Emily Dickinson's "authentication" test for a poem was: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head was being taken off." I admit that I have not experienced that precise brain-bomb, but I have felt something close to it: a tingling shudder-on-the-skull reaction when encountering a remarkable poem.
I felt that "Dickinson Top Hat" buzz as I read poem after poem in "Money Money Money Water Water Water" by Jane Mead (Alice James Books: 128 pp., $16.95 paper).
"Eco-poetics," (a multi-disciplinary theory-nest rising from awareness of ecological issues and environmental science) informs the consciousness of several poets writing now. Their poems tend to "signal" this consciousness with altered syntax, experimental diction and marginalia. Mead relies minimally on "marginalia," with tough-minded pensées appearing on pages facing the poems.
Beyond that, her poems read as straightforwardly as Virgil's "Georgics," his unsurpassed "earth" poem, with its focus on agriculture and viticulture. Mead's "world" parallels Virgil's — even her own outcry against pollution has the timeless reverberating indictment of the farmer's unerring knowledge:
… by then the water
didn't belong to the salmon anymore, by then
the water didn't even belong to the river.
The water didn't belong to the water.
These poems don't rely on artifice to enhance their eloquence:
And there's the rattler-buzz
The mole imitates
In her panic, hands
blindly paddling the air
while Toby snaps her spine
four times, drop of blood...
in the sun-scorched vineyard...
Where is my lover's body now
if not in history, in sky,
In the scent of vinegar-grass
and the dry-smelling chaparral.
There's a poem called "Magna Carta" made up entirely of quotations from the original foundation document, which succeeds far beyond the stasis that vexes most "found" poems because its voice is the emergent voice of newly codified human liberties. I have not read, in a long time, a book of poems so unswervingly eloquent, so filled with sorrow and beauty, so powerfully connected to nature and advocacy for a dying earth as Jane Mead's new collection.
A direct line might be drawn from the late Maxine Kumin to Mead: both farmers, both practitioners of a hard-won craft on the page. Kumin was a profound presence in American poetry — she initiated an aesthetic that seemed uncomplicated but wasn't. She wrote in a voice that sounded simple and easy but wasn't.
In Kumin's new (and posthumous) book, "And Short the Season" (W.W. Norton: 112 pp., $24.95), speaking of the "dead flower of Indian Pipes," she eulogizes her "over-loved game mare." In burying the horse, she "digs deep through centuries" in the rock-hard yet receptive layers of earth. And her final valediction is a call for regeneration of the earth — and of poetry itself: "Begin again."
Kumin salutes William Carlos Williams in a poem – "his" (like her own) "unadorned and potent plain American speech." In "Book of Hours" (Alfred A. Knopf: 208 pp., $26.95), Kevin Young also employs the unadorned American idiom in an edgy book that abides both birth and death.
"Book of Hours" is a prayer book for the laity, a "daybook of grief." Young's tone is always pitch-perfect in these poems — he too speaks out in spare "uncomplicated" lyrical lines that gather dark portentous force:
It's a wonder the world
keeps its whirling —
How I've waited
without a word —
the sun's no longer —
But the stunned hours after a father's death turn to light as a child is conceived and born and Young's spare elegiac syllables become a swift upbeat rhythm track:
You are like hearing
Hip-hop for the first time — power
hijacked from a lamppost — all promise.
Finally, there is a landmark collection from J.D. McClatchy, "Plundered Hearts: New & Selected Poems" (Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $28.95). To read through these six books (plus new poems) is to be granted unique perspective on an essential poet's life work. With these poem selections, spanning three decades, the "plundered hearts" of the title open, in poem after poem, telling histories of the body, of touch.
McClatchy's elegantly musical style, an intimidating, boldly exquisite voice, inevitably calls up the shade of the late poet James Merrill, a familiar presence in McClatchy's life and poems. Yet encountering these poems again, one finds that Merrill, Auden and Baudelaire give way to the poet's own absolutely inimitable identity. He is by turns furious, tender, ingenious, caustic, high-wiring his brilliant and performative use of the demotic.
Nothing could be further from "plain style" restraint, however, yet the force of these words, the velocity at which they hit the page and re-make all that his imagination encounters is a wonder — Top Hat explosive and total eclipse of the plundered heart.
Muske-Dukes is an author, professor of English at USC, founder of the PhD program in literature and creative writing there and former poet laureate of California.