Since we got on the poetry train yesterday, why not ride it through to the end of the month? For today, it crossed my mind to post some old reviews written by yours truly. Most of them were first published in the Harvard Review and after that were republished in Start to Figure: Fugitive Essays, Selected Reviews (Palimpsest Press, 2020).


Curiously enough, the first book to be found below was just today discussed in The New York Times in a video titled “4 Books To Make You Fall In Love With Poetry.”


Where Shall I Wander by John Ashbery, Ecco Press, 2005.


“The lot of the long-lived artist in this country is hazardous.” Thus Whitney Balliett began a consideration of Duke Ellington in 1963, although he could have been discussing John Ashbery of late. Such staying power as Ashbery’s presents, among other problems, that of volume; when a poet is as prolific as Peyps, Proust, or Oates, readers can hardly keep up. This leads to the hazard of few people having read what they nevertheless have an opinion about. The new book of poems really is just more Ashbery, after all. Because of his prolixity, but also because of his difficulty, Ashbery not only endures hazards but also inflicts them on his readers. This relationship between poet and reader has always been a close one, however vexed. From the reader’s side you can see it in the work of such critics as Harold Bloom, Marjorie Perloff, John Shoptaw, and Helen Vendler; in the poems of most postmodern poets worth their salt; and in the intensely Oedipal remarks, spurred by cheap white wine, of young writers and readers made after poetry readings, some of which are probably going on as we speak. From Ashbery’s side, the closeness of the relationship is obvious, largely because Ashbery in his poems, Whitmanic as ever, is the reader. He irritates, then aggravates, then consoles the reader, imagines the eyes of the reader as daily amanuensis, and, as he himself is so often taken for granted, so too does he take the reader for granted.

All the familiar aspects of “typical Ashbery” appear in Where Shall I Wander. One finds an inconsistency in pronouns, an intermixture of loose verse and prose, a deployment of rudimentary form for ironic effect (“It’s really quite a thrill / when the moon rises above the hill”), and reported and found speech, including high-toned allusions and everyday junk. There are also features that were always in the poems but now occur more frequently: deliberately recherché vocabulary, shaggy dog stories, mock joviality. The poems even look familiar, except for “Hölderlin Marginalia,” which from a distance, seeing only the title, could be confused with a Susan Howe poem.

The soothing breeziness, however, is cut by a sharp poignancy. (One poem, titled “Novelty Love Trot,” ends: “I must get back to my elegy.”) It is a duality one sees in the relation of title to poem, of line to line; it is also one that takes structural form, as poems that begin as a melange of apparent nonsense end in a Romantic mode. “O Fortuna,” for instance, begins in pretend exclamatory excess (“Good luck! Best wishes! The best of luck! / The very best! Godspeed! God bless you! / Peace be with you! / May your shadow never be less!”) and closes with a couple of over-arching “all”s that bracket a distancing double-simile: “All hell didn’t break loose, it was like a rising psalm / materializing like snow on an unseen mountain. / All that was underfoot was good, but lost.” Elsewhere, in “Lost Footage,” Ashbery ends again with “all” before reporting a literal vision that is also mythological and ekphrastic: “All was silent except the pedals / of the loom, from which a tapestry streams / in bits and pieces. ‘I don’t care how you do it.’ // I can see the subject: an eagle with Ganymede / in his razor-clam claws, against a sky / of mottled sun and storm clouds. // From that, much vexation.”

In many of the poems (as in these lines), “a tapestry streams in bits and pieces.” Indeed, the form that dominates the spirit of the volume is arguably the cento, a patchwork poem made up of the scraps of other authors. The potential “authors” here are numerous and widely defined, potentially including anyone who ever said anything, and include Ashbery himself, using himself: “our pleated longevity mimics us.” And how is he used today, by his readers? Is it we who are being addressed at the end of “The Snow-Stained Petals Aren’t Pretty Anymore”? That prose poem, one of several in the volume, closes thus: “No one had paid attention. Such, my friends, is the reward of study and laborious attempts to communicate with the dead. In the end it all falls to pieces.”

Ashbery’s recent poems cause consternation in some of his readers. These poems can seem especially incoherent and necessarily tossed-off. (“Let’s drink to that, / and the tenacity of just seeming.”) Yet they are and they aren’t. A patchwork is finally coherent in a tossed-off way. And Ashbery, who gathered and assembled the scraps in the present case, can count—of course, as always—among his astonishing virtues: a gargantuan vocabulary deftly employed, a knowledge of and talent for a wide array of forms, a witty and generous nature, a wide-ranging and well-exercised capacity for critical judgement, a fine mind, a painter’s eye, a singer’s ear, and the ability to write amazing sentences of all sorts within the hard-to-see confines of loosey-goosey stanzas, most of them, ultimately, with some good, old-fashioned meaning attached or attachable. Rich as ever, as ever worth our attention—just more Ashbery, after all, and thank goodness.


The Children of Children Keep Coming: An Epic Griotsong by Russell L. Goings, Simon and Schuster, 2009.


