Sunday, January 3, 2010

Yemen--Afghanistan Redux?

An article in today’s Washington Post discusses the failures of the United States with regard to al Qaeda in Yemen, yet the article, while dissecting missteps and mistakes (for example, the firing of a Hellfire missile that exploded a car carrying six al Qaeda suspects in eastern Yemen), does not address the larger component of the failure—a failure that marks most of our efforts in the international arena. By and large, as a nation, we do not demonstrate the capacity for an internationalist view, so our actions across the world are driven either by ignorance or disregard. Over the past century, perhaps only three presidents had any level of internationalist view—Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Bill Clinton.

With regard to al Qaeda, the blame must be placed where it almost entirely lies—with the Bush-Cheney (hereafter BC) administration. While (willful) inexperience may account for many of the administration’s early failures, most glaring is the complete surrender of policy to ideology, malfeasance, and opportunism. From the larger view, one might argue that the first two on this list were motivated primarily by the last. The determination to wage war on the cheap benefited such corporations as Halliburton (of which Cheney was CEO until he was tapped for the vice presidential slot on the Republican ticket), corporations which have not suffered from the economic meltdown of the past two years. Recent reports have suggested that as early as spring 2001 the BC administration bragged that they would have boots on the ground in Afghanistan by the fall. At the center of this was something near and dear to the hearts of both Bush and Cheney—petroleum, in particular oil pipelines like the Afghanistan Oil Pipeline, the proposed Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, and HBJ Pipeline—the latter associated with both Enron and Bechtel. (Enron, of course, was the disgraced corporation headed by “Kenny Boy” Lay, a Bush crony, and Bechtel, a company that once had Caspar Weinberger—Secretary of Defense under Reagan—as a vice president and for which Donald Rumsfeld—Secretary of Defense for BC—traveled to Iraq to negotiate a pipeline deal. The visually impaired could connect the dots.)

What we should have recognized after 9/11 was that our actions in the world—particularly in the Arab world—have consequences. This is not to excuse the inexcusable but to try to determine why al Qaeda exists. Our history—right on the heels of imperialist conquests by Western European nations, most notably, in the Muslim world, England—has trammeled native populations in order to line the coffers of large companies; imperialism once joined with capitalism would not recognize any limits to their greed. Anyone who’s read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has had a glimpse into practices that endured well into the twentieth century—well into today. What the general populace of Western nations do not see because of the mainstream gloss over genocide and pillage in the name of profit operating under the flag of nationalism is the disregard for and suffering of the indigenous peoples of such countries as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Because we do not see it, we think that Islamist extremists are merely insane—driven by a psychotic religion to wreak violence on innocent Americans. This, of course, serves the powers that be. Without this blind, we might demand accountability for our national actions, and a true accounting would not pass muster.

One sentence in the middle of the Post article pretty much sums up the problem: “Yemen is a conservative tribal society with deep sympathies for al-Qaeda’s core message of protecting Islam.” Yemen is not alone in this regard. Most Muslim nations are also conservative, and the people feel their greatest loyalty toward their tribe, not toward the nation. After all, most of these “nations” were determined by European imperial powers and bear no relationship to actual native affiliation. (This shouldn’t be that hard to imagine since the United States is rapidly becoming a nation whose allegiances are just that partisan and parochial.) What we see in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the problem that will not go away, is that the successful internal applications of national power have derived from tribes or factions that have grown large and powerful enough to impose their will across the board. Once we toppled Saddam, there was nothing capable of filling the vacuum.

Sadly, the primary legacy of 9/11 is that it afforded the BC administration the cover to conduct its imperialist policy without recourse to other excuses. How much easier to justify invasions of targeted nations when they could claim national security and get away with little close oversight because of the national anger over an attack on our soil. Our actions, however, only increased the brand al Qaeda. We waged a War on Terror that we implicitly marketed as a war on Islam, when we were actually conducting a War for Profit. For ordinary Muslims, the last two were not easily separable because they were all too familiar with the profit motive and saw that, if not directly anti-Islam, it moved without regard or respect for their deepest held beliefs.

Consider whether an American retaliation into Yemen is the best action we could undertake. It will perhaps salve our national need for action, to put, as Toby Keith so succinctly sang, “a boot in [their] ass—it’s the American way.” On the flip side, it will just reinforce Muslim perceptions about America and American policy, insuring that al Qaeda will never have to look too far for more men willing to die the martyr’s death—whether or not they expect to see those 72 virgins.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

From Hope to Nope

Here we are, eleven months into the first term of the first African American president of the United States. A man who ran for office on a ticket of "hope" and "change," with just enough specificity so that he could claim victories if anything resembling the issue came to something and just enough vagueness so that he might erect a teflon shield against charges that he'd broken campaign promises. Hence, if anything--and I mean just about anything--resembling health care reform, he can belly-up and claim that he delivered.

The problem that Obama faces--one that he and his staff should've been savvy enough to anticipate--is that his biggest promises--hope and change--cannot be so easily quantified. He put on a winning ad campaign, but people believed him. They put aside the cynicism that they hold for ad campaigns in general (no one really expects that they'll get the sexy girl when they drink the beer or buy the car--at least no one over the age of 15) and political campaigns in particular. He became a brand with high recognition and high anticipation. Watching his campaign was like watching trailers for a great new high-budget special effects extravaganza heading for the multiplex on a holiday weekend.

Sadly, if hope cannot be quantified in terms of delivery, when we feel that our hopes have been betrayed, we get really, really mad. After courting progressives and the youth vote, Obama--they feel--has been fickle. He's jilted them. Prince Charming is just another Don Juan. (Perhaps that's an insult to Don Juan; from what we can gather, he at least left all of those women satisfied.)

