From The Desk: Five Reviews by Greg Simon

Oblivion: On Writers & Writing, by Donald Justice
Story Line Press, 1998

Obviously mis-titled, this collection of essays should be called Against Oblivion. In the title piece, Justice names himself as a last repository of memory & quotation for three deceased poets who were his contemporaries: Weldon Kees, Henri Coulette, & Robert Boardman Vaughn. Justice has edited Collected Poems for the first two, which are still, miraculously, in print. The poet Vaughn, however, teeters perilously on the edge of the abyss: no Collected Poems, in fact, no collection at all.
Vaughn is the subject, by the way, of one of Justice's most unforgettable poems: "Portrait With One Eye," from Departures (1973). In it, Vaughn is described as someone " . . .who could scream across / The square in Cuernavaca,/At a friend [he] hadn't seen / For years, the one word, bitch, / And turn away . . ."

I was once denied a grant for daring to put a contemporary on the same level of critical investigation as Osip Mandel'shtam & I forget who else. In Oblivion, Coulette & Kees & Vaughn romp happily in the bookish dark along with such critical luminaries as Larkin, Carlos Williams, Winters, Hopkins, Crane, Pound, Stevens & Baudelaire. Justice also practices democracy in his poetry, where extremely accomplished sonnets & villanelles & sestinas coexist in peace & harmony with syllabic free verse & other forms Justice has invented himself.

Although he occasionally chastises himself for writing so little literary criticism, I hope he also knows that there isn't a poet alive today whose habits of work & life wouldn't be improved in some way by a thorough reading of Oblivion.

Vita Nova, by Louise Glück
The Ecco Press,1999

Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the hugely disappointing Disney movie, Inspector Gadget (disappointing, that is, unless you are 6 years old), the final scene of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice is acted out. One Gadget lops the head off an imposter, & tosses it, still chattering away, into the churning (Hebrus) river below.

I had the same feeling of deja vu while I was reading Louise Glück's new book, which is, essentially, an untelling of the Orpheus myth. It wasn't that I was surprised by the subject matter. One of the poems in The Triumph of Achilles (1985) begins: "She taught him the gods. Was it teaching? He went on / hating them, but in the long evenings of obsessive talk, / as he listened, they became real." Glück's last book, Meadowlands (1996), was a fascinating examination of the reunion of Odysseus & Penelope, so strewn with intrusions of modernity that it seemed the poet was also attempting a similar reconciliation. Well, apparently it didn't take, & the poet then found herself catapulted into vita nova, which she attempts to describe or perhaps justify to us with an unsatisfying reticence, a denial of detail & emotion. If you invite comparison to Ovid, the writing must be sexy; Glück has always been sexy.

Perhaps she is residing in a state of nirvana or bliss (the epigraph to the book is inimitable zen wisdom), but if so we need to remind her that awe, wonder & inner peace cannot exist alone as poetry. Poetry, as Roberto Calasso points out with such incredible finesse in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993), thrives on the tension between human beings & the gods, between heaven & earth. "Fearless heart," Glück writes toward the end of Vita Nova, "never tremble again." Let's hope she doesn't mean it.

Grazing, by Ira Sadoff
University of Illinois Press, 1998

Recent history, even very recent history, indicates that in time of war or political upheaval (& what other kind of time is there?), poets might just as well continue to write what they would have written anyway. Several commentators have suggested that Osip Mandel'shtam's demise can be attributed to an ode he wrote against Stalin; it is irrefutable that an ode he wrote in praise of Stalin did not save his life. (They are both typically complex poems by Mandel'shtam, & don't, by any means, cancel each other out.) Lorca's Poet in New York had to be smuggled out of Spain in a steamer trunk & published in Mexico City; a recent edition, published in Spain with drawings by the avowed Communist Rafael Alberti, was a project of the Cultural Junta of Andalusia.

Then again, as Ira Sadoff points out in his new book of poems, ". . .some don't like to be shunned, stepped on, / spurned, excluded . . ." He's a poet who likes to set up cultural icons of the right, center & left, & then take his best shot at them. "There's No Rigor Like the Old Rigor," he titles one of his poems, & it's very curious that he chose such a passive, almost pastoral title for the book; something that included a line about his friend who listened to "the radio in his tooth" would have been more indicative of the onery pleasures that lurk in this book. "I once spit on Hubert Humphrey," Sadoff writes in a poem that seems autobiographical, "threw a brick through Dow Chemical's plate glass door. / I wrote insane letters to senators, burying them / in moral rectitude . . ."

"I'm singing now," he admits, because there are lives "I have no reverence for . . ." He says his taste "is cheap, corrupted by greed, TV, a compulsiveness / and fear of desolation just vast enough to be conceived." ("Desolation" would have been a good title for the book.) But when Sadoff is through trading punches with The Reverend Moon, Phil Donahue, Sigmund Freud, Nick Gonzales (why spare his name?) (these from a fantastic poem, "Solitude Etude"), Viet Nam, Whitman, Roy Cohen, Vivaldi, AIDS, Nixon, Ike, Madonna (the new one) & Rilke (Rilke!), he too returns to the "worn salt lick" of poetry. He quotes Lorca: "When the moon rises, the heart feels like an island in infinity." He could have ended the poem, & perhaps the book: "Who can improve on that?"
Hmm. That's the challenge, isn't it?

