Seven Short Reviews of First Books of Poetry
    "All essays should be, not trials, but celebrations."
          Theodore Roethke

In recent years, American critics had been mostly ignoring first books of poetry while asking such loud questions as "Does Poetry Matter?" and raising the issue of poetry's nonexistence in contemporary culture. Well, poetry certainly does exist in our time and we are happy to share with the readers of In Posse Review our appreciation of seven wonderful first books published by Chapiteau Press, Dream Horse Press, University of Chicago Press, Carnegie Mellon University Press and Grove Press.

--In Posse Review Poetry Editors Kathryn R. Farris and Ilya Kaminsky.

1. "One Another" by Jim Schley (Chapiteau Press, 1999)
"One Another" begins with a dramatic monologue in a voice of Jehanne d' Arc, the French heroine who narrates a visionary account of her journey: "every step I took / ...honey spoon and straw-gold kerchief, / Was an ordinary step. / Riding out through the men in my own leather britches / -- Every breath was only breath / Made of accident and purpose, / Fused moisture and air. / And everywhere we moved, / Every day -- was hunger, the dry sponge." Such quiet, descriptive lyricism is memorable in its slow music, offering a voice which speaks in whisper and half-whisper. The poem begins on a low, quiet note, and line by line it elevates itself, gathers itself from slow, prayer-like strokes into a strong, unmistakable tone:

"I believe in the theater of bodies.
I believe we could live on the skin
Of a drum. Weighted down
Like a mule, I would carry you further.
With just enough water
To simply wet my tongue
I would sing the day longer..."

The ability to shift voices and the speaker's attitudes so fluidly allows Schley to investigate multiple personalities, pointing his diverse interest in the experience of each, without ever repeating himself. He is a man-orchestra, who is can to play on several instruments at once. In the heart of the collection is "Nine Portraits As Muses," a sequence of odes to the nine Muses: Euterpe, Clio, Terpsichore, Calliope, Melpomene, Thalia, Urania, Polyhymnia, and Erato. To say here that Schley has undertaken to re-invent the formal ode is to say very little, for what is an ode? It is, strictly speaking, a poem written for an occasion or on a particular subject, which has always been rather dignified and more serious as a form than others forms poetry. Taken from a textbook, such definition means very little in our post-modern times, when Schley's contemporaries have written odes to such various subjects, as "Ode to Old Age," "Ode to Meaning," "Ode to Jewishness," "Ode to Tomatoes." But to write odes to nine muses in our days and actually get away with this as gracefully as Schley does would certainly take a lot of effort. This poet's particular gift is his ability to fill the old forms with richness of texture and fresher experience, to find a language of paradox and beauty which can both surprise and sustain. To succeed in a project like this, he must be able to speak in several voices at once and shift his tone at any given moment, to sound solemn without being boring, to be playful and surprising without being obscure. And Schley is doing just that. For instance, in Ode to Thalia, the Muse of comedy speaks about the possibility of having never learned to laugh:

If I'd never learned that antiques habit, to write
down my thoughts and fears and secret pursuits
then seal them up in an empty envelope to fly by hook
or crook through slots and chambers, down
conveyor belts and ramps, up elevators
and into mailbox, I'd never have known
this spring of indispensable laughter, an ally
inside me, friend of fashioned light.

In this sequence Schley is alive and playful, he surprises us when we least expect it -- his Muse of dance, Terpsichore, suggests that she "came so belatedly to dance" that "could never be sure to arrive right on time / that instant when tempo and footfall coincide / under rippling arch of horn..." while Polyhymnia, Muse of sacred song admits: "Never had I known the rhyme or reason / for that genuine resemblance between / living woman and bowed instrument..." The odes are full of ideas, recollections, musings. Thus, Calliope, Muse of epic poetry traces the "round-about routes to Boston, / battered harbor town where a revolution began, / at first rhetorical, ultimately bloody" while Schley addresses his Muse of history, Clio, with: "How many do you greet, Grace, / with Sweetheart?" and then follows up to gracefully suggest: "Your face // is illuminated by that phrase / of Transtromer's: We have not / surrendered, but want peace."

