Saturday, August 30, 2008


A review of Simon Armitage's new translation of the larger--and stranger--than-life Middle English poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."

By Edward Hirsh
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight A New Verse Translation. By Simon Armitage. $25.95, W. W. Norton & Company; 12.99, Faber & Faber.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the eerie, exuberant joys of Middle English poetry. The poem was created in the latter part of the 14th century by an unknown author who probably hailed from the West Midlands of England. He knew the spoken dialect of the rugged country between north Staffordshire and south Lancashire.

The geography of the poem puts it a world away from cosmopolitan London. The sole surviving copy of the manuscript, now kept securely in the British Library, was recorded by a scribe and bound up with three other poems probably by the same creator ("Pearl," "Patience" and "Cleanness"). Thus the author is generally known as the Gawain or Pearl poet. He was a contemporary of Chaucer and a master of our mongrel English tongue.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a medieval romance (it inherits a body of Arthurian legends that had circulated in England for a couple of centuries) but also an outlandish ghost story, a gripping morality tale and a weird thriller. It is a sexual teaser that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It's easy to imagine huddling around the fire to listen to it. You can tear through it in a night or two--I couldn't put down Simon Armitage's compulsively readable new verse translation--and linger over it for years.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the founding narratives of English literature. The storyteller nods to the "Aeneid," thus invoking his epic lineage, and then settles down to tell his tale, which begins in the court of King Arthur, "most regal of rulers in the royal line." It is Christmas-time at Camelot, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table are carrying on and carousing when suddenly an enormous stranger appears, a hulking interloper, "a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals." The astonishing stranger is green from head to foot, a kind of emanation from nature. Even his horse is "a steed of pure green stock." The Green Knight, "otherworldly, yet flesh/and bone," presents a startling challenge: he will endure one blow without offering resistance, but whoever deals it must promise to receive a reciprocal blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, rises to the challenge and beheads the stranger in one stunning strike. Then the Knight stands, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain to meet him at the appointed time.

Thereafter Gawain, a bewildered southern innocent (he tells Arthur he is "weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit"), honors his pledge to seek the Green Knight out and journeys into harsh northern terrain. A year of adventures ensues--an adulterous seduction, a series of graphically violent hunts, a meeting with the Green Knight in a green chapel--that constitutes the moral test and vision of the poem.

Alliteration, the audible repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or within words, is part of the sound stratum of poetry. Its heavy percussive use in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" brings the poem close to oral poetry.

Listen to the letter "v" in this line about the Green Knight - "And alle his vesture verayly was clene verdure" - which Armitage gleefully translates as "In all vestments he revealed himself veritably verdant!" Or consider the letter "g" in this comparable line - "Thou wyl grant me godly the gomen that I ask / bi ryght" - which Armitage renders as "you'll gracefully grant me this game which I ask for/by right." The repetitive consonants tie the stressed syllables together (grant, godly, gomen) and urge the interaction of the words upon us.

Armitage, an English poet from West Yorkshire, clearly feels a special kinship with the Gawain poet. He captures his dialect and his landscape and takes great pains to render the tale's alliterative texture and drive. Indeed, Armitage calls alliteration "the warp and weft of the poem." His vernacular translation isn't literal--sometimes he alliterates different letters, sometimes he foreshortens the number of alliterations in a line, sometimes he changes lines altogether and so forth--but his imitation is rich and various and recreates the gnarled verbal texture of the Middle English original, which is presented in a parallel text.

Simon Armitage has given us an energetic, free-flowing, high-spirited version. He reminds us that "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" still wields an uncanny power after 600 years. We're fortunate that "our coffers have been crammed/with stories such as these."

Edward Hirsch is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and his latest book is Special Orders.

© 2007 by Edward Hirsch. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Monday, August 18, 2008


Fanny Howe's poetry is consciousness without judgment; her objective is "not to conclude, but to discover."

By Joel Brouwer
Poetry Foundation Media Services

The Lyrics, by Fanny Howe. Graywolf Press. $14.00.

These six long poems were obviously written on the move; references to walking, traveling, searching, and fleeing appear again and again. The poems themselves roam, too, passing from one set of associations to another without troubling too much about transitions. Howe's poems have always claimed a right to include whatever passes through the poet's mind, and to hold up for reconsideration any and every assumption, whether spiritual, philosophical, political, personal, or aesthetic. In this, Howe seems to imply that the test for whether or not an utterance is poetic is simply to ask whether or not a poet uttered it.

Such an approach can be disastrous if the poet's consciousness is insufficiently remarkable, but this has never been a problem in Howe's case. These poems really should, by all rights, be impossible to follow; they're that heedless of rhetorical, narrative, or formal consistency. But each new line offers a fresh thrill of interest, and I read on like a hiker following blaze-marks through a forest, not sure where I'm going but confident I'm not lost:

Because my secret wedding
Was enduring and the rest
Was not--I think disclosure
Is dangerous.

What is heavier than lead?
The need for bread.

What is crueler than a boss?
The need for praise.

What is shorter than a step?
An indrawn breath.

My secret wedding was to whom?
A promise not a human.

* * *

Let the mill-clapper go on clacking,

Let mud and ink stiffen
On the same sheet.

Let the lamb shit on the cross
And the pen cut the butcher.

Let a fire blow and warm
The revolutionaries.

I am secular. I walk the streets.
I feel sorry for everyone.

When will the Messiah come?
The repetition of the same problem

Is getting exhausting.
"Roosters, blood, a silhouette.
Hanging over a gas lamp."
          --From Forty Days

One thread I hold on to through passages like these is Howe's companionable voice, which is earthy, funny, intolerant of euphemism, and delighted by beauty. Two others Howe seems to offer are political urgency and spiritual seeking; some lines sound like Bertolt Brecht and others like Teresa of Avila. But before we grab hold of those two, we should consider how they relate to one another.

Pace the inane book description on The Lyrics's back cover, Howe knows very well that there's a difference between good and evil, and her commitment to social justice is evident throughout her body of work. Howe has also long been fascinated by ideas of spirituality and transcendence. A reader given to dialectical thinking and impatient with religious sentiment in any form (mea culpa) might struggle to understand how a poet can on one page see language as a means of escape from the material world, "because the structures of language and sound offer one more way to get close to Atman-Brahman-Ma. // They reveal secrets by which you can reach enlightenment and live in the universe without fear," and on the very next use language to compose a prayer inspired not by any misty spirit but by straight-up historical materialism:

Ma is God but not quite the same.
So pray to the toilet, flush.
Pray to the floor, stay clean

* * *

To the cow and the hen, thank you
For all you have given
To us workers of the world.
          --From Far and Away

But this apparent conflict may not be one at all, if we think of Howe not as a lyric poet in the Romantic sense of someone engaged in subjective personal expression, but instead as a kind of lyricist improvising in her studio, patching together into her song the overheard and the imagined, the given and the made, ideas rejected and ideas dearly held, rumor and experience. "A day is a freely given poem; it can be short or long," writes Howe, and "Nowhere is better / Than a road without judgment."

In the end, it seems Howe's objective isn't to arrive but to travel, not to preserve experience but to let it pass through her, not to conclude but to discover. Asked why she left her "native country," Howe offers these lines of recognition and loss, which themselves seem to "sparkle as they vanish":

      To become a different kind of being:
A realist
Who can recognize and classify the pieces of the lost.
To be the only one!
It's true they sparkle as they vanish
And finding them lets you know you are credible,
At home in the world.

