Selected Poems, by James Fenton.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $14.00.
This selection of James Fenton's poems begins with promising force. During the seventies, when so many poets lost themselves to domestic melodrama, or else in the mists of Deep Image, Fenton was writing with genuine political urgency. Most of these early poems derive from his experience as a foreign correspondent. His narratives about Cambodia carry particular power. "Dead Soldiers," for example, recounts an eerie lunch with Pol Pot's brother. In "Children in Exile," Fenton paints a group portrait of young refugees from Southeast Asia waiting in Italy for passage to America.
The strength of the work comes from more than its subject matter. Fenton learned from his compatriot Auden (whose voice he echoes a little too often) how to temper grand subjects and fulsome emotions with wit and condensation. The phrasing and rhythm in these poems are vivid and swift. Here, for instance, are the ending lines of "Children in Exile":
Let them come to the crest of the road when the morning is fine
With Florence spread like honey on the plain,
Let them walk through the ghostless woods, let the guns be silent,
The tiger never catch their eye again.
They are thriving I see. I hope they always thrive
Whether in Italy, England or France.
Let them dream as they wish to dream. Let them dream
Of Jesus, America, maths, Lego, music and dance.
The expansive tone of the first two lines leads to the particular, jumbled, proper nouns at the end. The effect is one of tempered and strengthened sympathy: the poet attends both to his feelings about the children's future and to their individuality. His skill for making his moral imagination manifest in specific formal features dignifies all of Fenton's best poems.
But reading the best poems, it's hard not to regret the trajectory of Fenton's work. Few poets have begun so powerfully and then fallen off so suddenly. In recent years Fenton has fashioned himself into a lyricist. Here are some characteristic lines from "I Know What I'm Missing":
Do you wonder if I'll remember?
Do you wonder where I'll be?
I'll be home again next winter
And I hope you'll write to me.
When the branches glisten
And the frost is on the avenue
I'll know what I'm missing—
I'm missing you.
Cole Porter has little to fear. Add a synth track and this poem would be great in a Jazzercise class.
Fenton fares little better when he attempts to apply his song-writing skills to his larger ambitions. This book offers his entire libretto to "The Love Bomb," a rock opera about a religious cult much like David Koresh's Branch Davidians. The action begins with John, who has lost his lover Martin to a woman named Anna. Anna in turn has fallen for Brother Paul and his band of millenarians. Martin follows Anna into the circle of the cult. At the end, Brother Paul and his followers, including Anna, go out in a suicidal whirlwind of fire and poison, while Martin escapes, returning to the ever-faithful John. The plots of good operas are often overblown and thin, but this one makes for some wonderful comedy, of which Fenton seems wholly unaware: the cult comes to resemble nothing so much as a gay man's nightmare of heterosexuality.
Maybe the most telling of Fenton's lyrics is the new poem, "Down to the Twigs and Seeds," a ditty about running out of dope. Here the poet does appear conscious of his depleted inspiration. The chorus goes like this:
Down to the twigs and seeds,
Down to the twigs and seeds—
I'm feeling rough,
I need a puff
But I'm down to the twigs and seeds
The mere fifteen pages of new poems in this selection might not seem so "mere" if they weren't stuffed with such doggerel, if "Down to the Twigs and Seeds" weren't such a convincing ars poetica.
Man and Camel, by Mark Strand.
Alfred A. Knopf. $24.00.
Mark Strand may seem the opposite of James Fenton. It's hard to think of a poet whose ambition so consistently matches his execution. To read through Strand from his first book to the present is to see a single course pursued with exquisite precision: despite his open-ended, mysterioso tones, Mark Strand has a strategy. Alan Williamson put it best when he described Strand's poems as "anti-epiphanies." Again and again, these poems move toward moments in which transcendence equals the disappearance of the self, in which the only revelation is the futility of knowledge and experience. The effect is not despair, however. That feeling of isolation balances against one of elegant calm, as in the opening of Strand's anthology piece, "Keeping Things Whole":
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
It might seem odd to quote a forty-year-old poem in a review of a new book. But although Strand now tends to write in ampler measures, the same tones and assumptions pervade this recent work. The poem "Error" ends with the characteristic line, "like the pages of a book on which nothing was written." In "My Name," the poet gazes up at the sky and hears his own name "as though it belonged not to me but to the silence." There's so much vanishing in Strand, it's a wonder the vanishing itself has held on so resiliently.
The problem is that, in parodying the conventions of Romantic discovery, Strand radically limits the courses he can pursue. He begins to fall back on posture. Certainly it's a posture that he's shown a genius for maintaining. He varies it, but only to the extent to which he can conjure new, weird settings and tonal swerves for his familiar plots.
