Fred Pollack's new book of poetry, A Poverty of Words, is a brilliant cavalcade of images, action and observation. An often unsettling trip, with unforgettable characters and landscapes, it takes the measure of our current world and finds it wanting.
In 1998, after two book-length narrative poems -- The Adventure and Happiness -- Pollack, an adjunct professor of Creative Writing at George Washington University, turned to a hybrid lyric-narrative form. Since that time, he has produced over a thousand poems, of which 92 are in this book.
Pollack's vision is modern but grounded in tradition. Neither mainstream nor postmodernist, he describes himself as a "Beat classicist" and jokes that he's "redoing Stevens along Marxist lines." But while beauty may be momentary in the mind, Pollack's rich images and startling situations stay with us for the long haul. Each poem takes us somewhere very different from where we started.
The title doesn't derive from Marx Poverty of Philosophy, which contained the outline of Kapital. Though his commitments are Left, Pollack is never tendentious or overtly ideological. His persona resembles that of the Buddha in his "Hello Again": "flexible -- more so than any number / of later theorists he meets / in the dining hall or rec room."
We encounter politicians and their shadows in "Trickle Down," "The Moving Walkway is Ending," "White House Talks" and "Waiting for Romney." But in true progressive spirit, just as interesting are the people, the commoners and uncommoners who brood and wander through these poems. We hear the voices of neighbors, workers, the aged, the bourgeoisie, and those left behind by money and power. In this sense Pollack is truly Marxian.
His work is about confrontation. Not only the rich and the poor face off, but the old and the young, history and modernity, intellectuals and bigots , our conventional views of the world and the world we desire. The conflicts may not get resolved, but they throw a fresh light on our own views.
Poems of the past, as in "Tristia" (a narrative about the exiled poet Ovid); projections of ecological disaster; and many configurations of the present are distilled into a cautionary, humane vision of where we might go as a species. "One could say peace is achieved / in this noise, and justice in the midst / of basic crime," Pollack tells us in "In Case of Emergency." "However, / to say that one would have to dream, / and dreams require sleep."
But Fred Pollack is not about sleeping. He's already working on new harsh and exquisite explorations of the human condition. His work is an invitation to join him in this fresh view of where we have been and where we might be going.