Joel Brouwer is the author of three books: Exactly What Happened, Centuries, and And So. He teaches at the University of Alabama.

© 2008 by Joel Brouwer. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Laura Kasischke's latest poetry collection, Lilies Without, offers unsettling charms.

By Joel Brouwer
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Lilies Without, by Laura Kasischke. Ausable Press. $14.00.

Not much light penetrates the gloom of Laura Kasischke's bewitching new collection, which conjures a mood of misty portent through the use of deep-image nouns (fire, sea, stone, bone, bird); mythological and fairy-tale tropes (Orpheus and Eurydice, the Styx, bats, cobwebs, ghosts, hags, wolves) and formulae ("Once, a woman lay her head on a pillow to sleep without noticing that ... "); addresses to and from god and other mysterious beings; enigmatic italicized passages perhaps spoken by those beings; convulsively varying line lengths; sudden strangulating enjambments; creepy storybook rhymes ("O, what would it be like, I wondered then, // to have that thing explode / each year for a week into blossom in your head // so long after you were dead?"); mesmerizing spates of anaphora; and occasional direct adjectival assertions of spookiness ("ominous summer," "haunted city," "ghostly babies," "monstrous cloud"). All these techniques appear in the opening poem, "New Dress":

Dress of dreams and portents, worn

in memory, despite
the posted warnings
sunk deeply into the damp
all along the shore. (The green

tragedy of the sea
about to happen to me.)

in my subconscious, I ignored them.
(The green

eternity of the sea, just around the corner.)

whole ominous summer, I wore it, just
an imitation
then, a bit
of threatening ephemera. Another
rumor. Another
vicious whisper. And then
they sang. (The giddy

of the sea.)

The feminine
of it, I wore. (How

quiet, at the edge of it, the riot. How

tiny, the police.)
The Sturm
und Drang
of it. The crypt
and mystery. The knife
in fog of it. The haunted
city of my enemy.
(And always
the green, floating, open
book of the sea.)

dress, like

an era of deafness and imminent error, ending
even as I wore it, even as I dragged the damp

hem of it
I wore it.

Clearly, trouble is afoot. But as in a number of poems here, it's difficult to guess what that trouble might be. "New dress," "feminine maelstrom," "imminent error," and those eerie green girls together suggest a vague horror about female maturation, but that's about the best I can do. The poem seems to be made of clues to a mystery that might or might not exist.

In many poems here, though, Kasischke's atmospherics work as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. A suite of marvelous poems playing on the conventions of beauty pageants and pinups is no less mysterious than "New Dress," but because the poems' concerns--sexual, political, personal--are clearer, they both beguile and satisfy. The excellent "At Gettysburg" is successful for similar reasons. We know where we are and the significance of the place; we soon know the characters present and their relationships to each other. Given just those small bits of exposition to hold onto, we're
able to enjoy the ride when Kasischke releases her rush of strange and startling images:

The worms
beneath him make

the burden of the earth seem light enough to bear--and still

inside me I believe I carry
the pond where the injured
swans have come to flock.

This is a book of tremendous imaginative energy which is sometimes spent too wantonly but which often blossoms into truly engaging weirdness. An excellent choice for the Goth in your life, or in you.

Joel Brouwer is the author of three books: Exactly What Happened, Centuries, and And So. He teaches at the University of Alabama.

© 2008 by Joel Brouwer. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Friday, August 15, 2008


With recent collections of war poetry in his bag, an ex-soldier returns to Afghanistan.

by Nathaniel Fick
Poetry Foundation Media Services

The Baghdad Blues, Sinan Antoon. Harbor Mountain Press, $10.00.

The War Works Hard, Dunya Mikhail. trans. by Elizabeth Winslow. New Directions Publishing, $13.95.

Here, Bullet, Brian Turner. Alice James Books, $14.95.

I first flew into Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001, near midnight, with a rifle by my side and no passport in my pocket. At 24 years old, I commanded a Marine Corps infantry platoon, spearheading the attack against the Taliban after September 11. My men and I had all joined a peacetime military, and that night we were self-consciously aware of heading into combat for the first time. Nearly six years later, on a sunny afternoon, I'm again soaring over the Hindu Kush range. This time, I'm on an Indian Airbus, sipping sparkling water and reading war poems.

After two combat tours (we did another in Iraq in 2003), I left the military to study for a master's degree in public policy and an M.B.A. Now I live with my fiance in Boston. We host dinner parties, grow herbs on the windowsill, and go walking in the park on Sundays. It's four years and 10 lifetimes since my last ambush patrol, and I've been invited back to the fray to teach at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy, a school set up to train Afghan and NATO troops on the finer points of fighting insurgents. For some reason, I've agreed to come.

U.S. Army Sergeant Brian Turner distilled his year in Iraq into a haunting book of poems titled Here, Bullet. Turner initially kept his work to himself because he didn't want his men to think he was writing about "flowers and stuff." One of my favorites is titled "Ashbah," Arabic for "ghosts."

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,

unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice

sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,

how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,

leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

Having walked Iraq's streets by night and felt that dawn wind bending the palms, I get lost when I read Turner's verse. His words are worth a thousand pictures, and they take me right back. My memories are mostly sentence fragments now, rather than chapters, or even paragraphs. A boy with a bellyful of bullets. Birdsong in the palms. The taste of fear, like a penny on your tongue. Flames in the night sky. More than mere scene-setting, Turner captures the feel of the place, the sheer forlorn emptiness of it.

Sinan Antoon studied at Baghdad University before moving to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. We stood on opposite sides of a chasm: I was a combatant, and he was a civilian. But Antoon understands war's egalitarian nature: that it often doesn't matter which end of the gun we're on. Antoon touches another universal theme in "Sifting," a poem of but 12 words:

my eyes
are two sieves
in piles of others
for you

A husband scanning a crowd of refugees for his wife? Maybe a sister seeking her brother in a line of captured soldiers? Or how about a young Marine at a checkpoint?

Like Antoon, Dunya Mikhail fled Iraq in the 1990s. The title poem in her collection, The War Works Hard (winner of a 2004 PEN Translation Fund Award), turns President Bush's oft-repeated phrase on its head.

How magnificent the war is!
How eager and efficient!
. . .
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
accustoms young women to waiting,
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures,
builds new houses
for the orphans,
invigorates the coffin makers,
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader's face.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

As the plane drops toward the runway, into surface-to-air missile range, the poems have indeed prompted reflection. My heart's beating faster, and I'm thinking of Turner's wind, Antoon's sifting eyes, and Mikhail's working war.

They remind me where I've been, and make me wonder why the hell I've come back.

Nathaniel Fick served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. His combat memoir, One Bullet Away, was a New York Times bestseller, and was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by The Washington Post.

© 2007 by Nathaniel Fick. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Poets Anne Carson and Charles Wright revise and refresh the usual ways of seeing the world.

By Sandra Gilbert and D.H. Tracy
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera, by Anne Carson. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

Reviewed by Sandra Gilbert

Anne Carson has won a formidable array of prizes and is a MacArthur Fellow, but I still remember my first encounter with what I could then only define as the utter strangeness of her sensibility. Not the least of the pleasures in her latest multidisciplinary offering is "Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)," an essay that illuminates the mystery informing her strongest writings. Recounting a dream that she had as a young child, Carson describes a vision of her family's living room that seems to be as much a product of the visionary imagination as of REM sleep:

The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls ... nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different ... as changed as if it had gone mad.... [but] I explained the dream to myself by saying that I had caught the living room sleeping. I had entered it from the sleep side. And it took me years to recognize ... why I found this entrance into strangeness so supremely consoling. For despite the spookiness, inexplicability and later tragic reference of the green living room, it was and remains for me a consolation to think of it lying there, sunk in its greenness, breathing its own order ... something incognito at the heart of our sleeping house.

