Ivan R. Dee. $22.50.
The title of J.Allyn Rosser's previous book, Misery Prefigured, suggested what a reader could expect going in: strong music, a certain ceremoniousness, and, well, misery. Sure enough, those poems, some darkly funny and some just dark, offered up eloquent and authoritative scowls and growls with titles like "North Jersey Farmland, Vile Mood" and steely lines like these openers from a scary and formally superb set of octaves called "Composite": "When he forced his first entry there,/I fought. He struck me: my mistake./Of course I knew it wasn't fair,/and kept my small chin up." The rancor and refinement of the poems balanced one another, making for tough but intense pleasures.
The title of Rosser's new collection seems to promise a fresh helping of tasty agonies, but if you're thinking that something about its tone bodes ill—a sort of sickroom combination of overeager humor and monotony—I'm sorry to say you're correct. The troubles that hurt Rosser into poetry her last time out were not unique or original; the book's appeal lay not in its subjects per se but in the vigor with which Rosser ran them down. The prey in Foiled Again are again stock woes, but Rosser's killer instinct has been supplanted by peevish self-pity. Poets are competitive and spiteful ("Letter to a Young Squirrel"). No one reads poetry ("Discounting Lynn"). Childcare cuts into writing time ("Literature"). Men are jerks ("Royal Pain" et passim). Satisfying poems can be written on these themes, but these are not them.
Other poems seem bored by their own premises. Rosser stretches ideas worth investigating for perhaps ten lines into full-length poems, like a boarding house cook thinning out a soup. "Subway Seethe" begins with a solid jolt ("What could have been the big to-do/that caused him to push me aside") and ends with a great surprise ("And how has his thoughtlessness defiled/who I was before he shoved me?/How might I be smiling now if he'd smiled,/hanging back, as though he might have loved me?"). But in between, we get twenty-odd watery lines like "Surely in all of us is some good" and "Really, what was the big crisis?" What could have been a visceral instant is swollen to a sluggish discursion.
How to explain Rosser's descent from vicious to listless? Here's a ten-cent theory that's probably worth every penny: the poet may have inadvertently become happy, and is only just figuring out how to write poems in such an unaccustomed state. I base this speculation on the fact that the clutch of excellent poems here—the unsettling sonnet "Fourteen Final Lines," the metrically reckless "Death Dance," and "Street Boy," which elaborates a character of Jamesian complexity, to name three standouts—are animated not by complaint and formality—Rosser's previous fortes and now, perhaps, her crutches—but by playful ambiguity and abandon.
Exceptions aside, the overall impression here is of a cat batting at beetles. Rosser has outstanding formal chops, acid wit, and an iron stomach for trouble. I'd like to see her take on more dangerous game.
Tricks of the Light: New and Selected Poems, by Vicki Hearne.
The University of Chicago Press. $25.00.
This is a sizeable book of challenging poems by a too-little-known poet with a complicated backstory; there won't be space to do it justice here. During her short lifetime, Vicki Hearne (1946-2001) wrote three books of poems, a novel, three books of nonfiction, and many essays, reviews, and scholarly papers. Now John Hollander has done his longtime friend a great favor, editing her published and posthumous poems with thorough care and contributing to the volume an illuminating introduction.
Nearly all of Hearne's writing, regardless of genre or audience, drew upon her work as a professional horse and dog trainer. But to think of this poet in those terms alone would be as misguided as thinking of E.O. Wilson as an entomologist. Communicating with animals helped Hearne to think through a variety of philosophical concerns, particularly questions of representation. What stories do we tell ourselves about our relationships with the animals we live and work with, feed and eat, love and fear? What really happens, and what do we imagine happens, when two species with fundamentally differing consciousnesses and languages—people and dogs, say—attempt to communicate? Above all, how might our investigation of such questions lead us to more general insights about representation and reality? Such were Hearne's constant concerns, whether she was writing a book review for a newspaper, a critique of animal rights rhetoric for Harper's, a poem for this magazine, or "A Taxonomy of Knowing: Animals Captive, Free-Ranging, and at Liberty" for Social Research.
