Copper Canyon Press. $15.00.
C.D. Wright's Cooling Time is a scrapbook of reminiscences, critical doodles, and the odd poem, some of the material having been reworked from her 1986 collection Further Adventures with You. The book's poems are prosy and its prose "poetic," by which I mean it operates at a level of casual logic and languid prognostication typically not associated with the essay. Wright's work in general seems in a rush to get nowhere, and where this restlessness is expressive in her poetry—there is an edgy, cricket-like fervor in her voice—it is retardant to her criticism, which cannot find three paragraphs in a row to establish an axis of travel or to show sustained interest in a point. Quirky aperçus flare, twinkle, and fade; the only thing that can be said to unify the book is a vague dissatisfaction with the position of the poet in our time. At times her tone is a bit too relaxed for the complexity of her immediate topic ("don't even get me started on form"); at others, she wants to project an apothegmatic, Mao-like authority with standalone morsels of wisdom that, given the book's looseness, necessarily come out of nowhere: "Imagine flying in concrete," "Anything could happen in the unrequited cities of the mind," "It is important to keep moving." She would like to derive some force from the inversion of received belief, but she does not write in a space where received belief has purchase in the first place. Apropos of nothing, she will say, "I am suggesting that the radical of poetry lies not in the resolution of doubts but in their proliferation," or "What elegy is, not loss but opposition." In zero-gravity, anything can be made to stand on its head. The rhetoric flails for a handle—"I believe in," "I am even willing to argue," "I submit," "I would submit," "I seek to be," "For it is my confirmed bias that"—but never finds one, except maybe in a chapter in appreciation of Margaret Vittitow, an autodidact activist polymath mother of seven whom Wright met early in college. Of Vittitow's powers of recitation and quotation, Wright says, "there was always a context, she never simply held forth. She situated." Would that Wright had flattered her with imitation.
The Sugar Mile, by Gly Maxwell.
Houghton Mifflin. $23.00.
I don't know if his dramatic gifts can be put down to his playwriting or his playwriting to his dramatic gifts, but Glyn Maxwell cheerfully absorbs himself in the one captivating thing that contemporary poets almost categorically ignore: the interaction of human beings. The Sugar Mile is a narrative sequence following the author, a barfly, and a bartender in Manhattan in the three days leading up to 9/11. The barfly, Joseph Stone, survived the Blitz as a kid before immigrating to Hoboken, and now passes his stories on, poem by poem, to his younger compatriot for posterity. The whole setup—three guys in a bar—may not sound very promising, and indeed the poet himself is a cipher and the bartender Raul a coarse type (not that coarse types don't exist), all idiocy and swagger:
One time I say my brother's a marine.
Joey says merchant marine?
And I'm like, a merchant marine?
No a marine.
Joey was in the merchant marines and I'm like,
what is a merchant marine?
Sounds like you sell people shit
then kick their ass.—From Raul Serving Sunday Brunch
Stone, except in the flashbacks to wartime Britain, is a sodden mope. But the flashbacks have a queer immediacy, the historical weight of the material and the liveliness of the verse somehow cooperating, and the faith that Maxwell has in modest dramatic resources may bring you around. If I am not mistaken, this is the only book in this bunch of ten that attempts a scene with more than two people in it. Raul often speaks in sestinas, which also may not sound promising, but Maxwell uses the repetitions to formalize the inane stuttering of our conversation (he also uses rime riche to the same purpose), and what could have been dry or clever turns out to be the redemptive method of an attentive ear.
The Blitz scenes have their own cast and internal structure, and although I won't spoil the story, it says something heartening that it is possible to do so. At its worst, Maxwell's work has a slightly cloying facility, like you're reading the script to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Blitz: the Musical. At its best, it's heaving valiantly to pull poetry's head out of its behind. Maxwell, very unusual among talents, is happier the closer he gets to other people and public circumstances, and this idiosyncrasy does The Sugar Mile, as it has done his previous books, a great deal of good.
Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003, by Jean Valentine.
Wesleyan University Press. $29.95.