Carson uses this dream as an entry into an analysis of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Man-Moth," a poem itself based on a sleeper's misreading of the word "mammoth," along with discussions of further sleep-drenched works. But what I find most resonant are the entranced defamiliarizations that illuminate the dream-work out of which Carson's own art often arises.

Like most of Carson's books, Decreation includes some fine examples of such art, including the comically ecstatic "Ode to Sleep," into which "Every Exit Is an Entrance" cleverly segues:

Think of your life without it.
Without that slab of outlaw time punctuating every pillow
--without pillows.
Without the big black kitchen and the boiling stove where you
snatch morsels
of your own father's legs and arms
only to see them form into a sentence
which--you weep with sudden joy--will save you
if you can remember it

At its best, the verse here shares with the prose Carson's gift for telling what Dickinson called the "truth," but telling it "slant." Especially moving are the elegiac lyrics in memory of her mother with which she opens the volume. "Sleepchains" is heartfelt in the angular grief with which it shapes the cauchemar of lamentation:

Who can sleep when she--
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.

Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.

But the work of Decreation weakens when the decreation of the daytime world doesn't issue in a recreation of dreamlike vistas: exits don't turn into entrances. In "H & A Screenplay," Heloise and Abelard sit at an absurdist kitchen table uttering a pointless series of Beckett knockoffs: "Hot day. / ... / You know I wonder about those leftovers. / What about them. / Will they last." This stuff makes me wonder about "those leftovers" too: Carson should consign them to the disposal. This brilliant poet should remember the livingness of her dream's green living room.

Sandra Gilbert is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Belongings, and two works of non-fiction. She is a professor emerita at U.C. Davis.

© 2007 by Sandra Gilbert. All rights reserved.

Scar Tissue, by Charles Wright. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $22.00.

Reviewed by D.H. Tracy

At this point, let's face it, a new book by Charles Wright--Scar Tissue is what, his fifteenth? sixteenth?--isn't going to sneak up on anyone. Thirty-five years into his decorated career, we know what to expect, and one of the pleasures of Scar Tissue is its familiarity. Those long, mossy lines, steeped in the South but trailing references to Italian cities and Chinese poetry like exotic fronds; the poignant descriptions of Virginia landscapes, all cobweb-delicate and yet hiding a robust benevolent sly smile; the meditations on the nature of existence; the unbelievably cluttered imagery, first falling on Vaseline, then church bells, then artillery rounds, then a crystal goblet, which is the order of metaphors in one ten-line description in "Matins"--there's something reassuring about all this. It's like running across a rerun of The Waltons, only the grandfather's been replaced by the concept of Ultimate Nothingness and John Boy's been swapped for Li Po.

It would be easy to pick this book up with a smile, shake your head fondly, and not give it too much thought. But you'd be missing out, because there's a good book of poems here, even if you have to look to find it. The mode of the poems is frequently conclusive, rather than descriptive or dramatic or nostalgic, and the steady arrival of lines telling you How Things Are is at times a dull bombardment. But beside all that, or beneath all that, is Wright's ability to write really striking images--lines about shadows sliding "In their cheap suits," about lightning that "flashes like hoof sparks"--and to create, especially in short poems like "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Waking Up After the Storm," moments of beauty unlike those of any other American writer.

He's been using this limited palette for so long because it works, after all; something about this kooky combination of Virginia forest, Tang poetry, old cars, Dante, and woodsmoke really does bring you to a feeling of contemplative suspension that surprisingly recalls Wang Wei. It's worth looking for, that feeling, even when it's nestled a long way down in a grand late-period complacency. This book won't change your life when it's trying to, in other words, but it might change it a little when it's not.

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Poets Tess Gallagher and Robin Robertson dive headfirst into mythic flaws, contemporary and classical.

By Sandra Gilbert and D. H. Tracy
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Dear Ghosts, by Tess Gallagher. Graywolf Press. $20.00.

Reviewed by Sandra Gilbert

Tess Gallagher has always been an endearing poet, simultaneously meditative and what we call "confessional"--meaning, in her case, that she often beautifully transforms incidents in her personal life into occasions for nearly mystical reflection. Especially after the death of Raymond Carver, her longtime partner, she moved into a search for the secret meanings that shape both love and loss, stationing herself at the center of what she called Moon Crossing Bridge, to interrogate grief. Now Dear Ghosts continues that quest with elegiac poems brooding on all the souls who haunt her, as well as poems examining both her own art and her own mortality. A writer of generous fluency, Gallagher sometimes fails to restrain words that overflow into prosiness. "A Stroke of Sky," on 9 / 11--a theme that's tripped up platoons of poets--begins with astute observation:
            Our fabled American buoyancy,
our save-the-day vigor slumped
to urgent reciprocity--like relatives
in a quarrelsome family
who see each other only at funerals,
and don't need to
speak, just nod and press
each other's hands.

But soon the language slackens into awkward philosophizing:
Our inner plea: not to be absent
from pain through the tourniquet
of irony, denial's tepid bath water
that poisons the soul's aquifer.

Block those metaphors, as they used to say in the New Yorker.

But perhaps rambling or clumsiness is the chance Gallagher takes so she can push herself ever further into her subjects, as she does at her best. "The Dogs of Bucharest," a powerful travel poem, becomes more than a voyager's journal entry as the writer--hearing the dogs begin "another alarm, their chuffing / like black shovels full of earth tossed / into an open grave that is everywhere"--contemplates poetry, politics, grief, and survival. Signaling another bereaved woman, her "temporary neighbor across the yard," she sees herself and her friend as two widows "saluting each other. Just that. A sign / across this chasm of life," then resumes quotidian solitude, acknowledging:
            that inevitable, necessary moment
when we drop our arms,
turn our backs to the window. Do
the next ordinary thing.

It's hard to define the strength that shapes survival, so it's no wonder Gallagher sometimes goes too far into strange tropes or too deep into the clotted darkness of the private. But when she's in control, even her tentative affirmations are heartening.

Sandra Gilbert is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Belongings, and two works of non-fiction. She is a professor emerita at U.C. Davis.

© 2007 by Sandra Gilbert. All rights reserved.

Swithering, by Robin Robertson. Harcourt. $16.00.

Reviewed by D. H. Tracy

Shortly into Swithering you intuit you're in grown-up hands, and that the poet is writing from a set of concerns thought hard about before the poems were even begun. To "swither" means to fret or worry--what, exactly, is Robertson in a swither about? About the human fit in nature, is one answer; about the soul's fit in the body, is another. Behind both of these lies a parent agitation about the mutual insufficiency of spirit and matter. In maintaining an inconclusive pseudo-animism, the book is a powerful exercise of a variety of negative capability--only Robertson does not so much resist reaching after fact as lunge at it enraged, which both abases it and exalts it with attention. Animals and ruins, where human qualities are present but dilute, are the natural symbols of his poetry, and there are lots of each: creatures hunting and hunted, overgrown tool sheds, abandoned crofts, the deserted batteries at a seaside priory.