There's another resource he has: imitation of Wallace Stevens. The best poem in Man and Camel, for example, is "Poem After the Seven Last Words," which the Brentano String Quartet commissioned to be read between movements of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ. Here's the opening of the fifth section:
To be thirsty. To say, "I thirst."
To close one's eyes and see the giant world
that is born each time the eyes are closed.
To see one's death. To see the darkening clouds
as the tragic cloth of a day of mourning.
There's intensity to this passage, for sure, an impressive amplitude that often arises when Strand abandons his cleverness and drollery. But the echo of Stevens begins to drown out the lines, and Strand can only suffer by the comparison. You feel that Stevens would push those infinitives further, weaving his sentences into the unforeseen; he would also temper the tone with something strange (a "Dr. Eucalyptus," say, or a "planetary pass-pass.") In Strand, the series of fragments begins to fizzle into Apollonian bromides. Strand is to Stevens what Olive Garden is to fine Italian dining: reliable, easy, popular, at times better than expected, but rarely the real thing.
Green Squall, by Jay Hopler.
Yale University Press. $30.00 cloth; $16.00 paper.
Jay Hopler has what musicians call "attack." He enters his poems immediately, and no matter how ironic or strange his sentences become, his voice clamps each phrase to the page with conviction. Here's the beginning of his opening poem, "In the Garden":
And the sky!
Nooned with the steadfast blue enthusiasm
Of an empty nursery.
In "The Frustrated Angel," he gives these lines to an otherworldly tormentor much like Henry's infamous "friend" in the Dream Songs:
That's mighty big talk, isn't it, Hopler—coming from
a man who lives with his mother?
And here's an epigrammatic barb from "Self-Portrait with Whiskey and Pistol":
Maybe if I surrounded myself with prostitutes and
strippers, my celibacy would feel less like a lack and
more like an act
Of heroic self-denial.
You begin to get a sense from these passages of Hopler's obsessions, and the idiom with which he embodies them. This is a book about intense solitude, a state which for moments seems an ultimate good, but more often feels like imprisonment. Hopler speaks from a literal and metaphorical garden, haunted by extravagant fantasies of escape, and by the Mother who hovers oppressively but never really appears.
In the best poems, this pull between imaginative departure and chastening containment becomes a formal principle. I'm thinking in particular of the two strongest lyrics in the book, "That Light One Finds in Baby Pictures" and "The Boxcars of Consolidated Rail Freight." Here's how the latter begins:
Those angels of history are
That I'm the product of two people who should have
Now one of them is dying. The
other is going
Crazy over it. I know—. To this day, there's a space
My eyes that stays lit like some small-town
I admire how the self-effacing humor of that enjambment into "better" opens into the sincerity of the following sentence, and how that bald statement slides into the strangeness of the museum simile. You can tell that Hopler's at his best when the poems move this dramatically.
His weaker moments come when he replaces such dramatic action with mannerism. Hopler has several stylistic tics. He repeatedly makes past-participial adjectives out of nouns, so that the moon, for example, becomes "vampired." He slides often into a gallows humor that overdetermines and numbs the poems. (Cynicism is the flip side of sentimentality: they both quickly induce then foreclose on feeling). And at times he buys his lush phrasing on the cheap:
Look at the garden: dew-swooned and with fat
With shade leaf-laced between the lemon trees.
In the end, though, I'm grateful for Hopler's raggedness. These days, we're fond of praising first books for not seeming like first books. We're accustomed to faulting work for being "uneven." But who's ever said, "I love that book. It's so even?" There's a volatility in Jay Hopler that promises much more than competence and reliability. And I'm eager to see what that will be.
Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems. Ed. by Charles Bernstein.
Library of America. $20.00.
Second-generation Modernists like Lorine Niedecker and Basil Bunting looked to Louis Zukofsky as a first among equals. Although their friendship eventually chilled, George Oppen for a time felt similarly about "Zuk." So is something wrong with me? I'm crazy about those three poets, and yet I've never been able to appreciate Zukofsky's poems. They feel like cold demonstrations to me.
Consider "I Sent Thee Late," the lyric that Charles Bernstein places at the front of this new selection:
Grave on grave of water-grave;
Futurity no more than duration
Of a wave's rise, fall, rebound
Against the shingles, in ever repeated mutation
Of emptied returning sound.
There's no waste here. The words are unbudgeable. But the poem remains an exercise, a self-enclosing box. There's little feeling in the stiff, stoical tonelessness of a line like "Futurity no more than duration." Certainly it's an early poem. But look at lines like these from the late sequence "80 Flowers":
Honesty lunar year annual anew
birdsong your lifelode blazing sunned
moon Lionmane Sickle quiet waiting.