Door in the Mountain collects Valentine's eight previous books (including Dream Barker, selected for the Yale Younger Poets series in 1965) and several dozen new poems. You could say that Dream Barker was her best book, but it was really the only one that cared how it sounded, and she subsequently lost even that limited appetite for Plath-like musical lavishness:
How deep we met in the sea, my love,
My double, my Siamese heart, my whiskery,
fish-belly, glue-eyed prince, my dearest black nudge—From First Love
She writes in this book with a three-quarters profile that enables certain voicings—her passing indictment of Cambridge, for example ("Every public place in this city/Is a sideshow of souls sword-swallowing pity"), is better than Cummings's. But the stance is made in part of disengagement, and you sense that, although her poetics faces the daylight world of a readership, the poet herself would rather not. In subsequent collections, the poet prevails by degrees. Valentine goes from some form in Dream Barker (1965) to none in Pilgrims (1969). The poems begin to feel reactive and momentary, and solitude becomes a condition which they can explore but not ameliorate. In Ordinary Things (1974) she prays, "God break me out/of this stiff life I've made." In her translations from the Dutch of Huub Oosterhuis, she is attracted to the theme of blurrings and dissolving markings: chalk lines on a floor rubbed off, footprints in the snow blown over, sand rubbed into eyes. Somewhere around The River at Wolf (1992) the poems on the page begin to seem like footprints of the poems in her head, and mistrust of surfaces has gone from a secondary consideration to a constrictive condition.
What's disquieting is that this progression seems to have no proximate cause. She never expresses revulsion at public language, and no single private tragedy or crisis undoes her (though recently someone close, I think a young man, is in prison). Lately, the poems have little evident patterning, although even in their privacy and dream logic they bemoan their own aphasia. The last five lines of the book are true, in their ephemera, to the means Valentine has arrived at:
off the Atlantic
out towards strangeness
a breath on a coal
But it is wrenching to see a poet erode herself in this way, and, even with all the evidence of the poems before you, be unable to reconstruct the route they took from abundance to their fleeting and attenuated meaning.
Ledger, by Susan Wheeler.
University of Iowa Press. $14.00.
Turner Cassity and Mary Ellen Templeton have assembled an interesting anthology of poems about money called The Golden Calf in which Cassity notes how seldom poets take up lucre as a subject. But, he says, "those who write about money itself, generally speaking, write well. Like a threat of death, it focuses the mind marvelously." Excepting itself from this rule, Susan Wheeler's latest book is a spectacularly unfocused meditation on economy, property, commerce, and their intrusions into spheres where they have no natural jurisdiction. She has a relatively cool take on the matter, regarding the compromised state of modern first world existence as a given, and she does not defend the inner life from Count Chocula and "Hollywood Squares" (they're both in there) so much as vaccinate it, perhaps, through controlled exposure. That cash has value appears to be our strongest remaining collective hallucination, and Wheeler wants a poetry that deals with this without exactly bemoaning it or capitulating to it.
Wheeler is aptly named. She's a dervish, a poet of considerable centrifugal energies that sometimes perform captivatingly and sometimes get away from her. The book struggles to maintain composure in its couplets, tercets, and quatrains, and seems happiest when it can splatter text all over the page (which is not to say I can make the poems justify their layout). She puns wholesale on the vocabulary of business, and words that in another work would be nondescript here become quite charged, even if their immediate context is innocent: "solvent," "return," "account," "statement," "deposit," "spend," "values," "denominational," "green," and even "short." This lexicon is compelling evidence of the overlap of our private and economic selves, and it says something odd about us that we are willing to let our words carry these divided loyalties (though this division is not modern).
But beyond this, it's hard to say what Ledger amounts to. The book is very difficult. Even the usual over-the-top jacket blurbs use the word "cacophonous." When coming across passages like
Eisenhower, Eisenhower—From Each's Cot an Altar Then
you may well decide you'd rather be reading any of the thirty-some source texts in Wheeler's acknowledgements—and that includes A History of Belgium. On the other hand, a little comprehensibility works wonders, and poems like "Figures on a Kylix Attributed to Douris, Athens, 490-480BC" insure that at least some of Ledger is worth the paper it's printed on:
The man holds up three fingers.
The woman holds up four fingers.
She bares a breast.
Budget Travel Through Space and Time, by Albert Goldbarth.
Graywolf Press. $15.00.
