The Promised Folly
TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press: 82 pp., $14.95
With the resurrection of the poet-critic (poets whose literary criticism operates outside the realm of the ideological), there is also renewed interest in resetting critical sights. What does Poetry look like -- what landmarks materialize in the mists of 2003? Some recently published books serve as reference points in the landscape. Three of Mark Strand's masterful collections ("The Late Hour," "The Story of Our Lives" and "The Monument") came back into print; David Lehman's "The Evening Sun" recorded a poet's life in epigrammatic "journal" style. In another part of the forest grow Jorie Graham's disjunctive meditations, Frederick Seidel's brash nihilism, Susan Wheeler's continued experimentations in tone and diction.
There are collections, just published, that carry on conversations with "reference points." Judith Hall's new book, "The Promised Folly," owes much to Wheeler's literary intuitions and omni-referential music. Yet the book has its own sophistication and style. Literary references and echoes are embedded everywhere in her dramas that, for all their quivering energy, possess an oddly desultory tone. One hopes to avoid the over-used Lacanian "p-word" (the smarmy "playful") in describing her work, yet many of these poems vogue and pose.
Still there are absolutely riveting flows of language. From "The Et Tu Etudes" : "And you and I had a history, when history / Was fellow feelings falling into place, and war. / You knew conspirators agreed on the hour. / My habits were figured and refigured / As trophies of intellect: Logic rationing / The rage they evidently purified together. / In them, I saw myself years ago, / So alive with enemies. Enemies, / The vivid monuments I visited alone."
These are difficult, rich poems (including a poem-for-voices inspired by "Measure for Measure" with dialogue among and beyond the characters of the dark Shakespearean play, with Marilyn Monroe and JFK) -- and they maintain a lively interest in rhetoric and the uses of rhetoric in America's self-reflexive fictions.
Zoo Press: 78 pp., $14.95
I've always been intrigued by Terese Svoboda's work. Like David Lehman, she can write an epigrammatic line, a terse and startling utterance. Her poems are quick, impious monologues: "I am going through my mother's rings / in the morning light, each gem a planet / stopped on course, especially / the opal, a dinner ring of a size / she could hide behind. But she'll not be / found anymore, I think, tagging the ring."
The reader feels invited into Svoboda's world at the same time as she feels barred, sometimes, from the emotion that generates the poem. Svoboda agilely balances somewhere between: ironical, tough-minded, refusing the "treason" of our sad human trafficking in love.
in the 21st Century
Where Lyric Meets Language
Edited by Claudia Rankin
and Juliana Spahr
Wesleyan Poetry /
Wesleyan University Press:
400 pp., $24.95 paper
The subtitle of this critical anthology sounds a trifle disingenuous: Where lyric meets language? Still, the editors have done a remarkable job in contextualizing what they see as a new "movement" in poetry, the intersection of "language" poetry and the traditional lyric. Much to their credit, they include the responses of the poets themselves to critical essays on their work.
Thus we have Luci Brock-Broido speaking out: "After I had been the recipient of a particularly thrashing review, Charles Wright, in a letter of solidarity and sympathy, wrote to me regarding LANGUAGE Poetry. He wrote: 'What have we been doing all this time anyway, Barking?' "
Or we have Jorie Graham, beginning her contributor's essay: "I'm not sure a definition of 'poetics' is useful, or even possible, for a poet." The editors are successful at weaving poems, critical response and the authors' statements into a fascinating and provocative creative manifesto.