The Book of Men and Women, by David Biespiel.
University of Washington Press. $19.95.
David Biespiel makes poems in the space cleared by the (some would say oppositional) forces of Robert Lowell and John Ashbery. You can hear Lowell in the “Skunk Hour” pitch of theatric self-recrimination that Biespiel’s poems often build to, and Ashbery behind the way the poems build to that pitch, stutter-stepping elegantly in and out of wisecracks. But Biespiel has gifts all his own, the greatest of which is a quirky, alliterative idiom that produces many memorable phrases. In The Book of Men and Women, his third collection of poems, you can find a humdinger on almost every page. “Genesis 27,” a poem spoken by Isaac, ends with the betrayed, aging patriarch “wagging Your Excellency at the God-awful moon.” Elsewhere, a modern-day Ovid recalls his “Sanity like a tiny nag from some other summer.” A honcho’s business suit is “Something he stubbed into himself, like a tune.” Few poets have the mix of patience and panic necessary to lodge a phrase where it won’t get lost, and Biespiel’s ability to do exactly that makes me want to linger on the level of the line, marveling at the way contemporary idiom turns on biblical pathos in Isaac’s “God-awful moon,” delighting in the brazenness of a mind that finds the “tiny nag” in “sanity.”
A reviewer of Cormac McCarthy once called the novelist’s work “a good, long scream in the ear.” The Book of Men and Women, with its rogue characters and laundry lists of loss, pursues a similar effect. Biespiel’s bristly voice is the first thing most readers will note, and indeed his writing is successful to the degree that this voice performs—that is, remains rhetorically compelling—throughout the course of the poem. As he writes in “Poet at Forty,” the third piece in his new book, “That’s why I crib this guesswork and shim and detail / A tonnage of mannerism.” (In managing mannerism into a sustainable style, Ashbery may have succeeded exactly where Lowell failed; but Ashbery’s success also reveals how important a poet’s posture, and posture alone, has become to contemporary estimation.) Sixty pages into The Book of Men and Women, the voice in “Poet at Forty” is still on show:
Who needs a cotton-eyed hymn to say what the old shanty
By the track has meant to the human story? Or:
What’s Heaven for? The reach and grasp, the pecked-at days,
The horsey blues that lilac after hours,
The rocks I’ve carried in my coat pocket—
None of it has me shuddering on my knees.
Lines like these, alert as they are to tone and sound, reveal Biespiel’s ultimate disbelief in the power of his art to achieve exact perception. The lack of subordination in this passage, from the “Or” that elides two different questions to the four appositions that stand in place of a direct statement about the speaker’s spiritual numbness, suggests Biespiel’s hesitancy to commit to realizing the emotions and ideas that swim beneath his words. And insofar as you believe that exact perception—in terms of emotional and intellectual realization—is what poetry strives for, you will find Biespiel’s evocations of middle-aged longing, his adoptions of personae both religious and historical (there are several Hebrew Bible portraits here, as well as a series of sonnets about the explorer William Clark), impressive but inadequate. Biespiel’s paratactic forms, where live-wire phrasing and lovely cadence often succumb to an overload of modifiers, make it difficult for his poetry to achieve what Emerson called “touching [the] mark with a needle’s point.” In the absence of such exactness, Biespiel must keep us engaged, as he does deftly, with grammatical feints and crescendos toward closure that sometimes seems arbitrary: “The confused words with the clear words, To Be Continued with The End, enduring like a dead wind.” The deflective use of “and” or “or” (as seen in the passage quoted above) occurs frequently in The Book of Men and Women, and I recognized more zeugma than in any book since my seventh-grade Latin reader. The “Skunk Hour”-like climax of “Embouchure” demonstrates how quickly Biespiel’s smart deflectiveness can turn fuzzy:
And I’ve met what was unnecessary: the smarmy master-
The tarred-and-feathered trusts, the drawn bridges, the vacant
There was no karmic trickster among that lot.
And now as the wind picks up like a distant thought, I
understand that what I once had—
Guts, for instance, or forbearance, rebelliousness—
Hasn’t come home in some time.
The argument could be made, I realize, that the speaker’s frustration here includes the failure to be precise, and that Biespiel’s endless deferments contribute to the general effect of unfulfilled longing at which his book aims. But beyond every mask and metafiction, a poem is made out of nothing but a man’s or woman’s faith, what Biespiel movingly calls “this peck of flame, this tongue of lack.” That’s why a piece like “Old Adam Outside the Wall of Eden,” in which Biespiel writes as Adam looking back at the garden, is so telling. For when Adam must differentiate the paradise he still believes in from his present state of exile, he finds little in language to help him touch the mark. The result has all the stylishness of Biespiel’s other monologues, but wanders into sentiment instead of grandeur:
These days I lie flat on the sands as if floating into a lease of
And think of her shushing me on the sifted path. Then our
A rocky torque, a crazed streak, plenty of Hizzoners to go
We saw nothing but pitch. Our rein state was impossible.
But seeing these stars, from any promontory or seaside—as if
just seeing was a tool for hope—
Seeing these stars was home enough (it couldn’t cure my
melancholia or break up
Malcontent waves, but it was precious).
Surely they were life.
The best poems in the book—“Lust,” “Man and Wife,” “Mass Man”—benefit from the more direct approach to confessionalism that their titles suggest. Here, unburdened by mythical or historical analogues, Biespiel’s ferocious domestic imagination can be let loose:
In the insomniac’s hour he prowls the cellar with his warrior’s luck, smoking the birthday dope,
Smearing the irregular cave of his mind and the faces and the ticking clocks and the girlish thighs.
—From “Bad Marriages”
Stanzas like this remind us how sharply Biespiel can delineate middle-aged yearning with a charged idiom that both indicts and celebrates that furtive birthday toke. My favorite lines from The Book of Men and Women, from the end of “Luke’s Ukelele,” a poem about a young artist who wakes to a vision of his future, demonstrate Biespiel’s capacity for stretching a sentence, like a longing, to its breaking point, then rising above it with an oracular cadence that ramifies in the reader as something fresh:
Or if time has traction, if time has charms, with a jingle-jangle
And the raw, new voice, and with his songs of love and hate
And bared teeth, he can lift above what sun is left,
Lift and wane, and land far enough from men.
Not all poets should aspire to George Oppen’s spareness, but the maxim he came to regarding writing—“A limited, limiting clarity”—seems to me exemplary for poets of every style. When David Biespiel tempers his “bared teeth” voice with a commitment to the things, and not just the atmospheres, of this world, he can register sharp portraits of people, in relationships and alone, in all their bitter, beautiful want:
In the end, we survive. And instead of triumphal odes, we give
in to counterpoint,
Squint out of our iridium shelters one morning, and resume
Our places. But first, excited about the day’s cruddy air
And, as if only the unharnessed voice is left, we scream.