Other poems in the book have similar vitality and grace. Schley never tires of playing with different rhythms and voices, he begins the beautiful piece "Three Lullabies" with "Reapers and sowers, gleaners and droves: / All go to sleep. / Plowers and fleecers: twelve o'clock mowers: / Go to sleep, to sleep. // As far, as far as we know. / As far as we know." These musical lullaby rhythms are combined with the surreal, dreamlike images where the element of surprise is always present. What begins with: "When you've taken into yourself / the tiredness, the darkness, the depths themselves / saturated, and ready: // This is sleep; this is yours. / You are yours..." goes on to say:

"Enough of today,
said Benjamin Schwartz
every night at eleven,
in a funny white house no longer white
or no longer standing."

But just as his playful moves can always find a footing in his spiritual voice, Schley's spirituality is full of tenderness. In a prayer for his family, "Devotional," Schley addresses his wife, observing: "...Because simply / arranging our daughter's bedclothes, with a tug / on the linen releasing / perfume of perspiration and chamomile soap / will set off such trembling... then folding your clothes / just laundered.. / the sense of smell is ravenous." Here, in the final poem in the book, this poet with a gift for different voices is able to bring them together, intensively, devotion and desire becoming one: "Hear one plea / when I pray, that each of us three / will live to be old// Willingly as I would I / place faith in vacant air."

2. "Lets Not Sleep" by C.J. Sage (Dream Horse Press, 2002)
Sage's work is filled with subtle lyricism, insight and honest, memorable speech. "For the Animal Rights Activists," an unforgettable poem in the book's first section (Muscle Memory) is one of the best pieces I have encountered on the subject; it is outright open, ironic, lyrical. "I want to whisper something reed-like for those activists," begins Sage, dealing with the subject directly and withot the slightest trace of sentimentality. She is able to offer her readers an ode for "those activists" where "our souls have slipped away with slivers in their lips ... if only we could love the empty, angry stomachs in our souls / like those activists, whose tongues are never sated, / whose sheets are often knotted by a lack of sleep."

C.J. Sage knows how to surprise her reader and does so well. In a piece called "You are not a poet," she writes, ".... you opened me / reciting cummings as you drove / my body with your body / then bringing your big thick/ hardback book to my bed.... i swear / by the flesh of one hundred opened tulips / you never wholly kissed me." In these lines her eroticism and irony combine to produce most wonderful effects. Further in the book, in poems like "Say you love your husband" she does this again, and even better: "Say you love your husband // but you want better sex -- / sex where you're soused, / where you're topped / off full with long thick breaths / that lift the body's work.... Sometime you think / you're going insane -- you know / you're not, but you think too much / repetition has damaged your brain....Those apparitions / are like a room full of horny men / closing and opening your shutters / in a weird reverse Morse code / that says to you: / Say you love your husband. / Say you want it, want it all." The poem's the images, its ironic voice and masterly use of repetition all bring us towards its glorious end where we no longer know whether to smile or to agree submissively. And in this lies C.J. Sage's special skill and gift.

The book is filled with beautiful poems and one wants to quote line after line, poem after poem. Such pieces as "She was like Persephone," or "Birth Ghazal truly deserve to be quoted in full and discussed at a great length. Due to the lack of space, however, I can only offer one full poem, "Bridge Ghazal":

Bridge Ghazal

My love and I reside upon the belly of a bridge
with heartbeats of the sky--the drums upon the bridge.

I've heard of songs that rise at night from pitch-black oceans.
I've heard the strums of lyrics made by four hands on a bridge.

My love and I do landscapes for the gardens of the sea.
At night we sleep as seedlings at the center of its bridge.

Once I saw a Sufi breathe in seabirds, and send them out again.
I've seen people bearing blindfolds near the entrance of a bridge.

My love's old love, he says, had tried to douse him in a moat.
He grew gills to save himself and hid beneath a drawbridge.

The masters speak of magic at the middle of the rings
where Yes and No chase each other round the props of any bridge.

My love's new love, some say, makes far too much of things
as fundamental, elemental, as the structure of a bridge.

