"As with daffodils and nightingales, postmodernity is only a good subject for lyric poems if a person feels in terms of it. Joshua Clover does. His new book, The Totality for Kids, will give plenty of people who despise po-mo modishness a target for their hatreds, and plenty of theory-kids a fetish object. But it is simply not the book either camp would like it to be, to its great credit."
The Totality for Kids, by Joshua Clover.
University of California Press. $45.00 cloth; $16.95 paper.
As with daffodils and nightingales, postmodernity is only a good subject for lyric poems if a person feels in terms of it. Joshua Clover does. His new book, The Totality for Kids, will give plenty of people who despise po-mo modishness a target for their hatreds, and plenty of theory-kids a fetish object. But it is simply not the book either camp would like it to be, to its great credit.
Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, Theodor Adorno, Elliot Smith, Teen People, Beckett, Joy Division, The Passion of Joan of Arc: the world of this book will be familiar to anybody who spent time in graduate school in the eighties or nineties and went home at the end of the day to an apartment, an improvised meal, a drink (perhaps several drinks), a stereo, and a TV. Every member of that tribe carried with him a homemade culture canon he could discuss in Frankfurt School terms; social life was a contest made up of nodding and citing, citing and nodding. "It is our tribe's custom to beguile," writes Frank O'Hara in a line from "Naphtha," which Clover echoes here. True; also true, though, that when the theory-tribe scatters, its members must make their way in the actual world.
These are poems of loneliness in that actual world: little elegies for the theory-self before the dawn of aging, before the grisly new century, before—and here I may be over-reading—the question of "kids"(whether to have one, whether to allow oneself to be one forever) took over. (The book's title, mocking its own pretensions, is from a Raoul Vaneigem manifesto.) Clover's style takes its cue from Benjamin's montages. "Ceriserie" assumes the form of an open set of subjects ("Paris 1968," "The Louvre," "Music," "Misreading," and others) matched to predicates, some that engage subjective memory, others that provide cultural framework or definition:
Music: As the sleep of the just. We pass into it and out
again without seeming to move. The false motion of
the wave, "frei aber einsam."
Steve Evans: I saw your skull! It was between your
thought and your face.
Melisse: How I saw her naked in Brooklyn but was not in
Brooklyn at the time.
These are search headings and search results, suggesting the change in the structure of inwardness felt by any poet who writes in one window and Googles his subjects, or himself, in another window, nearly simultaneously. The self in this poem is a field made up of quick acts of retrieval, some of them deliberate, some generated by the choices of others—the choices, even, of total strangers.
O'Hara, subtly reprocessed here as a voluptuary among commodities, is the key to this book, as Clover slyly acknowledges. "At The Atelier Teleology" is Clover's talking-sun poem a la O'Hara and Mayakovsky:
By the way Joshua why are you so obsessed with the
And its endnotes, what about going to bed in the sensuous
Now and Here, you know, the sublime sublime?
I don't like every gesture in Clover. There's too much mugging and vogueing: the irony stops too often at the door of these poems, sparing them their own devastating critique. Clover can't bear even to leave his poor author photo alone: he imitates a famous shot of Benjamin. Fine; I get it; the self is an intertext, a quotation. Enough already! Some poet with a gift big and weird and unclassifiable enough needs to come along and draw a circle around Clover's kind of thing, step outside the circle, and sing. Until that happens, count Clover among the companionable talkers.
Sinner's Welcome, by Mary Karr.
Sinners Welcome is the title of Mary Karr's new book of Catholic poems. Sinners are going to like it: in a culture where conversion-narratives, particularly if they involve a certain crucified someone, sell books and elect presidents, Karr seems to have found another very marketable story to tell (her memoirs of a raucous girlhood in Texas, Liar's Club and Cherry, were bestsellers.)
Just in case these poems are too difficult for the legions of sinners welcome to purchase Sinners Welcome, there is a prose afterward in which Karr suggests that her conversion (and its "confession" in the pages of Poetry, ancestral home of "godless twentieth-century disillusionaries," in November 2006) are acts "kinkier than any dildo-wielding dominatrix could manage on HBO's Real Sex Extra." Perhaps, but who here thinks HBO is kinky? You want kinky, read T.S. Eliot's "St. Sebastian"! Karr is always skewering pretensions her readers don't share, shattering taboos they never held in the first place, teaching them things they already knew ("The very word incarnation derives from the Latin in carne: in meat.") In a proof of God's existence that will not rival St. Anselm of Canterbury's for subtlety and staying power, Karr (who everywhere presents her HBO-ready conversion in commodity terms) writes, "I prayed about what to write and wrote a bestseller that dug me out of my single mom's financial hole."
