~ Excerpted from SELECTED POEMS, by Thom Gunn, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by the Estate of Thom Gunn. All rights reserved.
~ Excerpted from SELECTED POEMS, by Thom Gunn, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by the Estate of Thom Gunn. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from SESTETS, by Charles Wright, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Charles Wright. All rights reserved.
Poetry Chronicle Reviews by JOEL BROUWERPublished: April 24, 2009
WHAT GOES ON
Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009.
By Stephen Dunn.
The speaker of Dunn’s recent poems is a regular guy cursed with an understanding of human nature more subtle than he’d prefer. A poem like “The Unsaid” succeeds not only because it nails its depiction of a couple stalled by miscommunication and reproach — “In the bedroom they undressed and dressed / and got into bed. The silence was what fills / a tunnel after a locomotive passes through” — but because the poem’s very existence squares its pathos: the speaker understands the problem perfectly but still can’t solve it. A typical Dunn poem opens up a basic human trouble — a body souring with age, a marriage souring with regret, a believer souring with doubt — meditates on it with equal parts seriousness and good humor, and finally offers not quite consolation but acceptance, a sense of having gained some measure of dignity simply by looking life in the eye. As is true of every other poet who ever lived, what’s best about Dunn is also what’s worst: in his case, a plainspoken, curlicue-free lucidity (I actually want to say “wisdom,” but fear it makes Dunn sound square or folksy, faults he’s too sharp and wry to be accused of), which is a tonic in small doses but can cause numbness if consumed in quantity. “Please Understand” ends “I’ve never been able to tell / what’s worth more — what I want or what I have.” “What Men Want” ends “After the power to choose / a man wants the power to erase.” “Nature” ends, “Gray, then, was the only truth in the world.” I trust the poet’s every nuanced ambivalence but eventually find myself wishing — against my better instincts, and his — that he’d burn a house down or get baptized or anything else definitive and audacious.
By J. D. McClatchy.
Has your companion ever reported some wonderful thing you said in your sleep, like “snowflake operator” or “funky nectarine”? I regret to inform you that no matter how clever you may have thought your unconscious self, McClatchy probably has you beat: the first line of his “Poem Beginning With a Line Spoken, I Am Told, in My Sleep” — “The names of every place were once so cold” — is in iambic pentameter. Given McClatchy’s formal virtuosity, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he jots his grocery lists in terza rima, too. Such exquisiteness sometimes seems merely an end in itself, as in “Indonesia,” which cleverly compares, for 30 lines and no good reason, an epidermal rash to an archipelago. “The Seven Deadly Sins” possesses a relentless elegance of expression, but many of its ideas are banal (“Dogged voluptuaries usually make straight / For the very thing they over and over have had, / Then vomit up the greedily swallowed bait”), grandiloquent (“When Francis of Assisi ate, / Ashes were his only spice. / The condiments in plump Cockaigne / Disguise the taste to help explain / Why temperance is a sacrifice / The belly’s meant to palliate”) or nonsensical (“From alley to boardroom, in coffee cup or coffer, / Not to accumulate but to count, to compare, / Brings down both the beggar and the millionaire”). McClatchy is most engaging when he’s got a story to tell instead of an idea to fuss with. “Trees, Walking” is a powerful and wonderfully strange account of the speaker’s relationship with his father (among many other things), and “Sorrow in 1944,” a sonnet sequence imagining how life might have turned out for the son of Madama Butterfly, represents the collection’s most focused and indispensable moment.
ONE SECRET THING
By Sharon Olds.
Admirers of Olds’s poems will find more of them in this, her ninth collection. Olds selects intense moments from her family romance — usually ones involving violence or sexuality or both — and then stretches them in opposite directions, rendering them in such obsessive detail that they seem utterly unique to her personal experience, while at the same time using metaphor to insist on their universality. The speaker of “Home Theater, 1955” spends the poem’s first nine lines — a full quarter of its total length — describing the skimpy animal-themed bedclothes she wore as a child, then tells the story of a night her father became so violent her sister had to call for police officers, one of whom the speaker remembers glancing at her bare legs. In its final lines, the poem switches in a blink from autobiography to myth: “Soon after our father had struck himself down, / there had risen up these bachelors / beside the sink and stove, and the tiny / mastodons, and bison, and elk, the / beasts on my front and back, began, / atonal, as if around an early fire, to chant.” It’s a nifty move, but a pretty familiar one — Olds has been making it for almost 30 years — and in this book it’s too often too easy to see the epiphanies coming. When in the first lines of “Animal Dress” the poet’s daughter puts on her mother’s black sweater “with maroon creatures / knitted in,” you can tell you’re in for another Joseph Campbell moment in the poem’s final lines, and sure enough.
