THE BLOG
12/20/2016 05:59 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2017

A Chorus Of Poets, Differently Caroling

At a recent literary/gala reading in Los Angeles, I found myself cringing a bit as the renowned poet Rita Dove was introduced to the audience as a "national treasure". Certainly the word-choice was meant to be extravagantly laudatory, though inevitably accompanying the "national treasure" accolade, I knew, would be "lifetime achievement" awards (and also inevitably) a review reassuring readers that this poet-treasure was "not a poet of the past" - that she is, in fact, actually "read" by an au courant public!

The unacknowledged assumption inherent in all this courtly mean-well is unwittingly dismissive: that poets of a certain age are perhaps a bit past their "shelf date" relevancy. This assumption derives, naturally, from a "brand" sensibility, a product-mindset - from which poetry was fortunately exempt for a long time, mainly because it was not looked upon by our broad U.S. culture as "marketable". Poetry was not considered marketable because few people read in general and those who did read seemed less drawn to poetry of a "timeless" nature -- that is to say, poetry that is part of an enduring aesthetic. The idea of beauty that endures, emotional truth that endures, art that endures. This is what I mean here: a limitless dance of the imagination that opens the mind of the reader to the strange/familiar - and makes the voice of Sappho or John Keats or Robert Hayden sound as alive as that of any poet writing in this presentist Twitter milieu in which we momentarily live. (& yes, I think it's possible to write "twitter" poems, unless you are, of course, Donald Trump.)

Poets don't "retire" with their "achievement" trophies, they keep writing as long as inspiration drops by - because they must. They remain "young" in pursuit of beauty and truth, which is not a minor romantic whimsy. Poetry teaches the reader how to think deeply, how to feel deeply - how to wonder at the surrounding world and one's own life, close-up and at a distance. To see that a poem is alive and speaking to us, transforming consciousness and maybe reviving compassion - and all that just before lunch....

I believe we are living in a time when poetry matters more than ever - and how we live in language. And speaking of "time", I apologize for not stating at the outset, that Rita Dove's COLLECTED POEMS, 1974-2004 - has arrived. The volume is not a "lifetime" work - it is a collected ongoingness of a searching poetic consciousness, characterized by "American Smooth" (the title of one her many books represented here) - swirling vitality and variety. Then too (as a reviewer has said) she has "always refused to be confined by category".
This refusal to be confined has produced many books drawn from many sources of inspiration -- from The Yellow House on the Corner through (Pulitzer prize winner) Thomas & Beulah -- and on to Mother Love and On the Bus with Rosa Parks.

All of these poems manage to be instructive without being didactic, wearing a mantle of historical authority draped casually about many personae, many forms. From a poem called "Reverie in Open Air":
I acknowledge my status as a stranger/Inappropriate clothes, odd habits/out of sync with wasp and wren./ I admit I don't know how/To sit still or move without purpose./ I prefer books to moonlight, statuary to trees./But this lawn has been leveled for looking./So I kick off my sandals and walk/My feet are the primitives here./As for the rest -ah, the air now/Is a tonic of absence, bearing nothing/But news of a breeze.

The status of all poets is "as a stranger", odd habits and the breezy "news" caught occasionally in a lengthy level gaze like Rita Dove's. Forget the "lifetime achievement" awards - this is ongoing choreography imbued with life's contradictions. And the vision implausibly lifts off, (as in one of the poems in her 2004 collection, American Smooth) - the ballroom dancers twirling above the earth, (its history, myths and manners far behind)- dancing, as we all are, on nothing but air.

"Mind, mind, mind" is the leaping taunting warning refrain running through a startling poem about the origin and ascendance of the "little newborn god" Mercury/Hermes - the first poem in Robert Pinsky's new book, At the Foundling Hospital.

The poem celebrates the construction of consciousness, brainflesh "bundled inside a case/A little musical robot/Dreamed up by the mind." It also celebrates the uncontainable, transgressive, hermetic, poetic imagination, "stolen" and selective.

The poems in this collection push out the edge of the transgressive:"Bewildered, bewildering ape. Absinthe. Circumcision. Couplets/Grudges, beliefs. War of my childhood, Europe tearing at itself." Or as the title poem notes: "At the Foundling Hospital/For each abandoned/Baby a duly recorded token."

The obsessive thematic address, a roll-call of "naming" persons, places, things - is an ironic litany. Pinsky is less Adamic than obsessed with the futility of "identifying" ourselves -just ourselves as elegy: our disappearing.

So we are all "foundlings" - abandoned from birth, abandoned in death, memorialized only by "tokens" as evidence that we once lived our lives, lost in the generations, turning up as spindrift at yard sales and auctions.
In a blurb on the book's jacket, Louise Gluck pulls out all the stops and compares Pinsky to Shakespeare, "in his dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician's dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence". But this list sounds to me instead like the little god of imagination (also currency and the cross-roads) - the trickster, tinkerer, transgressor of "mind, mind". In these wild and beautifully-conceived and crafted poems, the guiding spirit is, to my mind, that of the random safe-cracker, not the good Bard, despite his eminence and lofty authority.