Because Karr's primary virtue is charm, her poems begin and end at the limits of the personal. They happen in the body, in the family, in places evidently blessed by Karr's attention; nothing outside that zone is real. She is sometimes touching (she loves her son and, in "Son's Room" and "A Blessing from My Sixteen Year's Son," writes well of the mingled humiliation and joy of being a mother); sometimes, in a single image or phrase, arresting ("unfolded aluminum chairs the color of shit"); frequently funny. But this is wit, or what Coleridge calls "fancy," not real imagination: as "lively" phrase piles upon "lively" phrase, Karr's poetry comes to seem like a meal made up wholly of condiments:
May I someday spy my Mother's poppy-studded hat
on the skull of a street-corner gospel singer
swarming with sores.—From Coat Hanger Bent Into Halo
There has never been a style more gilded with workshop aptness: a bedroom is "caterpillar green" and then "neon green of the unripe papaya"; girls on a poster are "beachball breasted"; a child "assembles inside" its mother. The line breaks all fall on the devastating detail; though the gospel singer's face is a mess, her sores "swarm" beautifully and alliteratively on the page. Karr, a self-proclaimed "cafeteria Catholic" (who evidently agrees with non-Catholics that, say, gay people should not be debased for institutional profit) brings that same disregard for complex appraisal to her poetic subjects.
In the Middle Distance, by Linda Gregg.
Graywolf Press. $14.00.
It's been a big year for minimalism, from W.S. Merwin's Migration to the latest and best Kay Ryan volume to the Library of America's selected Samuel Menashe (whose appeal baffles me). Linda Gregg writes stern, chastened, brief poems, but the settings are vast and desolate. Gregg has had to go to extremes (many of the poems are set in Marfa, Texas and the surrounding desert) to authenticate a style trained on the fluctuations of ardor and misery. "Silence inside her body," Gregg writes of herself, "in the clear / evening air, near the Mexican border." It's a costly style in terms of what it omits, but a narrow range can be sustained if the turns are bold enough, and Gregg's are. At their best, these poems feel like sentiment run down a slalom course.
Gregg's power of the withheld and withstood is present in "Highway 90" (the title half-alluding to Randall Jarrell's "90 North," another poem about being driven to extremes). Here is the poem in its entirety:
An owl lands on the sideof the road. Turns its headto look at me going fast,window open to the nighton the desert. Clean air,and the great stars.I'm trying to decideif this is what I want.
The phrase "me going fast" practically screams in the desert night: a great, scary recognition of mortality, seen through the eyes of an owl one sees for an instant. The closing gesture of the poem (itself the closing poem of the book) suggests "want" in both senses—what one desires, what one lacks. There is a logic that connects those two senses, of course, and this book, Gregg's finest so far, explores that logic with real tenacity and intelligence.
Fiction, by Conor O'Callaghan.
Wake Forest University Press. $11.95.
The Irish poet Conor O'Callaghan ought to have more of a reputation here: few American poets his age (he is thirty-eight) bring to the cozy matter of domesticity so much vigor and readiness. A marital quarrel, dinner with "a table of pals," a few weeks on the wagon: these everyday events—what Woolf called the "cotton wadding" of daily life—are nevertheless eerily adjacent to poetic work. Young American poets are afraid of this material for a reason: recent American poetry is full of backyard heartbreak and small durable truths, as though the entire endeavor of reality were to make people feel sad after four bourbons. And yet the greatest American poems of domestic life—James McMichael's Each in a Place Apart, Robert Lowell's Life Studies, Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Louise Glück's Meadowlands—exist on another planet from these sad-sack poems, and reveal how rich the subject can in fact be.
Here is the title poem to Fiction, O'Callaghan's third collection of poems:
None of this is true.
We're still all
we crack ourselves
out to be.
shave not been laid
in a plot
with my loose ends.
You're not miles away.
The slow numbers
swayed alone to.
I don't blame you,
smiling in the mirror
at a face
you've just made up.