If the epic, to paraphrase Pound, is a poem that includes history, then such a poem might also include the recent history of the epic. The masterpieces of Modernism trail behind them a train of poetic and political vexations; postmodern aesthetics put epics of ostensible progress through the ringer, deconstructing a hoped-for coherence of fragments into knowing piles of pastiche; critiques of master narratives arose as an era’s own counter-epics, meant through theory to supplant those of art; and the inevitable end-of-history that spelled the necessary end of the epic never quite materialized. Into this arena of upheavals, disavowals, and reversals enters Russell L. Goings with The Children of Children Keep Coming: An Epic Griotsong.

Because the song and the epic occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of poetic scale, the book’s subtitle situates The Children of Children at a place of formal irony, forcing a rich frisson. At the levels of tone and temperament, however, irony yields to the celebratory—of heroes who ended slavery, who fought for civil rights, and who took seriously America’s democratic ideals. The invocation of the griot, a West African bard and storyteller who is equal parts prophet, singer, and teacher, suggests both the book’s pedagogical intent and its goals of cultural preservation and warning: “We channel impatience into creativity, / Where the beginning of an aesthetic is modest. / We blend the silence that / Death brings to the next moment with / Toms, drums, sticks, racks, / High-hats, rhythm, meter.” Goings’s list—and lists do much of this volume’s work—links black American music and verse to its African origins. The notion of a “modest” aesthetic in an epic context is a challenge to expectations, and not just in terms of genre. The challenge is spiritual and political, recalling the forbearance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the quiet fortitude of Rosa Parks, the latter of whom is the book’s central, yet humble, hero among many heroes.

The challenge of The Children of Children is also historical, for it urges the reader to attend to beginnings. In one of many moments of lyric ventriloquism, Goings has Prudence Crandall, a Connecticut Quaker who in the 1830’s fell afoul of the law for educating African-American girls, speak to her students: “It’s a time to encourage beginners, / Beginners I teach.” This Whitmanian locution points to one of the book’s major influences. Goings not only values Whitman’s creative commitment to democracy, but like Whitman moves from the wide-frame of abstraction—“One nation, one people, one well, / One balanced scale of / Liberty, opportunity, equality”—to the intimacy of the close-up: “The gift to appreciate the inchworm[.]” Other poetic predecessors include Langston Hughes, whose translation of the blues onto the page is a touchstone, and Margaret Walker, whose use of folk mythology in her under-read For My People sat easily alongside the literary conventions of realism in a lyrical mode.

The characters Goings invents—Banjo Pete, Buddy Boy, Calli, Evalina, Running Boy, Maudell Sleet—are a manifestation of his claim that “We must create myths. / Myths fill the space between true and false.” They are not characters in a novelistic sense, for though they have distinct characteristics, much of what they say blends together, creating a choral effect. The most crucial chorus in the book is the eponymous “children of children” themselves. Their voice is often introduced by a beautiful plain-style refrain: “Under sun high and moon low, / The children of children rise to sing.” Such refrains as these that pepper the book point to Goings’s assertion of the existence of two kinds of time. On the one hand, there is temporal (and social) progression, which is evident in the movement from Part One—“Taking the Train to Freedom,” where the reader travels through the days of slavery to emancipation and the end of the Civil War—to Part Two, “Jubilee,” which carries the reader through the Civil Rights era. (A third part, “Celebration of Survival,” serves as a summary coda.) On the other hand, any given moment in time contains both the moments that precede it and those that might follow. Thus, even in sections that chronologically place us in the presence of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or Colonel Shaw commanding the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the voices of those who led the charge for change in the 1950s and 60s are heard.

“Power lives / In real and imaginary giants,” writes Goings, but there is a counter-power in the venality of the “crows” who flap and caw their way through the book. They represent the a-temporality of evil, as well as the two kinds of time; for though they are named for the Jim Crow policies that arose during Reconstruction, they both precede and persist after the days when such policies were legally in place. Their methods can be subtle—they are “experts in ambiguous phrases.” More often they are brutal, as in a passage that radically tempers the jubilation that follows the end of the war (“Murders increase, / Shallow, unmarked graves grow, / Horror settles[.]”), or one that charges Mississippi crows with the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Less life-denying tropes threaded throughout include grass and lawns, respective figures for common humanity and a tended-to democracy, for natural rights and a stable place of rest. Also important are rivers and trains, which suggest the necessity of movement in avoiding danger, while pointing toward the goal of political and spiritual transport.

These latter two tropes come to formal fruition in the flow of The Children of Children, where verbal momentum is prodigious; you never step into the same poem twice, yet it is always of a moving piece. A similar correspondence occurs in Goings’s turn around the figure of “notes.” Whereas Wallace Stevens once wrote that money is a kind of poetry, for Goings, music is a kind of money. In the extensive glossary, itself an educational raison d’être for the book, among the broad but brisk biographical and historical sketches is an entry for “promissory notes”: “An effective palliative used to seduce Black citizens’ behavior and expectations by promising all those emancipated forty acres and a mule.” This offer of compromised assistance was rescinded by a vindictive Andrew Johnson, but in Goings’s poem, such deep disappointment and raw neglect yields positive resistance and artistic returns: “We ain’t gonna / Carry no more broken / Promissory notes / We gonna cash notes, / Half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, / Full notes, black and white notes.” The giants of jazz are praised throughout, with such greats as Charlie “Bird” Parker flying higher and singing sweeter than the croaking crows who are heavy with hate.