Here, C.J. Sage uses the strict form of ghazal to unfold her narrative. Each couplet offers us a new surprise, and yet the poem returns onto itself, enriching the previous line with every new step. This poem, I think, is a wonderful example of how formal poetry can enrich itself, how a modern poet can still write a lyric which extends the form, instead of abandoning it. Ms. Sage's gifts are immense and rewarding. Her formal skills are very strong and varied in their scope. Her voice is both playful and revelatory.

3. "Threshold" by James Longenbach (University of Chicago Press, 1998)
James Longenbach's first book, Threshold , is a book of masterly and very beautiful poems. Beginning the book with Elizabeth Bishop's question, "Why, why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?" Longenbach explores various answers, examining intimacy and fear, human relationships and nature; his is a lyrical voice, beautiful and clear, but also spiritual, fearful, mystifying.

If I would say here that the tone of his poetry brings to mind the Modernists on whom Longenbach has written several important books of criticism, I would mean this only in the best possible light. Wallace Stevens's ways of investigating inner landscapes by writing about the outer ones has always attracted a large following among the poets of Longenbach's generation, but no poet had actually succeeded in coming closer to Steven's mystifying grace. While obviously enchanted by Stevens, Longenbach has no illusions about imitating the elder master; he is very much his own poet. The formalism of Longenbach's lyric and his attention to the tradition never constrains the poet's subjects in the book. Quite on the contrary, he is able to extend the limits of form by bringing the intimacy of fresh and compelling voice. The deft movement of his unrhymed couplets and stanzas makes his formalism effective and allow the internal connections between individuals and landscapes ("A hawk, wings too lofty for this wood, / descends to look at me; its head turns once / before the branch it rests on breaks away"), children and their parents ("...As in The Death of Abel by Bonnat, / Eve wondering how it could be-- / With everything we know about heaven, / That children understand the means / And ends of suffering before their parents do.") to have a new, fresher but also more difficult resonance. Throughout the book, Longenbach deals with mystery as the given subject where "everything I've heard about heaven is true." His exploration of strangeness creates a musical but fearful landscape where "our faith is faith / in someone else's faith" and the world is seen "as if the body were no longer single / but a colony of disparate parts, / as if the center, where the heart once ruled, / were overtaken by a strange democracy--". This is exemplified best in his wonderful sequence, Threshold of the Visible World, a long poem that circles onto itself in a manner of a crown of sonnets, where formal repetition plays a tune distinguishing the imagined and the recalled, visible and seen:

"...By the time he recognized the world outside
The house was a speck in open sky,
Beyond rooftops, trees, and radio towers."

Much of what the poet discovers is darkness, and his fear manifests itself in such images of moral conflict as: "A woman wandering the halls at night // Washes her hands again and again / Although they are not dirty. I am not free / To speculate on motives any further." But precisely this unwillingness to speculate, this concentration on what he does know intimately is this poet's special gift, even when in the struggle with himself "Inventing systems he remain[s] a part // Of systems till he walk[s] so far he stamble[s]." Only having faced himself, having "...realized / He knew nothing of the universe. / So as the children do, he began to learn."

As Robert Pinsky rightly noted, Longenbach's first book "is a book about fear, particularly the fear that outside the charmed circle of normality disaster waits." However, because Longenbach is able to confront this fear without speculation, and is intimate without the slighest trace of sentimentality, the fear is presented in a language so joyous and delicate in its texture and music that the book is natuarally a pleasure to read. To explain this justly, I can find nothing better than to quote in full. Here is one of the very few poems of praise and joy by a debute poet that I have found moving and successful in recent years:

       Answers to a Question

       Why, why do we feel
       (we all feel) this sweet
       sensation of joy?

Because our being in the world is not
A busride through darkest night unless
We stall midway with our ambivalence,

A stuttering, fortitude disrupted
As wind dispels our diesel spume.
Because no one deserves another home.

Because by asking we convince ourselves
The answer's plain, as children entertain
Themselves with riddles that can't be solved.