The demonstration (five words per line: provocative, no?) feels, if anything, colder still.
Often Zukofsky's poems read like copies of Williams or Pound. There's the ninth section of his epic "A," which he models on Guido Cavalcanti's "Donna mi prega," just as Pound adapted the poem in Canto 36. There are probably scores of doctoral candidates who could write a thesis chapter on the intertextuality. To me, it sounds like copy-work. The same goes for Zukofsky's urban tableaus. These poems smack everywhere of Williams. And yet there's none of the exuberance, none of the wholesome seediness and ragged edges that you find in the Williams of the twenties and thirties. Instead of charging the scenes he writes about, Zukofsky's condensation and his analytical knowingness desiccate them.
Reading Zukofsky feels strangely like reading E.E. Cummings. Both adore word play for its own sake. In Cummings you get cloying charm, in Zukofsky, cloying didacticism. For me, the effect turns out to be the same: I'm left eager to re-read Spring and All and The Descent of Winter.
Hapax, by A.E. Stallings.
TriQuarterly Books. $39.95 cloth; $14.95 paper.
A.E. Stallings is obsessed with those small misunderstandings and missed opportunities that fissure into huge aporias. In "Aftershocks," for example, one of the two or three strongest poems in this second book, she compares the effects of an earthquake to a fight between two lovers, ending with "Each standing on the wrong side of the fault." Turn this theme over, and it reveals a less ominous side as well. Stallings takes for her title a Greek term meaning "a word or form evidenced by a single citation." If "hapax" hints at the failure to make connections, it also suggests moments of uniqueness and the wonder they provoke.
But there's another, unfortunate gap here. I mean the distance between the poet and her content. Form, which should temper and intensify feeling, tends to constrict it in these poems. Here's a quatrain from "Clean Break," a narrative about two young lovers meeting and then parting in Europe:
They parted well on the appointed day,
Out in the plaza, underneath the noon,
While that summer's iterative tune
Pulsed from a café.
The meter and rhyme unfold elegantly, but at the expense of idiom. The stiffness of "on the appointed day" makes these two college kids sound like a medieval lord and lady. "That summer's iterative tune" is worse: it advertises the superior, ironic knowledge of the narrator. The couple, their affair, even the music they listen to become tinny props.
Often Stallings's technique itself feels slipshod. Here's the opening of "The Village in the Lake":
It is not a natural lake,
It was made for pleasure's sake:
For speedboaters, and those who swish
On water skis. It's stocked with fish.
The unnatural phrase "those who swish on water skis" exists merely for the rhyme. Here's another example, from "Visiting the Grave of Rupert Brooke":
Odysseus, recruiting, in disguise,
Set out for sale a range of merchandise,
Stuffs no princess easily resists—
Fine brocades, and bangles for the wrists.
If it's a range of merchandise, isn't it already "for sale"? If it's a bangle isn't it already "for the wrists"?
Maybe it seems persnickety to fault Stallings for small missteps. But they accumulate in these pages, and trip up what would often be fine poems. ("The Village in the Lake," for instance, has a wonderfully strange ending.) These fuddled passages also betray a tendency to purchase urbanity and cleverness at the expense of felt texture. They make it seem that Stallings values formal conventions more than the actual, essential forms of the poems.
With the so-called "New Formalists" still hanging on, managing their own journals, conferences, and presses, there will always be readers who reward poems simply for falling into rhyme and meter, since such poems contribute to their silly polemic against Modernism. It's too bad. The great lesson of Modernism was formalist at heart. When Pound demanded "no word that does not contribute to the presentation," and even when Williams railed against "the traditionalists of plagiarism," they were writing as supreme formalists: they wanted to tear away the drapery of moth-eaten Romanticism and test poems for their sheer formal integrity. This hardly applies to free verse alone. Reading, say, Thom Gunn, you can see those same beliefs strengthening "traditional" verse movement. The Neo-Edwardians of today are in fact anti-formalists. At least from the evidence of the work they produce and promote, they seem to demand convention and display alone.
A.E. Stallings is too good to be lumped with these muggles. In this new book, "Aftershocks," "Implements from the 'Tomb of a Poet,'" and "Ultrasound" show her ability to match prosodic talent with intensely rendered feelings. I hope she'll look to these poems as guides into her future work.
Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, by Ellen Bryant Voigt.
W.W. Norton. $25.95.
Maybe the best way to get a sense of Ellen Bryant Voigt's new selected poems, of their force and precision, would be to look at the first two sentences of "Messenger," the title poem, and the last in this book:
First I smelled it, hovering near the bed:
distinctly saline, as in a ship's wake;
a bit of dust and mold, like moth-found fur;
also something grassy, crushed herb, sharper.