Robertson's retelling of "The Death of Actaeon" is the first time in a decade I have cared about a Greek myth (Actaeon the hunter happens on Artemis naked, she turns him into a stag, and his own dogs run him down). If Robertson has a divinity, it is the dying Actaeon, an ephemeral compound of reflection and natural force, a mind expiring in comprehension of an immensity in which it has no part:
Drowning now,
his horned head reared, streaming, from the ruck,
as if a god was being born
--not a mortal soul transformed and torn apart.
The huntsmen looked around for Actaeon: calling
--each louder than the one before--for Actaeon,
as if he weren't there.
Should he not share this unexpected gift?

Heart trouble as a young man seems to have brought mortality home to Robertson (he writes about his operation for a replacement valve in "A Seagull Murmur," which will make you clutch your chest). He shows a sensitivity born of experiencing bodily fragility and a savagery born of rage at that fragility. These interact effectively throughout the poems, in part because the savagery does not let the sensitivity settle into a serene contemplation of the durable; they are not the same thing. His sense of human relationships is thereby harrowed, and in "Leavings" and "Donegal" he has written the best poems of fatherhood I have ever read.

Robertson shares with many Scottish poets the tendency to write at the same altitude, no matter the subject--cursing your neighbor and cursing god are essentially the same activity. This tendency has a salutary moderating effect, and weaves a poem about the death of Actaeon and (for instance) a poem about asparagus into a fabric of sensibility, where they might otherwise have drifted towards the overblown and the trivial. Hounded, and in a state of extreme self-alienation, Robertson has nevertheless found a way to write levelly, with concentration and without dissipation, coming away poem after poem with forceful answers for his predicament.

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

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Making sense of the crazy eloquence in John Ashbery's Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems.

By Marjorie Perloff
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery. Ecco Press. $34.95

John Ashbery's 1985 Selected Poems drew on the first thirty years of his career, from 1956's Some Trees to 1985's A Wave. The new Selected spans the twenty years following '85 in roughly the same number of pages. Indeed, the volumes have a nice symmetry: Each covers ten books of poems (the most recent, A Worldly Country [2007], is not included in the new collection); each of the books in Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems is reduced to approximately one-third of its length.

Because Notes from the Air marks Ashbery's eightieth birthday, readers are sure to wonder how his later work compares with his earlier. The first thing worth observing, perhaps, is that the evolution of Ashbery's lyric mode is startlingly similar to that of Wallace Stevens. Both poets gained recognition relatively late (Stevens was forty-four when Harmonium was published in 1923, Ashbery forty-nine when Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror appeared in 1975); in both cases, the themes and stylistic habits of the verse (even when, in Ashbery's case, it is prose) remain the same, but in the late work, the rhythms become more relaxed, the vocabulary and syntax more informal and inconsequential, and there is a new willingness to take risks, even if that means striking out now and again. In late Ashbery, as in late Stevens, "the edges and inchings of final form" ("An Ordinary Evening in New Haven") are never far away, but Ashbery (unlike Stevens) assumes a playful stance to what one of his titles calls "Autumn on the Thruway." Laughter, laced though it is with anxiety, echoes through these pages. Given the times we live in, these poems suggest, the comic modality--burlesque, parody, satire, and always a measure of irony--is surely our Necessary Angel.

If Ashbery is, in Harold Bloom's lexicon, the ephebe of Stevens, he is an ephebe for the information age, our blog- and cell-phone-crazed universe in which, to cite the first poem in Some Trees, "Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is." Never, after all, have there been more rules than the protocols that govern our daily digital activity: Click one incorrect letter or space, and you're done for. But is there a "right" click? And where are the words that haven't been used a thousand times by others? Indeed, doesn't everything we hear sound as if it's always already been said?

A 1995 poem called "By Guess and by Gosh" demonstrates this point. Ashbery has always made connections between high art and popular culture, as in his Popeye poem, "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape." But the juxtapositions of "By Guess and by Gosh" strike a new note of absurdity, beginning with the faux parallelism of the alliterating title, with its play on "by hook or by crook," a cliche that turns out to be quite relevant to this poem's narrative.

The poem opens with an asymmetrical couplet, recording what sounds like an overheard conversation:
Even so, we have forgotten their graves
I swear to you I will not beat one drum in your absence.

Whose graves? We don't know, but our interest is immediately aroused by the play on drumbeating. As Ashbery phrases it, his declaration can mean either "I refuse to do one thing to promote your cause" or, conversely, "While you're away, I will be so sad I won't play one note of music on my instrument." Either way, the drumbeat introduces a tale of absurd proportions, in which a Phoenician sailor (known to us from The Waste Land, first as Eliot's alter ego in the tarot pack and then, in "Death by Water," as Phlebas the Phoenician) turns into Wagner's ghostly Flying Dutchman, trying to "garner a spouse" so as to break the curse that keeps him forever on the high seas.

But what is the point of these conjunctions? A clue is provided in the next lines, "I'll follow / my heart over warm oceans of Chinese lounge music." The reference, an Internet search reveals, is to the "lost art of improvisational guqin music," recently revived as lounge music in elegant hotels and restaurants. The guqin is a plucked seven-string instrument of the zither family known as "the instrument of the sages" because Confucius singled it out for praise. So, the poem suggests, forget those ominous legends, those gloomy Wagner plots and Waste Land images: You can always sail those "warm oceans" of music, available, at least, "until the day the badger coughs up that secret." Follow, in other words, your own lights, for in the public world
Confused minions swarmed on the quarter-deck.
No one was giving orders anymore. In fact it was quite a while
since any had been issued. Who's in charge here?
Can't anyone stop the player piano before it rolls us
in the trough of a tidal wave? How did we get to be so many?

It is all very zany, but also serious. Like a player piano, the narrator sees himself as operating on automatic, unable to avoid the "Death by Water" that is the fate of Flying Dutchman and Phoenician sailor. And it is not only the narrator who is threatened. The final question above echoes Eliot's (or, rather, Dante's) response to the trimmers in the vestibule of hell, "I had not thought death had undone so many." Even the prospect at poem's end of a visit to the local movie theater can't make us forget that fact.

Ashbery's mode, in this and related poems, is not collage; indeed, it is not, as is generally claimed, disjunctive and fragmented. On the contrary, this is a poetry that exploits syntactic continuity and a kind of sequential normalcy, only to subvert them at every step by injecting alien items and unexpected references into the sequence. Only someone as learned, curious, wide-ranging, and expert in all manner of writing, music, and media works as Ashbery could bring it off. No wonder his poetry has proved so impervious to imitation.

True, there is a line of poetry popular today that extends from the minor Beats to the "natural speech" lyric still ubiquitous in the journals, a lyric perhaps chiefly designed for the poetry reading, where the audience can "get it" as soon as the performance ceases, there being nothing to cross-reference, whether from Milton or Mahler, Rimbaud or Redbook, James Bond or James Dean. But despite the perennial demand that poetry should satisfy the "common reader," whoever that is, difficulty has been a quality of the poetry that matters throughout poetry's history. The difference, in the twenty-first century, is that it has become more essential--and more fun--to look things up.

Marjorie Perloff is currently scholar in residence at the University of Southern California.

Copyright © 2007 by Marjorie Perloff. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Friday, August 08, 2008


The women in Colleen McElroy's poetry bravely weather extremes of loss and love.

by Valerie Trueblood
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Sleeping With the Moon, Colleen J. McElroy. University of Illinois Press. $19.95

Colleen McElroy once wrote a poem in which the machines--pistons and cylinders--rose up and ate the people. Mostly, though, what does the mauling and eating-alive in her work is love. That's the case in her new collection Sleeping With the Moon, her tenth, published last year by the University of Illinois Press.