By Charles Wright.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.
Wright’s poems don’t bear down toward conclusions, they expand and evanesce as if in a valiant, impossible effort to comprehend and demonstrate Wittgenstein’s dictum that “the world is all that is the case.” Wright’s new collection of short poems is less a book unto itself than the next installment in a continuous poem he’s been writing for 40-odd years. “Description is expiation, / and not a place to hunker down in,” he writes. “It is a coming to terms with. / Or coming to terms without. / As though whatever we had to say could keep it real. / As though our words were flies, / and the dead meat kept reappearing.” These accounts of language as simultaneously a fond illusion and our only hope for a stable place to stake a claim on reality pose the problem Wright wisely resists pretending poetry can solve. Instead, he revels and finds a freedom in it: “Water remains immortal — / Poems can’t defile it, / the heron, immobile on one leg, / Stands in it, snipe stitch it, and heaven pillows its breast.” Trouble can arise when Wright’s open-endedness leads him to believe that any idea, no matter how ungainly or hackneyed, deserves a place in the poem, as in “Music for Midsummer’s Eve”: “Time is an untuned harmonium / That Muzaks our nights and days. / Sometimes it lasts for a little while, / sometimes it goes on forever.” I can swallow “Muzaks” with some effort, but those last two lines wouldn’t pass muster at Hallmark. Fortunately, few such clunkers disrupt Wright’s complex and contrary harmonies.Joel Brouwer’s books of poems are “Exactly What Happened,” “Centuries” and, most recently, “And So.” He teaches at the University of Alabama.
Excerpted from SPEAK LOW, by Carl Phillips, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Carl Phillips. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from ETERNAL ENEMIES, by Adam Zagajewski, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Adam Zagajewski. All rights reserved.
by Joshua Beckman
In Colorado, In Oregon, upon
each beloved fork, a birthday is celebrated.
I miss each and every one of my friends.
I believe in getting something for nothing.
Push the chair, and what I can tell you
with almost complete certainty
is that the chair won't mind.
And beyond hope,
I expect it is like this everywhere.
Music soothing people.
Change rolling under tables.
The immaculate cutoff so that we may continue.
A particular pair of trees waking up against the window.
This partnership of mind, and always now
in want of forgiveness. That forgiveness be
the domain of the individual,
like music or personal investment.
Great forward-thinking people brought us
the newspaper, and look what we have done.
It is time for forgiveness. Dear ones,
unmistakable quality will soon be upon us.
Don't wait for anything else.
~ From the Academy of American Poets
In Knowledge of Young Boys
by Toi Derricotte
i knew you before you had a mother,
when you were newtlike, swimming,
a horrible brain in water.
i knew you when your connections
belonged only to yourself,
when you had no history
to hook on to,
when you had no sustenance of metal
when you had no boat to travel
when you stayed in the same
place, treading the question;
i knew you when you were all
eyes and a cocktail,
blank as the sky of a mind,
a root, neither ground nor placental;
red with the cut nor astonished
by pain, one terrible eye
open in the center of your head
to night, turning, and the stars
blinked like a cat. we swam
in the last trickle of champagne
before we knew breastmilk—we
shared the night of the closet,
closing on our thumbprint,
we were smudged in a yellow book.
son, we were oak without
mouth, uncut, we were
brave before memory.
~ From the Academy of American Poetry
~ Excerpted from ETERNAL ENEMIES, by Adam Zagajewksi, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Adam Zagajewski. All rights reserved.
~ From SLEEPING IT OFF IN RAPID CITY, by August Kleinzahler, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by August Kleinzahler. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from FIDELITY, by Grace Paley, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by the estate of Grace Paley. All rights reserved.