Because we've traveled half the way, we know
Joy is not sweet. It is the act of feeling-
The wish that what we feel is shared,

Each of us moving forward in single thought,
The way headlights seem to part the trees
Though we know the road precedes us,

Opening and closing on our solitudes.
Because no one can bear to sit alone.
Because we're terrified by unity, each face

Concealing what we thought to share.
Because we can't be sure the feeling
Won't be fortified by doubt, a longing

To revoke the question posed-why,
-these words repeated by a woman
Who appeared once in the middle of the night

To serve me tea, two porcelain cups
With spoons laid neatly at the saucers' rims.
Look, there's the street where we were born!

You by the window, do you feel it now?
And you, the woman with grocery bags
And the raincoat folded on her lap, the man

Beside her mumbling incoherently,
The children sleeping or the crying ones
Who will not be consoled? I felt it once:

Ambivalence released me where asphalt
Lapses in a grove of orange trees,
The ocean blue, a body that received

The body like an offering but seeps
Inside it to dissolve a dark recluse-
The soul's roughed, uncompromising face.

4. "Arcade" by Mark Woodworth (Grove Press, 2002)
Mark Woodworth is a poet with a particular gift for imaginary landscapes. His first book, Arcade, begins with a skillfully complied and strong sequence of poems, The City, based on Frans Masereel's novel in woodcuts, Die Stadt . Yet, while the references to Masereel's work are explicit and clear, the landscapes offered in the book are wholly a product of the poet's imagination. Woodworth's landscape is "the city estranged from its makers," where "the legless pensioner [is] knuckling his way / along the Something-Strasse / above the shrieking vowels of his greaseless cart..." In this city's images we find an interesting mixture of early French surrealism and perhaps early Russian realism of Maxim Gorky's brand. We see "the hanged man declining/ elegantly from the bedroom chandelier" and "the swollen chests of men / under their waistcoats" while:

"the paltry bundles those fine wives make
in their husbands' sweating fists
as they dance the parquet floor
beneath the hissing promise of the gaslights."

Woodworth brings imagination and invention into the landscape of pastoral elegy in an interesting attempt to expand it. His question, "When did the city exceed the grasp of its makers?" becomes an answer in itself, "that hard sound echoing beyond our understanding." Reading Woodworth, one wonders if we can only come to understand our past seeing it as a distant landscape, the city estranged from its makers-and, if it is so, perhaps "we imagine only what has left our sight."

These questions are important in Woodwoorth's collection. In his monologue of Leo Tolstoy's wife, "Sophia Tolstoy At Yasnaya Polyana," the poet wonders "How far we are from all that's happening now," offering a beautiful, reaffirming reply:

"......Weber at night
(that favorite piece of yours) or else girls
singing. I thought of the old days when you
still had time for tea and vatrushki -
small pleasures, necessary pleasures.

There are many such clear, lyrical moments in the book. For instance, in "The Heron," Woodworth offers "Unlikely haiku: the heron's courtly pose / described against this cold Maine cove..." the poet says that the heron is "hard to see / a gray not much more blue than rock" yet the poem is very clear, transparent: "he's barely moved in half an hour. / He trains his eyes on shadows and wake-traces / in the eel-grass shallows, fishing at dusk," beautifully concluding:

"...and I am nearly past the awe
of audience with his ambassador

from some far kingdom of pure form
who won't reveal his emperor's decree.

He hasn't come for me-but as we share
the stasis of this our and our habits'

solitude, I recognize how instinct
wed to form and the cold eye's

austerity can claim its charm.
My heron draws his neck into an S,

Then breaks the water with his beak..."

"Converted to your religion of pure movement" begins another beautiful poem in the book, "After the Dance Concert." We have no space here to quote at length, but two last stanzas are certainly deserving of praise:

" much our bodies weigh on us..."

Past your dancer's discipline
a different discipline-or was it strength?-
lent a perfect ease to those few nights,
as if we'd loved each other years before

or played out friendship in some adult dream
of children's love. We sprawled like kids
across the rug, loose, contented, but,
when we touched, somehow bodiless.

My favorite piece in "Arcade" is an imaginary account in both prose and poetry in "Herr Soma Relates The Circumstances of His Breakdown Before Making of The Knife In The Tarn." Herr Soma, an imaginary filmmaker, offers his insightful glimpses on the process of creation:

"...That was the summer I became an artist-the same summer I went mad:
     how obvious!

