Verse chronicle June 2018
On Wi the Haill Voice: 25 Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated by Edwin Morgan, Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, The Astropastorals by Douglas Crase, A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires, Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems by Karl Kirchwey & Claude Before Time and Space by Claudia Emerson.
Vladimir Mayakovsky was a dedicated Futurist, a faithful but sometimes reluctant Bolshevik, and a wild man of verse long before the Beats. He’s an acquired taste; but his cheekiness, his in-your-face gabble and growl, might have gotten him killed sooner or later had he not committed suicide before the Great Purge. (His burlesque of the Soviet love of pointless bureaucracy might be mistaken for Kafka.) Playwright, actor, director, artist, editor, as well as poet, he broke tradition often enough, and early enough, to make Ezra Pound seem the American Mayakovsky.
He broke tradition often enough, and early enough, to make Ezra Pound seem the American Mayakovsky.
The Russian is not everyone’s cup of tea, and to enjoy him in English requires not just suspension of disbelief but wholesale murder. The difficulty in reading him in translation is that the tone and terroir are spectacularly resistant. The usual method is to work toward the original through variant translators. James H. McGavran III, Jenny Wade, and James Womack have published selections; but Mayakovsky in English dress looks like a man with no fashion sense or a costume-party rough. He wrote so much that selections rarely overlap, though readers can at least make a start there.
Edwin Morgan’s translation of twenty-five poems into Scots, now reissued after almost half a century, finesses one difficulty by substituting another.1 Wi the Haill Voice gives Mayakovsky a shout from the streets without making him a Dickensian exercise in dialect—Scots provides the necessary sense of estrangement. Abused, denigrated, banned, and revived over the past three centuries, Scots as a literary language was cobbled together, seldom written by those who spoke it from childhood. Though Scots seems obdurate, with a glossary it presents no greater problem for the dedicated reader than Middle English. Morgan’s glosses might have been more generous.
Something available in the Scots Mayakovsky can’t be rendered in standard English, though the raucous pub scene in The Waste Land seems more Mayakovsky than Eliot. Morgan’s versions are as vigorous as Pound’s from Chinese or Anglo-Saxon—that is, mistaken or misleading in minor ways but brilliant in giving a charged rendering to alien poetics.
July ablow the wheels o simmer,
the lift skimmerin
the het day lang—
and on his hoalidays the rhymer.
(Womack: “Summer tumbled to its halfway point./ One sun? More like a hundred and forty!/ It was hot,/ a mazy heat:/ this happened in the country.”) Morgan’s version might be rendered, “Dusk’s a twelve-dozen-sun-powered explosion,/ July beneath the wheels of summer,/ the sky shimmering the long hot day—/ and on his vacation the poet.” Doesn’t that sound richer, bludgeoned into Scots?
The cockeyed vowels and slant diction make new what in English appears mechanically familiar. Wade’s versions sound cheap and pedestrian, McGavran’s little better; only Womack’s, of those I’ve read, gives the “mazy heat” of Mayakovsky. Many movies would be improved, dubbed into Scots—The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather, and certainly Pride and Prejudice. Even short passages have a drive and body unusual in English (Geoffrey Hill, as so often, is an exception): “The een o the judge are twin tin-cannikins/ skancin in a midden”; “Bleezed in the blafferts,/ wi ice-shoggly bauchles,/ the street birled and stachert”; “the boys wi the pens are gane like whittricks/ to committees and cognostins and burroos and statistics.”
Part of the spell is the barbarous spirit, part the different weights and measures of Scots, part the provocation of Mayakovsky himself. Perhaps a little is sleight of hand—or ear. I’m no fan of a pure poetry of language, the sort that swallowed up Swinburne and Hart Crane—language with only the ghost of comprehension is like gravy without meat. Still, my knees weaken a little, hearing Scots. Either you love the skirl of bagpipes or you’d rather fill your ears with cement. Even at Morgan’s most inscrutable, something tough-minded seeps in:
Wi a jaup the darg-day map’s owre-pentit—
I jibbled colour fae a tea-gless;
ashets o jellyteen presentit
to me the great sea’s camshach cheek-bleds.
A tin fish, ilka scale a mou—
I’ve read the cries o a new warld through’t.