If The Children of Children is a virtual hagiography of secular saints—of Abolitionists and Civil Rights leaders, soldiers and scholars, athletes and artists—it is also a capacious compendium of cultural forms. The African-American church is heard in its modes of prayer and exhortation, the latter especially evident in the insistence of anaphora; the “worried lines” of the blues embody repetition with a difference and prove the power of the black vernacular; and the pre-history of hip-hop can be heard not only in the frequency of rhyme, but also through the open-ended, Scheherazadean, on-and-on-to-the-break-of-dawn flow that shows something of what rap was long before being fitted into the formal constraints of the four-minute song. (Indeed, in representing the sound of drums, or of the character Nexus’s “tattered white pants, / Splattered with red mud, flap[ping] / In rhythm with his anxiety,” Goings emphasizes this link with an onomatopoeic pun: “Rap-rap-rap-pat-rap.”) Lyrics from a host of songs are sampled and sometimes refigured—“Down by the Riverside,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and “Strange Fruit” among them.

Like Romare Bearden, whose striking drawings taken from the author’s personal collection illustrate the book, Goings turns the range, both troubled and triumphant, of African-American lives to aesthetic advantage. As a review of a recent Bearden exhibition put it, by “[w]orking and reworking his motifs and materials in ways at once extravagant and economic, Bearden synthesized not only his own visual and lived experience but also great chunks of 20th-century art and the cultures that fed it.” This first book by the almost eighty-year old Goings does much the same in the realm of words. Here is singing on a scale that transcends small-minded notions of time, yet down enough to earth to speak to a wide-ranging readership. The Children of Children Keep Coming is not merely a poem that includes history, but is importantly one that derives from and extends it.


Cultural Studies by Kevin A. González, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009.


It is a paradox of language that as a word gains more traction, its meaning grows more slippery. The word “culture” is just such a case: laid on too thick or spread too thin, it morphs from airy abstraction into battering ram and back in the blink of an eye. In his volume of poems called Cultural Studies, Kevin González uses the word in its adjectival form in title after title: “Cultural Stud,” “Cultural slu*t,” “Cultural Sellout,” “Cultural Spar,” “Cultural Strumpet,” “Cultural Scheme,” “Cultural Shock,” “Cultural Schmooze,” “Cultural Soliloquy,” “Cultural Scope.” The result is both a comic critique of a repetition compulsion and an ambivalent admission of the term’s loose utility.

A native of Puerto Rico, González shows us how foundational that island and its culture are to him and his poems, as he reminisces about his youth (in one poem he movingly apostrophizes “Youth” itself) and tells stories about returning home after sojourns in Pittsburgh, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The poems prove that being peripatetic does not preclude being anchored: “Always, there has been a backpack / strapped to your heart, & asking Where are you from? / has not been unlike asking, What is this poem about?”

In addition to the many place names and the occasional easy shifting from English to Spanish, there is a sense of movement in the way González switches between the first and second person. Though the book begins with “I,” it is “you” that predominates, as if some detachment is necessary to understand oneself in a life marked by dislocations. This grammatical device draws the reader into González’s well-told stories, since we can’t help but hear ourselves addressed (“Hey, you!”). To the poet’s credit, he gives us over half the book to figure this out for ourselves, after which he admits to being self-conscious about hiding behind the deflecting pronoun: “it’s Halloween, & you’re disguised / in the second person”; “All I really want / is to be You for another twenty seconds / & maybe pull this off.”

As these lines suggest, there is an underlying sense here that poetry is an elaborate form of lying, a con that one “pulls off ” by being “disguised,” or by overemphasizing the “cultural” because it is a hot poetic commodity. This comes through not only in subtle hints from the poet’s father (who, himself capable of dissimulation, appears in several poems where he is wary of being represented), but also in the remarks of a fellow poet, who tells González “to be thankful / because at least you have a shtick.” But the poet is so determined to reveal his methods—just another part of the con?—that he lets us in time and again to the institutional context of his craft: “Back when I still believed in God / is not a good way to start a poem / & perhaps that is why Iowa passed / & you wound up in an MFA Program / full of vegetarians who say / your poems are all about sex or poets / or having sex with poets / or not getting into Iowa.” Although we know that hardly any young poet gets published these days without the workshop imprimatur, it is annoying to have the facts pushed in our faces, as if the poet is pulling back a curtain or breaking a spell. The annoyance passes when one realizes that this is actually a starker form of realism than is usually encountered in books of poems, risky in its resistance to our fantasies of the untutored poet. (No worries, though, González got into Iowa after all.)

By the end of Cultural Studies, the “I” and the “you” at last share the page with a “Kevin A. González.” In between these formal poems (matched elsewhere in the volume by two strong sestinas) is a suite of free verse couplets, impressionistic responses to three fights by the Puerto Rican legend Félix Trinidad, a ferocious boxer who won belts in three weight classes. The poet thus enters an august tradition, for the connection between pugilism and poetry goes back to Homer and has never since stopped yielding verse. Having read that González attended at least one of the eponymous fights in person (“The Night Tito Trinidad KO’ed Ricardo Mayorga”), this fight fan wished at first for a more ringside, sports-writerly approach. But the rightness of his response must be conceded. Ring Magazine and YouTube clips can convey the facts of the fight just fine. But only González can convey what Felix Trinidad might mean to a fellow native son: “Our culture is a pair of Adidas / dangling from telephone lines // & a small child reaching up, / fists gripping air, // arms brief and contained / like the two o’s of colony.”