Only occasionally does love come as an amelioration; instead, in these poems, it is "the bruise of fingers," "the insult of loss," "the disease of fondling," the thing that breaks into the "house of thin composure." Sometimes its selfish excitement hardly differs from anger, its loneliness from "three months in Virginia / looking at the weather channel." It's a tale told in ex-wives, a raw engagement overheard through the wall. Its product is new lives to be broken into or broken: the bed in the anguished title poem is a sleeping bag in a cold doorway. Yet throughout her work, whenever it shows its face, what a welcome love receives.

Though a teacher, McElroy is of no school; though a storyteller, she would laugh at the confines of plot; though a born skeptic and ironist, she is not afraid to show herself thrilled by love. As the title suggests, much of Sleeping With the Moon takes place in bed, or thinking back on bed ("don't confuse writing of love and finding it"). A book with such emotional material and such a long memory--girlhood in the 1940s comes to life in "Some Are Dead and Some Are Living"--must steer clear of bitter hindsight or the reverse, nostalgia. McElroy's approach to her own past and to people undergoing what's likely to turn out badly calls to mind the matter-of-factness of Colette, as does the intensity, proudly female, that she brings to the position of outsider, wanderer, watcher drunk on the sights, sufferer likely to be found dancing.

She will happily give the MFAs a headache with her unfashionably clear statements and heartbroken admissions and the bold planting, in almost every poem, of the moon, which she annexes to her purposes, only sometimes romantic. It can shine as purely as it does on the cover of her book, yet a mind troubled by history plays over moonlit scenes of dancing and women confiding in each other and sexual love. "[T]hose little quirks carried to bed" will show up, not to mention the whole world of night, with its "cold / hard bed of streets" in which a loved one huddles in the powerful "Codex: Frostbite."

The women in these poems go on and on; their narratives do not come to a gentle halt in domesticity or motherhood, or in illness or chemo or loss. McElroy is a short-story writer; a word or gesture forces on her a whole history: the disordered interiors of home life and the struggle going on there, courageous and grim. Read "I Speak to the Girl Some Dim Boy Loves," and shiver at a novel told in 30 lines.

Woman's experience is at the center of the book. Men come in for comic scrutiny, though as workers, soldiers, and lovers they get some respect and a comradely pity. For a book about love and beauty, Sleeping With the Moon covers a lot of ugly ground, from union-busting to the ordeal of a vagrant who must change his pants in public to a close-up of labor in a copper smelter ("it's slag work slopping/around in tanks ten feet deep / in copper slime and hoping // overtime makes up for the loss / of breath"). Aging and illness get no gilding. McElroy casts a cold eye on the past "where Indians were chased for the hunt" and black men fought "for a country willing to forget them." And she doesn't let herself off the hook.

We are the learned few, the two or three
Who make the rules, who read the books
That tell us how humane we've made this life.

Valerie Trueblood lives in Seattle. Her novel Seven Loves came out from Little, Brown in 2006.

Copyright © 2008 by Valerie Trueblood. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Thursday, August 07, 2008


A new edition of Simone Weil's and Rachel Bespaloff's essays on the ethics of the Iliad.

by Peter Campion
Poetry Foundation Media Services

War and the Iliad, by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff with an essay by Hermann Broch. Tr. by Mary McCarthy. Introd. by Christopher Benfey. New York Review Books. $14.95.

It was an eerie coincidence. In Marseilles during the late spring of 1942, two writers at the height of their powers, unknown to each other, were both struggling to find a berth on a ship to America and were both thinking about the same poem. Simone Weil had finished her essay on the Iliad two years before, but she still carried the book in her rucksack along with a change of clothes, in case of arrest and imprisonment. Rachel Bespaloff's reading of the poem was likewise colored by her own experience of war: her companion that spring, the philosopher Jean Wahl, had been tortured by the Gestapo.

Of the two essayists, Weil remains the better known. "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force" follows from similar obsessions as the letters, meditations, and notebooks she wrote while deliberating over her conversion to Catholicism. There's the same fascination with double binds: suffering and redemption, guilt and expiation descend from the realm of abstraction to take on weight and dimension in Weil's writing. She has a unique skill for delineating their precise physics. That's what makes her commentary on Homer so valuable: she intuits the ethical center of the poem as if she has entered it entirely and felt its properties in action. At the very beginning of the essay she writes, "The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. . . . it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him." Weil sees force as both the ultimate reality of the poem, and the ultimate illusion. Those who believe they've mastered it are apt to be destroyed the next time it see-saws.

Homer's poem, Weil believes, works to reflect force back at the reader. An ethical person must escape the locked cycle of violence and oppression, yet escape with full knowledge: "Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice."

Bespaloff might have lacked the supreme confidence that shows in Weil's prose. It's probable, in fact, that before revising her essay for the final time she read and admired "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force." But "On the Iliad" actually seems to me the greater of the two. Like Weil, Bespaloff comes to that question about the connection of art and ethics, yet she gives a more surprising, deeper answer.

For Bespaloff, art is the distillation and enlargement of those ecstatic moments when we apprehend ethical truth. It's not that art tells us how to be good. On the contrary: "the step from ethics to morality involves the same betrayal of value as the descent from aesthetic contemplation to hedonism." Even if that distinction between "ethics" and "morality" seems like fussy semantics, you get what Bespaloff means. She believes that art creates a suspension: it captures and holds ethical truth before it can be polluted by our contingent systems of laws and conventions. She finds her ultimate example in that passage of the Iliad in which Priam visits the tent of Achilles to plead for the corpse of his son, Hector. The grieving king and the killer of his son face each other not with hatred, at least for that moment, but with respect. Priam's act is both horrible to imagine and gorgeous. With his supreme sense of justice and his disregard for established boundaries, "Priam appears in the epic like the poet's delegate," writes Bespaloff. "He typifies the watcher of tragedy, the man who sees it all."

You might disagree with Bespaloff's take on the role of the poet, or with Weil's. But even if you end up convinced that art and ethics have nothing to do with one another, the question about their relation remains one that all serious writers must ask themselves. More and more, the strength with which a poet engages this quandary seems to me the defining element of his or her work, whatever his or her responses may be, and even if these responses remain implicit or inconclusive. I'm convinced that such deliberation (or its lack) determines what the poet wants the poem to do.

With the faultless translations of Mary McCarthy, the informative and eloquent introduction by Christopher Benfey, and with the great Austrian novelist Hermann Broch's afterword, the new edition of the essays stands as example of this kind of responsiveness.

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.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Two recent collections of poetry dwell in the revealing details.

by Sandra Gilbert
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Burn the Field, by Amy Beeder. Carnegie Mellon University Press. $14.95.

Amy Beeder is a poet whose bio note provides a suitably salty background as "a political asylum specialist" and "a human rights observer in Haiti and Surinam." Closely observed and linguistically rich, Burn the Field has rough spots but constitutes an impressive debut for a writer who reveres the heft, texture, and taste of words. In the sonnet "Cabezòn," for instance, the lumpy, clumpy phrases at first delineate mere grotesquerie. The "Bighead" is:

chub & bug-eyed, jaw like a loaf
hands in your pockets, a smoke dangling slack
from the slit of your pumpkin mouth;
humped over like the eel-man or geek,
the dummy paid to sweep out gutters.