The Country Without a Post Office, by Agha Shahid Ali
W.W. Norton & Company,1997

I read an article in The New Yorker recently about the bizarre war India & Pakistan are fighting in the Himalaya Mountains near the embattled state of Kashmir. Many more men die from falling into hidden crevices in the snow & ice than either side has managed to kill with military prowess. (For the most part, it seems, all their weapons are frozen.) It is a typical example of post-modern conflict: one can take an entirely different political or religious stance each day of the week, & find implacable enemies for each of them: Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, Pakistani, Sikh or Chinese, & of course those who believe that Kashmir should be independent.

Two typically human consequences have come out of this conflict: unpredictable violence & destruction, & the emergence of a poet to examine & chronicle the devastation. The poet is Kashmiri-American Agha Shahid Ali, who refers to himself as a multiple exile: from his Indian language & from India, from Kashmir, & most certainly from those who have taken the attitude that it would be better to see Kashmir in ruins than in the hands of (insert from the list above . . .) His new book also represents a departure from his previous, free verse style of writing poems. ". . . when decades of simmering tensions erupted in 1990 into a full-scale uprising in Kashmir, my original home, and those events began to obsess me emotionally and imaginatively," he wrote in 1998, "I felt my work 'feeling' radically for departures. I found myself led to various named forms to house my obsession . . ." One of the most rewarding lines he follows in the book are the poems he's written in the ancient Arabic form, the ghazal. What an incredible pleasure it was to hear him read the one which begins "Where are you now?" in Portland recently, to follow his inevitable as karma rhyme scheme: spell, farewell, expel, tell, cell, Jezebel, infidel, Sacred Well, knell, Hell, Ishmael . . . Ishmael! I practically spoke the name with him, even though I could not have predicted it logically. The form itself is very powerful, no matter, as Shahid wryly points out, what meter it comes in.

It is also not surprising to me that Shahid was led by his obsessions to the work of that other great explorer of exile, Osip Mandel'shtam. The first sentence in the book is homage: "From an untitled poem, that opening line announces heartbreak as its craft: a promise like that already holds its own breaking: 'We shall meet again, in Petersburg / as though we had buried the sun there.'" Shahid's light is less brilliant than the Russian's, which originated in Tuscany, & was refined in the steppes: "And then we saw the boat being rowed / through the fog of death . . ." In another poem he writes: "Separation / can't be borne when the rains / come . . . The monsoons never cross / the mountains into Kashmir . . ."

The Sky Behind the Forest: Selected Poems, by Liliana Ursu
Translated by Liliana Ursu with Adam J. Sorkin & Tess Gallagher
Bloodaxe Books,1997

Angel Riding A Beast, by Liliana Ursu
Translated by the author and Bruce Weigl
Northwestern University Press,1998

The Romanians who hunted down their all-corrupt-all-the-time first couple, the Ceaucescus, & killed them like rabid dogs, did make one mistake. The lack of international participation in their revolution has meant that the world now tends to sit back & watch them also try to rebuild their shattered & looted infrastructure by themselves.

If poetry will help (& am I naive to think that it eventually will help?), at least they have a few poets to turn to, one of whom, Liliana Ursu, has even managed to make her presence felt in the West. Ursu has a genius for connection between continents, generations, men & women, & women & women. Her poems are shot through with intimate references to women who have been lost - Eurydice, Ophelia, mothers & daughters & assorted angels - but also with the mad poets who went after them, trying to reestablish the connections - Orpheus & Ovid. She makes a wonderful connection between Ovid, "humbly resigned to fate" & Ezra Pound, "more insistent than rain", both of whom were exiles & "always on the lookout for love . . ."

In the introduction to Angel Riding A Beast, fellow Romanian Geta Dumitriu writes, "For reasons having to do with the recent history of the country, which forbade direct expression, there is no doubt that poetic discourse has been a favorite medium used to explore the human predicament." Ursu has perhaps fixated on the word medium: her explorations certainly employ all the mystical apparatus of poets. Her strongest connection is with the American poet Tess Gallagher. They first met at a writing conference in Barcelona, & have since roamed the world in body & in spirit. Their relationship (Gallagher is a co-translator of the Bloodaxe book) has resulted in a priceless sequence of poems, which is especially dense & rewarding.

"While profoundly marked by the inescapable and opaque reality of borders," Dumitriu also writes, "Ursu tends to perceive a journey as the creation of a place where things come together." In one of her newer poems, written during another writing conference somewhere in Texas, Ursu attempts to reconcile recent losses at home in Romania by imagining the birth of a golden chick, as if her egg-harvesting son has found the mythical orb of gold. In Europe, she sees everything washed out, like her heart, & for sale. In America, things are for rent, & "everything is waiting, like me, to be reborn."

- Greg Simon
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