01/23/2012 05:28 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Poetry Review: Maureen McLane's "World Enough"

The critic writing a book of poetry faces peculiar challenges. Can she silence her internal censor enough to produce breakthrough work? Can she both savor and sever her allegiances as the need dictates?

In other words, the professional critic is simultaneously anchored and thrusting against the anchor. Precisely such acrimonious tensions are visible in Maureen McLane's second poetry collection, World Enough (Farrar Straus, 160 pages).

British romanticism is McLane's particular interest as a critic. She has written Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species (2006) and Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry (2008)--both with Cambridge University Press.

We can't avoid looking at her work through this prism.

Let it be said that her first book, Same Life (2008), sounded a more original note, with poems that struck a whimsical note, yet were rooted in an optimistic cosmopolitanism rare in poetry these days.

One thinks of "Letter from Paris," "MAYAKOVSKY at High Table," and "Excursion Susan Sontag" as particularly intellectual poems that gave the reader great credit for her own intelligence. Same Life was a resounding debut, even better in retrospect than it seemed then.

McLane seems to have become more hesitant in World Enough.

The tentativeness seems to be part of a design to project a certain world-weariness--perhaps McLane felt Same Life was not dark or pessimistic enough?

In "Passage I," she writes: "I thought I had all the time / and world enough to discover what I should."

But the intelligent poet always presumes this, and presumes this rightly. This unreality is what liberates the poet to imagine companionship with the great minds of the past and present. Only a poet in late life should perhaps let go of the presumption of "world enough."

In "L.A.," "the children of the Pacific / the Sikh black-beturbaned / and perhaps scimitared / & other faces shining Spanish and indigene" betoken a melting pot, naïve and postdated, that excites nonetheless.

But McLane soon gives way to repetition, incantation, and fragmentation, creating an aura of gloominess, while the ghosts of Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Robert Bly hover over her to issue conflicting instructions about the deep image.

The following stanza in "Songs of a Season II" is entirely representative of the book:

sun in the cedars
the moon in the pines
the day breaks itself clear
(sun in the cedars)
of the moon in the pines
and everyone sees again how it ends
the sun in the cedars
the moon in the pines

There is something of Coleridge at his bleakest in this book.

In "Saratoga August" McLane writes: "I am not worried / about my brain / today or TV or the latest war / in the Caucasus. / Creepy philosophers / isolatos in huts / articulate a theory / of care." This long poem, like "Spring Daybook," ("sonic drift / a day's heft / not so difficult to lift / when not bereft") announces an abbreviated emotional panoply, a constriction of choices we didn't see in Small Life.

In "Poussin," she resists, in "tufts / of historical lust," letting Poussin's plenitude speak for itself. A beautiful line, but saturated by envy for the presumed fullness of Poussin's time.

Sometimes, she hits you over the head with that frustration, as in "Au Revoir": "Autobiography cannot anymore be spiritual / and the obviously sexual dimensions / of experience laid out before all."

Intimacy seems to want to be boxed in. Consider "Contact," which is supposed to be about sex: "frail / blue against the militant / grass that does cover all / in the residential / precinct of the / New England town."

The same distance from contentment, intellectual this time, appears in "Anthropology": "O the language game uh uh. I played / the lion, saw that I won, sd / hello."

"Meditation/Central Park" concludes: "The labor / theory of value reveals / itself an artifact / of 19th C. thought perfected / like the nation-state / like the realist novel / some of us still live in."

If we ever fully come out of the realist novel we've been inhabiting all throughout the modern era, we may hardly be human anymore.

This is highly intellectual poetry, accessible yet unpredictable, eccentric yet conversational, quite at odds with the vast amount of pseudo-confessional and epiphany-narrative poems out there, and it refuses to bend to fashion.

In "Passages III," McLane refutes, yet again, false emotion: "an earthquake / in China / means / precisely what / to me / wondered Adam Smith-- / the world disappearing / the instant my tooth aches."

Civilization wears a terrific veneer. Compassion is one of its most fruitful guises. It wants intellect to bend down to collective endeavor. The romantics wanted to let loose the repressed wellsprings of emotion.

Empathy and escapism--how to reconcile the two, how to balance them, while retaining one's unique individuality? The poems in World Enough struggle again and again with this question.

We might say the extreme lightness and extreme brightness of Romanticism are warring in McLane's poetry. Might we expect a synthesis next? Her next one will be an intriguing book to look forward to.

Anis Shivani has just finished a novel, Karachi Raj. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (May 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).