The first physical sign of my collapse was a sore on my tongue."

"...In my dreams, waking or sleeping-it hardly mattered-I returned again and
     to a ruined building.
Only two parallel walls remained."

The prose sentences in this poem mix irony and naivete with bold statements on art and images, dreams. Herr Soma relates his sexual awakening and artistic losses, explaining how "I've come to need the separation afforded only by the camera." Woodworth opens the landscape in "An Uncut Scene From Herr Soma's Last Film" with:

"Take after take, he never gets it right-
different angles, different actors: it doesn't matter.
He cannot recover the image intact...
...this stubborn, grainy obsession: Oedipus

fucking his mother on the imperial bed,
the camera locked on his locked jaw, dark hair
sweeping from her turned head.

...what stays buried keeps
the rest intact..."

and manages to finish "Herr Soma Relates..." with: "Since making that film, a great success as you know, I have been healthy as a farm boy." Reading "Herr Soma" one is reminded of Borge's and Kafka's parables and perhaps of Italo Calvino's late experiments, but Woodworth is playing his own game, engaging in his own struggle. One wishes for more imaginary poetry of this kind. Autobiography has long been a curse for our literature and it is our hope that more gifted younger authors like Mark Woodworth will bring the imaginary landscape back to its high place.

5. "In the Belly" by David Gewanter (University of Chicago Press, 1997)
The gift of David Gewanter's poetry is its abundant passion for life, and even his darkest elegies (and there are quite a few dark poems in this book) are filled with life, the unabashed love of experience. This paradox makes "In the Belly" stand apart from many other first books being published today because Gewanter is not interested in dividing light from darkness: instead, he uses irony to find darkness in light and vise versa. As he writes in "My Father's Autopsy": "...Now he's home all day waiting for the mail, / hasn't cut a corpse for years. He calls / every weekend, his news familiar / as a backache, and we talk without fear. / / Once I thought my pen would open him here / Like the corpse on its simple pan of judgment; / but as I cover this pan with pages // he is alive on another one." As becomes apparent in the book, Gewanter's father was a pathologist who allowed his son take a look during the autopsies, exposing him to the mess of humanity at an early age. But as Gewanter makes apparent in his small poem, "Shield," we compose our elegies for the dead as the shield against our own end.

What Gewanter accomplishes in many poems of this book, particularly in "Goya's The Third of May ", "Conduct of Our Loves", "My Father's Autopsy", "English 1", "Bleish the Barber", "Shield" and the marvelous, Borges-like piece of short prose, "Bill" -- is the invention of his own brand of lyricism, a strange mix of such sensibilities as Heaney and Amichai, or perhaps Simic and Gunn, where soundings and voices, ironies and details create the poem, where the abstract is never loudly pronounced but is nonetheless deeply realised, where the poet's "I" can be both serious and full of light humor. Let me quote from the second and third parts of "Bleish the Barber," where Gewanter's technical mastery and emotional weight are in a full display:

...When Miriam phoned, we were leaving for a wedding;
long expected grief stumbled through its paces--
our shocked "Oh no!" and then, "Oh God--the wedding!"
Our shock when the blocked coffin banged the grave-top,
when the living hair shook on his dead nape.
We recorded him once in 1962.
I pull out his small old foreign voice, spooled on tape:
"Hear me? This is Grandpa-- How are you? How are you?"

...these two old grackles were once your girls:
guard them by your shop's infinite mirrors--tick
tick tick tick--the tail end of tape whirls around
the recorder's flat breast; snippets, hellos, songs
unfurl like your own last name: Bleishewitz.