Hoops by Major Jackson, W.W. Norton, 2006.


The title of this impressive, enjoyable, readable book, Major Jackson’s second, refers to the hotly contested games of basketball on the asphalt courts of the author’s native North Philadelphia. After a prologue poem of well-paced three- and four-beat lines, in which Jackson and a friend, “off from a double at McDonald’s,” are stuck up at gunpoint while trying, despite “schoolboy jitters,” to buy cocaine, we enter the macadam rectangle, a multi-ringed circus of which the game is only the central part. Around the edges of the chain-link fence, nicknamed figures throw craps and drink malt liquor to the soundtrack of a Boogie Down Productions tape pumping out of a boom box. On the court itself, urban art is being made: “At gate’s entrance, my gaze / follows Radar & his half-co*cked // jump shot. All morning I sang / hymns yet weighed his form: / his flashing the lane, quick / stop to become sky-born.” The casual ballad stanzas of the title poem point to Jackson’s greatest strength, which is his ability to marry without anxiety the traditional forms of the English poetic tradition with the poetic vernacular and the human concerns of an urban, Black population.

Jackson, of course, is not exactly a representative member of that population—he’s a published and polished poet, after all; and no matter what population you’re from, to be a poet is to be an odd man out. But this simply reinforces another meaning in the collection’s title, namely, that American upward mobility, especially for a Black man, involves jumping through multiple hoops. The process is not necessarily hateful, although it can be dangerous, and not only psychologically. That the title poem is dedicated to Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount guard who once led the nation in scoring and rebounding but died of heart failure on the court during his conference tournament, suggests that even the most successful of the upwardly mobile are guaranteed nothing.

The poetic instinct was there early on in this author, if the poem “Metaphor” is any indication. Jackson recalls watching a thunderstorm with a cousin, the two trying to outdo each other in figurative invention. The eventual poet ultimately takes the prize, “likening the meteoric openings / to glowing keyholes into / an alien world,” thereby describing not only electrical gashes but also the “openings” made by metaphor. Here is DuBois’s famed “double-consciousness” oriented toward the particularities of the poet and operating at the most organic level.

But nobody rises alone and in this book Jackson pays homage to those who have buoyed him. In “Urban Renewal,” a multi-part poem that constitutes the second part of this three-part book, Jackson honours in deft pentameter a man who showed him how to work in and beautify the world: “The backyard garden wall is mossy green / and flakes a craggy mound of chips. Nearby / my grandfather kneels between a row of beans / and stabs his shears into earth. I squint an eye, / —a comma grows at his feet.” From close to the ground we rise (with hitches). Later on in the poem Jackson remembers the Kelly family of Philly, whose daughter Grace as actress and princess became a model of genteel beauty. But powerful locals could sniff out Irish blood: “No amount of Monacan / crowns or Hitchco*ck thrillers could propel the Kellys / up the Main Line. What W.A.S.P. would sign?” Jackson’s own grandfather, meanwhile, “points at the skyline’s glory / he once scaffolded,” reminiscing, “‘We gave the city light with those towers.’” Presumably, the Main-Liners refrained, if not from complaints about Irish bricklayers and black construction workers, then from complaints about the light they provided.

“You might say,” writes Jackson, that “my whole life led / to celebrating youth and how it snubs and rebuffs.” And about two-thirds of the way through this book, one begins to wish for writing not so exclusively retrospective, something adult. The poet seems to have shared this wish, for the volume’s final section is a masterful and multi-part epistolary poem to Gwendolyn Brooks. Although it is gently retrospective in being elegiac, its orientation is more toward the present, toward Jackson himself as a practicing poet, husband, father, and man. In 176 stanzas, a flexible rime royal, we are taken to places all over the world—vacations, writing retreats, academic conferences, family gatherings—without ever leaving the head of a man represented to us in a conversational prosody that is one of the best contemporary examples of the multi-tiered tradition of Wordsworth, Auden, Whitman, Frost, and black vernacular poets. It has been some time since I have read such a successful poem of our time. “What age granted these lines material good? / Can the epistolary form contain our hoods?” The answer to the former is an ambivalent ours; the answer to the latter is a definite yes. Jackson’s poem is the proof.


Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Sara Miles, Copper Canyon Press, 2007.

New and Collected Poems, 1964–2006 by Ishmael Reed, Carroll & Graf, 2007.


Directed by Desire is a handsome book, as one expects from Copper Canyon and as the late June Jordan deserves. Jordan, who died in 2002 after a life of creative and political activism, “went for human commonality,” writes Adrienne Rich in the introduction, “without denying our cruel separations.” From 1969’s Who Look At Me, a long poem responding to images of African-Americans, to the fifty-one late poems collected here for the first time, among which one finds a glancing elegy to Princess Diana, a scathing reproach to Eminem, and a preference for sailing to chemotherapy, Jordan displays without fail her major strengths.