I'm not so "evolved" that I'm beyond saying, "I told you so," especially since I dared to let myself get carried away and thought we might see something different. I was attentive to his vacuous campaign; I was aware that he was successful in Chicago politics--hardball and nasty. Still, after eight years of Bush and Cheney, I guess I was ready to think I might be able to vote for the Democrat, rather than just against the Republican.

I knew the game was over when he announced the appointment of Geithner to Treasury. That was it. A year ago--even before he took the oath of office--he declared that his entire campaign was null and void. He appointed a fatcat to restore our economy and manage the fatcats. The rest we can read for ourselves in the unemployment figures, the unabated foreclosures, and the stories of obscene corporate bonuses.

Whatever passes the Senate is not necessarily going to be better than nothing, and the hope that the Senate will be able to tinker it into shape belies the facts of how that "august" body works these days. We can hope that what emerges from the reconciliation of the House package with the Senate improves things. We did hope that Obama would lead the charge on this issue, too, and we see how well that worked out.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Death of Michael Jackson

I suppose I should begin by apologizing to the millions of people I’m about to insult, because my confusion regarding Michael Jackson has little to do with him and much to do with the level of public grief surrounding his death. I’ll readily admit that I also never really understood similar reactions to the deaths of Elvis, John Lennon, or Kurt Cobain. Of these, only John Lennon can be said to represent anything beyond his popularity as a performer; Lennon was an outspoken crusader for peace, but what actual effect his music and crusading had on the war in Vietnam, or anywhere else, is purely speculative.

As I think about “celebrities” whose deaths moved me, I really can up with only three, and they were less celebrities than public figures—JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. These men actively sought change, though in JFK’s case his effect was probably more mythological than actual, even during his brief presidency; LBJ accomplished significantly more, both in constructive and destructive ways, than Kennedy. I was eleven when JFK was assassinated reacted more from shock than a sense of genuine loss. Five years later, I was deeply affected by the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy. By then, I was able to appreciate both what they had achieved and what they might have been able to achieve. This goes far beyond musical performance.

In terms of musical contribution, of the four performers I mentioned, Cobain was the only one in the midst of his career. At the time of his death, Michael Jackson was staging a circus that might be variously regarded as a comeback or an exit, but nothing I’ve heard about the tour suggests he was breaking new ground. In fact, it’s likely that the pharmaceutical cocktail he was being given to help him make it through the ordeal killed him.

The performer who excited so many had been dead for almost two decades. As The Onion noted, the very talented boy singer effectively died at the age of twelve. What remained was a man who was insulated enough by wealth and fame, which equates to power, to indulge his troubled psyche in ways that made his real life as bizarre as a tabloid fantasy. When his behavior included the reckless display of a infant from a balcony, he let the world glimpse the Dorian Gray portrait of what he was, though with his repeated facial reconstructions, he actually displayed the depth of his troubled mind for everyone to see.

And then there are the children. While it’s true he was never convicted of “actual” molestation, that’s really beside the point. His behavior with those boys was inappropriate and irresponsible, even if the only crotch he ever grabbed was his own. Of course those surrounding Jackson and the boys’ share in that responsibility, but that doesn’t diminish Jackson’s actions. An adult man who brings boys into his bed, regardless of whether or not he went beyond “harmless” horseplay, is endangering those boys’ wellbeing. If anyone wishes to argue that he didn’t understand how inappropriate his actions were, well, then he fits the legal definition of insanity—someone who doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong by virtue of mental defect.

That he himself suffered a childhood abusive apparently in many ways provides an explanation, not an excuse. Statistically, an overwhelming number of pedophiles (and serial killers) were victims of childhood abuse. That doesn’t mitigate their actions or change the fact that their brains were rewired so that they cannot stop. Chemical castration is no solution. If the real penis no longer works, they can—and do—resort to phallic surrogates.

I was touched inappropriately when I was a boy. He was a member of my church five or six years older than I was, and my mother encouraged the “friendship” because he seemed such a nice, religious boy. Perhaps I was the first boy he’d actually gotten enough nerve to touch, but both times he grabbed at my crotch, I pulled away, and he didn’t pursue. Later, the boys he molested were not so lucky. I’m sure their mothers thought he was a nice, religious man. I was almost fifty when I realized—emotionally realized—what these acts were. We can disguise and conceal from ourselves for a long time the effects of what might seem at the moment insignificant and harmless acts, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t traumatic. We will probably never know whether Jackson’s misguided attempts to reinvent his own childhood through the surrogacy of the boys he “befriended” will have a pronounced effect on any of these boys. It might be years before they realize it.

So I suppose I wonder whether a sick man who sings and dances warrants the kind of accolades tossed his way upon his death. Was he so “artistically” gifted, a “genius” whose manifested disturbance he put on big-screen media display, that we can say that the other part of his life is something we can ignore or excuse because, well, everyone knows geniuses are misfits, and, hey, nobody ever proved he did anything really, truly wrong?

Forgive me if I don’t think being a victim constitutes an excuse. And forgive me if I don’t applaud.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Year in Poetry 1993

In preparing to review the year in poetry, I find myself struggling against the impulse to launch a full-blown jeremiad deploring triviality, posturing, limitations of craft and imagination, and self-indulgence. All this in a year marked by the publication of new and collected or selected works by quite a few luminaries, yet rarely has a firmament been so dimly lit by so many dull stars. Of the seventeen poets herein reviewed, eleven are (if just barely) in their sixties or seventies, yet those poets in their forties show, on the whole, much stronger work. Symptomatically, the National Book Award has, for a second consecutive year, slighted three nominees of demonstrably higher merit than the winner. (Whatever might be made of it, last year’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize went to the two volumes singled out here as best: Hayden Carruth’s Collected Shorter Poems and Louise Gl├╝ck’s The Wild Iris, respectively.) With Carruth’s Collected Longer Poems and Jack Gilbert’s new collection, The Great Fires, slated for spring release, 1994, at least, is getting off to a promising start.