But deformity becomes increasingly sinister as the speaker slots "Cabezòn" into the old plot of "Death and the Maiden," wondering "what are you slouching toward--knee-locked, / hippity, a hitch in your zombie walk, Bighead?"

Beeder's weaknesses are aspects of her strengths--in particular the intensity she lavishes on details. "The Body's Luck," a mini-encyclopedia of hypochondria, goes on too long, with digressions on tonsils ("twin bunches of lymph twitching / in the throat's crypt") and effusions on:

the inside of my retina
that sad planet, that blood and yellow atlas
where mitochondria and air bubbles cruise

like Greyhounds on wet road.

Much of it, like Beeder's other lesser pieces, is a failed channeling of Plath.

But mostly Beeder's focus on what matters--gained, perhaps, from her days as a human rights observer--pays off. The poignant "Yellow Dress," set in Port-au-Prince, elegizes a dead girl mysteriously abandoned "on a heap of street sweepings high / as a pyre," while "Last Photo" renounces lushness in its stark notation that the "photo of my mother bald / looks more like her than any other," as if:

the lips
and eyebrows say: I know the reason
for this photo of me, all dressed in black
before a bone-white wall. Go ahead and take it.

Less is more in this brief snapshot of diminution--a lesson Beeder herself is likely to learn.

Riding Westward, by Carl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $20.00.

Carl Phillips fills his latest collection--his eighth--with work that could never be considered nerveless, slack, or clumsy. In this volume, as in most of his others, his poems are taut with muscular periodic sentences, disciplined yet apparently casual phrasing. As its title suggests, Riding Westward turns persistently toward the shadows of annihilation. Despite Phillips's extraordinary syntactic and prosodic expertise, however, this swerve toward darkness often feels willed, even precious, as though despite the gloom that gathers over his lines he isn't ready to face the specificity of such intimations.

The beautifully written "After" suffers from similar bouts of angst, as the poet records pain--"A bell swings, in darkness"--and first remembers early mystifications, "Dark, like the bottom of the well / of childhood, up to the steep walls of which I'd spend hours shouting / words like anthracite, gingko--." He then reminds himself that:

it's fall again, the usual fireless
[fire the leaves make
as they give themselves over, first from their branches,
then a second time when--crushable, as the diminished
[tend almost as
willingly, it seems, as instantly to become--they
[give way beneath
and around those of us who have places to go, still,
[and believe
in getting there.

The second passage here is so precisely focused that it exposes the arbitrariness of "anthracite, gingko" as mannerism, while also putting in question the grandiosity of the rhetorical question into which the poem's opening line evolves: "A bell swings; then darkness.--Is dying like this?" No, it probably isn't.

But perhaps one resents imprecision in Phillips because when he's good he's so very good, as in this book's title piece, which follows the god-as-lone-ranger-muse-lover into a tuneful sunset:

the singer turning this
and that way, as if watching the song itself
--the words to the song--leave him, as he
lets each go, the wind carrying most of it,
some of the words, falling, settling into
instead that larger darkness, where the smaller

darknesses that our lives were lie softly down.

From this particular poet, one wants more such song, and--like Goethe--"more light" in or around those various darknesses.

Sandra Gilbert is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Belongings, and two works of non-fiction. She is a professor emerita at U.C. Davis.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Djuna Barnes' Collected Poems: With Notes Towards the Memoir displays her fascinating and furious mind at work.

By Brian Phillips
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Collected Poems: With Notes Toward the Memoirs, by Djuna Barnes. Ed. by Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman. University of Wisconsin Press. $24.95.

Djuna Barnes is one of those small, sharp points of vividness that seem to hover around important periods of literary history: quick, peripheral, mosquito-like, delirious, drunk on strange intensities. She was in Paris during the high time of Modernism and seemed to know everyone, go everywhere, hear everything. Literary life was a whirl, all "glorias," as she wrote sardonically in her notes toward the memoir she never lived to finish: all "aperitifs, Amontillado sherry or Rhine wines, cocaine, opium, or Cocteau." T.S. Eliot took her to lunch; she called Joyce "Jim"; Gertrude Stein praised her ankles. As a writer--she produced novels, poems, and plays--her manner was lushly and sensationally gothic, and seemed eccentric to those pillars of conformity, Stein and Ezra Pound.

She was taken seriously, only not quite seriously. Even Eliot, who championed her work--he published her novel Nightwood at Faber and Faber and acted informally as her literary agent--had reservations. When he convinced Faber, against his better judgment, to publish her play The Antiphon, he contributed what must be one of the most backhanded blurbs in the history of the medium. "Never has so much genius," he wrote, "been combined with so little talent."

For a long time Barnes's reputation has rested on Nightwood, her novel about lesbian life in Paris. Until quite recently, many of her poems were unknown. When the war broke out, she returned to New York, took an apartment in Greenwich Village, and went into a seclusion that lasted forty years; it was assumed that she had all but ceased to write. But all that time, it turns out, she was writing poetry, and working hard at it, too: piling up hundreds of drafts and feeling her way toward a new style--one that would be derived less from other Modernists than from the seventeenth-century Metaphysicals.

The results of this long experiment have now been published in a new Collected Poems, alongside her earlier verse and the notes toward her prose memoirs, and they are fascinating. There isn't a great poem in this book; very little of the later work is even finished. But the record of this light and furious mind slowly unraveling itself in the attempt to say what it had to say is painfully compelling, and Barnes frequently rises to moments of splendid poetry. She calls the falling Lucifer, marvelously, a "salmon of the air." Her manner is rhythmically compressed, aphoristic, riddling; she dwells on inscrutable allegories, often drawn from a private stock of warped Christian imagery:

How should one mourn who never yet has been
In any trampled list at Umbria? Nor seen
The Unicorn thrust in his dousing beam?
And Mary from the manger of her gown,
Ride Jesus down.

She is almost entirely sealed off from the main currents of influence in twentieth-century poetry, though as in the example above she sometimes echoes the more cryptic mode of Yeats. ("The crowns of Nineveh" would be at home in many of her poems.) At times she reads like a strange combination of Donne and Swinburne; at other times, fantastically, like something scribbled by a goblin from Christina Rossetti:

When I was an infant
Knuckling my foot,
Keeling on the huck-bone,
Blowing through my snout,
It was observed by huntsmen
(Though they did not shoot)
I was in my hubris,
Bowling Gods about.

The backgrounds of these poems, even when they appear to be comical, are almost always bitter, and this is in many ways a difficult book to read. Barnes frequently loses control of her powers and writes verse that is gory or mawkish or absurd. It should be remembered that many of these poems are drafts, written very late in her life.

We begin to feel, however, that the real achievements of this poetry depend on its never being far from a breakdown; that to convey the view from the edge of the abyss it was necessary to risk falling into it. Had Barnes governed herself, had she written poems that might have "succeeded" in a more conventional sense, she might never have attained the beautiful and violent and glorious extremes that sporadically fill this book. But she didn't. And so she did.

Brian Phillips is a regular reviewer for Poetry magazine.

© 2007 by Brian Phillips. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Monday, August 04, 2008


Poets Galway Kinnell and David Wojahn create American myths as often as they debunk them.

by Peter Campion
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Strong Is Your Hold, by Galway Kinnell. Houghton Mifflin. $23.00.

