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POETS’ CORNER

American Smooth

Rita Dove

W.W. Norton: 144 pp., $22.95

According to Rita Dove’s informal glossary, “American Smooth” is a reference to a type of ballroom dancing derived from traditional “standard” dances like the waltz or the tango in which partners are “released” to dance freely. In this collection -- which relies on a kindred art to “choreograph” its expression -- we find poems proceeding in stately cadence, then sliding into fox trot, cha-cha, mambo, rumba.

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One, two -- no, five doves

scatter before a wingtip’s

distracted tread.

What is being foregrounded by this nimble-footed choreography? Dance itself, the idea of dance -- but also dance’s negotiation between what is perceived and enacted both within and against tradition. Dance becomes a metaphor for change, though it appears to confine itself to careful “steps.” Beneath the surface of these breezy, unself-conscious poems, there are startling “improvisations”:

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The difference between a moan and a hallelujah

ain’t much of a slide.

Dove has always been concerned with questions of history, race and culture. These poems are no exception. Hattie McDaniel (the first African American performer to win an Academy Award), the famous (segregated) 369th African American regiment in World War I and a meditation on the American justice system brush shoulders with lighthearted ripples like “Samba Summer”:

That skirt’s too yellow

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and far too tight

for any Christian child.

Other poems about war’s terrors and a family’s drive through a minefield emphasize the importance of sure-footedness combined with right-mindedness.

You didn’t want us when we left but we went.

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You didn’t want us coming back but here we are

stepping right up white-faced Fifth Avenue in a phalanx.

This is a stunning book by our Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet laureate. It seems American to “re-make” oneself as an artist, but Rita Dove manages it gracefully, effortlessly, with “American Smooth.”

*

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Western Art

Debora Greger

Penguin: 106 pp., $18 paper

This is a startling book, quietly ambitious. Here is a mind that transforms everything, touching brilliantly on the enormity and subtlety of landscape -- from America to Europe -- without losing its sense of captivating detail.

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It is exhilarating to step in and out of the paintings, the portraiture and sculptures of “Western Art” with Debra Greger as docent. On Rembrandt’s self-portraits:

... How he liked to dress up:

a helmet like a chamber pot, with matching gorget.

Or this description of “Artist Unknown”:

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Men on one side, women on the other:

portrait miniatures faced one another

as if for an evening of dancing before a little war --

the way we’d been arranged in grade school.

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Greger’s sense of humor is infectious: from a wry portrait of archery lessons for young ladies at Whitman College, “a small college on the Oregon Trail,” to a proposal of marriage:

“We have to get married,” I said,

which stopped you cold in the aisle

of the antique store. What was the rush?

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We’d been together twenty-five years.

“Western Art” is a brilliant book, far-ranging yet perfectly self-contained.

Another book I’d like to mention is “Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1800-1950,” edited by Melissa Kwasny (Wesleyan University Press: 358 pp., $24.95 paper), a collection of essays and other prose statements by 35 poetry giants including Wordsworth, Baudelaire and Gertrude Stein.

Kwasny has done a real literary public service by bringing all these voices together in one book. Her introduction and slant are clearly Objectivist and relentlessly extol the “exploratory field” as the goal of all poetry. It’s possible to take the stage directions for what they’re worth and simply read these words (or most of them) with delight and recognition.

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