Autumn Road, by Brian Swann.
Ohio State University Press. $12.95.
The title of Brian Swann’s new book suggests the route the poems take: opening with scenes of a childhood in small-town, coalmining England, they progress through sexual awakening and coming of age (understood largely through reflections on a lecherous, ne’er-do-well father), and gradually catch up to the present and the wary looking-ahead of later life. Swann’s metaphor for reminiscence is “heliography,” or the transmission of messages by reflected sunlight, and the poems evoke people and places through suggestive flashes rather than sustained novelistic attention. Swann hints that the autobiographical element in the heliography is partly deflected and fictional, but in any case the vignettes capture a plausible Anytown in which the forces of propriety are locked in eternal struggle with the forces of mischief:
we ran home,
hell at our heels, slap into Michael Dunleavy
running the other way, a pack of mothers
yelling at his heels, and him shouting: “Come
and watch the cows being fucked!
Come and watch the cows being fucked!”
So we turned around and ran with him.
—From Inspiration (on being asked)
(This bit is so good he uses it twice.) The primal wrongdoing in this place, as Swann sees it, is the failure of the elder generation to bequeath a body of knowledge that mitigates the confusion of the young. This confusion bumps up against, and finds little refuge in, the formal adult knowledge of science and history, which is both hyper-sophisticated and too crude to answer. Fossils and skulls become symbols of its pathetic failure. While poignant enough, the befuddlement is enacted almost too well in language. At school, following a dismally obscure and irrelevant lesson on light,
we were dismissed into remaining light that had,
at one time or another, been us & we it, even though
now it was all mixed up with all sorts of other stuff,
and that was the way things were.
There are a lot of things in the book, a lot of something and everything and anything and someone and everyone and somewhere and everywhere, and their cloudiness diffuses the heliographic flashes and contributes to the book’s laconic, feathery style. As the most philosophical, the third and final section of the book has the most to lose from the lack of precision, which one begins to sense Swann has been led into by extended reliance on drifting evocation, and by the accompanying atrophy of the ability to make arguments, sound-shapes, summings-up, and prognostications. If the charming moments in Autumn Road are charming, they are also occasions to regret that Swann has not suited up for poems more autonomous, less chastened by the particular past they emerge from.
Firekeeper: Selected Poems, by Pattiann Rogers.
Milkweed Editions. $16.00.
I picked up the first version of Firekeeper (1994) after coming across Rogers’s terrific “Abundance and Satisfaction,” a poem cast as a sort of genteel internal debate. Abundance wants a map of the world so detailed it becomes the world; Satisfaction can already see the world in a grain of sand. Satisfaction is monotheistic and content with one explanation; Abundance is polytheistic and wants many. Each makes a good case, and the compromise reached in the poem’s rollicking finale has in it the catch-as-catch-can spirit with which we tend in practice to conclude these kinds of arguments with ourselves:
I want one god to be both scatter
and pillar, one to explain simultaneously
mercy and derision, yet a legion of gods
for the spools of confusion and design,
but one god alone to hold me by the waist,
to rumble and quake in my ear, to dance me
round and round, one couple with forty
gods in the heavenly background
with forty violins with one
immortal baton keeping time.
The balance of Rogers’s poems (this includes the new selections here from her five books since 1994) come down for Abundance, and busy themselves with praise of the body and nature. These are not narratives of the form, “Yesterday I found a nest in the meadow with three eggs in it, but I returned this morning and there were only two.” Rogers offers instead catalogs of phenomena, of animals and animal parts, her interest lying not in their context but in the natural laws that may be apprehended through them, in their implications for their Creator. A single stanza may collect samples of clover, tulips, peabush, steeplebrush, Sweet William, mushrooms, oaks, birches, voles, snails, slugs, crickets, toads, sparrows, larks, and bobolinks. In five lines she might move from pipe fish to musk ox to fungi. In their compulsive taxidermy the poems do not acquaint you with the natural world so much as with the study of it; reading them is like roller-skating through a natural history museum.
Behind Rogers’s method, or at least succinctly capturing it, is what she calls “the imperfection of the unfinished,” that is, her sense that a being is in its highest and most praiseworthy state when beyond, or considered outside of, change. Discrete events frustrate the writing’s aspirations to universality and prayer, and she often uses imperfect tenses to avoid letting in events at all. If moment-to-moment consciousness appears, it is in instances of acute bodily need; as in the work of some other science-oriented nature poets, like Diane Ackerman, the poems extrude an inadvertently terrifying world in which nothing exists but sex and physics. The good of all this is that Rogers is very far from the diary, but the bad is that she simply has no language for the observations that go into one: for portraiture, for human differentiation, for individual transience and suffering. Rogers may seem to be on the side of life, but she’s actually sweeping it under the cosmic rug.
