Saturday, August 25, 2007

Summer Poetry : Time to Catch up on Praise

(My monthly review of the periodical POETRY)

The "summer break" issue of POETRY begins with three pieces by poet Tony Hoagland that strike me as more wise than wise-guy, leaving none of the bitter aftertaste left by his collection WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME. (I bought it for the title!) "Barton Springs" moves past a matter-of-fact acceptance of death ("my allotted case of cancer") to the poet's resolve to quit complaining about life and, "because all things are joyful near water," he hopes there's "time to catch up on praise." Another poem, "The Big Grab," deals with ways that commercialism has "hijacked and twisted" our language: "Nothing means what it says, / and it says it all the time." The third in Hoagland's triptych ends again on a note of praise, including an incidental image that seems just right, of description being the "affectionate cousin" of narrative, "description / which lingers, / and loves for no reason."

This issue features "Q & A" with some of the poets, a feature that I hope will continue. I was relieved to read comments by Joanie Mackowski after enjoying her poem in which a woman painlessly and suddenly dissolves in air and blows away, aware of all the places that her particles go. It was a well-imagined little story, with a peculiar mood, but I was afraid that I had missed in it some kind of metaphorical commentary on women's life today. In fact, Mackowski says, "It's a short comedy: a woman appears, granulates, and then the marries the world. . . And comedy does not mean all funny, of course: tragedy and comedy together make a Mobius strip, each around the edge from the other." She compares it to Ovid's metamorphoses, only without gods to excuse the magic.

Another Q & A with Alice Friman adds to the appreciation of her poem "Art & Science." The poem plays around with puns and whimsies, comparing the behavior of our molecules to the social behavior of ourselves. "Then is it not passing strange," the poem asks, that "this vast multitude [of molecules and cells] jostling" just "wants to be alone?" She comments in the Q & A on her intentions to be "Smarty-ass clever ( I hope) with all those interior rhymes" until the end, when "the wordplay ceases, and all that busyness funnels down to quiet, solidifying into the single image and the single note." She has in mind, she says, the musical model of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major.

A poet named Todd Boss describes a scene in couplets of lines of just two beats, with no end rhymes until the conclusion, but with similar sounds on every accent, as "the nervous birds" or "a school for unruliness." The opening lines are worth remembering for the visual aptness of the image and the way he uses that to introduce his theme of "making":

shifts, mercurial,
like modeling clay,

the million thumbs
of wind at work upon it,

the artist unable to come
to a single conclusion.

Some big name stars, old friends of mine, appear here as well: John Updike, Richard Wilbur, and Billy Collins. These guys have always made it their business to praise and appreciate, and their works consistently illustrate Hoagland's notion that describing life is a way of loving life.

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