Those strengths—a propulsive way with the line and an emotional stance of intensity—are employed to wide-ranging effect. They can appear in sharp bursts as she remarks on aesthetics: “I have rejected propaganda teaching me / about the beautiful / the truly rare // the truly rare can stay out there.” Or the rhythms can expand and the intensity turn mystic in a mode reminiscent of parable: “I was happy to think of the burial place and I asked my father to / tell me a word for my first dream / He held me on his lap as he gave me the word for my dream / Cemetery was what he whispered in my ear.” Or they can be used to pacifist purpose in revising one of America’s poetic chestnuts: “Something there is that sure must love a plane / No matter how many you kill with what kind / of bombs or how much blood you manage to spill / you never will hear the cries of pain.” Jordan aims to inspire her readers, not merely fill them with rarefied air. Her mode is vernacular, as often as not, and fittingly for one who argued that Black English should be encouraged in schools, the black vernacular: “we be wondering what they gone do /all them others left and right.” As these excerpts also suggest, personal and political struggles are intertwined and are matters of life and death.

Especially death, it would seem. Poems describing in rage and sadness a Black boy beaten, a Black girl killed, a Black woman beaten, a Black man killed run high in numbers here. Those eulogized are not symbolic, but are real people, as the titles often emphasize: “On the Murder of Two Human Being Black Men, Denver A. Smith and His Unidentified Brother, at Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1972.” What is as harrowing and disgusting as the contents of such poems is the knowledge that Jordan could have written thousands more. The ones she did write amount to a reimagining of the occasional poem in our problematic democracy, where gratefulness for having outlets for outrage is tempered by the fact that there is always a valid occasion for expressing it.

Jordan was one whose experience of suffering caused her not to contract but to expand. In “From Sea to Shining Sea,” she moves from a description of a fruit stand to a series of vignettes about those who have it rough. There is enough pain and fear to go around and, by the end of the poem, we feel that these lives are balanced as precariously as the initial pyramid of pomegranates. Although the poem could hardly be more serious, there is humour in its juxtaposition. We also hear her wry laughter in “Notes on the Peanut,” in which George Washington Carver brags about his peanut shoelaces, peanut calculator, and peanut painting by Renoir, before taking questions from an audience: “Please: / Speak right into the peanut!” Even the unpleasant scene of deciding who-gets-what after a marriage dissolves elicits a kind of joke: “OK. So she got back the baby / but what happened to the record player?”

The mixture of humour and anger is also a hallmark of Ishmael Reed, whose strength as an editor, essayist, and novelist (and whose reputation as provocateur) has overshadowed his achievement as a poet. That achievement, like Jordan’s, is based in the vernacular, as well as in his use of folk materials, his fearlessness with form, and his “irrational” tendency toward the spiritual, which stands as an indictment of the impoverished soul of a bottom-line age. As he puts it in “The Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic,” a recipe for gumbo, “The proportions of ingredients used depend upon the cook!” Reed’s New and Collected Poems, 1964–2006 contains almost two hundred pages of work written since his New and Collected of 1988, including “Gethsemane Park,” a “gospera” originally written as a libretto commissioned by the San Francisco Opera Company, and “Snake War,” a prose piece based on D. O. fa*gunwa’s Igbo Olodumare. That these two works are hardly poems in a conventional sense says much about Reed’s disregard of generic limitation.In “America United,” which gets by largely on the intensity of its reaction to hypocritical calls for unity after 9/11, the formal recklessness is frustrating but ultimately serves the poem’s purpose. Indeed, the right indelicate balance is usually struck, as in the ever-relevant “In a War Such Things Happen,” the title of which serves as a refrain to a series of lamentably predictable atrocities.

It casts no aspersions on the later work to say that the major achievement here remains those poems from Conjure (1972) and Chattanooga (1973) that first established Reed as a poet able to shift without anxiety between cultures and verbal registers and to do so with vitriol and wit. “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra,” “Catechism of d Neoamerican Hoodoo Church,” and “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem” are ensconced in the postmodern canon, while “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto” is one of the best manifestos of an era that produced no shortage of them. There is also great pleasure in revisiting lesser-known poems from his early period, such as “Dualism,” a compact parable about the inescapability of history, or “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man,” a stellar addition to the tradition of African-American balladry from which it is derived.

“This poem came at me / like a flash flood,” Reed writes in an untitled poem of more recent vintage. “If I had paused to count meter / I would have drowned.” Neither Reed nor Jordan is overly fastidious about form, but use it to their advantage as any good American would. Pragmatist poets of political intent, they remind us that the loosening of the line and the expansion of voice has continued into the twenty-first century. These two voluminous volumes suggest that future generations will have their own solid foundations on which to build, from which to speak their mind.


Alpha Zulu by Gary Copeland Lilley, Ausable Press, 2008.


This volume of poems by Gary Copeland Lilley—a poet described on the back of the book as an “outsider artist,” who indeed turns out to be one but in unexpected ways—wears its cover well. The illustration, a painting called “Television” by Jacob Lawrence, depicts a group of people in black, brown, and beige peering through the window of an electronics store at night. They are on the outside looking in at the burst of colour, which turns out to be a TV broadcasting a boxing match. Both the image and the poems employ a subtle and consistent chromatic or tonal frame that at the same time contains the dynamic and dark. Central to both is the idea of aggression, but aggression transformed into artful battle, a contest of discipline, skill, and craft.