"No computer was used in the creation and submission of these poems," says Albert Goldbarth of his latest collection, and it's a splendid irony that a poet with such a mechanistic picture of the cosmos should not avail himself of gadgetry in writing about it. By typewriter or legal pad, evidently, Goldbarth's one-squillionth scale model of the universe proceeds apace. The poet's distinctive voice is right where he left it—voluble, non-negative, and eager—and he shares with certain American scientists the unquestioned belief that astonishment and wonder can be recreated by the expression of astonishment and wonder. The poems are right where he left them, too, playing six-degrees-of-separation with the most far-out concepts he can make drift through his imagination: Lucretius to seti to Eskimos in fourteen lines; a Neolithic corpse in the Tyrol to McDonald's in thirteen; a metropolis to a sesame seed in one. A typo in a catalogue ("This non-aerosol prayer dates from the forties") or a conversational slip-up ("I will perish this forever") can get him going for pages. A foreign grad student shows him the sentence "Some days I hated my coworker" and asks him what it means to ork a cow; this makes his day. The poems have titles like "'You Might Notice Blood in Your Urine for a Couple of Weeks'/& Scenes from the American Revolution." It is as though he writes for the tabloids in Gotham City, throwing at us, for our adolescent delectation, "Mutant-engineered bloodsucker djinns, invisibility rays,/lost civilizations, past-life telepathic romance," with great gusto for the camp.
Goldbarth's work amounts to a poetry of lists, and, as some have pointed out, such a poetry has trouble outdoing itself, must inflate to retain a dynamic, and is ultimately flattening to the things it is trying to exalt. There can't be any meaning in the connections the poems draw when it is practically a premise that connections can be drawn between anything. Like fireworks ("lollapalooza kaboom," he goes, "zowie"), Goldbarth is dazzling and without threat. His hyperstimulated tumbling through tides of garbage continues, and his intensity shows no signs of letting up, but there isn't much room left for it to matter. He seems to recognize that he is becoming an act (he quotes from reviews of his own books) and wishes to press a claim of greater significance, hoping we might hear through his poetry that "the music at the quarky heart of things is elegiac." If I hear it right, it sounds more like a polka.
The Maverick Room, by Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Graywolf Press. $14.00.
Thomas Sayers Ellis preaches to "A mixed congregation: sinners, worshippers,/Hustlers, survivors." He has enough tricks up his sleeve to keep most of them entertained most of the time—his models, after all, are the consummate showmen of Parliament Funkadelic. The book's geography is DC's, with one section for each of the districts (NW, NE, SW, SE) and one for the Maverick Room (a go-go club). In making this tour, the poetry has the freedom to adopt several voices, the most successful of which regard his hometown and childhood with some affection and sensitivity: Ellis makes a nostalgic, Homeric census of the Fat Daves, Dirty Jerries, and Spanish Dougs from the old neighborhood ("Nicknames"); Reverend Gibson dashes out of the local church to throw buckets of hot water on canoodling dogs ("A Kiss in the Dark"); the young Ellis undertakes to find the Library of Congress—which might as well be the Parthenon, for all anyone in his circle knows—with a fading obituary of Robert Hayden in his back pocket ("View of the Library of Congress from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School"). "Slow Fade to Black," a tribute to Blaxploitation Sunday matinees, is ostensibly the same order of poem, but Ellis's likening the theater to the Underground Railroad ("rows & rows of runaways/awaiting emancipation") is cant, although perhaps cant that can be put down to Ellis's high overall level of goofy, thoroughgoing experimentation—this is a book, after all, that contains a Gertrude Stein imitation, the line "My eyes are women surrounded by lesbian graves," and an emcee voice that declares, "The whole bumpnoxious,/Dark thang stanks/Of jivation//And Electric Spank."
Ellis expends a lot of energy on this latter kind of invention, and, having nothing to measure itself by but its immediate phrasal cleverness, it's not as propulsive and differentiating as one might hope. Coinages like "metafoolish," "graffilthy," and "funkentelechy" are good for a whoop and getting a little "Butt-to-butt resuscitation" going, but Ellis's quieter moments are to this kind of crowd-working as house lights are to a dance club: they show the illusion for what it is. The electric spanking is nevertheless put to some worldly use in his savaging of Yaddo: "the whitest, most minus-da-groove/diaperspace I go" (and yet Yaddo is thanked in his acknowledgements—why not stick with the tongue-lashing?). I'm not sure, in the end, that Ellis achieves such a brotherloaded, plus-da-groove idiom as to justify his circle in the sand:
All their haloed holocausts
All their coy hetero couplets
All their hollow haloed causes
All their tone-deaf tercets
All their stanzas look alike—From All Their Stanzas Look Alike
They may be alike in their mediocrity, willful irrelevance, and all-around provincialism, but it cannot be lost on even the most marginal observer that white poetry is heterogeneous to the extent of losing communication with itself. Is Ellis saying he can't tell the stuff in the Formalist from the stuff in Fence? Albert Goldbarth from Jean Valentine? Really?
Jack and Other New Poems, by Maxine Kumin.
W.W. Norton. $23.95.
