Book Reviews, Features

David Biespiel: “Old Masters, Neglected Masters, Non-Masters, and Gems”

For Dust Thou Art
by Timothy Liu
Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. $14.95

No bland heterosexist suburban poems of backyard sparrows here, Timothy Liu’s latest book, For Dust Thou Art, offers a smorgasbord of impudent isms: onanism, terrorism, “jism,” and solipsism. Titillating perhaps, but stick to the salad bar.

The book’s title from Genesis 3:19 misleadingly window dresses a store of randy words, from “good head easier to get than a vintage Merlot” from the first section of the book to “linen falling off our laps as boytoys bathe” from the last section of the book. They sandwich some unsurprising poems in the middle that fetishize 9/11—“A fireman’s boot / exhumed at last—strange trophy / from rubble still too hot to touch” or “Every possible pleasure to be indulged for the world was at an end.” The middle section’s mediocrity begs the question: what of the failure of any poet so far to achieve a “Wasteland” from 9/11?

While these poems may stimulate, they fail to surprise, much less catalyze new understanding of people and events. Their audacity ends in limp disappointment. The “decorative” panels between sections look like the cum-strewn men’s room walls in a bible-belt bus station.

You still might admire the potential for this book to show up (selected for its title alone) on a shelf in a “Christian supply” store, like a Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance among the Chilton’s guides. And the words are more contemporary, the bottoms more 21st century than what Whitman or Maplethorpe or Ginsburg did. But so what? These poems are already dated, sitting on university library shelves preserved for a near eternity in climate-controlled closed-stacks on recycled alkali paper. What a shame it’s not printed on recycled newsprint. To dust thou shouldst return. ED

Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden
Edited by Stephen Burt,
Foreword by Adam Gopnik
Columbia University Press, 2005. $34.50

Delivered at Princeton in the spring of 1952, these six lectures incorporate parts of every piece of writing about W. H. Auden that Randall Jarrell had published between 1941 and 1951; along with his 1955 reviews of The Shield of Achilles (foreshadowed in lecture four), this highlight reel acts as a summation of Jarrell’s views on the stages of Auden’s career.

As a lecturer (and performer), Jarrell does not disappoint. He is rambunctious, audacious, and funny. To be sure, a puzzling sense of what he gets wrong comes through as well. In making his points about the differences and disappointments between Auden’s English and American phases, Jarrell is prone to overstatement. He borders on truism at the one extreme of excess and inaccuracy at the other. But he makes his arguments with such a sense of good-natured play that it’s tough not to forgive him his indulgences; at least, I do. Auden himself, though he couldn’t have enjoyed the treatment, seems to have accepted it in this spirit. We’re told that, informed of Jarrell’s attacks (in these lectures and elsewhere), he responded coyly, “I think Jarrell must be in love with me.”

Jarrell often does protest too much, but his criticism also shines a unique and unflinching light on Auden’s wrestling with the angel, while simultaneously shining a similar light on the critic’s own. As is often the case when poets speak at length on the work of other poets, the hidden subject of these lectures isn’t Auden’s poetry but the poetry that Jarrell himself had yet to write in 1952. “Virtuosic pyrotechnics” notwithstanding, watching Jarrell confront his anxiety of Auden’s influence is the book’s real and enduring value. GW

Selected Poems
by Theodore Roethke
Edited by Edward Hirsch
Library of America, 2005. $20

Try as Edward Hirsch does in his splendid introduction to rescue the imploding reputation of Theodore Roethke (1908–1963), the poems just don’t pull their weight anymore. I write this with sadness, because I too love Theodore Roethke’s poems. But he is now, without a doubt, America’s most major minor poet. His short lyrics—the backbone of his lyricism—are getting more and more frail. Besides, if you were only to read one 20th century American poet, and that poet were Roethke, you wouldn’t learn a thing about 20th century America. You’d get pure lyricism, yes. You’d be tuned into the sweetest ear of his generation—not a bad thing at all and what makes the experience of reading him so pleasurable. And you’d get a terrific unpeeling of an inner tension, a single, “still clinging” organism. But you’d know nothing of the times. It’s a commonplace to say that Roethke’s “North American Sequence,” the long meditations that cap his career—a sequence that practically invented what can only be called Northwest Poetry—is his grand achievement. In their fashion—for him, I mean—they are. To unpack the tight lyric poem was a triumph for him. It seemed like a tour de force when he wrote the meditations in 1963. Now, they seem … well, long. And yet easy enough to get lost in their chaste music, in the “dying of time of the white light of [their] tomorrow.” Selected Poems tries to define Roethke as great. He’s not. But he is special. DB

