I picked up the first version of Firekeeper (1994) after coming across Rogers's terrific "Abundance and Satisfaction," a poem cast as a sort of genteel internal debate. Abundance wants a map of the world so detailed it becomes the world; Satisfaction can already see the world in a grain of sand. Satisfaction is monotheistic and content with one explanation; Abundance is polytheistic and wants many. Each makes a good case, and the compromise reached in the poem's rollicking finale has in it the catch-as-catch-can spirit with which we tend in practice to conclude these kinds of arguments with ourselves:
I want one god to be both scatter
and pillar, one to explain simultaneously
mercy and derision, yet a legion of gods
for the spools of confusion and design,
but one god alone to hold me by the waist,
to rumble and quake in my ear, to dance me
round and round, one couple with forty
gods in the heavenly background
with forty violins with one
immortal baton keeping time.

The balance of Rogers's poems (this includes the new selections here from her five books since 1994) come down for Abundance, and busy themselves with praise of the body and nature. These are not narratives of the form, "Yesterday I found a nest in the meadow with three eggs in it, but I returned this morning and there were only two." Rogers offers instead catalogs of phenomena, of animals and animal parts, her interest lying not in their context but in the natural laws that may be apprehended through them, in their implications for their Creator. A single stanza may collect samples of clover, tulips, peabush, steeplebrush, Sweet William, mushrooms, oaks, birches, voles, snails, slugs, crickets, toads, sparrows, larks, and bobolinks. In five lines she might move from pipe fish to musk ox to fungi. In their compulsive taxidermy the poems do not acquaint you with the natural world so much as with the study of it; reading them is like roller-skating through a natural history museum.

Behind Rogers's method, or at least succinctly capturing it, is what she calls "the imperfection of the unfinished," that is, her sense that a being is in its highest and most praiseworthy state when beyond, or considered outside of, change. Discrete events frustrate the writing's aspirations to universality and prayer, and she often uses imperfect tenses to avoid letting in events at all. If moment-to-moment consciousness appears, it is in instances of acute bodily need; as in the work of some other science-oriented nature poets, like Diane Ackerman, the poems extrude an inadvertently terrifying world in which nothing exists but sex and physics.

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2007 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.



Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.





Saturday, December 29, 2007

GHOSTS, SEX, PHYSICS: J.D. McClatchy & Anne Stevenson.

Two recent poetry collections offer a range of pleasures.


by Peter Campion and D. H. Tracy
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE

Poets of the Civil War, ed. by J.D. McClatchy. The Library of America. $20.00.

by Peter Campion

The Civil War was our defining tragedy. Most of us know that commonplace. But maybe because it's so obvious, the war can also seem like a blind spot on our collective consciousness. After the atrocities in New York four years ago, the experts on TV kept referring to the War of 1812 as the last conflict in which an American city was attacked. Vicksburg and Atlanta could have been cities on the moon to them. You can see how such reasoning worked. It's easier to discount the suffering a country inflicts on its own. It's easier, especially since this war ended the abomination of slavery, to gloss its horror.

What makes this collection of Civil War poets so valuable is the power with which it disrupts that trend, corroborating William Faulkner's claim that "The past is not dead. It is not even past." It's not necessarily the consistent quality of the work included that gives the anthology its power. (Many of the poems, as their editor openly admits, are second rate; several seem awkward imitations of Milton or Walter Scott.) No, it's the immediacy with which poetry itself confronts us. McClatchy explains in his elegant introduction that, while there remains no "American Iliad," he has set out to create a panorama made up of the partial glimpses that the poems provide.

What does that leave to readers who desire more from poems than historical interest? A good deal. There are six excellent poems by Emily Dickinson, which set an explosive interior drama against their uncharacteristic topicality. The strongest poem in the collection is Walt Whitman's devastating "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," and the twenty-six pages of Whitman form the center of the book. Fine work by lesser poets also lends power to the anthology. The disillusioned poems of the Connecticut writer John W. De Forest seem particularly striking to me.