Gewanter's sinewy syntax works quite well here to show that what would be awkwardly colloqual in other hands is very musical in his ("Hear me? This is Grandpa-- How are you? How are you?"). His careful ear and stunning diction make a lyric from what might have been a "narrative" poem in other hands. Gewanter is tender without being sentimental, honest without being brutal ("these two old grackles were once your girls: / guard them by your shop's infinite mirrors"). He is never afraid to bring the joke in his poem ("our shocked "Oh no!" and then, "Oh God--the wedding!"), to tell something "unpoetic." Precisely this unpoeticism is what makes him interesting since he is able to extend the limits of the lyric, to bring in the fresh, unexpected detail. In a way, one can see this "unpoeticism" as an attack at what is sometimes called "beautiful" in poetry, but is, most often, winsome. Gewanter is first of all a realist, the way Philip Larkin, for instance, was a realist. Gewanter has no interest in being "beautiful," he is interested in saying what he things should be said. His use of irony, grotesque and black humor along with musicality and light lyricism certainly does remind Larkin's and, even earlier, Thomas Hardy's Modernism. Gewanter is an interesting poet for a contemporary critic to observe because he does not struggle against Pound and Eliot the way some poets of his or earlier generations did -- he simply ignores them. This absense of struggle with the giants of Modernism adds heavily to his struggle with the self, and helps to explain his burning passion for life. Here is how Gewanter writes of the art of painting in "Goya's The Third of May ": "here, hand me a butterknife / to scrape with, I'll show you how / he painted bullets / inside the painted guns." And here is his view of love in "Conduct of Our Loves": "And how should we conduct our loves? Black and white / judgments still beget grays, like baptisms / of the photograph: / developer is Need, stop-bath Guilt, the fixer / Memory". Although there are many stories in this book, Gewanter--unlike someone like Sharon Olds--never exactly tells the story of the self. Instead, he attempts to expose the stories behind the self. His poems are never locked in the past, but take place in the present tense of the lyric. And, in this, unlikely as it may seem, Gewanter has something in common with Frank O'Hara's work. Just like O'Hara, Gewanter can never be classified as a "confessional" poet. In Gewanter's work the language is made memorable not by bold confession or surrealist image but by something else, an emotional territory carved out of the imagination.

Allow me to quote in full one poem, English I , spoken in the voice of a man teaching English abroad. Here, Gewanter performs the investigation of loss and desire both with light humor ("I taught him how to ask her out, / taught her how to say now, nicely;") and very seriously ("a little book of tears, burns, escape-- / And still I mark the blasphemies / of punctuation,") with a true and convincing tone of voice. In other hands this easily could have been a political poem or a poem--like so many others in Gewanter's generation-- about an American poet in exile abroad. But the range of this poem is so impressive that to speak solely of its "political" inclination or "dislocation" would be worse than reductive. This is a poem not about alienation or war or communism or capitalism but about death and joy of dating and learning and our strange inner complexity. The dislocation may be at root of "English I", but the dislocation is recognized, examined, and realized--in the form of wonderful, memorable poem--by a poet whose work serves as a lyrical fusion of self and the world. There is the sense of "finish" in this poem, as in many others in Gewanter's book, there is the sense of necessity:

English I

FIRST, We tied to each other
NEXT, Coconuts for the swimming
THEN, The Boat-Soldiers shoot
MEANWHILE, Many dying
AND THEN, We swam with dead People
LATER, We eat on the land
FINALLY, We left our dead Friends.

What grade does this exercise deserve?
Homework folded like a handkerchief,
a little book of tears, burns, escape--

And still I mark the blasphemies
of punctuation, common speech;
the English tune will help them live.

Rickety Hmong boy, flirting simply
with the loud girl from Managua--
I taught him how to ask her out,

taught her how to say now, nicely;
my accent and suburban decorums
are tidy and authoritative as

the checks I make for right answers,
the rosy golf-clubs on the page.
By next year they'll talk their way

out of trouble instead of smiling
as they do hearing me drone Silent Night --
They join in, shy and hypnotized,

Saigon chemist, cowed Haitian, miming
the words I once told my music teacher
that Jews shouldn't sing: "Holy Infant."

6. "Small Boat with Oars of Different Size" by Thom Ward (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1999)
With direct language, light humor and imagination, Thom Ward offers a collection of poems which is both playful and serious, a consideration of self-in-the-world; vigorous, humble, and fierce all at once. Ward does not make the common mistake of assuming that the details of middle-class, intellectual domesticity are innately interesting. Instead, he constantly attempt to cultivate a more open, intimately impressionist verse that makes room for everything but brings light irony and magic into the landscape it depicts:

"...We are swimming
like dolphins, puppies, the salmon
we once were, up streams and down
brooks, in the neighbor's above-ground pool
....blowing jets of water clear
as champagne, paddling beneath the lifeguard's
silver glasses, splashing Marco Polo, Jacques Cousteau
...the life guard shouts: All right. Everybody
out of the water!"

