Read & Recommended
Death & Fame: Last Poems 1993-1997.
Harper Flamingo, 1999.
117 pages. $23.00 (hardcover).
Although early on misunderstood by the Establishment as a debauched heathen with no taste and questionable talent, over the years it became clear that Allen Ginsberg's talents and motives, though revolutionary, expressed poetry's highest calling: to invigorate language, to change people's lives, and to praise. In the latter part of his life, like Whitman, he became the grand old man of American poetry, honored by most, again, like Whitman, without ever sacrificing his principles or reducing himself to self-parody. Ginsberg championed counterculture refusing generation gaps. His poems at their worst deteriorate into merciless twaddle, losing themselves in self-righteousness and forgetting the tender humanity which invigorates his great poems.
In Death & Fame, Ginsberg continued to fuse political polemic and poetic mythology, new rhythms and melodies forged from Jazz, Blues, hymnology, Jewish chant, and Rock and Roll with concrete suggestions for societal change. As frustrating and inspired as all of his work, these poems, many written in his last days as death approached, reflect an unflinching concern with humanity's loss of spirit, and the subsequent damage done to the earth.
"New Democracy Wish List," a poem-letter to President Clinton, offers a platform for change. "Pastel Sentences," anything but pastel, surrealistically opens the sphinctervulvacockheadworldflower for a Birth-to-Death love song. "Ballad of the Skeletons" describes a Buddha-vision of the dichotomies enforcing our self-inflicted disintegration: "Said the Gnostic Skeleton / The Human Form's divine / Said the Moral Majority skeleton / No it's not it's mine. . . // Said the Underdeveloped skeleton / Send me rice / Said Developed Nations' skeleton / Sell your bones for dice . . ." In the poignant and moving, "Bowel Song," Ginsberg berates his own inattention to Eternity and the soul's purification—holding his mirror up to ourselves: "What'll you do the last six minutes? . . . / If you don't get ready now, what'll you do at the Black Hole. . . / What makes you lazy? you're not on your deathbed yet, / if you've an ounce of strength, use it to look inside . . ."
Ginsberg was our Old Testament prophet. We owe him more than we know.
The River Sound.
W. S. Merwin.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
133 pages. $23.00 (hardcover).
The Folding Cliffs.
W. S. Merwin.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
331 pages. $25.00 (hardcover).
W. S. Merwin is another kind of poet entirely, one who finds gracefulness in all things without sacrificing realism. Using Memory to conjure the mutable flow of Time, he dips his feet over and over into Heraclitus's river, bringing up each time a golden fish. Merwin's poems, nostalgic for an Eden then and now, hypnotize with rhythms forged through his unpunctuated line. They should be monotonous but are not. His voice sways cobra-like, without venom, offered with loss and somber love, celebratory in a quiet, but ultimately rapturous way.
I have since the early seventies awaited each Merwin book as a letter from a friend, for no matter how elusive or detached his voice seems, it is the voice of one friend speaking to another, sometimes in conspiratorial whispers, sometimes in urgent demands, always about holding on to what is worthwhile and memorable. There seems to be a timorous, amazed little boy hidden within his words, who has taken discovery and exploration as his adult calling, anxious for the next bend in the river, finding the new, seeing the past reflected therein. The River Sound progresses logically from the last two previous books, Travels and The Vixen, the former exploring memory through the natural world and the lives of great naturalists, and the latter evoking the landscape and memories of his longtime retreat in southwest France. The times and places of Merwin's life inhabit this new volume through recollections of cherished moments and people. In these last three volumes long narrative poems have taken center stage and here "Lament for the Makers" pays tribute to the poets who formed him, while "Testimony," a sustained elegy for his own life, closes with a Last Will bequeathing such things as views down expansive New York street corridors, and to a French friend: "her hat above the row / of young green at that hour casting / on the ancient wall its shadow."
The narrative impulse finds its home in The Folding Cliffs, a novel in verse, chronicling the plight of native 19th century Hawaiians with leprosy suffering at the hands of the new White Man's rule. The fluid narrative sometimes sprawls under the weight of Merwin's singular line mentioned above, but the characters come nobly to life under the poet's spell, creating a visionary epic reflecting on man's cruelty to man, the spiritual profundity of amorous, familial, and tribal love, and the breathtaking morality of nature when undominated by man.
Wesleyan University Press, 1997.
115 pages. $11.95 (papercover).
In Loose Sugar, Brenda Hillman continues to alchemize the Self's stuff into a poetry which is both experimental in form and traditional in impulse. Following her earlier, and equally brilliant books, Bright Existence and Death Tractates, this book uses personal experience (sugar and colonialism, adolescent sexuality, childhood memories, depression, family, and work) as the prima materia for the unfolding Self. Breaking margins, multiple "bodiless" voices, parenthetical intrusions, and cryptic epigraphs from Stephen Hawkins and others become the tools of poetic transformation and becoming. Hillman creates a symphonic work in which Sophia (the Goddess of Wisdom) reclaims the Time / Space Universe with a muscular and feminine wisdom. Hillman is a Gnostic poet, a poet of the soul struggling to connect the physical and the spiritual into one poetry. Her vision is minute and cosmic at once. Her language gorgeous and fractured. Her themes sorrowful and transcendent. This is poetry of the highest. Despite an unabashed experimentalism, her work is accessible and beautiful, and not overly hermetic, yet one can hear Hillman's mind deconstructing in every word. Seldom is contemporary poetry so refreshing. It's difficult to extract words from a piece which is such a whole. Here the poem "Early Sex":
The one-celled creature brought to class
in the drop of pond water
took its main hunger around on the slide,
it had yes for a skin and a thousand
little hairs for feet
to help it decide . . . You wanted to love the others
no matter what,
swam over the edge of yourself, swam
in the place that seemed like forever,
you loved when they visited you,
you changed shape for them and when they left
you were the same as water
Poems New and Selected.