It's important to understand the overall contours of Hearne's work, because while her poems are not great art, they do comprise an essential aspect of the work of a great intelligence. Poetry's imperative to fuse form and sense made it a perfect laboratory in which Hearne could test and stretch her ideas about language and the mind. In this age of specialization, it's rare to come across a thinker like Hearne who chooses, or needs, to work in diverse métiers in order to realize her imaginative and intellectual goals. Rare, and also exciting, since it suggests we think of poetry not just as a self-contained art form, but as a kind of methodology, or as one facet of a larger, multifarious creative act.
As a poet, Hearne is elegant and lucid, but undeniably derivative of her strongest influences. Like Wallace Stevens, who declared with apparent confidence that "the imagination is man's power over nature" and spent a lifetime trying to prove himself right, Hearne returns again and again to the conflict between the imagination and the real, seeking to determine whether they differ, and if they do, which is more powerful. Also like Stevens, Hearne over the course of her career assembled a set of totemic nouns which she used as a kind of philosophical shorthand in her verse; "light" in Hearne, for example, possesses many of the same Apollonian connotations which Stevens invests in "sun." And like her other great exemplar, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hearne tends to proceed by patient maieutic investigation to test and develop her ideas. Unlike Stevens or Wittgenstein, though, Hearne almost always in her poems enlists the metaphorical assistance of dogs or horses she's known or hoped to know.
Hearne's magnum opus is the long sequence "Tricks of the Light," a symbolically complex but warmly human poem which is difficult to represent in an excerpt:
Proof is all in the mind,
taking all of the mind
away from the dogs;
the uncanny mocks us and the sky
blue or umber or just before a tornado
green with a fury of skin mocked.
The sky looks back
like a mirror
and the trick boomerangs
for us but not for the dogs
whose knowledge of their own feet
brooding over the terrain
is as swift as love. To quicken
philosophy with knowledge
is to leave proof behind
in a litter of desire.
If not original in and of itself, Hearne's verse is nevertheless rigorously intelligent, rhetorically supple, wholly unafraid of complexity, formally deft, and, if understood as one element of her achievement among many, liable to begin to glow with tricks of light both reflected and inherent.
Lilies Without, by Laura Kasischke.
Ausable Press. $14.00.
Not much light penetrates the gloom of Laura Kasischke's bewitching new collection, which conjures a mood of misty portent through the use of deep-image nouns (fire, sea, stone, bone, bird); mythological and fairy-tale tropes (Orpheus and Eurydice, the Styx, bats, cobwebs, ghosts, hags, wolves) and formulae ("Once, a woman lay her head on a pillow to sleep without noticing that. . ."); addresses to and from god and other mysterious beings; enigmatic italicized passages perhaps spoken by those beings; convulsively varying line lengths; sudden strangulating enjambments; creepy storybook rhymes ("O, what would it be like, I wondered then,//to have that thing explode/each year for a week into blossom in your head//so long after you were dead?"); mesmerizing spates of anaphora; and occasional direct adjectival assertions of spookiness ("ominous summer," "haunted city," "ghostly babies," "monstrous cloud"). All these techniques appear in the opening poem, "New Dress":
Dress of dreams and portents, worn
in memory, despite
the posted warnings
sunk deeply into the damp
all along the shore. (The green
tragedy of the sea
about to happen to me.) Even
in my subconscious, I ignored them.
eternity of the sea, just around the corner.) That
whole ominous summer, I wore it, just
then, a bit
of threatening ephemera. Another
vicious whisper. And then
they sang. (The giddy
of the sea.)
of it, I wore. (How
quiet, at the edge of it, the riot. How
tiny, the police.) The Sturm
und Drang of it. The crypt
and mystery. The knife
in fog of it. The haunted
city of my enemy.
the green, floating, open
book of the sea.) That
an era of deafness and imminent error, ending
even as I wore it, even as I dragged the damp
hem of it
I wore it.
