Poetry often springs from pain. Pain is transformed into communion rather than alienation if the poet has the strength to consider pain a soul-journey rather than simply whining neurosis. In her new collection of poems, Oblique Prayers (New Directions: $12), Denise Levertov deals with the anguish of the possible destruction of the world, but she goes beyond horror to find deeply religious possibilities.
An awe so quiet
I don't know when it began.
to sing in me.
Levertov has the courage to renew faith in a dangerous time. Her mix of pagan, natural worship--she's wonderful with tree imagery--and Judeo-Christian symbols gives the writing an ardent mythic texture. In several poems, she stops herself too soon or relies on Zenlike, minimal description. Then the work thins. It's Levertov at her best we want, opening out, saying:
And then once more
all is eloquent . . . all
utters itself, blessedness
soaks the ground and its wintering seeds.
Philip Schultz, in Deep Within the Ravine (Viking: $14.95), writes of desire and memory, loss and depression with a fine dignity of language, an earthy integrity that gives human experience the weight it deserves. He says of a job he once had as a welfare clerk:
. . . Despair can't be tolerated
in such numbers & Gray's 'Anatomy' doesn't explain
how the human body breaks a hundred ways each day & still finds balance.
Schultz himself breaks in a hundred ways in these poems, but he does repair himself and opts to grapple with life rather than retreat. He's blessed with a guardian angel, Stein, who offers sound advice; he's also blessed with the ability to learn balanced wisdom from damage. "The Quality" is a redemptive final poem:
. . . I accept despair's
selfish fruit as the fermenting of wonder
that springs out of everything lost & dying . . .
Sonia Sanchez's book homegirls & handgrenadescq (Thunder's Mouth: $6.95, paperback) explores the pain of black experience. It's an uneven book, sometimes straining too hard to convince the reader of the beauty and sorrow Sanchez sees in lonely, alienated people. Sometimes she allows herself simply to tell what she sees, as in "After Saturday Night Comes Sunday," a prose piece about the treacheries of drug addiction; then, the writing works. She's adept at political poetry urging peace, not hate, and moving from personal feeling rather than from rhetoric. She writes:
I am here because I shall not give the
earth up to non-dreamers and earth molesters . . . my breath
must thunder across this land
arousing new breaths new life.
Her urgency to find new life in difficult circumstances is inspiring rather than embittering.
An interesting companion to Sanchez's book is Lyrics of Lowly Life by Paul Laurence Dunbar (Citadel: $4.95, paperback). Dunbar, born in 1872, was the son of former slaves. His poetry shows what was acceptable from a black poet in that time: imitative, overblown verse:
Flowers of charity, peace and devotion
Bloom in the hearts that are empty of strife . . .
or dialect poems that skim the surface of black lives. Occasionally, a harsher thread is woven into the book; "We Wear the Mask" is a poem of anguish. Dunbar's poetry is worth reading for the picture it offers of an era. "Lyrics of Lowly Life" brought him national recognition. Perhaps his acceptance helped allow future black voices to be heard more loudly.
Woman Who Has Sprouted Wings: Poems by Contemporary Latin American Women Poets, edited by Mary Crow (Latin American Review: about $8, paperback), offers poets who have seldom--or never--been translated into English. An insightful introduction by the editor addresses the difficulties female poets face in Latin American countries where woman's traditional role in the family and a general lack of education interfere with creative potential. The poets represented are all highly intelligent and perceptive. Their news to the world is news of repression and yearning, often conveyed in surreal imagery, offering a sense of dreamlike separation from vitality and power. Still, some poems break through strongly. In Ulalume Gonzalez De Leon's "Written Garden," a garden is remembered, imagined, and, as the poet writes, it becomes a new garden. These poets aren't interested only in the source of their struggles, but also in the source of their souls--frequently, the sources seem the same, moving them to work toward union with themselves and their countries. Claribel Alegria writes:
. . put everything to boil
over a slow fire
for five hundred years
and you'll see what a flavor it has!