Lilley’s title is apt. The dominant figure in many of these poems is an alpha male, or rather, a black alpha male, or in Lilley’s formulation, alpha zulu. The poems are rich in the iconography of Christian tradition, as asserted in the echoes of the “alpha and omega,” while the African-American heritage of revising and deepening that tradition is heard. The military’s alphabetic call signs are also there; Lilley is a veteran of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, an experience he draws on in several of the poems. And in the stark trochees that encompass so much meaning in two totalizing bursts of rhythm, “alpha zulu” begins to suggest the poetic skill that characterizes this stellar volume.

Alpha Zulu is a book of archetypes fleshed out, so that there is something both immediate and timeless in its lines. An underworld aesthetic is pervasive, giving the poems a classical feel. Not contradicting this, its characters are often straight-up Southern Gothic with an African-American twist. A lot of whiskey is drunk in this book. Juke-joints are still called juke-joints. There is a black cat which, having been scarred by “boiling water / or a chemical cleaner,” slinks “low and close to the fences” until its fur grows back. There is a grandfather who is an itinerant preacher, a grandfather who hauls wood to stills by mule and cart, a cross-dresser named Raven, a roadhouse owner named Sugar, a racehorse gambler named Zoot, a Boneman who smashes men’s bones for money, an anonymous God-driven killer of whor*s, and a pack of ten poems in the guise of tarot cards.

Such a collection could veer with speed into the hackneyed. What happens instead is that we fully enter a world—of hidden Black history, of deprivation and desperation, of defensiveness and pride, of transience from rural towns to big cities and back—that in many contemporary volumes would be inadequately encapsulated by a pop cultural reference or an allusion to the blues. This book does not merely point to, but is an actual manifestation of the blues; it does not merely gesture toward, but actually manifests a milieu. Lilley is an “outsider artist” not in the way of elaborate and sometimes violent obsessions à la Henry Darger (although many of the poems are populated by obsessive and violent speakers), or of idiosyncratic religiosity à la Howard Finster (although there are apocalyptic and prophetic overtones throughout). He is an “outsider” because he writes with unsentimental sympathy of social outsiders; because, as someone who has left and then returned to a rural home, he stands slightly outside of his origins; and because his aesthetic is outside of the current poetic mainstream, more folk culture than pop culture, more reactionary-on-purpose than attempted avant-garde.

These are some reasons for reading Lilley, yet none of these accounts for why Alpha Zulu is so compulsively readable, or for why it gets better the more it is read. Lilley’s formal craft, muted and sure of its way, provides the best answer. Just as his subject matter has an organic nature, so too do his formal choices. Variety here is not lack of focus or an attempt to show off, but a necessary range of response to different dilemmas of character, story, and mood. The eponymous “Ranter on the Corner of Babylon and Manhattan” rails appropriately in unpunctuated prose, just as the less propulsive language of “November 11: Veterans Day at Rite Liquor Store and Bar” represents the quotidian. “Boneman” smashes at us in a single long stanza of short lines with a blunt diction that is less simple than sinister. The sestina “Angels in the Geek Hour of the Morning” uses the form’s repetitive structure to convey the closed-circuit lives of hookers and johns. Lilley’s tercets are tight, his couplets contained, so long as the subject demands it, and when the demands are loosened, the form follows suit.

Best of all are the sonnets scattered throughout, as well as the poems that are near sonnet-length. (The Tarot Card poems are thirteen lines each and he also writes strong twelve-line stanzas.) Lilley demonstrates particular mastery of a compact and self-sufficient form, where every fine enjambment is a wellgreased gear, every pause a cog, every right word another screw helping hold it all together. These poems allow us to see how tension is handled in an enclosed space—fittingly so, for a man who in a longer poem confesses: “I’m claustrophobic. I’ve made / eight submarine patrols / and this was a truth I knew / after the first four.” The dark humour, self-knowledge, and depth signified here are characteristic of the book as a whole, one of the best to surface in a while.


The Red Bird by Joyelle McSweeney, Fence Books, 2002.

The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems by Tina Brown Celona, Fence Books, 2002.


Neither of these two first volumes, winners of prizes from the journal Fence and published in its book series, chooses the path of pre-fabricated competence. Instead, both poets, taking very different risks, go down potentially dangerous routes. The minor imperfections that result merely humanize their accomplishments.

McSweeney’s collection will not seem strange to readers of modernist poetry. Its fragmentation can be a flaw, not because of the fragments themselves, which are appealing, but because there is sometimes no congealing mood or atmosphere to contain them. One is willing to forgive such lapses, for McSweeney has numerous talents, such as her rhythms, which are exquisite: “Ginned clean of seeds, packed into bales / through a season of ten-dollar hours…/ who is it sleeps in these sheets? // Sleeps in the bale, sleeps in the parcel / of coveted land[.]” The dactylic waltz, which with the cotton conveys something of the South, is interrupted by “acres” sounding rightly as flat as a map “in the park’s interior.” McSweeney’s internal anaphora reminds one of Whitman, and the spectre of Stevens shows in the appropriate ellipses, which most poets use as injudiciously as bullets on New Year’s Eve. The motion from bolls to bales, to the sheets they make, to history is characteristic.

Even greater than McSweeney’s fine ear is her ability to leap from abstract to particular, between registers of diction, across referential levels. Like Dickinson, whom she is otherwise unlike, McSweeney uses small things to take us on great trips. From “little horses” to “miniplanets” and a “threadbare dachshund,” we are often in a realm of minutiae. But, as her nine poems titled “The Voyage of the Beagle” suggest, what is small may symbolically evolve. Tracing unexpected trajectories of meaning, she finds detritus along the way, which she turns into poetry; she makes much out of things like old books and anonymous bands, and her sports allusions are among the best I have encountered in a contemporary poet.