But maybe the most impressive selection is that of Herman Melville. Some of the ornament that Melville could sustain in his muscular prose seems like conventional clunkiness in his poems. But consider "Inscription," a poem written after the horrific battle of Fredericksburg:

To them who crossed the flood
And climbed the hill, with eyes
Upon the heavenly flag intent,
And through the deathful tumult went
Even unto death: to them this Stone--
Erect, where they were overthrown--
Of more than victory the monument.

This poem flows from the same impulse that led Melville to give Billy Budd the subtitle "an inside narrative." It endeavors to remind us of the ineffable "something more," the incommensurable lost lives that haunt our official histories.

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.

© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.



Poems 1955-2005, by Anne Stevenson. Dufour Editions. $64.95 cloth; $29.95 paper.

by D. H. Tracy

Anne Stevenson was born in England, raised and educated in the US, and has been living in various parts of Britain since the sixties. Poems 1955-2005 draws from thirteen publications since 1965, as well as from some early and late uncollected work. The poems are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which was at first quite irritating (it is almost a reflexive response to want to compare early and late work) but grew on me. While I hesitate to imply Stevenson's writing has been static, she maintains a consistent sensibility and clustered interests that are able to make thematic categorizations work as more than curiosities. There aren't many poets who could profitably mix up work spanning fifty years, but she can.

Stevenson has written alertly on Sylvia Plath (she's Plath's age, but didn't start publishing until after Plath's death) and Elizabeth Bishop, and has obviously gone to school on them in her own work. More socially constituted than either of these poets, she possesses a charity that neither of them had, and suffers from an excess of consciousness that neither of them had either. I say "suffers" because the excess often manifests itself as literary mannerism or a chattiness of tone that does not entrain itself to the formal or dramatic requirements of the poem. Her challenge, generally speaking, is disciplining this excess. Her loose voice sounds like this:


For what traveller or exile, mesmerised by the sun
Or released by spaciousness from habitual self-denial,
Recalls without wistfulness its fine peculiarities
Or remembers with distaste its unique, vulnerable surfaces?
--From "England"

Compare this to:

A field of barley, feathered;
a fen full of sky-blue butterfly flax,
undulations like the ocean's
rolling right up to the cameraman's
pollen-dusted loafers.
And when Anthea sets up her easel

to catch in watercolour
a picturesque angle of the almshouses,
she scrupulously omits

electrical wiring and tv paraphernalia
that, in strange time, connect her to

"the brutish, uncivilized tempers of these parts" ...
--From "A Tourists' Guide to the Fens"

When in the latter mode, Stevenson's wry-but-not-bitter worldliness (it's striking how much she resembles Mona Van Duyn in this quality) is expansive enough for public elegy, light verse, social satire--there's something eighteenth-century about it. It just doesn't seem to lose its footing. Usually poets' most ambitious work is their worst, but Stevenson's jewel is the 1974 Correspondences, an extended portrait of a Yankee family based on a trove of letters Stevenson discovered at Radcliffe. She shows in these pieces a talent, not otherwise much on display, for mimicry--the voices throughout are distinctly and plausibly old, young, male, female, northern, southern, English, American, grave, flippant, and of their time. As technique, it is impressive; as an act of empathy, it is broad and sustained in a way that any one lyric cannot be. Her strongest short poems (I would nominate "Gannets Diving," "The Women," "Forgotten of the Foot," "Skills," "American Rhetoric for Scotland," "The White Room," "Elegy," "The Traveller," and "Willow Song") occur early, middle, and late. But whatever the case for the poems in it, the book compounds its successes in being a deep record of a robust and elastic sensibility, and in delivering us another not-so-minor Atlantic Goethe.

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2007 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.



Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.





Saturday, November 24, 2007

MOXIE AND DREAMS: Carol Ann Duffy and D. Nurkse.

Two recent poetry collections–one playful, one pleasurably eerie–to get us through the 21st century.

by D. H. Tracy
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Feminine Gospels, by Carol Ann Duffy. Faber and Faber. $11.00.