After that, when they turned the ward lights out,
the space ship glowing at the nurses' hub,
his pod stilled and darkened, only the small
digitals updating on the screen,
then I could see—one "sees" in deep gloaming,
though ground-fog makes an airless, formless room—
how fully it loomed behind and larger than
the steel stalk, the sweet translucent fruit.
If a young poet wanted a model for dynamic verse movement, she could do a lot worse than to memorize these twelve lines: they offer a treasure trove of good examples. There's a subtle drama, for instance, in the way the propulsive rush of the extended syntax balances against the particularity of the images and phrases that drag against it. There's also the unobtrusive, strange metaphor of the spaceship, and the expert lightening of tone it effects. These are more than formal tricks: they work to embody, gorgeously, what would otherwise seem like hocus pocus—the poet's impression of her father-in-law's soul leaving his body.
If these six couplets provide an opportunity for appreciation, the thirty years of writing represented in this collection offer even more. Most poets fluctuate. Voigt has consistently grown stronger. Her poems from the seventies are slender sculptures, built on an armature of small, striking images and statements. In this, they resemble the work of Voigt's contemporary and colleague, Louise Glück. In the following years, though, Voigt turns toward narrative. At first the results are solid but unsuperlative. The short-story-like poems in The Lotus Flowers (1987), while cunningly constructed, seem to repose beneath a glaze. Voigt's big temptation is to rely on her own mastery, to speak from above, instead of from inside, experience. The third person point of view can be deadly to someone with this tendency. Despite some enthralling moments, such as the astonishing and disturbing ending of "The Field Trip," these poems suffer too often from such knowingness.
But reading the work that follows, you sense that the experiment with narrative was a departure the poet needed to take. Her next book, Two Trees, marks a genuine breakthrough, one that continues and builds in the book length poem Kyrie (1995) and in Shadow of Heaven (2002). In these collections, without abandoning her narrative ambitions, Voigt returns to the formal strategies of lyric. When she intersperses her ars-poetical tour de force, "Song and Story," with the lines of a lullaby, her two approaches twine together, coiling into a new intensity. Voigt's best poems often appear now in series, a structure that both allows narrative expansion and juxtaposes the stories with white space.
And as in those lines from "Messenger," the sentence itself becomes Voigt's base measure. Her commitment to the syntactic energies that Frost once called "the abstract sound of sense" lends presence and dynamism to Voigt's primary subjects. She has always been obsessed with forging some link between the living and the dead, and with making a home in a natural world that she sees, shifting her cold eye, as both beautiful and fatal. In the recent work these themes become active pursuits, given life in the sentence itself, which Voigt employs for all its suspensions and surges, its stop-times and asides.
The intensification shows no sign of letting up. Wanting to end my review with a list of Voigt's best poems, I was stopped short. How not include all ten of the new poems in the collection?
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. In other places, the language and imagery turn thuddingly prosaic. Throughout the poem, Kinnell seems deaf to the ethical challenges of his occasion. Here, for example, is the opening:
From our high window we saw them
in their bands and blocks of light
brightening against a fading sunset,
saw them in the dark hours glittering
as if spirits inside them sat up
calculating profit and loss all night.
To aestheticize the dead of September 11, most of whom were incinerated alive, with that winking allusion to Eliot's Phlebas, in the glib figure about their spirits calculating profit and loss (get it? they worked in finance), feels stunningly crude to me.
And yet somehow it's not offensive. 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 has a fiction writer's talent for building panoramas. But such novelistic pleasure might belie the uneasiness one has reading this work and seeing the grief that runs beneath it. The bare biographical facts behind these poems include the nearly suicidal depression of the poet's father, the son's own depression, and the addictions and early death of his first wife, the poet Lynda Hull. The poems don't stop there. 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.
Like Ellen Bryant Voigt, whom he resembles in few other ways, Wojahn has developed from book to book, and found formal strategies to give his obsessions and ambitions their full presence. His early poems, most in a granular free verse, show the influence of Philip Levine, James Wright, and Richard Hugo, who chose Wojahn's first collection for the Yale Younger Poets series. These poems are accomplished and often poignant, especially in the treatment of family and relationships. 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.
Wojahn also begins to write in and against traditional forms, which he tests for their acoustic properties the way a guitarist might push his amp to the point at which a little, but not too much, distortion leaks out. Wojahn's weakness shows when this electrified verse movement takes over, when his dirge-like procession replaces the movement of the mind itself, and the lines fall into a lockstep, mechanical fatalism in the manner of Frederick Seidel, whom Wojahn overrates in his criticism. But on the whole, his technical mastery gives his work its depth and intensity. 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.