Clearly, trouble is afoot. But as in a number of poems here, it's difficult to guess what that trouble might be. "New dress," "feminine maelstrom," "imminent error," and those eerie green girls together suggest a vague horror about female maturation, but that's about the best I can do. The poem seems to be made of clues to a mystery that might or might not exist.
In many poems here, though, Kasischke's atmospherics work as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. A suite of marvelous poems playing on the conventions of beauty pageants and pinups is no less mysterious than "New Dress," but because the poems' concerns—sexual, political, personal—are clearer, they both beguile and satisfy. The excellent "At Gettysburg" is successful for similar reasons. We know where we are and the significance of the place; we soon know the characters present and their relationships to each other. Given just those small bits of exposition to hold onto, we're able to enjoy the ride when Kasischke releases her rush of strange and startling images:
beneath him make
the burden of the earth seem light enough to bear—and
inside me I believe I carry
the pond where the injured
swans have come to flock.
This is a book of tremendous imaginative energy which is sometimes spent too wantonly but which often blossoms into truly engaging weirdness. An excellent choice for the Goth in your life, or in you.
The Lyrics, by Fanny Howe.
Graywolf Press. $14.00.
These six long poems were obviously written on the move; references to walking, traveling, searching, and fleeing appear again and again. The poems themselves roam, too, passing from one set of associations to another without troubling too much about transitions. Howe's poems have always claimed a right to include whatever passes through the poet's mind, and to hold up for reconsideration any and every assumption, whether spiritual, philosophical, political, personal, or aesthetic. In this, Howe seems to imply that the test for whether or not an utterance is poetic is simply to ask whether or not a poet uttered it.
Such an approach can be disastrous if the poet's consciousness is insufficiently remarkable, but this has never been a problem in Howe's case. These poems really should, by all rights, be impossible to follow; they're that heedless of rhetorical, narrative, or formal consistency. But each new line offers a fresh thrill of interest, and I read on like a hiker following blaze-marks through a forest, not sure where I'm going but confident I'm not lost:
Because my secret wedding
Was enduring and the rest
Was not—I think disclosure
What is heavier than lead?
The need for bread.
What is crueler than a boss?
The need for praise.
What is shorter than a step?
An indrawn breath.
My secret wedding was to whom?
A promise not a human.
Let the mill-clapper go on clacking,
Let mud and ink stiffen
On the same sheet.
Let the lamb shit on the cross
And the pen cut the butcher.
Let a fire blow and warm
I am secular. I walk the streets.
I feel sorry for everyone.
When will the Messiah come?
The repetition of the same problem
Is getting exhausting.
"Roosters, blood, a silhouette.
Hanging over a gas lamp."
—From Forty Days
One thread I hold on to through passages like these is Howe's companionable voice, which is earthy, funny, intolerant of euphemism, and delighted by beauty. Two others Howe seems to offer are political urgency and spiritual seeking; some lines sound like Bertolt Brecht and others like Teresa of Ávila. But before we grab hold of those two, we should consider how they relate to one another.
Pace the inane book description on The Lyrics's back cover, Howe knows very well that there's a difference between good and evil, and her commitment to social justice is evident throughout her body of work. Howe has also long been fascinated by ideas of spirituality and transcendence. A reader given to dialectical thinking and impatient with religious sentiment in any form (mea culpa) might struggle to understand how a poet can on one page see language as a means of escape from the material world, "because the structures of language and sound offer one more way to get close to Atman-Brahman-Ma.//They reveal secrets by which you can reach enlightenment and live in the universe without fear," and on the very next use language to compose a prayer inspired not by any misty spirit but by straight-up historical materialism:
Ma is God but not quite the same.
So pray to the toilet, flush.