After
by Jane Hirshfield
HarperCollins, 2005. $23.95

Whether you’ve just won the lottery or lost your lover, you’re likely to get the same, neutral response from anyone who mistakes equanimity for indifference. It’s as if Jane Hirshfield has: Again and again from her newest book, I get the impartial, silent nod.

Unlike her earlier books—books I have very much enjoyed—too many poems here are neither engaging nor agitating. They explore transcendence and transience in everything from a window’s gaze to grief. But these Eastern-tinted, steady-breathing stanzas teeter yin-yangs of imagery and idea, giving equal weight to each side, and fail to make me either gasp with delight or hiss with disdain. Maybe this is her intention. But if Hirshfield “carries neither grudges nor hope,” then, in response to her work, why should I?

There are parts, if not whole poems, that defy her overall dispassion. “Hesitation: An Assay” ends “If pleasure requires prolonging, then these lovers. // Yet slowness alone is not to be confused / with the scent of the plum tree just before it opens.” Thank God (or Buddha) for her strong, sensate details, like fleeting glimpses of enlightenment, as in, “a small anchovy gleam / leaving the upturned pot in the dish rack / after the moon has wandered out of the window.” Lines like these thrive in the eternity of the present moment.

Some poems, though, are self-consciously enigmatic, like a koan trying too hard to be a koan inside a mind trying too hard not to think. And still others give it away too easily and come off as downright didactic: “To think that grief is the self is an error.” Meanwhile, words like “truth,” “theology,” and “compassion” try to slip in like someone arriving late to the zendo, but they’re more like those moments during zazen when all your concentration can’t get rid of that annoying itch—a big distraction.

In general, I have trouble being here now with Hirshfield’s After since the title only conjures up for me its opposite: When it comes to her oeuvre, I much prefer what came before. CS

New and Selected Poems
by Samuel Menashe
Edited by Christopher Ricks
Library of America, 2005. $20

Christopher Ricks edits and “Nothing, then, is too small to matter” for this minimalist winner of the Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation. Big-dog-mot-juste-Ricks and big-dog-Poetry-bucks-Foundation (God bless them both!) have teamed up to crowd out any whipper snapper criticism of Menashe’s playful aphorisms. It feels unpoetriotic to disagree.

If you like dark subtle puns and think they have been neglected for their potential poetic impact, read Menashe. At their best, the poems disturb the determinedly open-minded reader with their jarring connections, mild humor, and clanging music. These are poems that my dogs and my grandfathers would love, poems to be read in a dark closet riding a caffeine buzz holding a flickering flashlight and sitting on a box of your ancestor’s ashes.

Neglected? He’s not dead yet! But here’s his

“Epitaph”

New deaths surround
Me step by step
Until I’m found
Engraved near you
One become two

The pun embedded in “engraved” makes you wince or makes you smile muddily. This fascination with morbidity is fun, but a shocking take on grief for a lost mother.

“Inklings” offers “Point of the pen / Whose stem I mouth / Not knowing when / The truth will out.” Lucky reader, writing is this fellow’s fellatio.

Here’s more pun-filled cliched wordplay: “No place like Homer’s” and “To make no bones / About the dead.” For some dogs of poetry there is a Pavlovian response. They drool on cue, but there were no bones for this dog. ED

American Sublime
by Elizabeth Alexander
Graywolf Press, 2005. $14

The downside of American Sublime is that like 75% of all new books of poetry, it has more than a handful of throw-aways. Here’s another poet who can’t wait twelve months until the book is solid before rushing to print. That’s why this one is neither a barn-burner nor a page-turner.

