Open Books: The Goods - Archive
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Some Books - 02/10
"Confucius said this would happen --," writes Tony Hoagland in his new collection, Unincorporated Persons of the Late Honda Dynasty ($15 Graywolf), "that language would be hijacked and twisted / by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department.... / Nothing means what it says, / and it says it all the time." Yet here he is writing poetry in that very hijacked language, poetry that can seem to float on waves of glibness -- until he drops you like a stone below the glittering surface. And in his poems, words do mean what they say, and sometimes what they say is darkly comic, sometimes just dark, and sometimes surprisingly tender. Here is contemporary America in all its complexity -- with birds that sound like cell phones, food courts where suburban kids dropped off by their moms practice their "first sentences in African-American," and fender-benders in mega-mall parking lots that reveal "how at any minute, / convenience can turn / into a kind of trouble you never wanted." This is a book from a poet with a gimlet eye and a reaching heart. "Turns out," he writes, "the real reason for growing up / was to learn what to do about suffering. / Not being surprised was the answer. / What else do you want to know?"
A much-anticipated second book from Joanie Mackowski has arrived -- View from a Temporary Window ($14.95 Univ. of Pittsburgh). And what a view it is -- the ordinary made extraordinary through her distinctive imagination, attention, and lyricism. As that title suggests, the poems rise from a mind attuned to the power of shifting perspective, to the unsettling, enchanting inevitability of change -- celestial and cellular. The language (and search) of natural science joins with the otherworldly situations (and revelation) of fairytale or dream or deep contemplation to create a poetry of and about transformation, and does so in an elegant quietness of tone and remarkably graceful musicality. With warmth, and the occasional -- realistic -- note of melancholy, these vivid, memorable poems sing of and out of the mixed blessing of consciousness, as in these opening lines from the book's opening poem, "Prayer" -- "That the hole in my skull never quite grows over / with mosses or brick. That no lover / on a ladder can patch it, no permissive meadow / can fold its field over. For there’s too much to know. / There’s too much to want never to contain."
The Plural of Happiness ($14.95 Oberlin), written by Herman de Coninck and translated from the Dutch by Laure-Ann Bosselaar and Kurt Brown, is a selection of poems published over de Coninck’s short life (1944 - 1997). The book came out in 2006 but we just lately learned its charms. Mr. de Coninck was chiefly a love poet, excelling in a sweet kind of 1970’s eroticism -- "she bravely holds / her happiness up-- / and her breasts. Her temper's / wired like a bra." His poems include love’s partner, loss, with divorce and death making appearances. A man attending his mother's death in the hospital finds "the door by which he entered life is open. There’s a draft / of infinity. Of infinity." The charm of this book comes from de Coninck's gentle, surprising, and insightful imagery: "Luxury is the difference between / driving a car without a radio / and driving with the car radio off."
Rick Snyder, in Escape from Combray ($14 Ugly Duckling), excels in up-tempo, experiential, urban poetry. His sentence structure and line breaks result in compellingly sinuous work. His voice is that of a bright, engaged, powerless citizen of a city. Inside and outside worlds commingle in enticing ways -- "the whole apartment / faintly buzzing / silent and alive / as the tunnel under / the freeway / where I lingered one night / admiring a nest / built in a cage / around a yellow light." His associative leaps are deft and unusual: further along in the poem quoted above he writes, "I read the Bible / but get stuck on / the massive letter / at the start of Matthew / so ornate and inviting / a good place to build / a nest / if we still build / things." Mr. Snyder has the openness of a post-post-modern James Wright; his poems make for good company.
Camille T. Dungy has edited the marvelously rich anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry ($24.95), recently published by the University of Georgia Press. Gathering 180 poems from 93 writers, this first-of-its-kind volume is both an education and a pleasure to read. Here is work by a wide range of poets writing out of a wide range of experiences, from rural to urban, slave to contemporary academic, fierce and loving, pained and praising. The volume closes with the poem "Fearless" by Tim Seibles; its first two vigorous stanzas are including here --
Good to see the green world
undiscouraged, the green fire
bounding back every spring, and beyond
the tyranny of thumbs, the weeds
and other co-conspiring green genes
ganging up, breaking in,
despite small shears and kill-mowers,
ground gougers, seed-eaters.
Here they come, sudden as graffiti
not there and then there--
naked, unhumble, unrequitedly green--
growing as if they would be trees
on any unmanned patch of earth,
any sidewalk cracked, crooning
between ties on lonesome railroad tracks.
And moss, the shyest green citizen
anywhere, tiptoeing the trunk
in the damp shade of an oak....
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