Readers interested in exploring root causes for the current condition of poetry will find explicit suggestions as well as thoughtful analysis that provides a springboard for inference in Alan Shapiro’s In Praise of the Impure, subtitled Poetry and the Ethical Imagination: Essays, 1980-1991. In essays that range from general topics—narrative, new formalism, and the living tradition, to reduce them to capsule summaries—to balanced readings of individual poets including J.V. Cunningham, Robert Hass, and John Berryman, Shapiro considers poetry not as literary play detached from our lives but regards style as “consciousness in action” and stresses “the second life of poetry” (a term taken from Eugenio Montale), “the life it takes on in us years after our initial reading, when it coalesces with some unforeseen experience, when some occasion suddenly recalls it, and it comes to us bearing its gift of revelation.” For a poem to carry that “gift,” however, it must be grounded inknowledge of the world; a clear, organic sense of form (not rhyme and meter merely flourished as “a badge of affiliation”); and a willingness to extend the imagination to ethical concerns.

Individual essays on the “ethical imagination” (“Flexible Rule,” from which the above quote is taken) and the use of form in poetry (“The New Formalism” and “Some Notes on Free Verse and Meter”) are exemplary in their balance; while Shapiro champions specific poets, there is no suggestion that poets treated less flatteringly are victims of grudge-match mentality. Those new formalists whose poems suggest a belief “that the erection of a metrical frame around a subject [is] all the imaginative work they [have] to do” might disagree, but Shapiro presents a convincing analysis for why so much new formalist poetry seems so shallow: “The crude management of form can render only crude overgeneralized emotions.”

Finally, an essay that should be required reading for all students, instructors, and administrators in creative writing programs, “Horace and the Reformation of Creative Writing” goes a long way to explain our current penury. In earlier societies, the education of poets was a lengthy process; Irish master bards, for example,

had to pass through a very rigorous twelve-year course of training, encompassing not only the study of prosody and the memorization of allthe tales and poems of the nation, but also, among other things, the mastery of history, music, law, science, and divination. His was a poetry inextricably bound up with the realities of social and political life.

Against this, Shapiro contrasts contemporary two-year MFA programs with lax, almost non-existent curricular demands, which promote an approach to the teaching of writing—and, one might hazard, the product of such instruction—”in which vagueness and mystification pass for knowledge.” Both Donald Hall i”Poetry and Ambition” and Dana Gioia in “Can Poetry Matter?” have covered much of this territory, but Shapiro, writing from an insider’s perspective, is both more specific and more lacerating in his assessments. In this unlikely culture medium, what can we expect will grow?

Of the new collections by prominent “elder” poets, Donald Hall’s The Museum of Clear Ideas seems overall the most satisfying. In this, his eleventh collection in 38 years, he demonstrates a lifetime’s mastery of poetic craft. Every poem in the collection is written in syllabics, yet the lines rarely call attention to their strict metric. The form is most visible in the extended sequences “Baseball” and “Extra Innings,” where nine-syllable lines accumulate in nine-line stanzas through the first sequence, gaining one syllable per line and one line per stanza in the succeeding three “Extra Innings.” Even here, the line breaks do not seem forced or the lines padded to fulfill the form, a frequent failing of syllabic verse. Despite felicities of craft, the volume does not equal Hall’s major achievement to date, the book-length The One Day (1988), nor is it as emotionally satisfying as either Kicking the Leaves (1978) or The Happy Man (1986).

In three of four sections, Hall employs strategies of distancing. The two sequences of “Baseball” poems, for instance, are addressed to Dada collagist Kurt Schwitters. The sequences begin from the premise of explaining the sport but piece together fragments of various concerns into a verbal “collage,” including daily life on the speaker’s farm and, most movingly, the struggles arising from Hall’s and Jane Kenyon’s medical crises (documented in Hall’s marvellous book-length essay, Life Work, published by Beacon Press also in 1993; it serves as a wonderful companion volume to these as well as earlier poems by Hall). This approach, however, defuses the emotional gain of the material, both through an almost surrealistic juxtaposition of situation and image and the cavalier, almost Ashbery-like tone of the speaker.

The title sequence, subtitled “Or say: Horsecollar’s Odes,” poses different problems. Each of these poems, an endnote informs us, takes “the number and shape of stanzas in Horace’s first book of odes”; names of characters seem derived from the same source (Flaccus, Glaucus, Sabina) or from neo-classical models (Camilla and Julia). Many of the poems conclude with an answering coda, the “Or say” of the subtitle, as with “O Camilla, Is It”:

O Camilla, is it conceivable that

you feel as ardent as I do—as horny

as seven goats? Camilla, let us hurry

out of these grossly

getting-in-the-way clothes onto a wide bed

with its covers hurled off to play skin-music

on bright sheets, slowly increasing the tempo

until Eden comes.


Or say: At this moment, according to habit,

Horsecollar interrupts his ode to contradict

his ode; or calls upon Professor Zero to sneer

at Horsecollar, at hypocritical humanity, and at

Professor Zero. Analysands cherish reversals

in the performance of Heraclitean understanding

achieved after eight years on a Viennese sofa;

Horsecollar revels in luxuries of antithesis,

by which any Eden, temperate with blessedness,

freezes forever in the flames of coldest hell.

In many respects this sequence resembles “Four Classic Texts” from The One Day; the bracketing sections of that poem, however, offer a grounding context, and the use of biblical as well as classical models provides a necessary balance and corrective. The problem here seems a question of tone. Horace’s odes, like other classical and neo-classical works, rely on a shared sense of social conviction and convention, even if shared only by an elite. Today, such sharedsensibility seems impossible, and, without that seedbed, poems in that manner can seem, rather than biting and satirical, merely arch. While some of these poems find the self-deprecating balance requisite for satire (“Let Many Bad Poets” comes to mind), this does not happen consistently enough to make the sequence fully rewarding.