I once heard a famous British poet pronounce that most American poets merely make home movies. You get what he meant: the shrinking of ambition, the jittery technique, the staged sentimentality, the private moments that should have remained private. But is there anything necessarily wrong with domestic poems? Reading Galway Kinnell's new book, I'm grateful for the homemade quality. Kinnell might just be our great poet of family life, and even more so, of that rarest thing in our poetry: happy family life.

Certainly when he goes for grand cinema, he fails. His poem here about September 11, "When the Towers Fell," remains a huge mistake. Puffed up with tags from Crane and Whitman, and from Paul Celan and Alexander Wat (untranslated), the poem reads in places like an inflated parody of Modernist collage. Kinnell is simply out of his element here: the interrogating intellect has never been his thing. In fact, the bardic afflatus which ruins "When the Towers Fell," and which laces much of the earlier work with cant, becomes a virtue in the domestic poems. You feel that Kinnell hasn't so much abandoned his brute force as kept it in check. The bull walks through the china shop and does just fine, thank you. Take the opening of "Everyone Was in Love":

One day, when they were little, Maud and Fergus
appeared in the doorway naked and mirthful,
with a dozen long garter snakes draped over
each of them like brand-new clothes.
Snake tails dangled down their backs,
and snake foreparts in various lengths
fell over their fronts. With heads raised and swaying,
alert as cobras, the snakes writhed their dry skins
upon each other, as snakes like doing
in lovemaking, with the added novelty
of caressing soft, smooth, moist human skin.

If this were a home movie, it would certainly be the weirdest, most thrilling one I've ever seen. The bucolic merriment shows its tense, creepy-crawly edge, and yet remains good fun.

This scene could stand as an emblem for all of Kinnell's best poems. Here at the threshold to the house (think of the "hold" of Kinnell's title) appear the ultimate figures of eros and thanatos, intertwined. Yet they're also just what they are: harmless garden critters. The poem, like the home, gains strength and vitality by allowing this creaturely life. Other equally successful poems include "Burning the Brush Pile" and "The Stone Table." All of these poems are made from the tension between the modest resolve of the householder and sheer animal energy. Those two forces fuse to give this collection its strength.

Interrogation Palace, by David Wojahn. University of Pittsburgh Press. $14.00.

Reading David Wojahn's superb selected poems, one has two seemingly contrary feelings. First comes the sheer pleasure of surveying Wojahn's range. Here's a poet who can write as convincingly of a backstage interview with Bob Marley as he can of Aeneas's reunion with Anchises in Hades. Wojahn is one of the few American poets since Lowell who has believably joined private and public life: individual suffering appears in the poems within the context of history. At times this perspective seems to enrich individual experience by giving it greater dimension; elsewhere it appears to trap the individual within a nightmare. In "Interrogation Palace" Wojahn picked the perfect title: these are poems of both largesse and terror.

Wojahn has developed from book to book, and found formal strategies to give his obsessions and ambitions their full presence. But Wojahn comes into his own with his third book, Mystery Train (1990). The title poem is a sonnet series about the history of rock and roll, as it parallels and contrasts the larger history of the time. One suspects that it's Wojahn's excitement about that subject itself which gives his voice a new immediacy and bite. The full intelligence of the poet--allusive, dense, playful, often darkly deadpan--galvanizes these lines. From The Falling Hour (1997) through to the new poems in this selection, he writes with as much formal and emotional strength as any poet alive. Consider, for example, the opening of his sonnet, "Fort Snelling National Cemetery, St. Paul, MN":

Thirty thousand dead, the markers all identical,

and with a map I find his stone,

find my own name chiseled

here between the monoliths of airport runway lights

and "the world's largest shopping mall," its parking lot

nudging the cemetery fence. The spirit in its tunnel

does not soar, the spirit raised by wolves.

It's humbling to see what Wojahn can do in seven lines. Look at the cunning slant rhymes, the small modulations in tone (for instance from "monolith" to "shopping mall"), the balance between the images of personal loss and the insinuations about national decay. All these lead to the big curve in the structure, from the literal scene to the territory of fable and myth.

As in these lines, so in the larger work: Wojahn's formal skills give the movement between the everyday and the mythic its believability. Such range and scope lend distinction to this entire collection. I wish the anthologists and the prize committees would start paying attention. But in the meantime, who cares? We have this powerful, panoramic book.

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.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Hilarious and pious, Dick Barnes is essential to poetry's future.

By Peter Campion

A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems, by Dick Barnes. Handsel Books. $17.00.

The superb poems of Dick Barnes, who died in 2000, inhabit the same America as the photographs of Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand. They have that bright sheen of things as they are, and also that persistent undercurrent of weirdness. Most of them are poems of the rural west, of its modern yet untamed expanse. But they exhibit neither the scenic platitudes nor the macho swagger that mar so much current rural poetry (and, in the end, make it so easy to label "rural poetry"). Barnes's textures and tones are far more surprising.

Often, humor deepens the poems. In "Helendale: Waiting by the Mojave River," Barnes's nod to Chaucer, an alfalfa farmer, awakened by a car crash on the highway, mistakes the sound of the horn for the trumpet of the angel Gabriel. So he sets his barn on fire as a beacon. Here's how the poem ends:

he told the insurance company how it happened,
was laughed at, got angry, had to quit

the Kiwanis Club after a fight, and he felt lonely
until he thought: "Well:

I reckon if Noah could take it so could I."

I find the farmer's perseverance hilarious but devastating. Barnes has a talent for getting such seemingly exclusive feelings to intertwine. This character, for example, seems patently moronic. But as with most outcasts, there's something we can't bear about ourselves in him: he acts as a cipher for our own blind faith, our own belief in "core values" like honesty and dedication.

He also takes part, even in the form of his pathetic comedy, in gorgeous drama. These poems work to convey the agony of being caught between this world and the beyond: they're stations along the way, moments of clarification. Barnes himself is a poet of deep religious feeling. "Up Home Where I Come From" and the title poem are the best devotional lyrics of our time. But Barnes tempers, and intensifies, that spiritual impulse with his sobering, photographic urge to show what he sees. The modulation of tone in his poems acts, then, not simply as a formal device but as a register of the shifts and recalibrations that occur in the poet's view of the world as he ventures to discern truth.

This makes him particularly well-suited for narrative and portraiture. His turns of plot and his pivoting points of view become, as the lines progress, the attentive view of compassion. Consider the elegy in sonnet form, "Goodbye to Big Ed":

Little he thought when he hid out in his own house
for the pleasure of stomping burglars enticed by the dark
that he'd die, and die young, and in great pain like this,
thrown from his bike at speed where he broke his neck

and lay five hours on boulders in the creekbed
until death took him at last. Little he thought
about any of it: the preacher was right when he said
Big Ed wasn't afraid to die. Whenever he fought

it was for fun, or a good turn, or sheer pride of life.
See him armed in his undershirt, out in his back yard
the new boulevard had cut through, by the clothesline,

down to someone stopped at the traffic light, meaning
no harm by it, really: not meaning anything.

There's a lot to admire in this technique: the muffled but persistent metric, or the blend of sincerity and sarcasm that barb at the expense of the preacher, for instance. Such formal nuances contribute to the complexity of the portrait. As the tone changes, so does our view of Big Ed. He's both the belligerent hardass and the helpless young man who suffers a terrible death. He's both the complex character made of such contrasts and the sheer individual soul "not meaning anything."