Here, Ward answers Williams' demand for "No ideas / but in things," with a motley assortment of objects. This collection of objects seems to be related only randomly, and if they do connect, their effect is something like a wild motion picture where the surprise follows surprise. Everything has equal significance: champagne, Polo, neighbor's pool. Yet what ultimately makes these surprises a poem, "the machine made of words," is its concluding shift in tone, the last two lines, where Ward's irony and light humor affirm the positive meaning of things, but refuse to impose a recognizable order on them. This diversity of tone is a wonderful gift that Ward has. He possesses a sensitive ear, which is immediately apparent in the energy of the lines, their musicality.

Playful, alert and romantic Ward has, nonetheless, very little room for heroism. Here are the lines from his poem, "Stray Dogs, Foaming" where Ward leads the reader with a list of such dark images as "sick woman has drunk a river," to say:

Not all are guilty, but all
are responsible, Dostoevski said.
...And as much as we'd like to believe
otherwise, we aren't the first to wake
with wounds we thought sleep would salve."

These lines' tragic irony placed against Dostoevski's words cleary state Ward's disbelief in the false rhetoric of the heroic stance, there is no big "I" in these lines. Through the poem, Ward's voice, briskly and unapologetically moved from one example to the next. Yet he offers no critical apparatus, no explanation for the specific choice of his examples. The objective tone of these is only a fiction, of course, and the last lines I quote here remind the reader that a "we" does exist-that the poem is not simply a recital of many historical episodes, but presumes a understanding between the poet and his readers. Ward takes identical position in his quietly spiritual, elegiac "Only the Traveler Can Change the Journey," a poem in memory of William Stafford: "...this / earth that we touch, / old friend, it lies down." Here, Ward is ready to affirm the poet's calling in only few words:

...And the question of solitude
has always been answered
by one pine needle
refusing to fall.

This, perhaps, can serve as Ward's own ars poetica. But what it means to be a poet in America in our time, is alas, a question, which can only be answered with other questions.

But Ward attempts to place both the answer and the question in the same sentence. In one poem he can speak with all seriousness and joy about the Fax Machine, mixing in the poem such things as "sex and body politic" along with "what words will excite the Palestinians / and not upset the Jews." He establishes the pattern he will continue to follow for the course of the poem, moving from the actual object of the Fax to the imagined scenes of its production and us and then back again. By the end of the poem, the plain fax machine becomes a mythological object of flames and blessings, placed in the poet's kitchen. Ward notices the history within the intimate and the daily, which becomes the necessary record of the poet, bringing back to William's memorable "Not in Ideas but in Things". Ward, however, knows that that line in itself is an idea. This is how he ends the poem:

"Because it's possible that history
is only the perpetual replay
of invention, Eros and power,

and our task is to wait on the street
for the vagabond to hand us
the glossy page, that message we sent
to warn ourselves of what we might become"

What I have enjoyed most in this book is its author's gift of combining the various voices and directions with the tone of light, gentle erotic. Ward can be both historical and erotic, meditative and erotic, elegiac and erotic, playful and erotic, conversational, distinctly American and always erotic. An example: "Walking Down This Mountain". The delicacy and sensibility of Ward, as exemplified in this poem is a distinct joy to experience. Not many poets in Ward's generation find as much pure energy in Eros and such rich intensity of feeling:

Walking Down This Mountain

I'm coming home
a little crazier than the maples,
those maidens by the house gathering
their butterscotch skirts,
their arms generous
with the first October frosts.
I am dizzy as those trees
that dip and spin
in the light of the porch
like the girl
just back from the grange,
who danced, drank
the thick sugary punch
that made her tongue red leaf,
made it glow in his mouth--
the boy down the street, pulsing
with more fire than he began.