I gather Carol Ann Duffy is the most popular poet in the UK, and the American publication of her seventh (adult) collection may be an opportunity to extend her empire. It could happen: Duffy's work is so rich that it can't help but be thoroughly of the place it was written in, but her consistent moxie, her affable rambunctiousness, may well hit some kind of public bull's-eye here. And Duffy's poems are getting better and better. In her first couple of books you get the feeling that a claustrophobic talent is squeezing itself into the tight spaces of girlhood and minor monologues, when what she really wants to do is let it rip. She is now doing that; the poems feel simultaneously more playful and more necessary.

Utterly uninterested in wisdom, rhetoric, or meditation, she imagines the poems with systematic vigor, as if they were bathyscaphes she were going to descend in and their soundness depended on the quality of her invention. A poem may start out being about dieting or shopping and, just when it seems about to run into a brick wall of predictability, Duffy skid-turns into a fantastical variation that may be allegorical but is principally just clever. The dieter in "The Diet" shrinks into a mote drifting on the breeze and, accidentally swallowed, finds herself—where else?—"inside the Fat Woman now, /trying to get out." My favorite romp is "Sub," in which Duffy beats McEnroe to win Wimbledon in five sets, sets a Formula One speed record, decks Mohammed Ali, rides the winner at Aintree, performs some sort of cricket feat I dimly comprehend (involving—tantalizingly—"googlies, bosies, chinamen, zooters"), walks on the moon, scores the winning goal in the World Cup, and is tapped to play the drums when Ringo has the flu:

Minus a drummer, the gig was a bummer
till I stepped in, digits ringed, sticked, skinned,
in a Beatle skirt, mop-topped, fringed, to wink
at Paul, quip with John, climb on the drums,
clever fingered and thumbed, give it four to the bar,
give it yeah yeah yeah. The screams were lava,
hot as sea, and every seat in the house was wet.
—From "Sub"


If her readings are half this good on her next book tour, I'm there.



Burnt Island, by D. Nurkse. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.00.

In J.M. Coetzee's novel, Disgrace, the protagonist is a professor who has his students meditate on the distinction between, say, "burned" and "burnt" and "burnt up," the difference being increasing degrees of grammatical perfection. Nurkse's island is burnt, his past is burnt, for good, and the poet treasures any fragments he finds or retains: a pair of his late father's shoes in the closet, a blood-fleck in the eye of a dead sparrow on the sidewalk, the name of an intersection where he witnessed a senseless beating. A heavy sense of the unrecoverable, along with short lines, figurative use of landscape, alternations of light and dark, noise and silence, give the book a pleasurably eerie sense of great intimacy and simultaneous impersonality.

The book is divided into three "suites," which treat, respectively, New York and the events of 9/11, a troubled couple in a few places, including Burnt Island, and a number of curious facts about oceanography and marine biology. While the pervasive dreaminess is narcotic, it is not up to the task of getting around, under, through, or over the events of 9/11, which have an overwhelming prosaic quality in spite of themselves:

A voice behind me shouted hurry
and another screamed mercy.
I braced my shoulders.
All around me were voices
pushing, pushing like men,
and men crying like children,
and a child calling help
from behind a pebbled glass door.
—From "The Evacuation Corridor"

When the related experience is fragmented and unable to account for itself, Nurkse's style, already possessing these qualities, is not so much particularly apt as doubly confounded. In contrast, it works very well in the second suite, where the draining, incommensurable realities of couplehood lend themselves to floating:

We made these bike tracks in the sand
—don't follow them—and this calcined
match head is the last statue of our King.
—From "Separation at Burnt Island"

Nurkse falters again somewhat in the third section, where he is writing out of (as he puts it) "an outsider's fascination with biological language and the horizons it opens." The poems here have a recherché quality that discombobulates his delicate, wide-eyed detachment. If you ever wanted to read a monologue by a sand lugworm or Ommastrephes pteropus, here's your chance. These weaker poems aren't deal-breakers, but leaving Burnt Island with good impressions requires making some allowance for the nature of Nurkse's gift, which varies widely in effectiveness depending on its subject. Followed into the reaches of memory, disappointment, and loss, at least, that gift is considerable and entrancing.

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2006 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.



Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.





Wednesday, June 20, 2007

American Life in Poetry #109: Sue Ellen Thompson.

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

One big test of the endurance of any relationship is taking on a joint improvement project. Here Sue Ellen Thompson offers an account of one such trial by fire.