She is also a heck of a naturalist. In “Toy Bed” we first see an “emperor penguin” whose crown “slips down halfway / over his eyes.” Like the comical bird, the poet has her vision obscured by a hat, for her “black wool beret is sodden and itches / and pushes my wet bangs down into my eyes / in little points. The field is flooded, floodened.” From the pressure of her artist’s chapeau spring tears, changing what she sees. More magisterial than a penguin at the end, she is like the deer that appears in a final apparition, with “his too-huge stylized rack. It pulls his head back / black-lipped to the sky, or pulls his head down / and he must graze and brood. It pulls / his lips and makes him smile. It closes his eyes.” Hers is a graceful summation of the gifts and demands that come with assuming the poet’s role.

Tina Brown Celona’s volume also considers such gifts and demands. Her summations, however, are sedate, with sudden eruptions into sorrowful anger that subside like stomach pains. The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems is, as its title suggests, bluntly concerned with poetry and reality. Although Celona’s poems often remark on their own making, these metapoetic moments are not strategies for avoiding emotion, but organic and poignant reactions to the need to make something meaningful out of incoherent experience. Confessional poems of a sort, their honesty seems less a recollection than a direct recording of desire and despair. And because the recording mind is saturated with writing, we are given a rich textual simultaneity, as if life is happening and being remarked upon at the same instant. Wry and self-deprecating, such as when its “shrimp/Cry out for justice / From the seafloor, leaving tiny trails, / Traces of poetry,” The Real Moon is also sweet, as when a recovered postcard says “i love you,” and surprised, for “if even postcards love me i guess / i can do anything.”

“My emotion was very small,” writes Celona. “It was the emotion of a poem.” One is moved by a poet who wants so much from the writing life, yet who won’t efface its deficiencies by claiming false and grandiose things for it. This approach to the poem applies to her domestic life as well. Sitting inside, sheltered from a rainy day, Celona considers her partner, at whom she directs some harmless passive aggression, as her eyes take in a suddenly strange tableau: “i always say ‘so should we go / swimming’ doubtfully / looking at my jade rabbit / his humid color and placid posture / as he nibbles the orange ground / of a book by john ashbery, / rivers and mountains[.]”

Poetry here is a ground for the real, which itself, remaining real, becomes a poem. Once you truly see it grazing on the orange grass, Celona’s green rabbit is as real as any object, as real as any rabbit, any poem. The poet as poet refuses to deny what makes things real for her. Such a refusal means asking some difficult questions. McSweeney, without a question mark, asks a hard one at the end of “The Premier”: “Who am / I if I mean what I sometimes mean.” Her answers are roundabout; she approaches the question in pieces and loops. Celona instead attacks the question like a pit bull fighting through tranquilizers. Different as these poets are, I intend, on the strength of their inaugural volumes, to read whatever both of them write from now on.


Poems the Size of Photographs by Les Murray, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.


There are poems so loose in form, they might as well be bowls of spaghetti. Les Murray, burly Australian poet and farmer, caustic as acid, but with a decency often found among those who work the earth, has published a collection of poems instead reminiscent of stones. As poems go, they are small, as the book’s title attests. Yet one feels, reading them, that Murray’s poems can be picked up, handled, and hurled with force as a photo cannot, that these objects, smooth and hard, have been formed by applying intense pressure to the language.

Poems the Size of Photographs is the twelfth volume of poems by Murray (who received the Gold Medal for Poetry from Queen Elizabeth) and its contents suggest that age tends not to render a great writer less cantankerous. In Subhuman Redneck Poems, which won the 1996 T. S. Eliot Prize, Murray wrote, “Modernism’s not modern: it’s police and despair.” The onslaught of a new millennium has apparently left this view unchanged. “The twentieth century,” he claims in one snapshot, “grew such icy / ambition and scorn that it built marvels / or else crap.” Mostly crap, one surmises, as the poem and the century draw to a close over “charm’s mass grave,” “a punitive mediocrity.” Modernism’s “police and despair” are even belatedly prophesied by Murray in the single quatrain of “Starry Night”: “In the late Nineteenth century / one is out painting landscapes / with spiralling sky / and helicopter lights approaching.”

A poet who can see the gyres and searchlights of our culture while continuing to paint landscapes is as timely as ever, even if, as in this case, such a poet (a less mad Van Gogh) sees himself as a mind outside the times. It is a necessary pose, for as an outsider, Murray puts distance between himself and the era’s received ideas. Befitting the book’s pictorial frame, he captures his complacent prey in a flash, and if, as in “The Poisons of Right and Left,” the picture we get is developed in overly stark contrasts (“You are what you have got / and: to love, you have to hate.”), deftness of composition makes up for missing greys. Usually what seems stark in Murray is merely poetry in the now unfamiliar plain style, with which this Thomas Wyatt of New South Wales steadies himself before investigating his materials and his world: “Identity oversimplifies humans. / It denies the hybrid, as trees can’t. // Trees, which wrap height in pages / self-knitted from ground water and light // are stood scrolls best read unopened. / They lean to each other and away // in politics of sun-rivalry / or at knotted behests in the earth.” His own hybrid, a mix of the natural world, human culture, and the craft of writing, is in its critical awareness appropriate to our age. It is also appropriately Australian, sometimes to the point of self-conscious parody. Murray plays at whim the local entertainer, or the dealer in postcards and broadside illustrations: Sydney’s Opera House described, “An Australian Legend” retold, “The Aboriginal Cricketer” immortalized in verse.