7. "Hard Bread" by Peg Boyers (University of Chicago, 2002)
The poems in Peg Boyers's Hard Bread are "spoken" in the imagined voice of the Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg. The book is filled with the details of Ginzburg's life in pre and post World War Two Europe, her literary and personal alliances with many literary "larger than life" figures of her time, her own experience of marriage and creativity. The dramatic persona of Ginzburg opens the territory of the imaginary life, exploring the sad and wonderful mysteries of self.

Boyer's project is wonderfully ambitions - to create one human voice--as wry, honest, and combative as Ginzburg's-and to speak of her time in the book of contemporary lyric poetry is a worthy, interesting, and, alas, an impossible undertaking. Many contemporary poets have recently tried to re-invent the glory of Frost's and Brownings dramatic monologue as a device of "breaking the bread with the dead" which W.H. Auden had relentlessly advised. In Boyer's work, however, the arguments with the self--the linguistic clashes, confrontations-open the internal drama of much larger proportions. The book which one first sees as wonderful fantasy, an "Imaginary Life", on a second glance proves to be a very, deep, laborious study of (for the lack of the better word) a human condition. For instance, in a brilliant poem "He Hates, He Loves," the voice of Natalia Ginsberg speaks:

My friend loves the poor, really loves
them: He eats with thieves and sleeps
with whores. He says they are "natural",
understand what is holy
and good in life.

My friend loves the bridges of Rome -
... Whatever is
fetid or fermenting he favors. The friction
of pants boiling in the sun, consumed by shade,

So the poem proceeds, skillfully using the repetition to portray the
narrator's obsession with her friend's complexities, until the eighth
stanza, where her own complexity begins to open to us, first slightly,
in her friend's many obsessions-

My friend fears his lover's wife, hates
pretending he loves her to keep his lover near.
When they meet he kisses her powdered cheeks.
This is his compromise, his cross.

....He hates the charade of romance, indulges
the perverse chastity of refused attachment.

The drama suggested earlier in the poem reveals itself in a powerful, striking end: "He hates and loves, loves and hates, / hates the loving, loves the hating. / He loves what I hate. I hate his loves. / He loves men. I love him." This conflict of the self, the controversy of feeling and being is deeply classical in its origin. Boyers, while speaking trough the voice of Italian Natalia Ginsberg, is also wonderfully alert to earlier poetic voices of Rome - Propertius and Catullas whose "He hates and loves" is beautifully re-played here.

"Hard Bread" is a tough book. The toughness is not imagined but clearly, laboriously lived through. What makes Boyers dramatic persona differ from many other contemporary dramatic monologues is that she offers us the strangest of combinations: a dramatic voice traditionally very close to Frost's "North Of Boson" combined, surprisingly, with what appears to be Marcel Proust's late 20th Century catalogue of tireless, deeply felt search and re-examination. Calmly, Ginzburg's voice begins the poem:

It was after our wedding I began
translating Proust. Each day I'd unfold
pages of the great foglio protocollo,
fill them with Italian equivalents.
The foolscap watermark, my emblem.
Each night, your corrections-honest,
harsh-set me back, pressed me forward.
The sixteen volumes a challenge
disguised as a present from a friend
with better French than mine.

But as the translation from French into Italian turns into our daily translation-aging-Ginsberg's voice admits, with what is perhaps a sense of regret:

...I never mastered
this craft: what I was after was the thing
itself, never the thing transformed.

But what is psychological here also becomes erotic-

...While you
were in Rome, relentless, subversive,
I pored over Swann and Odette, the idiocy
of passion. Instead I might have dwelt
on you, on our superior union, on the way
your wiry hair would scratch my neck
when you bent to kiss my breast.

Such erotic gesture on the speaker's part is gained and believable precisely because it is deeply "thought." In most contemporary poetry such blend of thought and erotic feeling is uncommonly rare. Many other wonderful poems in Boyer's collections, such as (my favorite), "Coat," (unfortunately too long to quote here in full) confirm my belief in this poet's gift-her ability to bring Natalia Ginzburg's voice of stoicism and intelligence into a body of language that insists on being memorable.



In Posse: Potentially, might be ...