The poems in Maxine Kumin's fifteenth collection are grounded in her New Hampshire farm, and they have in them the benediction of a life well-lived, amid the affections of long tenancy in a beautiful place. The farm is rich with incident and has modest stakes, and in this respect Kumin has attained an upper-middle-class pastoral idyll. Although the setting furnishes plenty of material, it cannot furnish any reason to write about it, and Kumin's essential casualness shows very quickly (she refers to herself as "Reclusive comfortable Widow"). None of the poems encounters any psychic resistance. They are as a consequence basically as good as their anecdotes, a couple of which are memorable—"The Apparition," in which a euthanized dog digs itself out of its own grave and reappears at the back door, is an authentic ghost story. But it is hard to overstate how resistant the poems are to vision or projection or sublimation, how stubbornly Kumin's practical, hedgehog, adopted-Yankee consciousness refuses to leave the ground floor. When she wants to write an elegy, she starts five sentences in a row with "An elegy for... " When she wants to allude to the Aeneid, she does it like this:
The living are not normally
allowed to visit the underworld
but in BookVI of the Aeneid
an exception is made:—From Crossing Over
Kumin realizes that something must be done to give the collection some consequence, but the treatment is uniformly worse than the disease. "The Rapist Speaks: A Prison Interview" is unredeemed and unredeeming gruesomeness, "Eating Babies" is the train wreck it sounds like, and "The Jew Order" depends on the rather frail premise of black Philadelphians' sympathy, circa 1940, for "desperate Confederate households."
Eighty this year, Kumin is enjoying the blessing of being happy and stable, and suffering the curse of not being able to turn this into a writerly asset. She attempts a triumphant affirmation of her atheism ("Getting There") and declares that she will not join that parade of despairing writers (James, Petrarch, Kafka) who consigned parts of their works to the flames ("The Burners, the Buriers"). She razzes Nemerov, Dickey, and Berryman for the slack they were cut for their bad-boy performances ("Male Privilege"). If Kumin's body of work is a reliable guide, these gestures amount to hollow self-congratulation, as there is no indication that she has ever been near enough madness or danger (as even boors and drunks may be) that her deliverance could matter. Kumin might as well crow about not being an opium addict. You detect (there is also a hint of it in her introduction to Anne Sexton's collected poems) a note of envy of those with access to more destructive forces; Jack can't decide if it wants a part of them or not.
Streets in Their Own Ink, by Stuart Dybek.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $20.00.
Every poet I have discussed the matter with has what you might call an inanimate totem: a thing matched to your sensibilities so exactly that you will never quite be able to get across what it means to you. I have heard poets declare their sheepish love for empty park benches, sidewalk cracks, screen doors. Stuart Dybek’s totem—totems—are Chicago’s laundromats, hotel rooms, alleys, basements, and churches, and the poems are nothing more and nothing less than an opportunity to repose in the grim physicality of these spaces. There are trysts in decaying rooms, walks in decaying neighborhoods; the irony of the city as a place of boundless loneliness and no solitude runs amok. Bag ladies shu±e by “the old Polish church on Ashland,” sex takes place “In a room the sepia of sunset-beaten shades.” Written out of an inspiration that is at once intellectually intangible and extreme-ly pure, the poems find it simple to travel a certain distance, and difficult to travel farther, as if no activity of the public parts of Dybek’s mind could justify, interpret, deepen, or resist his initial idiosyncratic interest.
Not that he doesn’t try. Dybek attempts a sanctification of urban decay, but it tends to disrupt the vaporous appeal of the poems (“the confessional of the last/pay phone rings”), to the extent, sometimes, of preposterousness (“the slumlord of the Tower of Babel/absconds with the rent”). He has the Lethe leak from a fire hydrant. He stages scenes of love and suffering, and while the totemic faculty, if you will, is enticed by the faint whiff of these things, it is not further enticed, and may even be repelled, by their heavy-handed presence. In “View” undressing lovers look at a wrecked building across from their hotel room:
Just think, she said,
unzipping her skirt, of all
the lovemaking that happened there.
Just think of all the broken hearts,
she said, as her bra fell.
At moments like this the book has a Chandler-like, forties, tough-guy sentimentality that, whatever its charms, could probably be more complicated. And there are a few overtly professorial gestures, like “the automatic writing of the wind,” that could probably be more absent. But Streets in Their Own Ink is sincerely in thrall to its city, and can fall back on its sincerity; it may have fashioned the best poetry possible out of its compulsions.
The Optimist, by Joshua Mehigan.
Ohio University Press. $24.95 cloth; $12.95 paper.