The arresting first line suggests, very lightly, a fact about representation: none of "this" (this poem, ongoing) is "true," if true means, as it usually does, "not made up." That's not news, and if the poem cared more than it does about being a self-reflexive contraption it would verge on cliche. But the "this" refers also, of course, to the state of affairs that precedes the poem (a marital estrangement treated more nakedly elsewhere in the book)—a predicament that the poem, as a "fiction," can temporarily suspend. The problem comes in the final stanza, where the logic of negation enters the present tense: if "none of this is true," then the statement "I don't blame you" also must not be true. "It is not true that I do not blame you": the notion seethes behind the cool, elegant conceit. It may or may not be true that the face "smiling in the mirror" (that is, the reflected image) smiles back at the "real" face "made up" (as though to attract a lover, in this case, herself.) The house-of-mirrors deceits and self-deceits of estranged lovers here receive full, impressive representation: it's one of a dozen totally successful poems in Fiction.
As Long As It's Big, by John Bricuth.
The Johns Hopkins University Press. $25.00.
"As long as it's big" is what a typical American—that is, a person whose aesthetic life had suffered near-complete atrophy—would say if you asked him, "What sort of X would you like?" What sort of house, car, court settlement, pension, meal, painting, poem would you like? "It doesn't matter," would be the answer, "as long as it's big."
Poem? Well, no. There the answer would be nearly the opposite: "I don't want one at all, thanks; but if I have to have one, it had better not be big." John Bricuth's analysis of this American conundrum is called As Long As It's Big, and it is truly as long as it is big: a thick book (by poetry standards) whose more than forty-five hundred lines unfold in a time-scape usually reserved for novels (the book is subtitled "A Narrative Poem.") It is a book about appetite, American style, and a book about getting what you ask for—in both senses of that phrase. Bricuth's giddy, nearly manic performance seems to take sinister delight in lapping up our time—digressing and taking notice of its own digressions, interrupting itself, trailing off, starting over.
As Bricuth's superb title (and the equally good title of his last book, Just Let Me Say This About That) suggests, we're in confident hands. ("John Bricuth" is the nom de plume of John Irwin, the Americanist scholar). And as a pitch, this poem works stunningly well: it's a poem about the divorce proceedings of a couple following their son's suicide by jumping from his dorm room window. Two ways of cheating time: divorce and suicide. "Till death do us part"—they never said whose death, did they? Powerfully, the endlessly-elongated horizontality of the narrative is disrupted by a child's body falling down the vertical axis.
So far, so smart. The problem is, you essentially can't stand these characters—if "characters" is what to call the tiny presences that can be seen bobbing up and down on the surface of the flood. This is a book full of spoken sentences with nary a single "sentence sound": everybody speaks the same Corporal Trim meets Dashiell Hammett patois. This sameness from character to character would never be tolerated in competent prose, and it's befuddling coming from a poet whose conceptual intelligence is so sophisticated. It makes this long narrative poem seem interminable, which might well be the point.
Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems 1985-2005, by Rodney Jones.
Houghton Mifflin. $25.00.
While it's true that most remarkable American poets are infinitely more difficult than Rodney Jones, it does not follow, therefore, that Jones is not remarkable. Unless you think that new poetry cannot be narrative (in the old-fashioned, spell-casting, consecutive way) and cannot be accessible (its action intelligible at first or second reading), Jones is a poet worth taking very seriously indeed. There needs to be a poet a lot better than Mary Oliver or Ted Kooser writing "accessible" verse, the sort of thing you could recommend to your cousin at a barbeque and, the next day, teach in a seminar for majors. Jones seems to me the best accessible poet writing in America.
When Jones writes (in "The Work of Poets") "Willie Cooper, what are you doing here, this early in your death?" he's written a perfectly intelligible English sentence and described a perfectly intelligible human sentiment; yet he has also, at the same time, echoed some of the most affecting lines in all of Rilke, from that poet's "Requiem fur eine Freundlin." I won't quote the Rilke, but I will say that, as with all really effective allusions, the predecessor text becomes our algebra, our way out of mere esteem. You feel esteem everywhere in Jones—for phrases (the engine of an old truck hung "from a rafter like a ham"), for cadences ("The hackberry in the sand field will be there long objectifying"), for turns of thought:
My rage began at forty. The unstirred person, the third-
void, the you of accusations and reprisals, visited me.
Many nights we sang together; you don't even exist.—From A Defense of Poetry
But esteem is not enough. If you go to poetry for jokes, for phrases, for stories, you'll love Jones; but if you go to poetry to see all the meaning-making technologies of language (jokes and stories included) questioned very sharply, on human behalf, within the very modes that they interrogate, you'll like him, too. How many poets satisfy both kinds of reader? The few weak poems in this book (a poem called "Sacrament for my Penis," for example) reveal how deeply this poet thinks elsewhere about the colloquial mode within the colloquial mode. It's a poetry that's full of stock characters—the drifter who intuits Kant, the stripper who sounds like an oracle, the country-fried philosophe—but it has terrific fun with its cliches, and it thinks nimbly about the fun it is having.