The most satisfying of the sections, “Another Elegy,” memorializes a fictional poet who seems a composite of Hall and his contemporaries. Divorce, separation from children, political activity, and reliance on drink surface as generational problems which the fictitious Bill Trout has faced and, in most cases, surmounted. In many ways, the elegy celebrates a generation of poets who succeeded in surviving in ways the previous generation—Jarrell, Roethke, Lowell, and Berryman—never managed. Yet the poem descends into neither self-pity nor self-congratulation, managing an evenness of intimacy and objectivity comparable to that in The One Day. Consider this passage from near the end, involving the narrator, Trout, and his third wife, a Bengali dancer:

Each year

his death grows older. Outside this house, past Kearsarge

changing from pink and lavender through blue and white

to green, public language ridicules “eager pursuit of honor.”

Do I tell lies? “ middle age he fell in love...”

Did he never again tremble from chair to table? At night

Bill delivered his imagination and study to Laverne

and Shirley, laughing when a laughtrack bullied him

to laugh—while Reba groaned an incredulous Bengali groan—

in order not to drink.

Yet again he walked in a blue

robe in detox, love’s anguish and anger walking beside him.

The easy shift between the personal and the public, as well as the elegiac and the playful, and the firm sense of line mark the work of a master. Had Hall extended emotional as well as formal satisfaction through the book, he might have equalled or even surpassed his best

W.S. Merwin uses syllabics, as well as regular stanzas and occasional rhyme, far less successfully in Travels, his thirteenth collection; the effect, given his now-typical lack of capitalization and punctuation, is often confusing. Take, for example, these opening stanzas from “Another Place”:

When years without number

like days of another summer

had turned into air there

once more was a street that had never

forgotten the eyes of its child

not so long by then of course nor

so tall or dark anywhere

with the same store at the corner

sunk deeper into its odor

of bananas and ice cream

still hoarding the sound of roller

skates crossing the cupped board floor

but the sidewalk flagstones were

cemented and the street car

tracks buried under a late


And so on for eleven pages. Individual lines and passages are striking, but a reader must redact to make sense of this. In the third line, for instance, is “there” part of the preceding lines or the lines that follow? Line endings bear no particular weight; the first two lines seem clearly self-contained units, and the first stanza itself seems a complete syntactical unit. But what about the radically enjambed first line of the third stanza, and the final line of that stanza which runs over into the next? Extended narrative is equally problematic; as in his early volumes, Merwin seems more interested in the play of language over image than in developing a clear plot to guide through diversion and distraction. Most successful are the handful of short lyrics at the very end, including “Rain Travel” and “After the Spring,” close to the best poems in perhaps his finest collection, The Rain in the Trees (1988).

Merwin’s struggle to shed the conventional style of his first collections is chronicled in The Second Four Books of Poems, which reissues The Moving Target, The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, those volumes in which he developed his mature manner. The ability to cast unpunctuated language over lines so that syntactic values are rarely obscured, a facility shared by Gary Snyder and Lucille Clifton, did not come easily to Merwin. This may account for why so many of the poems in this omnibus seem repeated efforts to claim the same material. The bardic, shamanistic mode also seems an uneasy fit. Few of these poems are as satisfying as a handful from his earliest collections—”Burning the Cat,” for instance, or “The Drunk in the Furnace”—though his successes are usually brief lyrics, like “For the Anniversary of My Death”:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what

Note the clear correlation between line and meaning, stanza and sentence. Yet the pleasures of such delicate lyrics are won by reading through too many pages of poems pitching toward the tone and not quite ringing it. Readers unfamiliar with Merwin’s earlier work would be better served by his (at times too) generous Selected Poems.

A more rewarding republication, Galway Kinnell’s Three Books contains revised versions of Body Rags, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, and The Past. Kinnell, a notorious tinkerer (rumor has it that The Book of Nightmares was extensively revised in galleys), notes in his introduction that most of the revisions are “simply deletions of ‘ill-written and extraneous material,’” including “...clotted conceits, fanciful elaborations, ...grandiloquence, redundancies, ...pointlessly elaborate sound effects, contrived usages, efforts to enliven through heightened language what would have been lively if given straight....” Most poems have been touched, if just a little, with notable gains. Students of Kinnell and of the poetic process will derive considerable interest and satisfaction in comparing these with the originals, as well as savoring them on their own merits.

Considerably less interesting and satisfying is Mark Strand’s Dark Harbor, his eighth collection. With some pretensions toward being a longish Stevensesque meditation, it seems instead more neo-surrealist posturing, at its worst descending into silliness, as in section XIX, in its entirety:

I go out and sit on my roof, hoping

That a creature from another planet will see me

And say, “There’s life on earth, definitely life;

“See that earthling on top of his home,

His manifold possessions under him,

Let’s name him after our planet.” Whoa!

Did even Pope in “Peri Bathous” imagine such sinking? Strand seems to provide an explanation for the poem in section XXXII: “The idea of being large is inconceivable.... The image of a god // ...[who] brings whole rooms, whole continents to light, / Like the sun, is not for us.” Doubtless he intends this to reflect on our social condition, but the poem is so sealed from any clear reference to the external world, the comment reflects nothing but the poem itself. Even in XLI, when Strand’s speaker, regarding “the distance of stars,” “wonder[s] if the physicist / Sees the same sky I do,” this brief and almost moving meditation on “mystery” is cut short with a gesture of hip dismissal: “Ah, who knows! We are already travelling faster than our / Apparent stillness can stand, and if it keeps up / You will be light-years away by the time I speak.” Such consistently flip evasion of responsibility marks a failing of ethical imagination, at the very least.