(Wade: “I promptly smeared the workday map,/ splashing paint out of a glass;/ I revealed the sharp cheek-bones of the ocean/ on a platter of jellied meat./ I read the summons of new lips/ on the scale of a tin fish.”) Morgan’s last line is a Poundian approximation.
Among the secret pleasures of twentieth- century verse is the small shelf of literature dragged into Scots: the beautiful versions of Baudelaire, Dante, and “The Seafarer” in Tom Scott’s Collected Shorter Poems (1993); Douglas Young’s renderings of two plays by Aristophanes (1957, 1959); the Scots MacBeth (1992) by R. L. C. Lorimer; and above all his father William Laughton Lorimer’s extraordinary New Testament in Scots (1983). Edwin Morgan has given us the Mayakovsky who might have been, had he been chief of a razor gang in Glasgow. Whether he’s as good in Russian as in Scots remains to be determined.
Ocean Vuong’s dithery, soft-focus poems are so insufferably winsome they threaten the reader with tooth decay. He writes with a slacker’s prosy swing, sharpened by the occasional striking line or droll image, the poems drifting along like a mist of mayflies:
I approach a field. A black piano waits
at its center. I kneel to play
what I can. A single key. A tooth
tossed down a well. My fingers
sliding the slimy gums. Slick lips. Snout.
Images elsewhere sometimes save the poems from sinking into a sea of sheer guff; but, after “A single candle./ Their shadows: two wicks,” “he’s reshaping the curve of her pale calf/ atmosphered by a landmine,” and “he entered my room like a shepherd/ stepping out of a Caravaggio,” it’s difficult to know whether to linger over the lines or laugh out loud, the ingenuity is so securely wedded to kitsch. Metaphors shouldn’t have to try so hard.
Vuong may possess the most attractive name for a poet since Thomas Love Peacock.
Vuong may possess the most attractive name for a poet since Thomas Love Peacock. Born on a rice farm near Saigon, he came to America as a two-year-old refugee. Appearing recently in Great Britain (the U.S. edition was published two years ago), his first full-length book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the T. S. Eliot Prize, the latter a rare honor for a debut.2 Among its minor graces is the sly, mournful use of desperate pickups and lonely hookups:
I wanted to disappear—so I opened the door to a stranger’s car. He was divorced. He was sobbing into his hands (hands that tasted like rust). The pink breast-cancer ribbon on his key chain swayed in the ignition. Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?
That question, its smooth banality rising out of nowhere, leaves the lines styled, not felt. Too many of Vuong’s poems seem assembled from a kit, but the kit always makes the same heartfelt cry for understanding. His love of romantic twaddle derives from seventies stones-and-bones poets like Merwin and Bly, filtered through that master of the Hallmark-card weepie, Li-Young Lee.
Vuong writes in the long shadow of the classical world. There are entire poems starring Telemachus, Eurydice, and Odysseus, as well as an ode to masturbation that might have delighted Catullus or Martial. Derek Walcott, an outsider who seized the classics by main force, once wrote, “The classics can console. But not enough.” Vuong fools around with the Greeks as if they were a set of action figures. His poems may seem to bear the burden of the ancients, but he’s just toying with a tradition he hasn’t embraced.
Confessional poetry began shading into identity politics a decade or so ago, when the fraught psychology of Plath and Lowell became less important than the still-raw oppressions of biography; but biography has now become the whole sales-pitch. (I don’t have a problem with the identity or the politics, but a lot of bad poetry has been written in the name of putting them together.) Little in Vuong’s work conveys the immigrant’s wrenching dislocation or permanent sense of loss, the rupture of identity between two worlds and the knowledge of being orphaned in both. Whatever private terrors lie within the poems, we get only the PG version, with X-rated snippets here and there. The poet was eleven before he learned to read, but this has more standing in his publicity than in poetry. The emotion that seethes beneath, a rage more unnerving for largely being repressed, is far more articulate than anything he brings himself to admit.
Too often the underlying matter—the disrupted family, the sexual noir—overwhelms the poor verse. The U.K. jacket prose calls the poet “steeped in war”; but it’s unclear how steeped he can be, born a dozen years after the war was over. (Growing up in Hartford, he didn’t visit Vietnam until his twenties.) That doesn’t diminish the despair of watching your family struggle in a new world; but the rougher memories exist only as spectral narratives—his father apparently spent time in prison, but where and why are never revealed.