Wallpapering

My parents argued over wallpaper. Would stripes
make the room look larger? He
would measure, cut, and paste; she'd swipe
the flaws out with her brush. Once it was properly

hung, doubt would set in. Would the floral
have been a better choice? Then it would grow
until she was certain: it had to go. Divorce
terrified me as a child. I didn't know

what led to it, but I had my suspicions.
The stripes came down. Up went
the flowers. Eventually it became my definition
of marriage: bad choices, arguments

whose victors time refused to tell,
but everything done together and done well.



Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 2006 by Sue Ellen Thompson, from her book, "The Golden Hour," published by Autumn House Press. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.




Also at Virtual Grub Street by/about Ted Kooser:

Also of Interest:

  • Call for Submissions Page: A regularly updated listing of competitions and calls for submission of poetry, prose, freelance journalism, visual arts, academic/professional papers and more.

American Life in Poetry #108: Kay Ryan.

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Houdini never gets far from the news. There's always a movie coming out, or a book, and every other magician has to face comparison to the legendary master. Here the California poet, Kay Ryan, encapsulates the man and says something wise about celebrity.



Houdini

Each escape
involved some art,
some hokum, and
at least a brief
incomprehensible
exchange between
the man and metal
during which the
chains were not
so much broken
as he and they
blended. At the
end of each such
mix he had to
extract himself. It
was the hardest
part to get right
routinely: breaking
back into the
same Houdini.



Poem copyright (c) 2004 by Kay Ryan, whose most recent book of poetry is"The Niagara River" Grove Press, 2005. Reprinted from "Poetry," November, 2004, with permission of the author. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.




Also at Virtual Grub Street by/about Ted Kooser:

Also of Interest:

  • Call for Submissions Page: A regularly updated listing of competitions and calls for submission of poetry, prose, freelance journalism, visual arts, academic/professional papers and more.

American Life in Poetry #107: Naomi Shihab Nye.

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poets. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, and travels widely, an ambassador for poetry. Here she captures a lovely moment from her childhood.



Supple Cord

My brother, in his small white bed,
held one end.
I tugged the other
to signal I was still awake.
We could have spoken,
could have sung
to one another,
we were in the same room
for five years,
but the soft cord
with its little frayed ends
connected us
in the dark,
gave comfort
even if we had been bickering
all day.
When he fell asleep first
and his end of the cord
dropped to the floor,
I missed him terribly,
though I could hear his even breath
and we had such long and separate lives
ahead.



Reprinted from "A MAZE ME," Greenwillow, 2005, by permission of the author. Copyright (c) Naomi Shihab Nye, whose most recent book of poetry is "You and Yours," BOA Editions, Ltd., 2005. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.




Also at Virtual Grub Street by/about Ted Kooser:

Also of Interest:

  • Call for Submissions Page: A regularly updated listing of competitions and calls for submission of poetry, prose, freelance journalism, visual arts, academic/professional papers and more.

American Life in Poetry #106: Judith Kitchen.

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

By describing the relocation of the moles which ravaged her yard, Washington poet Judith Kitchen presents an experience that resonates beyond the simple details, and suggests that children can learn important lessons through observation of the natural world.



Catching the Moles

First we tamp down the ridges
that criss-cross the yard

then wait for the ground
to move again.

I hold the shoe box,
you, the trowel.

When I give you the signal
you dig in behind

and flip forward.
Out he pops into daylight,

blind velvet.

We nudge him into the box,
carry him down the hill.

Four times we've done it.
The children worry.

Have we let them all go
at the very same spot?

Will they find each other?
We can't be sure ourselves,

only just beginning to learn
the fragile rules of uprooting.



Poem copyright (c) 1986 by Judith Kitchen, whose most recent book is the novel, "The House on Eccles Road," Graywolf Press, 2004. Reprinted from "Perennials," Anhinga Press, 1986, with permission of the author. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.




Also at Virtual Grub Street by/about Ted Kooser:

Also of Interest:

  • Call for Submissions Page: A regularly updated listing of competitions and calls for submission of poetry, prose, freelance journalism, visual arts, academic/professional papers and more.