Pray to the floor, stay clean
To the cow and the hen, thank you
For all you have given
To us workers of the world.
—From Far and Away
But this apparent conflict may not be one at all, if we think of Howe not as a lyric poet in the Romantic sense of someone engaged in subjective personal expression, but instead as a kind of lyricist improvising in her studio, patching together into her song the overheard and the imagined, the given and the made, ideas rejected and ideas dearly held, rumor and experience. "A day is a freely given poem; it can be short or long," writes Howe, and "Nowhere is better/Than a road without judgment."
In the end, it seems Howe's objective isn't to arrive but to travel, not to preserve experience but to let it pass through her, not to conclude but to discover. Asked why she left her "native country," Howe offers these lines of recognition and loss, which themselves seem to "sparkle as they vanish":
To become a different kind of being:
Who can recognize and classify the pieces of the lost.
To be the only one!
It's true they sparkle as they vanish
And finding them lets you know you are credible,
At home in the world.
Elegy, by Mary Jo Bang.
Graywolf Press. $20.00.
A statement from Bang accompanying my review copy of her new book explains that her grown son died in 2004, and that "it wasn't clear in the days following, nor is it clear now, whether it was an accident or whether it was a decisive act." Over the following year, Bang goes on, "Writing became more than a form of escape, although it was that too, it became a way to learn something about the state of mourning." Many poems here employ traditional elegiac strategies emblematic of the substitutive nature of the work of mourning as described by Freud in "Mourning and Melancholia" and elucidated in Peter Sacks's landmark study The English Elegy (from which I here shamelessly crib). In Bang's "She Said," we find allusions to the cycle of the seasons; "Now" takes the form of a conversation with the dead; repetitions both formal and thematic appear throughout and within the poems; and so forth. All of Bang's traditional elegiac gestures, though, are consistently spiked with self-consciousness, doubt, and irony:
You want the whole story? I'll begin
At the beginning. It was January. Troy was under
Siege. It was about to come down.
It was not about sound
At all, but the fall of the heart
From its sky-height position.
Remember the cat Lewis Carroll sent
To look in on Alice at least once a week
As she found what she found
Difficult to decipher. A gesture
Of sympathy, yes, yet nowhere could she find comfort.
What might have seemed like a symphony was not
That at all but some interior quartz-pitched bewailing.
"What if, she thought, it all hadn't happened
The way it did?" She placed that notion on the Mobius
And watched it go nowhere before it came back again.
A melancholic introspection retrospective
Was taking place in a white-walled room called Summer Was.
Freud described as "melancholic" the mourner who won't or can't sever her connection to the dead, and this passage suggests that Bang is a textbook case. But what if the mourner isn't failing to decathect, but choosing not to? What if she's concluded that no poem, from the Iliad on down, can possibly substitute for a lost son? What if she's come to think that the elegy's supposed consolations are a snow job? She perhaps begins to seem less like a pathetically unsuccessful mourner and more like what we tend to think a poet should be: a discerner, a truth-teller. Bang is an awkward and vexed mourner, but her analysis of mourning is revealing, and sometimes quite moving:
Goodnight. I will see you
Tomorrow. I know I will.
But no more speaking
Out loud. Only the excavation
And finding the old. The no longer
Attached you and me.
Your ragged crown
Of good is a trinket buried
In curb debris.
Rust of Prince unheralded.
Rust of all we were when all was good.
Goodnight. The ordeal comes
To its periodic end
Which simply means
The ahead is again.
Those are the last lines of the book. Both the Beckett-like "I can't go on, I'll go on" sentiment and the incomplete tercet make clear that the cycle—grief over death, attempted consolation through elegy, grief over the insufficiency of the elegy just written, consolation at the thought of writing another—will continue, and it begins to seem that Bang's melancholic attachment is to the elegy itself. The form is dead to her, insofar as it brings her no comfort, but she can't sever her attachment to it because it remains her only hope. This book's title, we realize, describes not only its contents but its subject.