But in relation to so many other new books, I liked it. It has narrative energy and there are flashes of marvelous wordplay: “Oh language, / my trinket, my dialect bucket, / my bracelet of flesh.” Out of its four sections, the Ars Poetica and the Amistad have guts. One section explores the components of her brash aesthetic, the other takes a crack at a iconic episode in U.S. history.

And I like how Alexander renders her vulnerabilities with a no-nonsense navigation past self-pity, as in “The End,” an elegy for a dissolute marriage:

In the rain, in the wind, fading in the sun
no one will take it, it will not blow away,
in the rain, in the wind,
it holds tight to its branch,
then one day, it is gone

There’s a fresh eye in these lines. Though it might be too much to hope for an entire book with this sort of richness and charm, I do. JCM

Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt
Edited by Willard Spiegelman
Columbia University Press, 2005. $41.50

Sometimes a poet’s letters can shake up our conception of the art—as in December 1817 when John Keats defines Negative Capability in a letter to his brothers. Readers hoping for similar proclamations from Amy Camplitt will be disappointed. The bulk of the letters are dedicated to her life before she began seriously writing poetry in the late seventies. We are treated to her world travels, sisterly advice, and spiritual dabbling and are shown her famed prowess for description, especially of flora and fauna. Certainly the letters paint an admirable picture of an independent woman’s life and portray her initial forays into the art as almost accidental.

But the letters offer few insights into her processes and desires as a poet. Once she unwittingly achieves fame in the 1980s, the content of the letters becomes gossipy and giddy (“The New Yorker has bought another poem, written while we were in Maine—and I’ve met Howard Moss!”). The most interesting of these letters would make a fine appendix to a volume of her selected poems, but reading a whole book of them is best left to Clampitt enthusiasts and scholars. WB

 

 

The Trouble with Poetry: & Other Poems
by Billy Collins
Random House, 2005. $22.95

Is there a more self-indulgent poet than Billy Collins? Is there a poet more enamored of his own bag of tricks?

The trouble with Collins’s book of poetry (who can resist?) is that it’s a collection, at best, of occasionally crafted “occasions,” thin metaphors, sentimentality, and self-affirmation. Whether he’s visiting the science museum, traveling across the country in airplanes, or chatting it up with ubiquitous waitresses at ubiquitous coffee counters, he always seems to be musing, “Wow, I wonder what these people think of me, this odd creature, the poet!”

And was I so wrong in seeing in Ben’s eyes
a glimmer of interest in my theories
and habits—my view of the Enlightenment…

 

And what about Debbie and Lynn?
Did they not look eager to ask about my writing process,
my way of composing in the morning

Nothing that happens to Collins can happen without his attaching himself to it. That is certainly not a bad thing, but it sure can become tedious for a reader. This reader, for example, couldn’t help but think that were Mr. Collins to happen upon Jesus’s face in a bowl of corn flakes, say, he would be compelled to write a poem about the occasion and call it something like “The Messiah with Eight Essential Vitamins and Minerals.”

Fortunately for us, The Trouble with Poetry acts as a book of guideposts, of examples, that illustrate emphatically, if not articulately, its declarative title. It’s not that Collins intends to insult his reader’s intelligence—I think him too compassionate a man for that—but he has little faith in it. GW

Here, Bullet
by Brian Turner
Alice James Books, 2005. $14.95

Based on Brian Turner’s tour of duty in Iraq, this unfortunately titled and earnest debut is a hit-and-miss, often beautiful, but decidedly disingenuous book of poems.

Turner is at his best—and most surprising—when describing the ironic footprint one leaves while waging a foreign war in an intrinsically metaphorical Babylon. It is the land of Gilgamesh, after all, the Fertile Delta and Diasporaic exile—all of which is not lost on him.