Vuong’s poems fidget from form to form, at times using form against itself:
where no man
from too much
of chewed stars
Art/ -iculation? Really? Chewed stars? (I know what he means, but comparing semen to chewed stars seems, well, a bit much.) The poems hurtle on madly and insensibly, giving no quarter but taking no pains. When they run out of steam, Vuong ends with a little romantic gasp.
That’s not to say that form provides nothing, just that the contents rarely take advantage of the container—the forms are a fancy set of cookie cutters. (The cleverest poem here is composed of half-a-dozen footnote numbers but no text—the lines, which are a letdown, lie buried in the notes.) Form does little more than interrupt a run-on style that threatens to launch into a Faulknerian break-dance of thirty pages or more—but without Faulkner’s gifts. When Vuong touches on the horror of the war, the touching isn’t quite enough. The debt incurred should demand something like Heart of Darkness.
The poet’s back story, as Hollywood would call it, is so affecting it gets in the way. The poetry might develop into something richer and stranger, given a chance; but Vuong’s appetite for pathos; his giddy, off-kilter images; and his painful eagerness suggest how much work he has yet to do.
Douglas Crase was briefly the golden boy of American poetry. His first book, The Revisionist (1981), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award (formerly, as now, the National Book Award). In short order, he received a Guggenheim, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and finally, what most poets would kill their first child for, a MacArthur Fellowship.
Charles Molesworth wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “Crase has what it usually takes several books to achieve: an important subject; a consistent and supple attitude toward it; and a style rich enough to answer to it.” Jay Parini in the New Republic added, “For sheer ambition, ingenuity, and wit, Crase stands alone.” A few years later, in his introduction of Crase at a reading in the Guggenheim Museum, David Kalstone compared the book to two of the most important first books of the century, Stevens’s Harmonium and Bishop’s North and South.
What often happens to golden boys happened to Crase. He was scarcely heard from again, though he published a few poems here and there before apparently stopping for good. The Astropastorals, a title that manages to be both clunky and overweening, collects those thirteen poems and reads like a coda, if not an epitaph.3 Consider the shortest poems in this belated pamphlet, both untitled:
A reductionism that makes the world
complex, a truth that simply nothing
can explain, is how events curled
up in space when seen are scattering.
* * *
Time: when not to come undone
is, no, not slavery. Happiness
defines the accommodation
that hides the quark from us.
These have the pretense of wisdom and the shallowness of an oil slick. There’s always a strain of artifice in Crase’s work, and the more you read the more you feel like a dire wolf in tar. “The human mind is interesting and the universe” (Gertrude Stein) is the pamphlet’s epigraph—there can’t be a clumsier way of putting the perfectly obvious, because Stein would have discovered it. Crase is not far behind:
Was it this, our idea of access to a larger world
That invented the world itself (first, second,
Third), past accuracy we are bound to inhabit now
As targets, positioned in a trillionth
Of the smallest measuring—microresults
Made in the least, most unimaginable chronology?
If a man hobbled up to you on Broadway spouting this, you’d phone the guys at Bellevue. There’s a good deal in Stevens and Crane that might provoke a similar reaction, but a lot more unjustly.
Crase graduated from Princeton in physics, and these new poems seem the work of a slightly dotty gentleman scientist—what used to be called a natural philosopher. This mixture of freshman musing and paperback philosophy is embarrassing when not tedious, though mostly it’s just tedious. The abstractions pile up until there’s no air left in the room: “These were the dialectic of a fold/ Formed out of almost nothingness, a fold of hours/ In a space where the ‘hour’ is eccentricity.”
The rendered detail of Crase’s early poems gave fertile ground for abstraction. On the evidence of the poems here, he soon went off chasing meta- and astrophysics, where the abstractions gradually spun out of control—I’m surprised that he didn’t start doodling in notebooks, using passing license plates to derive the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem. Page after page the leaden prosiness chases most of the metaphors away, and the few remaining are so tortured you feel sorry for them: “ready to set near space ringing/ As if from the ranking capacitor outside the sun” or “like a rocket in winter, I have been there to see you/ Logged in as a guest among stars.”
In spite of excursions, despite my expenditures
Ever more anxiously matrixed, ever baroque,
I can prove we have met and I’ve proved we can do it again
By each error I make where otherwise one couldn’t be
Because only an actual randomness
Never admits a mistake.