Molly Bendall's new book, Watchful, sparkles with sagesse, a "knowingness" of animal wisdom. At the same time, there is a current of unknowingness and mystery here that runs counter to intuitive "animal" knowledge - as the collection's epigraph has it : "something from which, as a human being (I) shall be forever excluded."
Bendall uses this sense of exclusivity as both a watchful removed "eye" in language - and a dazzling linguistic parody of the "human":
"There's still a self/like your self on a dusty hill around the world. Leaves evaporate kindly and don't trouble our alphabet game."
The negotiation for "likeness" builds to cartoon-ish horror - "My skipper stout,/my tank magnitude, my gray throb harpcase."
The Edenic "country" of the flocks and herds feels doomed yet resistant to this doom - "though the cry comes back: too late."
Keeping "nonhuman" animals in captivity or hunting them to extinction forms the indictment inherent in these startling, lyrically-codified lines. What seems hidden in these poems is, in fact, plain-writ as pure elegy: "Somehow I knew they'd suffer for me in their spread-out coats/and rough napes.." Or, "the entire/Pride blurring/ Across the rock face."
These are stunning haunted poems that demand our attention, then turn that attention into a gaze at what is being lost in "The Sixth Wave" - and climate crisis - the likely loss of sagesse, and cross-species wisdom, forever.

Elizabeth Metzger's forthcoming debut collection , The Spirit Papers, is a recent winner of the Juniper Prize, which honors "distinct fresh voices". Her voice is "distinct and fresh" - but also gently surreal, with an incantatory feel: the poems operate like spells.
The reader is invited into each poem-space, then asked to travel distances with no sense of direction or destination, caught up in the velocity of the poem's trajectory.
For example: "Desire is finally/the enemy of need, a city guarded/ by quicksilver soldiers, and you/ sailing your ill-timed head inside me./You watch me wake to see if I will/ shiver."

The book's epigraph from John Donne reads: "To go to heaven, we made heaven come to us." In the "cellar below heaven", an alternative mystically-real heaven is called up, by a small conflagration of the papers of "spirit". So "tiny zebras" and "goldfoil babies" appear pipe-dream gratuitous. Yet nothing here is gratuitous.

We find ourselves in a philosophical realm between life and death. "Because it ends/so soon, the world/insists it was made/to be permanent." Or - "Why would god make heaven/such a chore and/love an hourglass?"
Love's hourglass winnows time through its thinking curves. Above the basement of loss, hour by hour, the body is made and unmade in this first book by a young poet thinking a world into being, fulfilling the breadth of the imagination's ambitions.
The babies, zebras and horses are revealed to be conceits as crucial as John Donne's compass. And the power of the elegiac death-in-life moves itself, séance-like, into hidden history. Fear of open water, deep water, crossing water - fear of losing a mother, a lover and friend. Then beware: fear of the restored heart, a baby's birth, a daughter, a star - as birth becomes someone or something returned from death, sidereal.
These poems are unforgettable in their elegant reach past dissolution, their intimation that there is a better heaven to be made than a deity's, that there is a dream and the dream is this exquisite yet hard-faceted grieving initiatory poetry, first-responding against death.


"Lucky are they who sing without knowing the words, so la ti do/Whatever the blasphemy, whatever the praise." The architect of these graceful lines is the poet Phillis Levin in a poem from her new collection, Mr. Memory (& Other Poems).
If the sentiment here is ultimately ironic, it is also an exploration of how others (the "lucky") manage to rejoice without remembering - in insult or celebration. In our time of instant forgetfulness - this book's title is the flip-side of the oblivion coin.
"Mr. Memory" is a character in the Hitchcock film, 39 Steps - ("Am I right, sir?" ) a magician-mentalist-memory expert, who sets this book's tone of hyperthymesia or amnesia (remembering everything or nothing) - yet still singing along.

Levin enacts intense longing in these expansive meditative poems, and moves from the social to the metaphysical with enviable ease, in touch with the wonder of "being everywhere at once".
She says: "we stand undone by all/We recognize." Indeed, poetry is recognition, whether in dream or elegy. And "to recognize" - is to "re-know" what we have somehow encountered before -in dream or elegy - a shock of knowingness. But then, we see and remember selectively, the key to the door that opens on our lives.

The Greek philosopher Zeno shows up here, Levin channels his consciousness and addresses his recollections ("am I right, sir?) as the beauty and blasphemy of these remarkable poems keep us "standing undone."

Finally, here is a chapbook from Jeredith Merrin, winner of Grayson Books 2016 contest - Owling, a fierce meditation of wonder on the subject of owls and beyond -- each poem's heading the name of a different representative bird.

The poet informs her readers: "First thought, not best./Where else might this owl lead?"

The Great Snowy, the Spectacled, the Barn owl - Merrin leaps from the "platform" of each bird's perch, to comment on the human species, its manners and mythologies, along with her acute birder's eye to the great fliers.

The goddess Athena ("grey-eyed", "the wise"), to whom the owl is sacred -- is invoked and "leads" ("The Little Owl") and Merrin's own considerable powers of protean mutability deliver lines like these on The Flammulated Owl: "Ash-gray, mimicking bark/of Ponderosas, where it nests/with flame-shaped, rust-red markings" - then: "A log in the fireplace in childhood, remember?/Worlds within worlds, glimmering..."

And, as if in summary of this entire acutely-observed, brilliant avian guide, she sings: "O my grand, improbable passions. O yours." Indeed.
- Carol Muske-Dukes