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May 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

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Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than a thousand books of contemporary poetry. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a 10-year period.

This month, the series focuses on just two collections: works of such extraordinary merit that they require a longer-than-usual treatment. Next month the series will return to its usual format.

1. Threshold Songs, Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press, 2011). Historically, the sole rhetorical aim of the lyric has been the conveyance of an emotion. Often, the form of conveyance is the so-called "rhetorical" trope of metaphor: supposedly, using a substitutive function illuminates those characteristics of a thing which might not otherwise have been contemplated, and in this moment of illumination a poet's emotional payload is deployed. There are more than a few flies in the ointment, however: the average reader cares not a whit about the average poet's emotions (thus the odious and artificial "you" used when poets wish to write about themselves under a false veneer of extroverted attention); even those readers still capable of empathy and sympathy have long since been exposed to every variety of literary emotion, and are now inured to the emotive posturings of total strangers; those who care about, and can yet find surprise and delight in, the emotions of others no longer see the comparison of mountains and shoulders--or flowers and fingers, teapots and tanks--as being a particularly rhetorically effective way of more clearly seeing anything. The metaphor, in short, has lost its rhetorical force; one isn't called to attention by having one's attention distracted. Nor can metaphor's less flashy younger sibling, the non-metaphoric image, replace metaphor in appealing to the empathy and sympathy of readers. Contemporary readers see unsettling marvels all the time--nearly every day, in fact--so descriptions of sunlight don't really shake the foundations of human understanding in the way they once did. Hence, the decline of the traditional lyric, the rise of the so-called "contiguous" rhetorical function (metonymy), and the return of classical rhetoric--that form of intellectual persuasion that appeals to the heart by way of the head.

Peter Gizzi is a living Master, and his Threshold Songs revolutionizes the lyric. It does so by removing from that ancient art-form all its artifice, all its lovely incapacities, all its worn devices and smug self-assurance. If Gizzi is more adept at compelling the attention of readers than anyone else, if he's more capable of drawing out the emotions of strangers than anyone else--and he is, on both counts--it's because behind his poems, the poems of Threshold Songs in particular, is such a generous intelligence and receptive spirit that one must conclude this author has lived several more lifetimes than the rest of us. These are highly rhetorical lyric poems, by way of being deeply felt, compulsively ruminative, and thoroughly lived in poems. These are poems that are all-encompassing, by way of attending not merely to the state of their author but the far greater question of how any of us make our way without sloughing away everything that marks us as human. There is terrible loss in these poems, and while that loss has undoubtedly been the lived experience of the author it is also, and critically, our own terrible loss, our daily loss, of direction and belief and comfort and self-control and self-respect. If Threshold Songs is one of the most important books of lyric poetry of our times--and it is--and if it deserves, forthwith, the highest ephemeral honors our little society of scribblers can bestow--and it does--it is because Peter Gizzi more fully comprehends the rhetorical capacity of lyric poetry than any poet in several decades. Threshold Songs will, in fact, help you to wisdom; it will help you to empathy; it will help you to the quietness of the spirit in which poetry must be read, even when that poetry is brash or disjunctive or paratactic; and it will help you, finally--and it is not too much to say it--to do more than just survive, but to live.

2. Bender: New and Selected Poems, Dean Young (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). If it's true that Dean Young should already have been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize--and it is true; it's forcefully, even painfully true--it's not merely because his work is inimitable, despite inspiring an entire generation of younger poets who rightfully aim for just a fraction of his achievement; it's not merely because his work has been startlingly consistent in quality for a quarter of a century; it's also because Young's oeuvre may well be contemporary poetry's last best hope to reclaim cultural relevance while sacrificing not even an iota of its integrity.

Review proofs of Bender, Young's forthcoming New and Selected--it drops this September--not only contain no internal division by book (most single-poet anthologies are structured like historical records) but indeed no form of temporal division whatsoever: the collection's whopping one hundred sixty poems are listed alphabetically. Whether or not this organizational scheme is retained in the final edit, it's nevertheless incredibly telling. Young has concocted such an endlessly satisfying brew of humor, self-effacement, and sociocultural awareness that it holds together like the corpus of no other American poet. There is nothing Dean Young can't do in poetry, and nothing his readership won't gleefully let him get away with, because beneath the light surrealistic imagery, the wry asides, the impish wit, and the impeccable, propulsive rhythms of Young's poems beats the heart of a generationally-significant Human Being. Indeed, we need not merely say "Poet," though Young is certainly that, i.e. a consummate poet; he is also, however, a fully satisfying troubadour for this frenetic, gleeful, flashy, and sometimes soul-wearying Age. A single Dean Young poem implicitly encapsulates the life experience of at least two generations of younger Americans: nostalgic but intrepid; wonder-filled but self-deprecatingly sardonic; spry but war-wearied; demotic but profound; capacious but incapable (or, at other times, closed-off but capable). Young's work is heavy and light, soft and sharp, slow and quick, lagging and ready.

If Peter Gizzi redefines the lyric by charting a novel course toward its ancient aims, Young revitalizes the lyric by reminding us that Art must never be less explosive and majestic and joyous than Life, lest it not only be no temporary substitute for Life but also no fitting representation of (or challenge to) life's regularities and irregularities. Bender will make you laugh, reflect, and marvel at how the contrary impulses and instantiations of both Life and Art can so readily be distilled in the sensibilities of a single man, or--in the case of Bender--a single book.

Earlier Editions in the Series:

August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
March 2012
April 2012