The Luxury of Hesitation [excerpt from The Proof from Motion]
by Keith Waldrop
burn in hell forever
set the glass
eyes vs sunlight
towards the unfamiliar and
against the discerning light
frightful indeed, the sound of
I would like to be
W. S. Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize for poetry on Monday for “The Shadow of Sirius,” a collection that the Pulitzer board described in its citation as “luminous” and “often tender” — and that Merwin called a happy accident.
“It’s always assumed that you’ve planned everything in advance and that it all fell into place,” Merwin said, speaking by telephone from his home in Haiku, Hawaii. “If people are honest, very few gardens are exactly the way they were planned, if they were ever planned. They evolve, just like children grow up.” (And no, he said, the name of his current home does not refer to the three-lined metered Japanese poetry form, but means “break” and “straight up” in Hawaiian.)
He said that he always looked to be taken by surprise — “surprise that it happens at all and surprise that it works and that it’s complete.” After writing several new poems, he continued, “I suddenly think there are quite a few poems and I want to see if they have any relation to each other and begin to see what order they might be in and see if they really come to a collection. I wouldn’t make any rules about how it happens any more than you can do about what makes a birdsong complete or anything else.”
“The Shadow of Sirius” was written without punctuation and in free verse, and its poems are among the most autobiographical of his career. They touch on themes of memory, wisdom and childhood.
“In the time when the conventions were much more obvious and abstract — the sonnet or the heroic couplet — it was pretty clear when something was complete,” Merwin said. “But it’s not so clear now. I don’t have any kind of religious principles about whether things should be rhymed, metered or free verse. A poem takes its own form and all of those things are good.”
Merwin described the collection as having a first section about childhood and remembering childhood, “not from a distance, but from inside.” The middle section is a collection of elegies to dogs, and the final section is about later life.
In a review, Publishers Weekly praised the volume — Merwin’s 21st, according to his publisher, Copper Canyon Press — as his “best book in a decade.”Merwin said he continued to be taken by surprise by poems. “I have one written in my notebook,” he said. “I haven’t even typed it up yet. Maybe that’s a surprise waiting for me.”
~ Excerpted from WARHORSES, by Yusef Komunyakaa, published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC in October 2008. Copyright © 2008 by Yusef Komunyakaa. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from SPEAK LOW, by Carl Phillips, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Carl Phillips. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from AVERNO, by Louise Gluck, published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2007 by Louise Gluck. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from SAME LIFE, by Maureen N. McLane, published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Maureen N. McLane. All rights reserved.
by Rachel Contreni Flynn
If light pours like water
into the kitchen where I sway
with my tired children,
if the rug beneath us
is woven with tough flowers,
and the yellow bowl on the table
rests with the sweet heft
of fruit, the sun-warmed plums,
if my body curves over the babies,
and if I am singing,
then loneliness has lost its shape,
and this quiet is only quiet.
An Excuse For Not Returning the Visit of a Friend
by Mei-Yao Ch'en
translated by Kenneth Rexroth
Do not be offended because
I am slow to go out. You know
Me too well for that. On my lap
I hold my little girl. At my
Knees stands my handsome little son.
One has just begun to talk.
The other chatters without
Stopping. They hang on my clothes
And follow my every step.
I can't get any farther
Than the door. I am afraid
I will never make it to your house.
Go read the whole article.
The Spiritual Autobiography of Allen Ginsberg
By Allen GinsbergThe Shambhala Sun presents this exclusive auto-biographical account from the late poet and cultural icon Allen Ginsberg, narrating his spiritual journey from Blake to the Buddha.
We’ll begin at the beginning, because what I’d like to do is trace what spiritual inklings I had that led to interest in Tibetan Buddhism and guru relationship.
I was in love with a high school fellow who went off to Columbia College when he graduated a half-term before me in Central High School in Patterson, New Jersey. So I decided to go to Columbia College instead of Montclair State Teachers College, where all of my family had gone. Out of some kind of devotion I broke away from the traditional pattern of my family but I didn’t have money, so I had to take a scholarship entrance exam. On the ferry between Hoboken and New York I got down on my knees and made a vow that if I were admitted to Columbia, I would do everything I could to save mankind. It was a naive bodhisattva’s vow out of fear of not getting into Columbia.