Although Murray’s accounting of his homeland suggests a man acquainted not only with his native soil, but also with his native self, that self is rarely exhibited in the open. With a reticence inspiring trust, Murray handles his own experience with masculine delicacy; so delicate, in fact, that one often wonders whose experience the experience is: “A man approaches the edge / of his life, which has miscarried.” The man writing the poem, any man, anybody: Murray is not a sentimental, but a fatalistic, universalist. It is hard, however, to stay too dour in the midst of Murray’s poems. One appreciates someone so obviously trying to communicate: “The effort is always to make the symbols obvious: / the bolt of electricity, winged stethoscope of course / for flying doctor. Pram under fire? Soviet film industry.”

“The New Hieroglyphics,” as the title reads, have a remarkable translator in Murray. He is remarkable in part for knowing what can go untranslated and still communicate, like the bare tableland he describes in “On the Borders”: “I feel no need to interpret it / as if it were art.” The poems in this excellent collection seem as inevitable as any natural landscape; yet they are finely crafted human things. Exploiting the tension between the world we inherit and the world we make, Murray’s modern pastorals and portraits are classical in emphasizing our smallness, which we fight against, not always unheroically. The poems partake of that smallness, but their modest proportions belie the fact that these snapshots in few words are worth hundreds of thousands of pictures, clear speech amid the clutter.


Borrowed Love Poems by John Yau, Penguin, 2002.


Love poems in conventional guise are hard to find until the end of Yau’s most recent collection, but there is borrowing from the beginning. In fact, the first six poems (all called “Russian Letter”) seem to have been taken from a bin of Michael Palmer out-takes. The familiar Palmerian gestures are there: spare two-line stanzas, the flitting interjection of foreign phrases, and strategically dispersed anaphora that alludes to a mystic-prophetic past and a poststructuralist present (“It is said, the past / sticks to the present // like glue… / It is said, someone // cannot change / the clothes // in which / their soul // was born.”)

Such obvious imitation arouses suspicion. Yet Yau forces us to take seriously poems that in many cases fail to offer the standard aesthetic rewards (originality, beauty, insight). He does this by making the procedures of other artists the conceptual scaffold of his volume. In “830 Fireplace Road (II),” Yau rearranges and repeats the words of a sentence uttered by Jackson Pollock: “No of the its of. Have the of have its /own have, Making have have. / No no because making changes / changes the making of the painting.” In two Oulipo-like “Metabolic Isthmus Sestinas,” the palette is equally restricted, as in this characteristic envoi: “Sack always taste slick hair seat / Taste hair sack mull why slick / Sack mull why mate taste false[.]” Except for the fact that the sestinas, when read out loud, begin to sound dirty in the mouth, this is linguistically boring stuff. Neither is the form compelling, made as it is to seem either random or over-determined. Yau is better in his more expansive, wackier mode, as in the four poems starring Peter Lorre or the three starring Boris Karloff. The best of these, “I Was a Poet in the House of Frankenstein,” is a long, fascinating list of Karloff ’s roles that has the admirable virtues of a collection of arcane movie trivia.

Yau is an art critic as well as a prolific poet, and there are poems here about, inspired by, or referring to Eva Hesse, Philip Guston, Max Beckmann, Marcel Duchamp, and Joseph Cornell, as well as Poe and Whitman, George Trakl and Frank O’Hara. The book’s epigraph by Osip Mandelstam—“What I am saying at this moment is not being said by me”—when read alongside these allusive poems, suggests that our “self ” or “identity” is merely an articulation of our taste. Such a poetics is depressing, for though it posits a kind of freedom, and tends to be funny and philosophically quirky (“Princess Sitting Duck isn’t my real name…Princess Sitting Duck isn’t my nickname either”), it best shows itself in a series of negative definitions: “Okay. Okay. You want to know. Well, all right, / I am not an Egyptian napkin. I’m not even / a retired cosmonaut or guileless barber. / I am neither an escapee from the House of Grubb / nor an inmate from the Home of Hubbub.” Sometimes, as in “Autobiography in Red and Yellow,” some more or less straight talk seems to leak through the clowns-are-the-sad-ones static: “I was born in Shanghai / shortly after one cylinder of war ended // and another revolution / in barnyard fashion began.” Yet the backpage biography reveals that while Yau’s parents fled from Shanghai, Yau himself was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. Thus, we are left to ponder the veracity of autobiography, or the difference between conception and birth.

In Borrowed Love Poems, every shift in persona or subject is matched by a shift in form, tone or technique, and Yau’s dominant modes of expression are dissociation, assimilation, and free association. In a way, this wilful inconsistency is the furthest thing from love. And yet the exhaustion such shifts produce, along with the plaintive simplicities of the “Borrowed Love Poems” which close and name the book, speak to the experience of love after all, which is exhausting, and requires a self in some relation to the supposed self of another.

Andrew DuBois

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