New Directions. 1998.
293 pages. $12.95 (papercover).
The Love Poems.
New Directions. 1998.
64 pages. $6.95 (papercover).
A Commonplace Book of Pentastichs.
New Directions. 1998.
95 pages. $19.95 (hardcover).
In 1994 that I learned that James Laughlin, founder and publisher of New Directions books, and one of the great heroes of modernist literature, had also quietly been writing and publishing poems unlike any of our time (witness the now classic 1994 Collected Poems from Moyer Bell). With a Catullan bite and lustful wit he continued to write and publish poems until his death in 1997. Humble to a fault, he urged others to consider his poems "verses" because they lacked the exalted, mystical expression he required in the best poetry. Laughlin's poems are really our great secret, yet to be truly discovered, for they are verses that can be read by anyone with much pleasure, and many gifts. Each of them reveals the same steady and accomplished wordsmith at work. Ezra Pound told the young Laughlin to give up poetry because he had no talent, and take up publishing. Advice which served us well. Luckily he also ignored it. Laughlin even created his own form—inspired by his friends and authors e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams—and dictated by the typewriter: "the rule is that in a couplet any second line has to be within two typewriter spaces of the line preceding it." The dislocation, though odd to the ear and eye at first, proves winning, and astonishing condensations of emotion and meaning converge.
Laughlin writes out of domestic and personal joys and pains. His poems often find substance in relationships' quirky turns, and in the murky situations we find ourselves. Anecdotal, full of regret, desire, celebration, and little happinesses they pull the reader in through a restrained slapstick—the subtle comedy of the sad clown. Concurrently they are spectacularly, but again humbly, learned—particularly in classic Greek and Roman poets. A number of the poems are in French and Italian (all translated by himself into English). The love poems express sentiments, fears, and desires we all feel. Their bittersweet, ironic, masculine urgencies seduce: "It would be nice if you / could stop talking while // you are kissing I love / poets and their water— // falling words but one / thing at a time please." ("A Suggestion")
A Commonplace Book of Pentastichs compiles poems composed (in a five-line stanza Laughlin introduced in The Secret Room, 1997) from marginal jottings and commonplace book notations: "I saw on TV that millions of men suffer from / toenail fungus. That's awful, but my sickness / is worse. I suffer from corrosion of the soul. / I no longer go to church and I read subversive / books about Krishna and Buddha. No pill for that." ("A Health Problem")
Laughlin was our most natural poet.
Science & Steepleflower.
New Directions, 1998.
88 pages. $12.95. (papercover).
Not always an easy poet, Forrest Gander shares with Brenda Hillman a gorgeously avant-garde language, and a gracefully metaphoric mind. As in earlier books, such as Lynchburg and Deeds of Utmost Kindness, Gander's genuine but strange earthiness make poems which seem essentially, viscerally given. Gander writes ectoplasmically. He has tapped the ethers for arcane meaning, the doctrine of signatures, behind things—poems of the periphery with a focus on the center, through the Third Eye. His poems bake in primal psychological mud and the natal urge. In love with the clanging syllables and gutturals of scientific terminology, he also caresses the sweet breath of vowels. At times his lines become almost nonsensical and contrapuntal, but with so much sight that the puzzle is, rather than requires, perceiving. It's a rigorous search for understanding consciousness at work here: "Turns to her, then, // from the northern // oriole taking a dust // bath. It is her voice // unseats him. Years // it will take // to thread himself back // into the dull wood." ("Edge-Lit Scene")
Ecco Press, 1999.
51 pages. $22.00 (hardcover).
Louise Glück is another poet who continues to stretch her own boundaries as a poet. Again, since the seventies, I've looked to her work for inspiration and guidance. The Wild Iris continues to be for me one of the high marks of 20th century American poetry. In Vita Nova, Glück's continued re-working of classic myth into personal biography takes on Orpheus's journey from hell, and Aeneas's search for his homeland. Again, as in Meadowlands and The Wild Iris, dysfunction abstracts into metaphysical revelation—but without the sustained power that Iris displayed. Nevertheless, Glück understands that artful reticence reveals more than anguished detail. These poems, fierce, yet delicate, reside at the edge, really, of contemporary poetry and are quietly subversive. Passion ruined by neglect defines these poems: "The world changed. I walked out of the fire / into a different world—maybe / the world of the dead, for all I know. / Not the end of need but need / raised to the highest power." ("Inferno")
Three other recent New Directions books deserve your attention: In Search of Duende, Federico Garcia Lorca, 1998, 99 pages, $7.00 (papercover), To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light, translated by Willis Barnstone, 1999, 224 pages, $15.95 (papercover), Trilogy: The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to Angels, The Flowering of the Rod, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle)—one of the great Modernist long poems in a revised edition, 1998 $10.95 (papercover).