After nearly forty years, it’s still hard to understand all the fuss over The Revisionist.
After nearly forty years, it’s still hard to understand all the fuss over The Revisionist. The book’s reception might serve as a footnote to the minor afflictions of taste—and to the advantage of being well-connected. The early eighties were not a particularly good time for young poets, though during those years Jorie Graham published Erosion (1983); Richard Kenney, The Evolution of the Flightless Bird (1984); Gjertrud Schnackenberg, The Lamplit Answer (1985); and, in England, James Fenton, The Memory of War (1982), all first or second books and arguably the best those poets ever wrote. Throw in The Kingfisher (1983), Amy Clampitt’s first book (she was in her sixties), and perhaps the time was not so bad after all.
In Library Journal at the time, I complimented The Revisionist’s “welcome intelligence” but remarked that “these prosy poems, midway between narrative and meditation, use nature and the detritus of city life to anchor abstract and philosophical speculation. . . . Because so much of the talk is without attendant emotion, the welter of detail, interesting in itself, is vaguely clinical.” Perhaps I simply couldn’t see what other critics saw.
Elizabeth Spires’s finely drawn, delicate architectures develop slowly, with childlike earnestness. A Memory of the Future, her sixth book, is full of mortal longings fringed with doubt—a long section is devoted to graves and the afterlife of tragedies.4 Mortality, with a brute dose of eschatology, has long been her dark, defining subject, whether age’s savage impositions upon beauty or the breathless end of things, subjects youth can scarcely contemplate more than abstractly. Decade by decade, they become less and less abstract.
The most delightful new poem begins in the shadow of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” and “The Monument.” (Behind the latter lies George Herbert, whose metaphysics the young Bishop adopted.) “I,” in Spires’s poem of that title, is the monument erected at birth. If the poet climbs to the top, she claims she will see
a pillar of his or her own making,
some near, some far,
some curious, some hostile,
but even so, I wave to all
of them and wait to see
if they wave back.
There, abruptly, the poem ends—that’s not the only thing she learned from Bishop. The affection goes back a long way, back further than the splendid interview Spires conducted with the older poet in 1978, the year before Bishop’s death. Both graduated from Vassar; Bishop’s meeting as a student with Marianne Moore is mirrored by Spires’s later meeting with Miss Bishop.
Imitating Bishop’s tone, her metaphors, or just her bearing can be like forging her signature. Even so, whenever the ghost of the older poet floats through Spires’s work, it becomes richer and more demanding. Bishop brings out a teasing quality in her that otherwise lies dormant. “Riddle” begins:
Puffed like an adder.
Deflated like a balloon.
Tiny or huge, you are
never the right size.
A little man or woman,
you strut, you speak,
you want. You
On the riddle goes for another three stanzas, but I’d be just as happy never to know the answer. (“Pride,” “Shopper,” or “Penis” would do just as well as the one provided in the notes.)
The weaker poems are what the publicity calls “Zen reflections,” though naming them leaves me at a loss. Whispery, whiskery, often in forms so tentative a zephyr would blow them away, the poems hover at the edge of sense, if not the nonsense so beloved of poets with not half the poetic intelligence of Spires. Experimenting with form sometimes reveals a failure of nerve, but rare is the good artist who doesn’t suffer a failure of nerve every day or two. There’s a poem whose title is a downward brushstroke that looks like the letter “I.” It begins, “Ink. Ink/ on a brush/ held by a hand/ above me,/ beyond me,” and ends,
To be here.
To be here
To say more
would be to say
Armless, I raise
In such a cryptic vein of wisdom, saying too little is worse than saying nothing, the short lines giving each word weight it doesn’t deserve. Poetry finds the ineffable difficult if not impossible to render. When translators choose a single book from the Commedia, it’s usually the Inferno, rarely the Purgatorio, almost never the Paradiso. To the modern age, Paradise is anticlimactic.
The perfect Zen poem might be absolute silence, or an Anglo-Saxon riddle with no answer—Spartan contemplation, then, not satori. If I don’t find the Zen-drenched poems convincing, that might be blamed on my lack of religious character; but it’s difficult to give substance to a philosophy by nature insubstantial. (I can imagine Bishop trying to write Zen poems, but her whimsy would keep breaking in.)
Too many poems in this uneven book are mere sketches.
