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Elements of Style: Three Poets, Three New Books

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Style comes with maturity for most writers. Here is a poet at the unmistakable peak of her expressive power and experience -- Louise Gluck, with her new book, A Village Life. But here also is the late Jason Shinder, a poet who died not long ago, at a relatively young age -- yet, in his posthumous book, Stupid Hope, he speaks in a hard-earned voice of authority, one he hadn't found in earlier work. With the debut of What the Right Hand Knows, Tom Healy is the real surprise -- a first book poet who has a clear and urgent style, a straightforward ownership of his emphatically lyrical choices.

In A Village Life, Louise Gluck alters the stark oracular tone of her earlier books expanding her range to a capacious dramatic narrative (or series of dramatic monologues) that are closer to Spoon River Anthology than Sophocles. Her lines are longer than usual, her diction more relaxed -- yet the style is immediately recognizable.

"Beneath the silence, the sound of the sea,/the sea's violence spreading everywhere," she writes -- then we have the addition of an atypical Gluck phrasing, "not finished, not finished,/his breath driving the waves - ". Finally her voice restores the sense of the dominant style: "But she knows who she is and she knows what she wants./As long as that's true, something so natural can't hurt her."

These lines from the poem, "Marriage" -- are instructive re: Gluck's characteristic sense of the implicit vs. the explicit. What is implicit are her powers of observation, always keen and unrelenting (how silence and the sea are juxtaposed) -- but what she has made explicit is the choice to provide counterpoint to her own melody -- the insistence on anaphora ("not finished, not finished") -- seemingly working against the familiar austere yet powerful lyric.

I do not see this release into a less-compressed lyric as a dilution of Louise Gluck's compositional or imaginative powers -- the inhabitants of the Village are various in their observations and affections, their "surface" and hidden emotions and their sufferings -- but they are credible both in their variety and in their fleshing-out of a single timeless evocation.

"Nothing can be forced to live", as she says. But: "In the end, you do what the voice tells you." The characters in A Village Life do what the voice tells them.
"It says forget, you forget./It says begin again, you begin again." Louise Gluck begins again, unforgettably, in this profound new collection of poems.

The late Jason Shinder appointed four literary executors for the poem he left behind -- and the resultant volume, Stupid Hope, represents not only his own plan for a posthumous collection -- but also the editing skills and sensitivity of the four "overseers" (Sophie Cabot Black, Lucie Brock-Broido, Marie Howe and Tony Hoaglund) who managed the seemingly impossible task of living within Jason's sensibility and vision of what he foresaw as his poetic legacy.

I'd say that their cooperative editing represents a kind of "smart hope": they pooled their insights and selected the poems that built the book -- and the book, as I said earlier, has a clear-eyed and calm urgency -- the "speaker" is dying, but not giving up the world. In poem after poem, the reader detects sorrow and anger that the poet never allows to turn to despair -- the poems are often ironic, but never self-protective - their immense vulnerability gives them great dignity.

I close my eyes and try to remember the first purple
of the first iris of the first spring,

when I was unopposed, when I started to die,

buoyant, fragrant, shuddering with love.

It's as if he has just awakened from a light sleep in each poem -- then he is suddenly, eerily awake -- "...I was the lost piece of the moon rocket/that never fell to earth. I was faster than the eagle/on the back of the quarter I tossed into the bay."

This is Jason Shinder's last book, his best book -- the book in which he said exactly what he wanted to say -- with stupid and smart hope, with mature poetic insight, with the last breath of the betraying body: these near-perfect poems.

I said that Tom Healy's book, What the Right Hand Knows, was a surprise, meaning that it is unusual for a first book to show up in an unarguable style, all set. And these are poems about being off-beam, asymmetrical, off-balance in a deaf ear, the left and right hand at odds in their knowledge, the world tipped one way, then another.

From the near-cheerful merciless poems about childhood on a farm and the brutal lives of animals to big city glamour with new possibilities of flight from a flawed paradise -- there is the sharp edge of art, of poetry itself, keeping things in perspective -- keeping the eye focused on Giotto's perfect offhand circle as a cause for astonishment. That "O" of Giotto's is a center for the book, an open mouth, a refusal of silence, a child's mark in a chalk circle, the insistence on the self. And love beyond the self.

So poem after poem is a cause for astonishment. The self here is always questioned, yet comes off as infinitely resourceful and almost always generous, moving past its anxieties --"the task is to remember/the troubled blood of others." Or -- as in a meditation on "this world...the perfect hurt of how it turns." ("The View from Here")

If "Pindar said there'd be horses in heaven" then there is a post on a hell-ish earth for this pale perfect rider. Horses suffer from our vision of them, as all objects of our desire and exploitation. Tom Healy knows this -- there isn't a poem here that escapes this cast irony of the eye, of the body's longing.

If some poems seem stunned by what they know -- then What the Right Hand Knows will always remain a mystery. Like a wave from the beyond, like this first book, out of nowhere, cock-eyed and self-sure, hands-down remarkable.