Around the time I got into school, I ran into William Burroughs and Lucian Carr and Jack Kerouac. We became friends. Our conversation between 1945 and 1948 was recollections of our own childhood inklings, including the big question, “How big was the universe?” I think Kerouac and I had a sense of panoramic awareness of the vastness of space. So the question, how big was the “unborn,” arose. Or, how vast was the space we were in, and what was the mystery of the universe?
That led to a lot of conversations and inquiries with marijuana and wandering around the city considering the look of the buildings and the appearance of the facades of Times Square, particularly. Times Square seen as a stage set with a facade that could vanish at any second. That impression of the apparent material of the universe as “real,” but at the same time “unreal” in some way or other, either because we were high, or because time would dissolve the “seen,” or maybe some trick of the eyeball reveals the “facade” as empty.
So we began talking about what in 1945 we called a New Consciousness, or a New Vision. As most young people probably do, at the age of fifteen to nineteen, whether it’s punk or bohemia or grunge or whatever new vision adolescents have, there is always some kind of striving for understanding and transformation of the universe, according to one’s own subjective, poetic, generational inspiration.
That led to an exploration of the otherwise rejected world of junkies around Times Square and the underworld. The world of drugs—which had a slight effect in transforming consciousness or altering moods and was presumed to be a kind of artistic specimen trial—I found quite harmless and useful as an educational experience, though some of my contemporaries did get hung up, like Burroughs—although the main problem seemed to be alcohol more than any other.
In 1948 I Had some kind of break in the normal modality of my consciousness. While alone living a relatively solitary vegetarian contemplative life, reading St. John of the Cross, Plotinus some, notions of “alone with the Alone,” or “one hand clapping,” or The Cloud of Unknowing, or Plato’s Phaedrus, and William Blake, I had what was, for me, an extraordinary break in the normal nature of my thought when something opened up.
I had finished masturbating, actually, on the sixth floor of a Harlem tenement on 121st Street looking out at the roofs while reading Blake, back and forth, and suddenly had a kind of auditory hallucination, hearing Blake—what I thought was his voice, a very deep, earthen tone, not very far from my own mature tone of voice, so perhaps a projection of my own latent physiology—reciting a poem called “Sunflower,” which I thought expressed some kind of universal longing for union with some infinite nature. The poem goes:
Ah, Sun-flower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded within snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
I can’t interpret it exactly now, but the impression that I had at the time was of some infinite yearning for the infinite, finally realized, and I looked out the window and began to notice the extraordinary detail of intelligent labor that had gone into the making of the rooftop cornices of the Harlem buildings. I suddenly realized that the world was, in a sense, not dead matter but an increment or deposit of living intelligence and action and activity that finally took form—the Italian laborers of 1890 and 1910, making very fine copper work and roofcomb ornament as you find along the older tenement apartment buildings.
As I looked at the sky, I wondered what kind of intelligence had made that vastness, or what was the nature of the intelligence that I was glimpsing, and felt a sense of vastness and of coming home to space I hadn’t realized was there before but which seemed old and infinite, like the Ancient of Days, so to speak. But I had no training in anything but Western notions and didn’t know how to find a vocabulary for the experience. So I thought I had seen “God” or “Light” or some Western notion of a theistic center, or that was the impression at the time.
That got me into lots of trouble, because I tried to explain it to people and nobody could figure out what I was saying. They thought I was nuts, and in a way, I was. Having no background and no preparation, I didn’t know how to ground the experience in any way that either could prolong it or put it in its place, and certainly didn’t know any teachers whom I could have consulted at Columbia University at the time, although D.T. Suzuki was there.
My first experience with Blake was quite heavenly, but the second experience, about a week later, was just the opposite. At the Columbia bookstore looking around and thinking about this and that, suddenly a sense of sea change of my consciousness overtook me again, and I got scared because everyone in the bookstore looked like some sort of wounded, neurotic, pained animal with the “marks of weakness and marks of woe” on their faces that Blake speaks of in “London.”
A night later, wandering around the Columbia campus, it happened again with a poem called “The Sick Rose,” which goes:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
And I had a sense of the black sky coming down to eat me.