In section 4 of Garbage, A.R. Ammons wonders: a poem about garbage garbage

or will this abstract, hollow junk seem beautiful

and necessary as just another offering to the

high assimilations...

Obviously, panelists for this year’s National Book Award picked door #2. In the first section, however, Ammons implies a different answer: “why should I // be trying to write my flattest poem, now, for / whom....” And who should hesitate to take him at his word? On the next page, at the end of a long, largely disconnected string of polysyllabics (each section links strings of phrases with colons and commas, only the first beginning with a capital letter, only the last ending with a period), parenthetically—and tellingly—Ammons wonders, “(hey, is the palaver rapping, yet?)” Though he may intend passages like this to seem droll and charming, too much of the poem, in fact, seems self-indulgent “palaver,” yakking at great lengths within the width of a spool of adding machine tape (thus the thoughtful line breaks) in order to hear himself think. This pretends to be “a scientific poem” but suffers, instead, from a scientific posturing that has flawed even more successful earlier poems like “Corsons Inlet.” Unlike in his best earlier poems, however, one can go pages without meeting anything resembling an image, and what else might one expect from a poet who offhandedly volunteers, 35 pages into a book called Garbage:

...I don’t know anything much about garbage

dumps: I mean, I’ve never climbed one: I

don’t know about the smells: do masks mask

scent: or is there a deodorizing mask...

For this, they passed over Hall’s The Museum of Clear Ideas, Mark Doty’s My Alexandria, and Margaret Gibson’s The Vigil (both reviewed later).

Although I had not heard of Shirley Kaufman before reading Rivers of Salt, her sixth collection of poems, I came away with considerable respect for her lyric ability. While these poems are not lengthy, overly discursive, or ponderously philosophical, their elegantly rendered observations of life in Jerusalem, memories of parents and children, and experiences while travelling contain more depth, detail, heart, and wisdom than Strand or Ammons even glimpse. Most poems set in the Middle East labor under the too easy weight of Importance they presume; a twenty-year resident of Jerusalem and witness to war, Kaufman’s point of view is not the political tourist’s. The details of “Waiting,” the opening poem of the volume, are those of the speaker’s daily life, yet even musings on the weather, waiting for an expected season of rain—”A few blurry showers in the north, / not in Jerusalem,” or “Last week clouds came, a dark insensible mass / above the hills, but nothing fell”—are heightened by more vaguely menacing passages: “We can’t do anything / but wait. Fear sticks to our minds / like the black lice of newsprint.” Only toward the end does that fear take solid form:

There are black rubber masks in our closet.

When you tighten the buckles

and smooth the rubber snugly over your face

and attach the filter according to the printed instructions,

you can breathe fresh air

for about six hours. That’s what they tell us.

These details, too, are commonplace. No histrionics, no assumed heroism: this is the voice of the Israelis who wait for more than rain to fall.

Along with fear, Kaufman provides tenderness, humor, and an eye for detail. Above all, she has a sense of human strengths and failings, and how the pleasures of one are not necessarily diminished by awareness of the other. In “Cineraria,” the speaker visits with an American expatriate while in Delhi and listens to his countercultural adventures on a porch “lined with pots of purple cineraria. / Little imperialist flowers / from my own back yard.... Once,” he tells her,

he went to visit

Ginsberg and Orlovsky

in Benares. He wanted

to talk about poetry,

but they kept asking him

about the Ganges. “Peter

served tea like a Hindu wife.”

Not exactly, I’m thinking.

Whatever we’re sharing only

seems the same.

In these few lines, Kaufman efficiently presents four characters and an entire milieu. And, however deflating the speaker’s assessment of her host, she continues to share a pleasant moment with him. Kaufman’s subjects rarely exceed the capacity of her craft, which, though not considerable, carries the necessary weight through an entirely pleasurable book.

Of the many collected and selected volumes published this year, five seem necessary to mention. The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer, John Haines’ collected poems, gathers poems from six previous collections and includes, in addition to a section of new poems, a selection of uncollected earlier poems. Haines’ early work is less widely known than that of two contemporaries with whom he shared influences and whose work his resembles—James Wright and Robert Bly—and that’s too bad, because Haines’ poems, while they may not achieve the heights of Wright at his best, do not descend into either the self-pity of Wright or the grating surreal polemics of Bly at their worst. Tu Fu, Li Po, and Georg Trakl are among the influences Haines acknowledges; of them, Trakl’s Expressionism colors the earlier poems most; the opening stanzas of “Moons,” from The Stone Harp (1971), are typical:

There are moons like continents,

diminishing to a white stone

softly smoking

in a fogbound ocean.

Equinoctial moons,

immense rainbarrels spilling

their yellow water.

Mixed with mystical realism are political poems, poems more firmly grounded in the Alaskan landscape, and cleanly detailed poems about wildlife.

Two thirds of the way through the volume, beginning with New Poems 1980-88 (1990), Haines’ canvas enlarges and his style achieves greater variety. These poems draw considerably on art history and refer to the works of such artists as Hieronymus Bosch, Auguste Rodin, Goya, and Michelangelo, as well as to science, literature, and history. Many take the form of monologues in the voices of historical figures and extend his tonal range to the colloquial. The closing stanzas of “Diminishing Credo,” a poem addressed to Eugene Delacroix, give a sense of the later work:

Under your hand for one last time

the animal torso quickened,

aroused from sleep to fury;

and with you also an old dream

of the barricades flickered

and the map of history vanished.

It was the time of the photographer

and his flat, grey field,

the time of ascending balloons...

