Monday, November 24, 2008

A Couple of Issues of Poetry

(reflections on POETRY magazine, October and November issues, 2008)

Billy Collins is represented by a couple of poems in the November issue of POETRY, and these follow the same rough pattern that make many of his poems good for reading aloud. In "Her," for instance, he begins with the kind of depiction of a literal sensation or place that makes the audience think, "I've felt that." In "Her," it's the noises that are ubiquitous in suburbia. Then, he shoots off on a tangent. Here, it's a particularly quiet hour. In part three of a Collins poem, the tangent reaches some unexpected destination: Here, the overheard intimate conversation of two Spanish - speaking workmen.

Some of the seven poems of Sarah Lindsay in the October issue of POETRY share this tendency to set up something literal and clearly imagined, only to slip off into some unexpected direction that still somehow relates. All of them were interesting, and some were delightful.

"Tell the Bees," she writes, "they must know...." It's bad news, and the speaker wants everyone to hear. With a touch of whimsy, she writes, "Tell the water you spill on the ground, then all the water will know." But once the news has spread, "nothing has changed."

With scholars at some archaeological dig, she burrows in the questions raised by a finding about the "So-Called Singer of Nab," before she draws back to view the archaeologists themselves from an ironic distance.

Another poem asks the rhetorical question, "Who needs to hear a quagga's voice?" A quagga, she tells us, is a subspecies of zebra last seen in the South Pacific around the time that Krakatoa blew. She imagines that last of its kind, "curving its cream and chestnut stripes" when it "sank to its irreplaceable knees, when its unique throat closed with a sigh." Against the backdrop of an earth-shattering extinction, she touches us with her story of a very small extinction.

She describes the outdoor wedding of an apparently artsy and green couple: "No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise." She celebrates the music of the moment that could not and should not last, embodied by the Zucchini Shofar of the title. "What is this future approval we need; / Who made passing time a judge? / Do we want butter that endures for ages, / or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?"

Finally, she has a small poem in which a fleeting feeling of contentment is compared to a moth -- implying that it will shortly flitter away in search of some new brightness.

Another poem in that issue is fun, Craig Arnold's "Uncouplings," taking off from the cliche, "There is no I in teamwork" with anagrams: "There is no we in marriage / but a grim area."

Many poems in the November issue strike me the sort that "you had to be there" to get, and I generally didn't want to be where they were taking me. Among all these was one very attractive gem by Philip Levine. He muses on why we worship mountains:

You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.

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