After, by Jane Hirshfield.
"Words are not the end of thought," writes Jane Hirshfield, but the word "not" is where thought, in her new book After, often begins and ends. "The wool coat left behind does not mourn the loss of its master." "Questions and answers are not the business of men." Perfume on a red scarf "cannot quite be remembered." In a September 11 poem, not the worst I have read of that bad genre: "The dead do not want us dead" and later "Nor do they want our mourning." There are dozens more examples like these: Hirshfield says "no" more often than my two-year-old son. Of a badger:
He does not count the cold as cold.
He does not call his hunger fate.
His sett is neither large nor small. Not dark.—From Beneath the Snow, the Badger's
Negation here is what allows for the slack logic, the slightly wrong word, the slightly off tone, the cliché, the indulged sentimentality. Some part of Hirshfield knows she's not writing very well, but she's decided to try and sell the problem as sagacity. Her negations should be bracing and brave, but, since they cancel old, long-drained accounts, they feel like theater. She's cutting up expired credit cards.
Hirshfield, a Zen Buddhist, has made a career of recommending thought-gimmicks to rid ourselves of consciousness, using words like "attentiveness" and "oneness" and "path" and "clarity" and so on. Poem after poem reports the same findings from their small, tentative forays into the real world. Those readers already predisposed to this vocabulary for thought and conduct will likely embrace Hirshfield; it's hard for me to imagine a case made for her poems by readers who, like me, wince when they come anywhere near such talk.
District and Circle, by Seamus Heaney.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $20.00.
Forty years after his first book, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney has commemorated that book with a new one, District and Circle. It is therefore proper that a key subject of this new volume is the lifespan of artifacts (both art works and "ordinary" things), objects that seem weirdly both possessed of and denied sentience. This book is full of old stuff—a turnip snedder, an anvil, decommissioned Polish railway ties that frame a garden bed, Wordsworth's skates—that obdurately outlast, even as they punctuate, human life. Heaney is brilliant at thinking about what happens to mere stuff when it enters artworks (the garden, the museum case, the poem.) Their use-value used up, these old things live out their lives as art, but their very presence there unsettles the claim of art to be a special, mystified category. What's more important to a person—turnips or poems? It depends what time of day you ask him. It's not hard to imagine the fate of some of the people who were conveyed over those railway ties ("Polish Sleepers") now "laid and landscaped in a kerb"; does the garden framed by the ties, and the poem that frames them, memorialize that tragic past, or erase it?
Thinking about the life of objects in poems cannot but be a way of thinking about the life of poems as objects: vulnerable, like objects, to wear and even obsolescence. Heaney's reimagining of his earliest work suggests (as he has done before) that poems, too, "age" and must (like Wordsworth's skates in Dove Cottage) be framed and "galleried" in order to suspend their decay. "The Turnip-Snedder" takes the father's spade out of Heaney's famous poem "Digging" and reconfigures it as a bulky, antique, likely feminine tool:
In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,
the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,
it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slop.
"Hotter than body heat in summer," Heaney writes: "cold in winter / as winter's body armor." Unlike the spade (or Heaney's pen) this thing has feet, a body, a body temperature: it's alive! But it is also, unlike the humans whose bodies it resembles, still alive, outlasting the lifespan of its master:
"This is the way that God sees life,"it said, "From seedling-braird to snedder."
Eerie posthumous panorama, the bird's-eye view, informs this book, making life intelligible as shape and pattern. The opposite of the bird's-eye view is the shadow world of Hades, a world now cruelly filled (as it would be for anyone Heaney's age) with friends. But the oldest shade there is that of the four-year-old brother whose death is the subject of Heaney's early poem, "Mid-Term Break." That death is revisited here in a great poem, "The Blackbird of Glanmore"; these two poems will now forever be read side by side. The earlier one takes life at grotesquely close range, in whispers and small details (the dead child's body is marred by a "poppy bruise.") This new one has Heaney standing "on raked gravel / In front of my house of life." The "Circle" of Heaney's title represents that inevitable return; the "district" is everything inside of it; these poems are remarkable for suggesting, in a lyric poetry of great charm and canniness, that what it cannot master is unknowable, charmless, and huge.
Poet and critic Dan Chiasson is author of three books of poetry: The Afterlife of Objects (2002), Natural History (2005), and Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (2010). A book of criticism, One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America, was published in 2006. He reviews poetry regularly...