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Poetry Roundup

Edward Field, After the Fall

(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007)

Anyone who’s ever sniffled about not understanding contemporary poetry should read Edward Field, posthaste. Accessible and urgent, he keeps it taut and in the process we are taught. In “What Poetry is For,” he pins it: “what else… to write about… with a government turning the economy/ into a grab bag for the wealthy.”
In this collection of old poems and new, the title section “After the Fall,” is a personal reaction to 9/11. Fields takes us back to meet “Fragility—facing life… a mile north of Ground Zero.” This is strong stuff, like a healthy dose of medicine.

Other sections treat us to mini-novels about Joan Crawford, Mrs. Wallace Stevens and Fidel Castro. Stanzas are scaffolded with nimble accounts of characters and situations.

Whether the subject is Field’s own accounts as an aviator in World War II, his Jewish family or the “proletarian women like them on the streets”—the language is hard-hitting and direct. Sometimes it is heart-wrenching.

Field is about how we live. He can stand back to capture perspective and then set it in motion. Like a director, he finds the telling detail, the pithy phrase as he addresses gods, movie stars and lovers. More often, he addresses his enchanted reader as an omniscient storyteller, spinning scintillating yarns.

Matthea Harvey, Modern Life

(Graywolf Press, 2007)

Inventive and resourceful, Matthea Harvey’s follow-up to “Sad Little Breathing Machine” is an upbeat romp. “Make believe is all I have left.” And make believe she does. Even when the chips are down the narrator is telling us how to “live in the present.”

The poems are neatly divided. “The Future of Terror” section is replaced with “Terror of the Future.” Surfaces glitter with alliteration and surprising enjambments. Each line bursts with flavor. Striking images sparkle in the quixotic narratives. “The swallows form subtitles for the clouds./ Sometimes you read them out loud to me.” The poet follows her muses and listens to them as they proceed to groove through grammar and geography.

Everywhere, Harvey fires up a choral engine. Her words chime and speak to each other as they transport us along a corridor of continuously unfolding sequences. In the “Notes” the author explains that she is using a special form of the acrostic, that allows the poems to “mimic the abecedarius’s alphabetic footstep.”
Robo Boy, the central figure in seven prose poems (first published as a chapbook) suffers from being different and “special.” He plays in a band but doesn’t always play well with others. He’s the perfect anti-anti-hero for our times—something between a human and a creation.

David Shapiro, New and Selected Poems (1965—2006)
(The Overlook Press, 2007)

If initially, you’re not won over by David Shapiro’s whimsical terrain, keep with it. You will begin to notice the broad scope of language—from Edwardian to plebian, and from taxonomic to elegiac. You might speculate that you are in the company of a child with the vocabulary of a brilliant, exuberant adult, versed in everything imaginable.

It may seem that you are at an absurd lecture as Shapiro recycles light in the long poem “About this Course” in which he “challenges/ our notions of the natural.” It’s clear the poet has “…never/ been able to resist/ the course of a new toy dream” which is lucky for us.

Philosophy, mythology and botany parade by, presented in a persistently engaging voice. Shapiro invites the other arts to make their presence felt. (He studied violin and writes art criticism.) Musical repetitions of key words such as snow or sleep, add a baroque lilt to this postmodernist brocade. And true to his New York School roots, the terms of painting add dimension.

In the twenty-page “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” the lines exert momentum, as one surprising anomaly after another sets up expectant rhythms. “And we were seeking/ like bees behind the Persian blinds.” The double whammy of lyricism and spirituality is triumphant.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 07-JAN 08

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