A work of some poise and finish, by turns delicate and robust, making balanced use of the imposing and receptive facets of intelligence, The Optimist is by some margin the best book in this roundup. It's not innovative, but what it does, it does well and very consistently. Mehigan writes with the alert quality control and tonal competence of mid-century Americans like Edgar Bowers (to whom one poem is dedicated) and Richard Eberhart. He can write very unobtrusively in tight form (consider the line "Something exceptional will happen now"). He has exquisite tact, in the sense of balancing the reader's confusion against the poems' dependence on mystery. He also has a trait crucial to successful poets, but which I don't think we have a name for: a profound sincerity of interest that justifies profligate attention to anyone and anything, especially the minor and "objectively" unimportant. This sincerity allows Mehigan to inhabit the nooks and crannies of quiet (and not so quiet) domestic scenes, the idle hours of distressed or twilight figures, and find poems of some density and momentousness without seeming to have forced the invention. The essential smallness of his subjects will sneak up on you like the formality of his verse: a retiree drifts through his house, a mother tries to get her thirty-year-old mentally retarded son to put his shoes on, gullible farmers line up for a carnival game, a crane wanders onto the floor of a leather mill ("It wore its wings as though they were a shawl / thrown on an idiot"). An umbrella vendor watches patiently over a rush of pedestrians in a spring drizzle
because he seeks the one he knows will come:
one always just about to turn the corner,
blushing, and misty-faced, and misty-haired,
skirting the storefronts, beautifully bereft,
who has left home this morning unprepared.—From The Umbrella Man
To a remarkable degree the poems sustain this appealing combination of good manners and underlying hunger.
Eavan Boland has pointed out that, our talent promotion mechanism being inept, poets' first books today are liable to resemble, in their level of development, the second and even third books of a couple of generations ago. The Optimist has very few burrs on it, does not feel like a debut, and I suspect that Mehigan, thirty-five, has a couple of manuscripts in his desk we will never see. Nevertheless, we have a lot to look forward to. This is a poet with absolutely no reliance on madness or on romantic mismatch between himself and the world, and he should, at the very least, be able to keep doing what he's doing as impressively as he has been doing it, which is awfully impressively.
The Quick of It, by Eamon Grennan.
Graywolf Press. $14.00.
The sixty-six ten-line poems in this collection are out to get at the quick of it—the sparkling activity of the senses, the here and now, "the echt unmanageable absolute of it in the moment passing." Grennan jabs the world with his attention, sees if it punctures anything, and tries to find language of enough astonishment and velocity to reenact the piercing. Many of the poems are therefore syntactically smooth (often a single sentence) and descriptively adept. Some of these moments occur on the shore, some in the garden, some before his daughter, some before art. Animals, possessing the instantaneous quality of consciousness he is out to inhabit, figure prominently. Grennan divides his time between Poughkeepsie and Ireland; there is not one landscape. He is everywhere after
that nib-specific focus I'm seeing in the bird
And hearing in the music, the in-lit contingent presence things hold
In the moment to moment passage of their happening, the wholehearted way
They're in a state made up of bristling force and chaste patience——From [With a little quick shudder ...]
Grennan has, has always had, the chops for fine verbalization of fine perceptions. Generally this book, which does not dramatize much or look at things over time, appears to gain or stumble as Grennan is or is not able to exercise this talent in a particularly pure form, that is, to find language of an intensity matching his extra-super-concentrated attention. Such language has a tendency to drift from speech, and Grennan relies heavily on his sense of sound (he has a conspicuously good ear for quantity) to keep it grounded. There is the satisfying sense that he had to sharpen his pencil ten times to get "Nimble blood has dried to my mud-caked knuckles," and who-knows-how-many times to get
No matter, go on, while the little rabbit engine of the skull
Keeps drumming the end thing and, arse-up in creek water
Half iced-over, the ducks are making kittenish sounds,
And airborne geese (mandarin eyes cast down) figure on the wing
Their landing chances.—From [No matter, go on ...]
This is stunning. On the other hand, the prevailing plenty can spill over into tackiness like "tangleswarm/Of janglenerves." More unnerving is the sense that the author has been hypnotized by the very scintillation of consciousness, and as you realize that the book has no access to slower and more cumulative effects, and will in no way reconsider its approach to the pursuit of the ineffable, Grennan forces the question of whether its single-mindedness is commitment or stubborn limitation. I come down for the former—there is exhilaration in the directness of the approach—but I also hold out to see this level of writing employed to more devious, more circuitous routes to the center.