Some people don’t believe that April should be devoted to rejoicing in ars poeticae. An early advocate of National Poetry Month, the late poet William Matthews, disagreed. Furthermore, he reminded practitioners that “the work of the body becomes a body of work.” Nothing of poets lives on except their lines.
Memorable lines are bewilderingly ubiquitous in FSG’s centennial birthday gift of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems. Enough has been written about this extraordinary writer to hide her entire adopted country of Brazil from the map, but who mentions Bishop’s wonderful sense of humor? Consider one of the gem-like mottos in “Songs for a Colored Singer,” i.e. Billie Holiday: “I’m going to go and take the bus / and find someone monogamous.”
Like Matthews and Bishop, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins recognizes the value of humor, music and sensuous pleasures, all fleeting, but none more so than that which springs from writing itself. Collins’ poems often close on a down note, making the rest of the poem resonate in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible; and his most recent book, Horoscopes for the Dead, contains a microcosmic example. Reflecting on the “little time nearly every day” spent “on a gray wooden dock,” Collins concludes with the disappearance of nearly everything, not to mention himself: “gone are my notebook and my pencil / and there I go, too, / erased by my own eraser and blown like shavings off the page.”
Another important event this month is the publication of Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems. Previous National Poetry Month columns enumerated his many and varied efforts on behalf of poetry not his own, so the very appearance of this carefully honed volume shines all the more brightly. In one of the entries, “Gulf Music,” Pinsky has written arguably the best poem about Katrina by choosing instead the 1900 Galveston hurricane as his subject. No one even knows the precise number of people who lost their lives in that unnamed horror, and the disjunctions of “Gulf Music” mirror perfectly its anonymous chaos and clashes: “After so much renunciation / And invention, is this the image of the promised end? / All music haunted by the music of the dead forever.”
The latest work from Major Jackson, Holding Company, possesses a treasure of notable poems and qualities. The collection is composed of strict 10-line curtal sonnets. Pre-empted by another reviewer in terming these poems “dark” and “wrenching,” I’d venture much further: Holding Company is the best book of Jackson’s career, combining lyricism and wide-ranging intellect not unlike Pinsky’s with something all his own. Lines nearly vibrate off any page in Holding Company—think of the levels of meaning contained in the title itself—but here are four particularly riveting ones: “Sartre said: man is condemned to be free. / I believe in the dead who claim to believe in me— / says, too, the missing and forgotten. Day darkens / on. I hear our prayers rising. I sing to you now.” Sing amen, somebody.
"I now seek gardens where bodies have their will,/ where the self is a compass point given to the lost./ Let me call your name; the ground here is soft & broken." Jackson (Hoops) invites readers into a series of ten-line lyrics, most of which are accentuated, nearly iambic, and often use internal and end rhymes. Almost a sonnet, this short form works well as a container and offers readers a narrative sequence in which one poem fittingly follows another, detailing love lost and found and the confounding territory between. To this end, Jackson invokes artists, musicians, and other writers as well as political events. These poems are passionate, urgent, and lonely. "All we want is to succumb to a single kiss/ that will contain us like a marathon/ with no finish line." Some of Jackson's connections can be difficult, yet he manages to include lines and images as delicious as they are surprising. "Thus I am/ your sweet messenger glittering more than first stars,/ a harvest of light concealing your nicks and little deaths." VERDICT More than one poem in this volume will take your breath away. A highly recommended collection from an important poet.--Karla Huston, Appleton Art Ctr., WI[Page 79]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
In his third collection, which is also his darkest, Jackson (Hoops) delves into wrenching, personal subject matter in rigid 10-line poems, a formal choice that seems to inspire an emotional nakedness he hasn't previously achieved. He begins on a visionary note--"For I, too, desired the Lion's mouth split/ & the world that is not ours, and the wounded children/ set free"--and then, in the same poem, name-checks Duke Ellington: these poems range widely across various registers and subjects, from the timeless and mythic to pop culture. But at the core of all of them is an awareness of the dark beneath everyday goings-on: "The neighbors/ know your comings and goings, but the syntax/ of your smiles is revealed only to little children." Also at the heart of these poems is the painful dissolution of a marriage, which Jackson compares to "a democracy lost to a monarchy." This leads, in a poem called "Therapy," to "Ashes of fire in his mouth, rain sloshed in/ his head" and to a life with "Stray dogs for company." Yet, there's resolution, a new love: "I am learning/ the steps of a foreign song." This powerful book represents a painful but inspired journey. (Aug.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.