Bang isn't the first poet to mourn the elegy's inadequacy—Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" is almost a hundred years old—and it's not clear she's telling us much new. Still, her metapoetical melancholy generates what I suppose I'll have to call metapathos: pity for a grieving poet who understands too well the elegy's impossible but irresistible promise of solace. Jacques Derrida writes in The Work of Mourning that "the law of mourning" is that "in order to succeed, it would well have to fail, to fail well." If that's true, then Bang succeeds.
Expectation Days, by Sandra McPherson.
University of Illinois Press. $18.95.
I've saved the best for last; this book is a knockout. Sandra McPherson is fully aware of art's limited power to console, and the stunning poems of her new collection admit not a whiff of affectation or artificial catharsis. In this passage from "Lucid Dreaming: Oxycodone," the speaker coolly determines the least upsetting way to comfort her mortally ill and hallucinating husband, then smartly analyzes the result:
Of the ways I could say, "You're dreaming,"
I learned to choose a voice
Of pleasured caring. For both
Of us, the dream pronouncement
Verified he had an "inner life," a nucleus of marvel
That he feared forsook him
In the lull of a waking interval.
I don't mean to suggest McPherson is remotely clinical or cynical in tone, sensibility, method, or choice of subject matter. On the contrary, she fearlessly engages topics both personal and historical—illness, suicide, aging, widowhood, 9/11, survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, a middle-school shooting—which could easily lend themselves to mawkish or lurid treatment, and her style is marked by lavish musical effects, effusions of imagery, and a Nabokovian passion for vocabulary. When this poet goes out to garden, her "hands ruffle the feverish flat geranium petals," and when she asks herself what color the blooms are, answers "Tango. What other color?/Crucifixion parfait."
McPherson's balance of austere insight and lingual exuberance kept putting me in mind of James Wright's famous lines about wanting to write the "poetry of a grown man," made of "the pure clear word." McPherson's is the poetry of a grown woman, who no matter how intensely engaged with her subject always remembers that a poem is made not just of ideas but of sounds, and who can take (and convey to us) tremendous pleasure in her formal capabilities without ever forgetting (or letting us forget) that a poem must offer something more substantial than technical virtuosity. The exquisite tension in these poems, to put it more squarely, is between horror and joy: the horror of having to work out how you're going to tell your dying husband he's not in his right mind, and the joy of setting seven lines on the subject in a subtle but relentless rhythmic pattern juxtaposing clenched trochaics with serene iambics, and salted with tantalizing internal and near-rhymes.
McPherson's 9/11 poem is one of the best I've read in that genre, and rather than chatter on about this collection's near-perfection (poems with cats in them bug me, the handful of prose poems are a touch prolix, and one poem—"On Suicide Watch"—seems to me disconcertingly detached and gives me the same kind of creeps I get from Elizabeth Bishop's "Pink Dog"; those are literally my only criticisms), I'd prefer to quote its final lines and give this remarkable book the last word. The speaker is moving through airport security in October 2001, talking with the officers, doing her "duty to guide their hands/By voice down into baggage of their doubt," trying to decide what would really constitute "security," and wondering how we might attain it. As she does so well and so often, McPherson leaves us with only a faint sense of hope, but a powerful sense that she's come by it honestly:
The winning, the horrific—
There really isn't any moral scrutiny
Trained enough to sort
Transcendence from the gross ungodly.
I want such a machine.
And a machine will suffice: A god
Is too boundless for mere citizens' safety,
Too unwieldy for my preemie-diaphanous-hair's-breadth
But true-to-soul: the one-time visitation
I cling to of a presence glowing...like a
It came aboard my nerves, lodged
In a reading-light-sized chamber
Over my left eye,
Where it could radiate unquestionable security,
Peace, and rest. I still carry the gift
Of its short but sacred flight.
—From On Being Transparent: Cedar