Weighing Light, by Geoffrey Brock.
Ivan R. Dee. $18.50.
A poet totally opposed to Rogers in outlook, Geoffrey Brock is out to grapple with the mess, not to say wreckage, of human relationships, and is interested in them in every sense but the general. Brock doesn’t think much of abstraction—the first line of the book (in a poem called “Abstraction,” no less) calls it “coitus interruptus with the sweaty world.” While tempted by the possibility of associatively enlarging his themes, he senses danger in this and sticks ruefully to the facts. Brock is on a train, talking to his sleeping beloved:
Everything wants to dream itself into something
Larger tonight: the train, this warm compartment, the seen
And unseen. Let’s say they’re just themselves. That you
Are here with me. And that these words are just a transcript
Of this ...
Like the train, he’s direct.
Weighing Light is the winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, awarded to manuscripts of formal interest, and from all of this you might get the picture that Brock is a formal Confessional in the mode of W.D. Snodgrass. He is and isn’t—the differences are partly a matter of tone (Brock’s is too consistently serious-colloquial), partly a consequence of resisting abstraction so strenuously that inductive movements are also kept out of the poems, and with them the formulation of wisdom. When you don’t reach after wisdom, you don’t realize that you haven’t found any, and so Brock is spared bitterness at the expense of some numbness. Having no interest in formal gimmickry, he sometimes mocks or brutalizes form to enact emotional deadlocks, defeats, or disappointments (one quatrain, in a poem about a vapid affair, rhymes Naiveté/Chartres/theatres/exegete). The use of formal patterns, which are nothing if not abstract, develops an ironic cast. Brock does allow us by the end a glimpse of “the sacred world,” but the world glimpsed is unsusceptible to language. After years of waiting for a sign, he says, you might see
one you love, framed in the entryway,
Wholly herself, and you for once abstracted
From fierce desire, its lenses and scaffoldings,
And left by language, which will not convey
The sense of stupid wonder that, though muted,
Fills the cage of your ribs with a riff of wings.
—From Vision (Sweet Recess)
The treble rhythm in the last line could go (and why not “ribcage”? does he get letters in the box of his mail?), but the play on “abstracted” here is an interesting turnaround—now it appears that desire is the mediated experience and abstraction from it a kind of clarity or freedom. Weighing Light is a book of clear premises, profitably stuck to and, as here, departed from; I would have wished for it some of the lenses and scaffoldings, the devices of indirection that might have helped him convey that sense of stupid wonder.
The Silent Treatment, by Richard Howard.
Turtle Point Press. $16.95.
About every other poem in The Silent Treatment is set in the historical past, and, while the stagings are not quite as baroque as those of earlier collections, Howard’s signature dramatic monologues by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European luminaries are out in force. The acquisitions committee of the Bodleian Library convenes to discuss a possible forgery; we read three missing days in the diary of Cosima Wagner; the court-painter-elect to Charles III of Spain offers some remarks. The characters have names like “Ernestine Schroeder-Devrient.” Howard still seems to be angling for the title of palest Paleface in the canon, although he stoops (not very effectively) to some Americana, lending his voice to a child in a Depression-era photograph in the poem “George and Ethel Gage with Mother Ida Gage and Their First Five Children: Loretta, Ida, Baby Ivory, Jesse, & Leon.” The poems that are set in the present aren’t, really—they are haunted to distraction by what Howard calls “that paradox the present of the past,” and give way to the history immanent in them. Howard addresses a dead ringer for a Rubens portrait, half-convinced the painting has come to life; an editor advises her junior colleague to lose weight—by way of an anecdote involving Joseph Conrad in the Louvre.
Howard’s themes are aesthetic authenticity and anti-Semitism, the latter serving as a sort of interestingly consequential, high-order gaffe, like adultery in Tolstoy. But something in the artificiality of the settings keeps these themes from attaining complete seriousness. Howard withholds himself from verisimilitude in the monologues—they remain posed and arranged, like still lifes or classical statuary. This is (I take it) a modesty about the medium, part and parcel of his humility before the past; it would be bad manners to presume to be his subject. Though often in costume, he is never in disguise, and reading the poems—in this as in his other books—throws me into a glittering masquerade I am ill at ease in, a kind of Star Trek convention of the literati.
The writerly problem of making a good monologue, of getting the tone right, the idioms, the turns of phrase, the pacing, is a labor like translation, and in his translation Howard shows a similar standoffishness, a distaste for complete domestication. He closes The Silent Treatment with a rendition of Mallarmé’s “A Faun’s Afternoon,”which reworks the French syntax somewhat, but then retains cognates and recognizably French phrasing, as if to apologize for doing so:
it is my flute
whose faltering cascade relieves the grove;
and the only wind, quick to escape these pipes
before the sound spreads in an arid rain,
is—rising serene on the undefiled horizon—
the visible and artificial breath
of inspiration which remounts the sky.
