Some poetry collections that have recently come across my desk:
Cynthia Huntington’s The Radiant has been on my must-read list ever since a poem from this collection, “The Rapture”, made the rounds on my poetry listserv. (It’s reproduced on the website of Four Way Books, which awarded Huntington their Levis Poetry Prize in 2003.) The book is well-named because a sublime light pierces through her treatment of even the darkest subjects, as in “The Rapture”, describing the seizure that heralded the onset of her multiple sclerosis:
I remember standing in the kitchen, stirring bones for soup,
and in that moment, I became another person.
It was an early spring evening, the air California mild.
Outside, the eucalyptus was bowing compulsively
over the neighbor’s motor home parked in the driveway.
The street was quiet for once, and all the windows were open.
Then my right arm tingled, a flutter started under the skin.
Fire charged down the nerve of my leg; my scalp exploded
in pricks of light. I shuddered and felt like laughing;
it was exhilarating as an earthquake. A city on fire
after an earthquake.
A lover’s betrayal is another of the book’s main storylines. Here, she is equally at ease flinging visceral curses at the other woman (“I want to throw stones at her mother’s corpse,/send her children to name-change foster homes”) and depicting the austere beauty of the Cape Cod coastline where she goes to face down her solitude. The latter theme connects the luminous poems in the first section, “On the Atlantic”, where pain and peace somehow coexist in concise verses whose every word feels bought at a great price. From “Vale”:
This vale of tears, this world…
As in: the valley of the shadow
of death, the cloud, the fall,
the unknowing. As when he said
“I’ve had another life”
and his face was lit with escape.
This world is where we die:
place of gardens and fires,
water carried up from streams.
Water carves itself a home
in the lowest place. Can only rest
when there is nowhere to fall.
There is no easy hope here, and yet The Radiant is anything but despairing. Though stylistically more accessible, it reminded me of Katie Ford’s Deposition, one of my favorite poetry books, which is similarly haunted by an ineffable God who is sensed through absence and obedient suffering. In “Hades”, Huntington writes that God made the dog “Stunned by desire,/mistaking the vastness /of his hunger for a taste/of the eternal”:
It’s always the same,
so awkwardly sad,
how they stare at you
when you’re making dinner
or having tea and reach
for a biscuit–how they’re
transfixed with wanting.
“It’s not the real God,”
you tell them, “not the food
of this earth.”
But they don’t believe you,
and are not saved,
and that is why a dog
is set to snatch and growl
at shades, starving forever
before the dismal gates.
My only criticism of Huntington is that she sometimes falls too much in love with her own best lines, repeating them more than once in the same poem. Some writers like to do this to give free verse more structure, but I find that it usually dilutes the effect of the line in question, making it seem like a clever prepared remark rather than a spontaneous outcry compelled by the emotions of the poem. The illusion of unguardedness is important to maintain, however much we know that poems this good are the product of careful craft.
Wolf Heart is North Carolina author Karon Luddy’s first poetry collection. By turns sassy, nostalgic, heartbreaking and wise, these poems cover some of the same territory as her hilarious and moving young-adult novel Spelldown, about an irrepressible adolescent girl whose love of learning provides an escape from small-town poverty and her father’s alcoholism. As a writer who works in both genres, I found it instructive to see how new facets of the same events were revealed, depending on whether the narrator was the young girl, masking her vulnerability in sarcastic down-home prose, or the mature woman poet, able to assemble the fragments of memory into a clear-sighted yet compassionate picture of a troubled family.
Luddy’s poetic style is simple and straightforward, but she has a gift for apt phrases, folksy yet with a sting. For instance, in “What They Didn’t Cure”, about her father’s hospitalization for pneumonia, she selects a few key details to expose both personal and class-based tensions:
…Has he been crazy like that before? the doctor asked.
No, but he drinks an awful lot, Mama said,
then hung her head
like a little girl who’d been
caught killing a kitten.
Delirium tremens–the doctor pronounced
as if he’d solved the riddle of the Sphinx.
A week later, pneumonia cured,
they discharged my father, his eyes shining like
black marbles he’d won from the Devil.
I really wanted to love Jennifer Michael Hecht’s new poetry collection, Funny. Her first collection, The Next Ancient World, came out from Tupelo Press around the time of the 9/11 attacks, and brilliantly anticipated the disorientation of a late-stage empire waking up to the news that its historical moment would pass away like all others before it. For Hecht, a historian and philosopher, humor is always connected to its cognate, humility. As she explains in Funny‘s concluding theoretical essay (which is worth the cover price all by itself), comedy generally arises from someone else’s lack of self-knowledge. Something is funny because we, the outsiders, see the absurdity of a situation that the participants are dead serious about.
In this sense, humor can be a leveling political force, similar to the study of history. To show that ideas have a history, as Nietzsche did in The Genealogy of Morals, is to make formerly self-evident truths appear contingent, and thereby open up space for other ideologies. Hecht’s most recent nonfiction book, The Happiness Myth, applies this genial skepticism to various conceptions of the good life from ancient times to the present. (This book is so well-written that she nearly persuaded me to get high and march in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, which suggests that the Athenians had a point about the dangers of philosophy.)
Funny is a high-concept book that unfortunately didn’t animate its theoretical skeleton to my satisfaction. I loved the premise: each poem is an extended riff on a somewhat corny joke, imagining back-stories for the characters and exploring what their predicament reveals about human alienation and mortality. I bought the book on the strength of “Hat Trick”, one of the best in the collection, which I read on The Cortlandt Review website. Other favorites in this book were “A Little Mumba” and “Chicken Pig”. Too many of the poems, though, were not as tightly written, feeling more like scattered notes for a philosophy lecture, without an emotional investment in the characters.
I wonder whether Hecht has fallen prey to a type of spiritual exhaustion that I’ve seen in writers who look too long at death without forging a connection to the transcendent. It’s the same mood that darkens absurdist-philosophical comedies like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life or Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series, as well as the later works of poets Stephen Dobyns and Mark Strand. Perhaps “life as cosmic joke” falls flat by Hecht’s own standards because a godless universe has no outside vantage point from which we can laugh at our own short-sightedness on earth. There’s no possibility of getting outside, no larger context to shrink our agonies down to scale. Without the Divine, perhaps there can be no Comedy.