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Life Raft Poetry : BECOMING LIGHT: Poems, New and Selected, <i> By Erica Jong (HarperCollins: $25; 378 pp.)</i>

<i> Reynolds is a regular contributor to Book Review</i>

Way way back in her novel “Fear of Flying,” which now seems as long ago as a bedtime story, Erica Jong looked at the pantheon of women writers and artists--Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Georgia O’Keeffe--and asked herself: “Where was the female Chaucer? One lusty lady who had juice and joy and love and talent too?” A fine question, a fine niche to fill; and Jong set about filling it, writing about sex and self-hatred and choosing between which taboos to break and which to cling to for a little longer. And she didn’t just write about juice and joy and love and dripping messy things, she seemed to roll around in them, like a mud wrestler run amok. “Even then,” she has written proudly, “I was a pedantic pornographer.”

That was in 1973. In 1991, in her preface to a new collection of poetry, “Becoming Light,” Jong seems surprised to find that when she stands up, some of this stuff sticks to her. Somewhere along the line she became trapped in the zipless persona. “But that never meant I bought the package,” she writes. “On the contrary, it was my poetry that kept me sane, that kept me whole, that kept me alive.” While one half writes fiction that lives up to and surpasses the bawdiness of Chaucer, the true self writes poetry, is literary, and doesn’t talk about zippers.

For a woman whose fax paper bears the heading A ZIPLESS FAX, Jong doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to shake the doppelganger of Erica “Z.F.” Jong. More important, many of the poems here, especially the newest ones, are, quite frankly, zipless poems, written in a mud-wrestler vernacular. You can’t please everyone, the literati and the gliterati, and it still seems that as a woman you can’t have everything, and that’s why Thelma and Louise drove off the cliff. As Jong said to herself in earlier days, “If you were female and talented, life was a trap no matter which way you turned . . . you could never escape your femaleness.”

This new collection of poetry is a portrait of almost three decades. Some of the poems are from the author’s teens and 20s, previously unpublished; there is a new group of recent poems, and the rest come from her five published volumes of poetry. The collections are dated but the individual poems are not. It’s an “autobiography in verse,” and the author hopes that it’s the “reader’s autobiography as well as the writer’s.”

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In his introduction to “The Best American Poetry 1991,” Mark Strand mentions two uses of poetry: one very earthly, very practical poetry “we depend on in moments of crisis”; the other, more ethereal and timeless, evokes something “beyond meaning.” The first use I like to call Life Raft Poetry, in honor of Alice Walker, who said in a recent interview that poetry was her life raft. It’s clearly life-raft poetry that Jong writes. As she says in her preface, her poetry keeps her “sane . . . whole . . . and alive.” But it doesn’t transport, there’s no “beyondness.” Life rafts also tend to be very personally designed--the first thing that comes to hand when the boat goes down--and while someone else’s might work for you, in general writers of life-raft poetry write their own autobiographies, and not necessarily the reader’s.

So, life-raft poetry doesn’t help the reader or the writer to escape, it just keeps the writer, and sometimes the reader, afloat, and that’s one of the problems for Erica Jong. Back in “Fear of Flying,” in a really cheesy hotel in Paris, after a really cheesy relationship has ended, Jong says to herself: “I knew I did not want to be trapped in my own book.” This sense of being trapped, of not being able to escape herself, echoes through the poems, from 1966 to 1991, as in “The Prisoner”: “The cage of myself clamps shut / My words turn the lock.” And from a new poem, “To a Transatlantic Mirror”: “Sick of the self, / the self-seducing self . . . / self--the prison. / Love--the answer and the door.” Or as Sylvia Plath put it in one of her last poems: “Is there no way out of the mind?”

Whether or not Jong is trapped in some persona she can’t shake, the voice of the poet is more vulnerable, less brazen and more believable than that of the fiction writer. One poem in particular, “Flying You Home,” is the story in verse of how Jong flew her insane first husband home to California. While this scene appears in “Fear of Flying” and the details all are the same, the writer’s voice is the tough-talking, lusty, detached E.Z.F.J. In the poem, the voice is that of a young wife, scared, sad, confused. She writes: “You stick. Somewhere in a cellar / of my mind, / you stick. Fruit spoke to you/ before it spoke to me.”

The early poems, from 1966 to 1971, seem less suffocating, less similar in style and theme, richer, more full of detail and interesting similes. For example, in “Still Life with Tulips,” she writes: “Because you did, I too arrange flowers,/ Watching the pistils just like insolent tongues.” In “Eveningsong at Bellosguardo” there is even a glimmer of “beyondness” in the last line: “We know the blood is brutal though it sings.”

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So, the bad news is that Jong did not accomplish two of the things she set out to achieve in the preface: shedding her media image, and writing the reader’s autobiography as well as her own. Her verse is a good strong life raft, but it cannot take her out of herself, and so it does not transport the reader either. Robert Lowell once wrote about Sylvia Plath’s poetry: “Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination.” This is why Plath can do both: transport and ground. On the other hand, Erica Jong seems to be having a hell of a lot of fun, riding the tremulous sine curve of her life, and Sylvia Plath was swallowed by it.


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