Poetry News

Love for Sale in the Form of Poetry Books

By Harriet Staff


Over at New York Review of Books, Dan Chiasson gives his take on three new titles: American Songbook, by Michael Ruby (Ugly Duckling Presse); Go Giants, by Nick Laird (Norton); and Nothing by Design, by Mary Jo Salter (Knopf). "American poets tend to want the benefits of song—its emotionality, its melodiousness—without its costs: its triviality, its obliviousness, its feyness," writes Chiasson. He goes on to think on Ruby:

This conflict drives Michael Ruby’s American Songbook, whose title reminds us that we have no body of popular American poems to match the body of American songs, by the Gershwins and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and many others, whose tunes and lyrics many people know by heart. Ruby’s book presents his own poems, some of them loosely connected with popular songs. What would “Love for Sale,” the Porter tune Ella Fitzgerald made famous, sound like as a difficult postmodern poem? Here is the opening of Ruby’s “Love for Sale,” dedicated by him to Ella Fitzgerald:

The only sound       empty street
      defeats sight         force
                        feet please
                        pail (of milk
    I peacock throne open shop to a small group
moon of       gazing down
          draughts       the lit tunnel
        wayward       town of
          apricots       mortals
                        smirk during
    I peacock throne go toys to work on vanishing

This is “composed,” more in William Carlos Williams’s sense than in Porter’s, out of noirish bits of city life, rank with desire. The composition shatters; parentheses don’t close, “shops” are “open” only to a “small group,” nobility, in the form of those “thrones,” is “peacocked” for effect: throne, thrown away.

Ruby’s poems are “American songs” in their transformation of tune into “sound,” noise, traffic, as well as in their loneliness (he calls to mind Edward Hopper and the early Eliot of “Preludes,” with his aromatic “smell of steaks in passageways” at the “burnt-out ends of smoky days”). They are also, in their broken way, up-to-date, streetwise: Ruby has a day job as a news editor at The Wall Street Journal. His take on the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” hollers out to potential patrons:


Ruby describes himself as an “experimental poet,” a designation that has come to identify a style—his style, more or less—rather than denoting actual experimentation. The open-endedness, the splayed language, the concrete sense of the page as a surface where words get fastened and pinned.

Read everything at NYRB.

Originally Published: March 17th, 2014