But the poems in Here, Bullet, for all their artful description, are mysteriously unwilling or unable to engage emotionally the occasions from which they arise. It’s as if his poetic consciousness suffers from a form of imaginative post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike Yusef Komunyakaa’s melancholic Dien Cai Dau (a book with which Turner seems to be intimately familiar), Here, Bullet latches on to the wiz-bang speed and efficiency of modern warfare, and it exposes Turner as being more than happy to play his part. In this way, the poems read like letters home that have passed under a censor’s heavy hand.

This leaves Here, Bullet in a precarious position. It needs the current-event relevance of the Iraq conflict to be relevant itself. The poems as poems don’t read as the truth. When the Iraqi conflict—its anxieties and political machinations—dissolves into a history of second guesses and unfinished business, Here, Bullet will likely suffer a similar fate. GW

Enter Invisible
by Catherine Wing
Sarabande Books, 2005. $13.95

Even the dedication is about the beats in Catherine Wing’s Enter Invisible: “for CW & RK, heartbeat and hoofbeat.” Warming up to read (even if you hate drum solos as a rule) give a listen to Gene Krupa on Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing. In the poem “The World’s Miserable Corners,” you can almost hear Krupa swinging it along: “Big Bang—Pause—Life. / Then man, nickel and dime, / Toupee. / Heartbreak, you bet.”

Krupa died in 1973 a year after Wing was born, but too late to answer this personal from “Intermezzo: 139 Words about Me”:

Dear Mr. Everything:
17 words about me. I like bad weather.
Seeking smarty-pants.
Drummers a plus.

Before we all start taking drum lessons, there’s a CW already on the book’s amorous stage, object of an earnest love poem that begins with a more predictable cadence: “If a web’s a spider’s consequence, if water wears a skipped stone’s name, then in me there is evidence of you.” Nice how we hear Wing skip the stone with the metrical variation, but the deliberately off-beat clunk of “there” overdoes the sincerity of the third line in what then becomes a rather light and sexy poem, “If a slug leaves its route behind…then I wear a thread of you.”

Seven Tom and Jerry poems pipe their way along spaced equally throughout the contents. (Think: if Wallace Stevens had written Tom and Jerry, but I’d want to hear Berryman read them aloud). Three “counting songs” pop up like drum solos, banging and enumerating along, “nine times—nine lives— / out of ten. / Ten fools fool / ten men.” Another motif imagines a correspondence among fairy-tale women—Snow, Sleep, and Punzel—spaced through the passage of time in the book. While the debt to Stevens gets overpaid and overplayed, there’s often a real pleasure in listening to this musician at work. ED

The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin
by William Logan
Columbia University Press, 2005. $29.50

There are three reasons William Logan is the most feared, even most despised, poetry reviewer of the present period. 1) He writes on assignment, meaning most of the books deserve what he says. 2) Most of his generation (poets born in the fifties) threw in the towel where work-for-hire reviewing is concerned, and he’s had the field more or less to himself. 3) He has a grim knack for it. Logan’s specialty is the rapier slash, with first blood drawn in the hook—and it can be a delight to surf the book for these one-liner incisions alone. He can be dead on: “John Ashbery’s nonsense is a lot more amusing than most poets’ sense.” He can destroy in one move: “Dick Davis was part of a small group of proper English formal poets, ardent admirers of Yvor Winters, who made almost no impact on British poetry in the seventies and eighties.” And he can be dumb: “Ann Carson is not just odd; she’s Canadian.” But he’s always interesting—and if his style reminds you of the hatchet jobs of Randall Jarrell, they should. Both reviewers succeed because they risk being wrong. Being wrong is not fatal for a reviewer. Being overly politic or timid is. Vigorously expressed, strong opinions are the hallmark of a good reviewer (sadly, that still has to be said in today’s poetry business). Time will correct contemporary opinions anyway. When Logan writes “Poetry has for some time tried to dumb itself down to attract an audience; when any art becomes so desperate, it is already endangered,” you have to be glad someone is pointing out the facts. “The critic is the enemy of the author’s fantasies,” Logan rightly says, and in an age when calling a spade a spade in poetry is considered a high crime and misdemeanor, it’s good to have a fearless prosecutor to rattle an art when the art needs to be rattled. DB