Totally uninterested in himself, and yet more interested in the products of art than in the conditions of spirit they redress, Howard remains a weird combination of selfless and decadent. He reminds me of one of those musicians dedicated to fashioning and playing period instruments, whose creations, even when note-perfect, eddy in their own homages.
The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems, by Marilyn Nelson.
Louisiana State University Press. $16.95.
The “other poems” in Marilyn Nelson’s new book are quick warm-ups for The Cachoeira Tales themselves, a Chaucer pastiche about several African-American friends and relations on a “reverse diaspora” to Africa—or at least it was going to be Africa, until Nelson figures out her grant money won’t go that far (she tells all of this in verse) and they’ll have to settle for Brazil. A long poem in couplets is new to Nelson’s repertoire—a stretch isn’t a bad thing, but the results in this case are, formally speaking, rough. One of the pilgrims is talking about getting stopped for “DWB”:
Since I’d only had a beer,
I passed the sobriety test. But from the car
the other cop yelled, ‘Hey, there’s a warrant
on him!’ That little jaywalking ticket,
which I’d forgotten about, had grown immense!
Forgetting it was an arrestable offense!
They handcuffed me and threw my ass in jail.
I was there til my mother and my wife came up with the bail.
The Jazz Musician’s Tale
Because the couplets’ fidelity is to clarity rather than grace, the narratives rumble along, as though on eight-sided wheels. The pilgrims prove to have appealing camaraderie, distinct voices, and lively stories, and the pilgrims’ characterization is Nelson’s strongest achievement in the book. After a few pages with them I was sure she was going to use them as foils for the possible responses to encountering a removed racial or ethnic patrimony—responses which range, and might plausibly have ranged here, from embrace and satisfaction to recoil and disgust. But the pilgrimage never makes it that far. The travelers take in a slice of Bahia, its markets and beaches and houses of worship, and the vacation ends.
That leaves us with Nelson’s own thoughts on the trip. She deals in some pretty hoary romanticisms (at the outset she declares her intention to visit “some place sanctified by the Negro soul”), and her light and heavy elements often sap each other, as in a dream sequence where a freezer full of low-calorie desserts is a portal to an apocalyptic vision of “the dark heart of human error.” Her observations of Bahian Christianity get deeply at something, but other reflections on racial history do not: “Wading in the waves,/I thought of Matthew Arnold. Then, of slaves.” For a Robert Hayden or a Derek Walcott, the Middle Passage is the grain of sand that induces the action of the moral intelligence or the visionary imagination; for Nelson, it is already the pearl, and she has nothing left to do, so to speak, but gaze at it. There is a passage in the book from Franz Fanon: “I have barely opened eyes that had been blindfolded, and someone already wants to drown me in the universal?” On the contrary—The Cachoeira Tales could use a good dousing in the particular.
The Whispering Gallery, by William Logan.
Penguin Poets. $16.00.
Placing one foot on either side of the pond, William Logan opens his seventh book with epigraphs from Dickens and Melville (the title comes from Melville, and amusingly was also newspaper-speak for the first transatlantic telegraph link). What follows is an intoxicating wallow in decay seen in the terms of a top-heavy cultural legacy, a procedure ascendant in Logan’s poetry at least since Night Battle (1999) and pervasive in Macbeth in Venice (2003). Wandering a principally Floridian landscape (Florida is a sort of placidly wild, déclassé Venice) where the referents of old-world culture have limited purchase, Logan is fascinated by their attenuated ability to redeem the rotting, ragged, weathered, gutted, shattered, peeling, flaked, crumbling, withering, soggy, corrupted, gnawn, and pocked. The mood is “soiled with fin de siècle immanence/as the millennium drains from the clawfoot tub”:
The mortal cooling meat remains immortal
deep in the dying archive of the thistle.
Rapt, pincer-headed, feathers scaled like armor,
the quarreling turkey buzzards kneel to pray
furtively at their Caesar’s decaying corpse.
Draped mournfully in black, they glisten with heat,
the squabbling senate of prairie undertakers
bewildered where the mock religious rite
for raising each new Lazarus goes wrong.
—From The Ides of May
Controlled associations transform this scene so deeply that its objective, physical elements (almost an effort to picture again, having read through) appear impoverished. Logan draws this ability from a Modernist’s stock of references, ear, and a sense of time (acute as Richard Howard’s, but less contained) as just another dimension. He also has a knack for making conscientiously bricklaid lines sound ghostly, often by comparing immaterial objects to material ones (“the oily dusk/settling like coal dust”), and soft or liquid objects to hard ones, especially metals (“the irritated waves edged with silver tinfoil”). The tenors have more substance than the vehicles, which induces a certain passing haziness about what, exactly, in a line is real. Logan’s use of these transmutations is peculiar and, because it presents an egress from the insipid empiricism prevailing in our poetry—an egress that leaves open the possibilities of rationality and precision—promisingly tonic.
