By Katie Peterson
May 3, 2008
A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems
By Mary Jo Salter
Knopf, 222 pages, $26.95
'A Phone Call to the Future" combines selections from five earlier books and a generous helping of new works by Formalist poet Mary Jo Salter. Salter seems to know exactly what she's doing:
than the slalom
gives me a thrill:
that solemn, no-fuss
in skirting flag after flag
of the bloody obvious.
But contemporary poets who prefer to work in traditional forms are often our most skeptical and faithless. In her best moments, Salter is not just unsentimental but anti-sentimental about the possibilities of poetry and the always-partial satisfactions of life. The mother relinquishing "Somebody Else's Baby" winces under her own vivid self-reproach:
from now on when they cry and you say
wryly to their mother, 'better you than me,'
you'd better mean it, you'd better
hand over what you can't have, and graciously.
In the title poem the simplicity of Salter's voice registers with strange bluntness what the wiser future will remember about our foreshadowing of it: "Our worrying about robots." And in moments of fine understatement laced with regret and restraint, Salter veers into a regret no less prophetic for its urge toward understatement: "All of it was so quaint. And I was there./Poetry was there; we tried to write it."
"A Phone Call to the Future" juxtaposes Salter's most recent and more meditative poems with work from her first book, in which an early residence in Japan predicts a career-long metaphysical engagement with estrangement. It's worth picking up "A Phone Call to the Future" for the unruly and sad early series "Elegies for Etsuko," in which a friend's suicide leads the poems into depths only, apparently, accessible through a cunning and cutting lightness: "The phone's the lifeline of the lost hausfrau./But now what's at your ear? The angel's lyre?"
Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream
By Connie Voisine
University of Chicago Press, 59 pages, $14 paper
The University of Chicago's Phoenix Poets series offers a second book by New Mexico-based Maine native Connie Voisine. "Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream" brings together a number of long narrative poems about desire and longing that collage American landscapes, stories from medieval romance and moments of spiritual awakening. Voisine name-checks cultural moments, from Chandra Levy's disappearance to the onset of the AIDS epidemic. In one poem, the poet's on an airplane to Ireland while watching a surfing movie sitting next to a priest and thinking about the Magi. Voisine's voice aims at nothing short of aria when her subject is love:
Why not believe we couldn't trade
a garden for this inscrutable desert,
obedience for the infinite variety
Did god really think we wouldn't
step into desire, . . .
Her hunger for the evocative and the profound is unmistakable, but her work is more appealing when she lets things combine on their own, as in "Anonymous Lyric," where original lines of clipped intensity join riffs from the Bee Gees and troubadour verses.
Voisine's book will feel like real poetry to some and might seem like trying too hard to others, but there's something culturally apt about how hard it is to feel joy in the landscapes she finds herself wandering in, and how hard she tries to do so. American enlightenment rarely just happens upon an American, after all: We seem to have to attack even our most spiritual targets. As much novel and non-fiction as poetry, "Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream" hides many of its brightest moments in its shortest and simplest poems.
By Stuart Dischell
Penguin, 63 pages, $16 paper
In his fourth collection, "Backwards Days," Stuart Dischell walks the lonesome path of those ravaged by desire and none the wiser. Personal but minimal, the poems of the book land lightly in moments of sincerity only to nearly erase their sweetness with accusation and self-reproach. There's no halfway in Dischell's version of self-knowledge. The title poem of the book says it all:
My son's teacher holds backwards days in class
Where the students come to school in pajamas,
Eat dessert for breakfast, say good night
When they mean good morning. So it is
I say goodbye to you because I hate you
And find you ugly and every moment with you
Is boring to me.
And the only thing more disorienting than being out of love, it seems, is being in love. "Yesterday I fell in love eleven times" begins a sonnet (with one line strategically amputated) aptly titled "Lyric Poet Disease." You're not always sure you like the person living through the events of the book, who is often in a state of self-misunderstanding and is, in his quest for self-knowledge, more like the dumb fellow in a Socratic dialogue who keeps being wrong than like Socrates. But there's something to like about that. Dischell sees himself most clearly in states of palpable bewilderment where the momentum of the poem seems like a lump in the throat:
I dialed a friend who said, 'Go
Board your flight,' and I did
what he said and the things I said
I would not do, walked through
the airport to my plane.
The dance of "Backwards Days" is most memorable when the poet is stumbling. Some of the poems are clever, but they are never smug, and the raw endings of many of them sting well past the book's final page.
Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems
By Cornelius Eady
Marian Wood/Putnam, 204 pages, $25.95
For Cornelius Eady, poetic ambition is always combined with joy. On the first page of "Hardheaded Weather" he quotes Modernist maestro Ezra Pound, who famously said, "Make it new." But he also quotes James Brown, who must be just as famous in certain circles for saying, "Make it funky."
A founder of the Cave Canem collective to cultivate young writers of color and an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, Eady writes with a generosity that's determined to share an eager but never rushed show-and-tell about the world. From his earliest work he has taken a kind of holy fool posture toward the necessary recognition of the brutality of existence: "When the world ends,/I will be in a red dress./When the world ends,/I will be in a smoky bar/on Friday night." When Eady speaks of historical exclusion and resentment, his voice never loses its companionable touch:
I'm 36 years old,
a black, American poet.
Nearly all the things
that weren't supposed to occur
Have happened (anyway),
and I have
a natural inability
to sustain rage,
I have proof,
and a job that comes
As simple to me
Eady just seems to want to do everything that poetry can do—from his early portraits of black artists and musicians to his recent, looser narrative poems. He describes a battle with cancer with a humorous candor that never refuses anger. He comes back again and again to the image of the house, and the problems of settling in any one place. His concerns, likewise, return to the possibilities of continuing to inhabit life as an American, an African-American, and a person.
Reading Eady's poems you experience the true and earnest pleasure of enjoying the vulnerable music that can be provided only by poetry that puts a deep understanding of other people at its core. "Hardheaded Weather" includes selections from a new book, unpublished work and some of the finest poems of Eady's early career, including a swath of meditative prose work from the readable and heartbreaking "You Don't Miss Your Water," a book of elegies for the poet's father.
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