This poem treats the same sense of diminishment as the section of Strand’s Dark Harbor quoted above, but Haines’ choice of a specific historical moment and figure to embody that sense of loss provides a context that lends depth to the expression of loss—a depth that gains, as well, from the wonderfully ironic image of optimism in the final line. Those unfamiliar with Haines’ most recent poems will particularly find this collection frequently rewarding.

Less rewarding is The Darkness Around Us Is Deep, William Stafford’s selected poems, edited and with an introduction by Robert Bly. Most of the poems here are brief lyrics, built from relatively simple, declarative sentences in Stafford’s trademark flat diction. “Near” reveals much about the style:

Walking along in this not quite prose way

we both know it is not quite prose we speak,

and it is time to notice this intolerable snow

innumerably touching, before we sink.

It is time to notice, I say, the freezing snow

hesitating toward us from its gray heaven;

listen—it is falling not quite silently

and under it still you and I are walking.

Maybe there are trumpets in the houses we pass

and a redbird watching from an evergreen—

but nothing will happen until we pause

to flame what we know, before any signal’s given.

The first lines describe the style with almost embarrassing accuracy. And, though Stafford is often regarded as a poet of “place,” this poem, like many of those selected, despite occasional place names, occurs in a limbo-land of almost-detail (“redbird,” not cardinal or scarlet tanager, for instance; “evergreen,” not pine or cedar). Even the relationship between speaker and addressed remains undefined. Yet Stafford builds a sense of importance through rhetoric—”it is time to notice this intolerable snow / innumerably touching, before we sink.” What makes the snow intolerable? Who or what is innumerably touching? Sink into what?—questions a good writing teacher would ask. Then, he heightens the flat diction through repetition and urgent iteration: “It istime to notice, I say, the freezing snow....” These hardly seem the masterstrokes of a poet whom Bly would name a national treasure.

The limits of Stafford’s talent, or at least the modest uses to which he put it, are clearly demonstrated in this volume. Bly’s editing, moreover, has done the work no great service. Poems are selected and gathered in sections that seem designed to domesticate Stafford to Bly’s usual esthetic agenda, and no apparatus is provided to give any sense of chronology. Hence, readers lose any sense of how Stafford’s style has progressed, particularly unfortunate since the poems are similar enough to seem gathered from two books published in close proximity rather than from eight volumes published over thirty years.

In contrast, Robert Bertholf’s edition of Robert Duncan’s Selected Poems provides a brief but useful introduction and gathers both uncollected and previously issued poems chronologically by either date of composition or publication, respectively. He has succeeded admirably, as well, in representing the variety of Duncan’s stylistic, prosodic, and thematic concerns in a reasonably sized volume. The extent of Duncan’s intelligence, erudition, and formal expertise cannot be demonstrated in a brief notice, and probably do not need to be. Readers unfamiliar with his work apart from the few anthologized pieces should avail themselves of this fairly inexpensive edition.

Fewer readers will be familiar with the work of Jane Cooper, gathered in Scaffolding: Selected Poems. The volume collects work from the late forties and fifties (unpublished until her 1974 collection, Maps & Windows) through to 1983 (when the book was originally assembled for British publication). Additionally, she includes an essay, “Nothing Has Been Used inthe Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread,” which explains her long delay publishing her earliest poems and offers a revealing glimpse of the social constraints experienced by women writers immediately after the Second World War. These poems are not unusual for the period, characterized by compression of statement, mythical reference, and personal distance, but many are strong examples of the period style, and, at their best, transcend that style. This passage from an unfinished crown of sonnets, “After the Bomb Tests,” moves backward from the Bikini atomic tests to consider the origins of the nuclear age in the discoveries of Johannes Kepler:

I walk out of the house into the still air,

Moving from circle to circle—hot, cold,

Like zones of water this October night.

All the stars are still arranged in spheres,

The planets stalk serenely. Thinking of Kepler

I pick a grassblade, chew it up, then spit.

Now I have thought, he said, the thoughts of God.

Other poems concern felt obligations of motherhood, made complex in “Mercator’s World,” wherein a distorted projection map may make navigation easier but blurs a sense of actual distance and proportion, and the tensions of sexual relations in a newly liberated world.

Through the sixties and seventies, Cooper loosened her meter and tightened her language. The most recent poems show considerable formal reach, especially in the sequence involving the incarceration of Rosa Luxemburg, “Threads.” Based on Luxemburg’s letters to the wife of a fellow political prisoner in World War I Germany, the poem looks at the “threads” of the speaker’s concern—political repression and nature—as they twine and ravel, as in the opening passage of the second of three sections:

Hans is killed

Now twilight begins at four

N “broke the news”

Over the great paved courtyard

hundreds of rooks fly by with a rowing stroke

Such a parade of grief! Why can’t friends understand

I need solitude to consider? Why not tell me

quickly, briefly, simply

so as not to cheapen

Their homecoming caw,

throaty and muted is so different from their

sharp morning caw after food. As if metal balls,

tossed from one to the other, high in the air,

tinkled exchanging the day’s news

my last two letters

addressed to a dead man...

As is frequently the case, early schooling in metrics has given her a sharpened sense of how to shape a freer line. The diversity, craft, and attention to detail evinced in Cooper’s work, particularly in contrast to that of less practiced but more prominent poets, underscore the question of what standards we use to measure accomplishment.

John Engels’ work, fully represented in Walking to Cootehill: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1992, demonstrates a level of intelligence and craft similarly under-appreciated. Nearly half of the poems are new, enough to justify a book to themselves, so issuing them as part of a selected poems seems designed to consolidate his work with a new publisher. Given that decision, Engels has chosen to organize the poems thematically in two broad sections, “The Naming” and “The Unnaming,” mixing poems from his previous eight collections throughout. Each poem, however, includes the title and date of first book publication, allowing the reader to appreciate the through-lines of poetic concern while registering the ways in which Engels’ craft and concern have matured.