The downside of Logan’s style is that it runs very hot and is liable to gothic over-amplification (my appetite for phrases like “forsaken as gods” is not large). Overall, though, guided by the anchoring sequence “Penitence,” the book establishes moderating ratios of past and present, dead and living, that keep the gravity this side of morbid. Poetry of this moral pressure also has a tendency to become cerebral and lose track of the body, but as the book comes to touch on the poet’s childhood and romantic history, this problem is nipped in the bud (and indeed the book’s last words are “frenzied rage of birth.”) The Whispering Gallery does everything right that Macbeth in Venice did and relatively little of what it did wrong—it’s his best book yet.
The Niagara River, by Kay Ryan.
Grove Press. $13.00.
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.
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.”
Ryan is already sitting on a pile of singular work, and my concerns are only with respect to what comes next. Apart from being somewhat better, the poems in The Niagara River are identical to those of several years ago, and although I wouldn’t advocate innovation for its own sake, it would be a shame to see her settle into the role of monotonous original, like Dickinson or Ashbery. I gather from an essay of Ryan’s that the poems are the product of a very quiet life, of concentration brought to bear on the Brownian hum of puttering around a house. I don’t know if this well will prove exhaustible or not, but 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.
Poems 1955-2005, by Anne Stevenson.
Dufour Editions. $64.95 cloth; $29.95 paper.
A poet even more essentially transatlantic than Logan, Stevenson was born in England, raised and educated in the US, and has been living in various parts of Britain since the sixties. Poems 1955-2005 draws from thirteen publications since 1965, as well as from some early and late uncollected work. The poems are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which was at first quite irritating (it is almost a reflexive response to want to compare early and late work) but grew on me. While I hesitate to imply Stevenson’s writing has been static, she maintains a consistent sensibility and clustered interests that are able to make thematic categorizations work as more than curiosities. There aren’t many poets who could profitably mix up work spanning fifty years, but she can.
Stevenson has written alertly on Sylvia Plath (she’s Plath’s age, but didn’t start publishing until after Plath’s death) and Elizabeth Bishop, and has obviously gone to school on them in her own work. She has something of Bishop’s patrician sequencing of observation and, less reliably, Plath’s way of pogo-sticking from word to word. More socially constituted than either of these poets, she possesses a charity that neither of them had, and suffers from an excess of consciousness that neither of them had either. I say “suffers” because the excess often manifests itself as literary mannerism or a chattiness of tone that does not entrain itself to the formal or dramatic requirements of the poem. Her challenge, generally speaking, is disciplining this excess. Her loose voice sounds like this:
For what traveller or exile, mesmerised by the sun
Or released by spaciousness from habitual self-denial,
Recalls without wistfulness its fine peculiarities
Or remembers with distaste its unique, vulnerable surfaces?
Compare this to:
A field of barley, feathered;
a fen full of sky-blue butterfly flax,
undulations like the ocean’s
rolling right up to the cameraman’s
And when Anthea sets up her easel
to catch in watercolour
a picturesque angle of the almshouses,
she scrupulously omits
electrical wiring and TV paraphernalia
that, in strange time, connect her to
“the brutish, uncivilized tempers of these parts” ...
—From A Tourists’ Guide to the Fens
When in the latter mode, Stevenson’s wry-but-not-bitter worldliness (it’s striking how much she resembles Mona Van Duyn in this quality) is expansive enough for public elegy, light verse, social satire—there’s something eighteenth-century about it. It just doesn’t seem to lose its footing. Usually poets’ most ambitious work is their worst, but Stevenson’s jewel is the 1974 Correspondences, an extended portrait of a Yankee family based on a trove of letters Stevenson discovered at Radcliffe. She shows in these pieces a talent, not otherwise much on display, for mimicry—the voices throughout are distinctly and plausibly old, young, male, female, northern, southern, English, American, grave, flippant, and of their time. As technique, it is impressive; as an act of empathy, it is broad and sustained in a way that any one lyric cannot be. Her strongest short poems (I would nominate “Gannets Diving,” “The Women,” “Forgotten of the Foot,” “Skills,” “American Rhetoric for Scotland,” “The White Room,” “Elegy,” “The Traveller,” and “Willow Song”) occur early, middle, and late. But whatever the case for the poems in it, the book compounds its successes in being a deep record of a robust and elastic sensibility, and in delivering us another not-so-minor Atlantic Goethe.