Sunday, December 30, 2007

New York Times: Poetry Chronicle

The New York Times reviews some new books of poetry.

By Kate Northrop.
(Braziller/Persea, paper, $14.)

Northrop’s poems recall early photographs where the shutter was left open until the scene had burned itself onto the paper. Her images acquire definition word by carefully weighed word. But what Northrop is most often recording, as the title of her second book suggests, is disappearance. A shoreline “hovers between two worlds, like prayer, / or longing, / between the darkness of land / and the darkness of water. It is other / then either.” It’s easy to misread that “then” as “than” — and entirely appropriate in this poem of blurring distinctions. Even when Northrop’s landscapes are sharp, her people, as in those early photographs, are ghosts. Caught between the past and the present, they’re forever half out of their element, like the tenant surveying an apartment for the last time: “you in the door / who looking back now — over the hallway, the shine / of the relentless floor — / can no longer be sure / you are the person indeed who had that body / and lived days in it there.” A few poems seem to have come out of the chemical bath too soon; the relationships among their various elements remain hazy. But even her most elliptical lines have a deliberateness that encourages trust and invites rereading.

By David Trinidad.
(Turtle Point, paper, $16.95.)

“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” Philip Larkin said, and kitsch is for Trinidad what deprivation was for Larkin — muse, source of ironic consolation, lens through which all experience passes. Reading “The Late Show,” his 14th collection, is like watching 12 hours of 1960s network TV, including the commercials, in the company of a very smart, very gossipy friend. “The Barbie and Ken Little Theatre ... haunted / my waking hours,” he writes in the autobiographical 35-page “Poem Under the Influence.” “Tortured gay boy on the verge / of puberty. How could he be anything but gaga over the magnificently detailed costumes / Mattel designed for this sturdy, easy-to-assemble structure.” The consolation may be doubly ironic in Trinidad’s case, because so many of the experiences in his book have passed through one lens already, a camera’s. His version of the American nature poem is called “Nature Poem” and composed entirely of film titles: “Till the Clouds Roll By / A Patch of Blue / How Green Was My Valley / Splendor in the Grass.” He adapts other traditional poetic modes and forms for the big screen — there’s a Natalie Wood ballad and a Bette Davis pantoum. Trinidad’s style is casual and chatty, but not formally slack. An anecdotal elegy for James Schuyler turns out to be a line-for-line imitation of Schuyler’s own “Wystan Auden.” This technical rigor allows Trinidad to be garrulous and unguarded without seeming self-indulgent. But his most impressive gift is an ability to dignifiy the dross of American life, to honor both the shrink-wrapped sentiment of the cultural artifacts he writes about and his own much more complicated emotional response to them. In the moving prose poem “Classic Layer Cakes,” a tribute to his dead mother, he evokes her tenderness and tenacity with lovingly described “dishes full of mixed nuts and pastel pillow mints, and candied almonds wrapped in tulle and tied with curling ribbon.”

33 Poems.
By W. G. Sebald.
(New Directions, paper, $15.95.)

In one of his first books, a triptych of narrative poems called “After Nature,” Sebald imagined the final days of the 18th-century naturalist Georg Steller: He “sees his death, how it is mirrored / in the field-surgeon’s monocle.” Sebald, the German novelist who died in 2001, created a vast and complex art. Because of the keenness of his vision, all his essential themes — transience, witness, perception of one’s self in another — often appear in brief passages, the way one skin cell contains an entire genetic identity. Sebald again experimented with compression in a series of “micropoems” he wrote in the last years of his life. He sent them to the visual artist Jan Peter Tripp, who paired them with his own striking lithographs to create the collaborative volume “Unrecounted.” Each of the 33 poems (ably translated by Michael Hamburger, who died in June), presents a single image, idea, impression or memory in a few spare, centered lines. On the opposing page, pairs of eyes, mostly those of painters or writers — Rembrandt, Proust, Jasper Johns, Truman Capote — appear in a horizontal panel. Because the poems and lithographs are printed parallel to the spine, like a wall calendar, the eyes stare out at the reader over the top of the words. Removed from this context, or from the literary context created by Sebald’s history-haunted novels, some of the poems might seem merely enigmatic or even trivial: “Terrible / is the thought / of our worn- / out clothes” acquires its power under the harrowing gaze of André Masson. Others are harrowing in their own right: “They say / that Napoleon / was colour-blind / & blood for him / as green as / grass.” A few poems achieve the same relationship to Sebald’s larger body of work that eyes have to a body — essential fragments, fragmentary essences: “Like a dog / Cézanne says / that’s how a painter / must see, the eye / fixed & almost / averted.”

By Cathy Song.
(University of Pittsburgh, paper, $14.)

The poems in Song’s fifth collection are full of gratitude for unlikely gifts: the wreckage of a man’s ambitions, because it lets him begin again; an elderly mother succumbing to dementia, because it allows her children to see her in relation to something other than themselves. “My mother’s last gift / was to slow dying down / until we could catch up.” Named for a T’ai Chi movement, “Cloud Moving Hands” is informed by Buddhist teachings and preoccupied with suffering — as itself and as an opportunity for change. “In proportion to what is taken / what is given multiplies,” she repeats in “The Man Moves Earth,” about a couple who might be coping with the death of a child. It’s one of several effective short poems with irregular refrains. Indeed, Song is at her best when her poems are most — pun unavoidable — songlike, or when she’s imagining other lives. In her first-person poems, the language is often prosaic and imprecise. Sentences expend their syntactic energy quickly and are left to wind down like music boxes: “In the hard flat light beyond strip malls, / we sealed ourselves in your apartment, / intact as a memory of singing past bedtime, / our voices sweet as the guitar you strummed, / fading out, as if you read my mind, / to go it alone.”

By Paul Guest.
(University of Nebraska, paper, $17.95.)

To Guest, digression “has always seemed the heart’s core.” It is also his method. The appealingly conversational poems in his second collection often start out here and end up over there, although most cover about the same amount of ground (30 to 40 lines) and stick to the same thematic territory. It’s a book concerned with imagined futures and closed doors, with the lives we might be living if we weren’t living this one. “That boy in the snowy late light / midnight TV gives the skin, blue then / dark then blue, is me,” he writes. “Before long he’ll sleep. / He’ll rehearse another / life. All night long I wait and I watch. / One by one I write down / what he dreams.” Guest knows how way leads on to way — how digressive life itself can be. As a boy, he pointed “a borrowed bike downhill” and broke his neck. A sense of fragility and contingency seems to hover over all his poems — “the way certain memories intrude / upon whole days, voiding / the certain beauty of one magnolia / after another.” That sly repetition of “certain” reveals both the chasm between two of its meanings and the futility of taking anything other than the past for granted. Certain beauty is no match for certain memories.