Engels’ poems are characterized by complexity of thought, reflected in dense, knotty syntax and a frequently Latinate vocabulary—Milton a rather ironic influence for a Catholic poet. Many of his poems also accumulate over considerable length, building detail on detail, but “The Naming,” from his 1981 collection, Vivaldi in Early Fall, gives a taste:

This is the kind of night

on which Yuan Chen cried out

to his dead wife, when one

dreams of another, are both

aware of it? the shadows lying close

in his bed, ice roaring

in the great river. From such a night

Adam himself awoke, knowing

none of this had ever been,

opened his eyes

onto the glorious mess of the contingent,

propped himself on one elbow,

and without astonishment gave names

to the bee-orchid, the giraffe.

The pressure to name the forces of nature, threatening as that roaring ice, which are part of “the glorious mess of the contingent,” impels much of Engels’ work, whether those forces be fire, rot, underground streams—whatever wreaks havoc with the orderly structures we impose on the universe. Those same forces take the form of the beautiful and exotic, even if commonplace, things of the world: blossoming tomatoes, the colors of flowers in spring or summer, and the necessary if fruitless task Engels undertakes in poem after poem, of trying to cope with the world through language.

Like Engels, Mark Doty brings considerable verbal resources and moral seriousness to bear on his subjects. My Alexandria, his third collection, extends the scope of his narratives to engage questions of mortality. Awareness of AIDS pervades the poems, whether they deal directly with the disease or not. Beginning with poems in Turtle, Swan, gay sexuality has been a commonplace of Doty’s work. If poems in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight provided a glimpse of gay life in the early eighties, this volume looks at the aftermath of that period. The title tacitly recognizes that theme with its allusion to Cavafy, whom Doty describes in “Chanteuse” as a poet of “memory’s erotics”:

That was all it took

to console him, some token of Alexandria’s

anarchic life. How did it go on without him,

the city he’d transformed into feeling?

Although Doty’s style is far from Cavafy’s, he shares a desire to change the details of life into feeling, and memory is similarly erotic in pull.

Being gay is not the sole focus of the poems, but a sense of living in an age of dying pervades. In “Brilliance,” for example, a friend of the narrator is caring for “a man / who’s dying,” trying to help him remain engaged with a world he knows he will soon be leaving by getting a pet. After first rejecting the idea, the man agrees to goldfish, at which point the narrator segues into a story about “a Zen master who’d perfected / his detachment from things of the world” and

remembered, at the moment of dying,

a deer he used to feed in the park,

and wondered who might care for it,

and at that instant was reborn

in the stunned flesh of a fawn.

So, Maggie’s friend—

is he going out

into the last loved object

of his attention?

So, too, Doty’s poems, with all their concern with mortality, remain connected to “the whole scintillant world.” The primary problem with this volume is Doty’s apparent urge to perfect The Mark Doty Poem, which, as in the example above, braids together two distinct narrative strands to reach a lyrical synthesis. Satisfying as the results of this form may be, it threatens to become formulaic.

An intelligent and eloquent critic, Bruce Bawer demonstrates in some of his poems the leadenness that marks the less successful new formalists discussed by Alan Shapiro. Many poems in Coast to Coast, despite considerable heart, labor under excessive literary consciousness; “I’m feeling Dickinsonian tonight—” one otherwise fine lyric begins, and another, “This is a sight Wordsworth never knew.” As pervasive are stiffness within the line and unimaginative use of rhyme, as in the opening of “Bookshelves,” a sonnet:

On the industrial fringe of Park Slope

one hot summer morning, we carried the boards

that would be our bookshelves onto President Street,

and tied the long pieces, with a hundred feet

of rope, onto the roof of my old car.

Our new home in Manhattan seemed so far,

I feared the knots would unravel, the cords

snap in two, the wood break free of the rope.

The presentation of gay relationships, as casual as Doty’s, is Bawer’s greatest felicity. The shopworn conceit does not need this elaboration, metrical variations are similarly clumsy, and the rhyme words are all nouns, except for a fairly nominative adjective; varying parts of speech helps avoid the too predictable chime at the line end. As seems the ironic case with some other new formalists, Bawer is at his most engaging when he drops received form.

Jane Kenyon, in Constance, her fourth collection, demonstrates admirably what can be achieved in the mainstream poem. She abjures tricky enjambments that call too much attention to themselves and concentrates on condensing language into relatively quiet lines that go about their business. And the business of this book is, to a considerable extent, dealing with her life-long struggle with clinical depression. Set against the backdrop of childhood recollection and current life on a New England farm, the poems build sets of relationships between children and parents, spouses, friends, and humans and the natural world from the fewest possible details. “Wood Thrush,” the ninth section of “Having It Out with Melancholy,” moves easily between the internal and external, delineating a careful emotional sequence:

High on Nardil and June light

I wake at four,

waiting greedily for the first

note of the wood thrush. Easeful air

presses through the screen

with the wild, complex song

of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.

What hurt me so terribly

all my life until this moment?

How I love the small, swiftly

beating heart of the bird

singing in the great maples;

its bright, unequivocal eye.

The tone is fairly restrained, despite the speaker’s exultation at discovering a “bird’s eye” perspective on her life. Also moving are “Chrysanthemums” and “Pharaoh,” both of which apparently grow out of surgery performed on her husband, Donald Hall. “Pharaoh,” especially, gains force from its indirect approach to the possibility of death, moving through the awkwardness of adjusting to post-surgical life (“Touch rankles, food / is not good”), to the closing image of the husband under a sheet as “a sarcophagus,” surrounded by “the things [he] might need in the next / life... comb and glasses, / water, a book and pen.”