Like the lyrics of Thomas Hardy or the harmonica solos of Little Walter, these poems are carefully inflected and cunningly unsettled. They appear perfect in their formal containment, but they unfold their coiled insinuations long after you read them. I'm convinced that, in the future, any anthology of twentieth-century American poetry which neglects Dick Barnes will seem ridiculous.

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.


The kaleidoscopic poetry of Kay Ryan and Major Jackson.

by D. H. Tracy and Brian Phillips

The Niagara River, by Kay Ryan. Grove Press. $13.00.

by D. H. Tracy

Like the Niagara River, Ryan's poems are short, fast, and generate a lot of power. The poems are all siblings, as distinctively typed on something as Dickinson's are on hymns--what that thing is called, I don't know, but its characteristics are very short lines, erratic rhyme (often internal), tumbling enjambments, and a ledge or ledges to rest on in the middle, just long enough to realize you're dizzy. As flimsy little miracles of lineation, their internal repetitions and rhymes carve out echoing spaces you would think they were too short to enclose. Like a skater pulling in her arms, they acquire more velocity than seems possible. They wrap up in such a way as to make you feel you've been caught out in a game of Simon Says. Read, they emit satisfying pops and crunches:

The egg-sucking fox
licks his copper chops.
The shell cups
lie scattered from
the orange debauch.
--From "Theft"

The standouts in the book are "A Ball Rolls on a Point" and "Least Action," both of which highlight Ryan's regard for objects and the running record and augury they provide of human passage, "As though what is is /right already but /askew." What we are in the habit of calling experience is for her almost a side effect of (or can be dramatized by) the layout of buildings, furniture, bodies, and vehicles. The contingencies this point of view illuminates, the unexpected correspondences with the mechanics of the inner life, are often weird and a little frightening, and keep Ryan on the edges of domestic, social writing in a way that is responsible for much of her originality. You might suppose that an art that keeps out other individuals would dry out and recede emotionally, but it hasn't (at least not yet). Like a lighthouse, as she says, "It is intimate /and remote both /for the keeper /and those afloat."

On top of everything else there is the humbling fact of how much she does with how little, and if you are in the habit, as I am, of telling yourself things like, "If I only lived somewhere more interesting, or ran with a more exciting crowd, or knew Sumerian," then Ryan's poems are a reminder to put one's head down and concentrate. Life's in front of your nose.

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

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

Hoops, by Major Jackson.W.W. Norton. $23.95.

by Brian Phillips

There's a wonderfully surprising passage midway through Hoops, the second collection by the poet Major Jackson, where the speaker's fourth-grade teacher, struggling to remember the names of her black students ("Tarik, Shanequa, Amari, Aisha"), decides to rename them after French painters: "Tee-tee / was Braque, and Stacy James was Fragonard, / and I, Eduard Charlemont." A few days later, the boy summons the nerve to correct her: Eduard Charlemont, he tells her, was an Austrian painter. The North Philadelphia schoolboy knows more than his teacher about European art. As well he might: he has visited the Philadelphia Museum, where Charlemont's 1878 painting The Moorish Chief hangs, and been struck by the painting of the "black chief in a palace."

What I like about this passage, and about Jackson's book in general, is the confidence with which it merges its inner-city black American milieu with a high-art aesthetic tradition that connects it naturally to the tradition of the English lyric. Jackson writes as well about basketball as any poet I have read, but is just as comfortable musing on Auden's stanza form from the "Letter to Lord Byron" in his own letter to Gwendolyn Brooks. This is just as it should be, of course, but too few writers have attempted anything like it. At its best--in passages of "Urban Renewal," in "Moose," in sections of the "Letter to Brooks"--this can be revelatory. Elsewhere, there are lapses, and they aren't trivial; Jackson's descriptions of neighborhood life can slip into the sentimental ("spills from a suitcase of hurt"), the writing is frequently uneven, and some of the longer poems seem animated more by a desire to say something important than by having something important to say. But if it's hard to recommend Hoops unreservedly, I still hope Jackson will continue in this vein; I'd like to see where it takes him.

Brian Phillips is a regular reviewer for Poetry magazine.

© 2007 by Brian Phillips. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

Saturday, August 02, 2008


C. K. Williams on becoming a poet, and how he creates English versions of ancient Greek dramas--without knowing any Greek.

By David Gewanter
Poetry Foundation Media Services

C. K. Williams is the author of numerous books of poetry, including The Singing, winner of the National Book Award. The full interview is available at

David Gewanter: You've said that you wrote your first poem at 19 and a girl liked it, and things moved on from there. How does that early experience look from this stage in your life?
C.K. Williams: Incredibly unlikely. That's always been my feeling about having become a poet when I did. I still don't know how it really came about. Except for the writing of that first poem, and then futzing around with another. . . . When I arrived as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, the architect Louis Kahn, who taught there, was just becoming famous. My roommate was one of his students, and I became part of Kahn's circle and began to understand a little the life of an artist, which is what Kahn was--more than most, or any, other architect I've ever known. So when I began to write, I must have realized that one actually could be an artist, that there were such things in the real world, and that I might even possibly be one, too.

DG: Your list of works includes several translations. Can you talk about some of the circumstances of translations?
CKW: The first Greek translation I did was Sophocles, Women of Trachis. I was commissioned to do it for the Oxford series, and I had a collaborator with whom I worked who gave me the literal version of the whole play, and I worked with as many other versions as I could find.

DG: This is an old question about translation: do you take an aspect of contemporary language, and of the panoply of people in your experience, and then put them in, say, ancient Greece in order to make the poetry vivid? Or do you keep the strangeness?
CKW: Obviously I took the language of our day, which is my own language; but the mind of the language, if you can call it that, was the characters'. One of the characters in The Bacchae is a god, a nutty god. There was never any question of using anybody I knew as a model for him . . . except perhaps my own nuttiness.

DG: Nowadays, the sought-after translator might be a poet who doesn't know much, or any, of the language, and who works with a person who knows the original language.
CKW: Many of the best translations of poetry have been done by people who don't know the language of the original.

DG: This is turning everything on its head.
CKW: It sounds that way, but it's true. Translating poetry isn't just moving from one language to another; you're translating poetry into poetry, and that's not the same thing. A scholar who has a foreign language will be able to translate any text into English, but translating into poetry requires a poet. You can see this in other languages besides English. The best translation of Faust in French is by Gerard de Nerval, who had hardly any German. And Robert Lowell, in Imitations, did a number of marvelous poems from languages he didn't have.

DG: That's why you say that the translating of poetry and the composition of poetry are almost the same.
CKW: Yes.

DG: Some final questions. You're working on a Collected Poems. Some previous poets, Wordsworth, and Auden, re-edited their earlier poems. How do you view the incessantly tinkering poet, the person who is always fiddling with things, a Giacometti who won't let things go?
CKW: I'm like that; I'm an obsessive reviser. It takes me forever sometimes to finish a poem, and I'll often revise after a poem comes out in a magazine, though very, very rarely after it's in a book.

DG: Some poets were very restrictive in their publication, but their other poems and drafts--I mean Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop--have now been presented to the public. Does that give us the fuller sense of the poet, or should there be more priority given to the poems the poet wanted published?
CKW: Well, in Larkin's case, I think that it may have given a somewhat fuller sense of him; his letters had already given perhaps too full a vision of him. I certainly wouldn't want anyone to publish my drafts, or the poems that never worked out--what I call "dead poems" or "note poems." I'm going to put that in my will.

David Gewanter is author of In the Belly and The Sleep of Reason, and he is also co-editor of The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

© 2007 by David Gewanter. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at