In her fifth volume of poetry, The Vigil: A Poem in Four Voices, Margaret Gibson extends her lyric talent into a book-length poem set over the course of a single day and involving four women who span three generations of a family. The event that draws mother Lila, sisters Sarah and Jennie, and daughter Kate together in October 1986 is the firing of Sarah’s kiln, the overseeing of which is the title’s vigil. The firing of clay into harder forms provides a central metaphor for the firming of relationships over the course of the poem. All the principals, as well as the relations between them, have been fired by the dysfunction and alcoholic codependence surrounding the father; gathered together, they are quickly “pulled in, watchful,” as Sarah observes,

As if an exacting angel

turned us inward, away from

whatever might be

said or done in truth, or pretense,

to soften grief

or give joy.

The women take their turns, each of their forms designed to reflect character: Sarah and Lila have long, spindly verses; Jennie speaks in brief prose paragraphs; and Kate delivers her thoughts in long lines divided into one- or two-line units. Such devices are important, for distinguishing between voices through diction or syntax is not one of Gibson’s accomplishments, though members of a single family provide considerable challenge in that respect. Plot, also, is not a significant aspect; instead, Gibson teases us forward, revealing through lyric accumulation a shifting complex of believably intimate relationships.

The shifting relationships in Materialism, Jorie Graham’s fifth collection, are those more often treated in post-structuralist treatises than books of poems: between concept and object, signifier and signified, text and reader, and even energy and matter, the central relationship that drives this lyric meditation. In fact, several selections in the volume are “adapted” from prose works by authors as diverse as Plato, Marx, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Audobon, Stanislavsky, Walter Benjamin, and Benjamin Whorf, concerning physics, mythology, linguistics, and natural history. Individual poem titles, including the repeated “Notes on the Reality of the Self,” “Subjectivity,” “Invention of the Other,” “The Visible World,” and “Existence and Presence,” point toward Graham’s concern with our role in a world of matter. In “Steering Wheel,” for instance, she anatomizes the process of backing a car out of a driveway, noting the complexity of observation and interaction usually taken for granted in routine tasks. Each poem acknowledges the difficulty of finding a text to represent the apprehension: “Oh but I haven’t gotten it right,” she interrupts “Steering Wheel,” then guiding the poem closer to the mark.

Real human exchanges are rare. The poems prefer the distance of memory or observation, as in one of the “Notes on the Reality of the Self,” in which the speaker watches a man in a bakeshop “who sits, hands folded eyes closed, / above the loaf still entire, and speaks inwardly / huge strange thoughts of thanks.” From such detailed observation of others, by implication, can the speaker come to know herself. More often, the speaker grapples with nature, either through a window or, in “The Visible World,” by sorting through by hand:

...If I look carefully, there in my hand, if I

break it apart without

crumbling: husks, mossy beginnings and endings, ruffled

airy loambits,

and the greasy silks of clay crushing the pinerot


Erasure. Tell me something and then take it back.

Bring this pellucid moment—here on this page now

as on this patch

of soil, my property—bring it up to the top and out


sequence. Make it dumb again—won’t you?—what

would it

take? Leach the humidities out, the things that will

insist on

making meaning.

Graham’s language is both precise and lyric (apart from unfortunate lapses into Deconstructionist jargon, such as “Erasure”), and her lines register subtlety of inflection. The close observation of both nature and action is occasionally thrilling, and her facility with poetic technique often enviable, but at times the book seems overweighted toward the intellect, pleasures of the eye and ear subordinate to the demand of calculated argument rather than the argument with ourselves from which, Yeats said, poetry is made.

Like Graham, Brenda Hillman employs an external system of thought to help structure the poems in Bright Existence; unlike Graham’s secular sources, however, Hillman grounds her work in gnostic lore, as she did in the companion volume, The Death Tractates (reviewed in CLC 76). Whereas that collection details Hillman’s response to the death of a close female mentor, these poems range over details of daily life for a newly divorced mother, including eating with her daughter in McDonald’s, attending therapy sessions, and collecting dry cleaning. Like those in Materialism, the poems emphasize a relation between self and the outer world, raising questions about the nature of reality, but they are based in a spiritual tradition that focuses questions inward, to the soul rather than the intellect, seeking to heal the fracture between the spiritual and the material. From the austerities of gnosticism, Hillman makes a poetry surprisingly open to joy, though joy—”Adult Joy,” as she titles one poem—is inextricable from sorrow: “The slender vessel used for weddings / was also used for funerals,” she begins, concluding that, when “[w]e grow up,” “Joy becomes the missing event, / what reaches us unknown / without wisdom.” Still, wisdom is what we seek.

In most religious disciplines, the everyday world is the realm of practice. So Hillman’s poems grow from mundane chores, from the sights, sounds, and textures of daily life as they reveal both cleft and possibility of healing. At their weakest, particularly in the fourth section, the techniques call too much attention to themselves—parenthetical asides that never close, commas repeated or dropped a line—as well as a kind of word salad reminiscent of some of Roethke’s work, with echoes of nursery rhymes and gibberish. The impulse here, however, is to capture the workings of a mind released to the depths of memory or darkness of solitude, occasioned, for instance, by the slight scraping of a branch against a night window which “made the sound / of missingness” (“Branch, Scraping”). In general, however, Hillman develops details across well-heard lines, as in the title poem:

In spring, the great pines waited a little faster.

Wildflowers turned

on their big circles, under the earth

and the orchid, which always came back

to the same slanty light

in the forest floor

pushed toward the edges of itself.


The oak moths,

holding pale tomorrows,

dropped on invisible threads before the flower,

the part that wasn’t ready

stayed inside a little longer

and the part that was ready to be something

came forth—

While neither as fully satisfying or consistently well crafted as Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Bright Existence similarly reaches toward the base of our lives. In Hillman’s poems, overbearing darkness, though returning each night, every morning grows lighter. Two strong collections in as many years mark Hillman as a promising poet.