Too many poems in this uneven book are mere sketches. I prefer the drawings and watercolors to the paintings of many artists (Turner, Ingres, Lear); but poetry is a different medium, and Spires sacrifices too much for small gestures indistinctly made. Her gifts come through more sweetly, more rigorously, where she repays more than she borrows, as in a poem that owes a little to Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”:
Someday you and I will lie formal and lofty in a grave,
the way that speechless effigies of kings and queens
are laid out, side by side, in dim cathedrals for pilgrims
to touch and wonder at. In chaste repose, no longer
will we feel the press of time pour madly through our fingers,
too fast, too fast!
There she possesses the lines, and they possess her.
Karl Kirchwey’s Stumbling Blocks is old-fashioned in the muscular way of fidelity to the past’s presumption and craft.5 Though he mentions a “sky-blue cat’s cradle of gasworks,” “Gehry’s symphony hall,” and, of all things, Pez, these are just telltales to remind the reader that the poems weren’t written while Southey drew breath. Old-fashioned and newfangled have been at odds for a very long time (think of “newfangleness” in Wyatt’s “They flee from me”); but Modernism showed that the past cannot forget, or forgive, the present.
The poems’ formal style lies concealed in half-rhymes and quarter-rhymes, or even rhymes only a bluetick hound could detect.
We know they lived short lives in a world of slavery:
is this why their faces are so beautiful and grave,
one wearing a soft cap, pooled at his shoulders,
another naked, the line of his back
like a tornado’s funnel, in a monochrome canter
riding into the gruel and blizzard of time
that has scoured even their tack away . . . ?
The subdued majesty is almost sculptural. After the little echo of “slavery” and “grave,” the couplets use what might be called rhyme of affiliation or rhyme thematic—“shoulders” and “back,” “canter” and “time,” or, later, “moment” and “eternity.” It’s half clever, or too clever by half; but the generosity and regard should not pass unnoticed.
Kirchwey allows his poems the space required to work out their demands. Pitched into form with a cockiness now rare, they never war against their own formalities. Too often in contemporary verse the poet signs the contract of form then, whenever restriction proves binding, cheerfully tears it up. Kirchwey has a Calvinist love of labor; but in their confidence these Old World poems live suspended between choices unchosen, decisions unmet.
Poems have been hacked from antique ruins for a long while—since the Romantics, the presiding god of poetry has been not Apollo but Osiris. Even nature is at times merely an extension of Romantic wreckage:
All day long the wind spoke
in a language I could not understand,
an aimless heave and surge of feeling
high in the branches of the trees.
The leaves in swags braided and unbraided
as at an altar where something was gathered
then scattered, indifferent to the cost.
It’s a pleasure to sink into such poems the way you sink into an English club-chair, though Anthony Hecht’s bootprints are all over them. Kirchwey’s “headlong rush and stall of it,/ restless partings and rifts of shadow/ closing suddenly and without appeal” pays homage to the clotted-cream phrasing of “The Cost” (the “smother/ And puzzle of heaven’s wards,” the “spin/ And dazzled rinse of air”), a poem to which Kirchwey’s “Roma 8F 9260” is also a long footnote. Hecht can be an attractive but devouring master.
On occasion the language falls for the preening self-regard Hecht worshiped morning and night. Kirchwey: “as centuries of homicidal ethics// when realized as a diurnal fact,/ make a mere granular paste and deliquesce/ before the legend.” Or, worse, “each broken, sucked-out wheel/ and mildewed felly,/ boisterous viridian// quaffing the bittersweet.” Quaffing the bittersweet! Whether this comes from falling too much in love with Roget’s or just suffering a few stabs of pretension, the result gilds the felly. (The rim of a wheel, now usually “felloe.”)
The ligaments of this carefully styled book do not come without weakness: there’s an epistolary poem that seems to go on forever and a poem based on a pun so droll the groan is automatic (“The Stones at the Circus Maximus”—Rolling Stones, that is). The book itself, which celebrates classical unities, has been divided into what seem more sections than poems. Sometimes Kirchwey is too eager to make a point—a few poems might have been improved by dropping the last line or even the last stanza. In his slow-burning meditations (perhaps a little too slow), the tone is so reasonable, so collected, you wish the poet would turn rabid and let the buried emotion burst in.
Kirchwey spent three years as arts director at the American Academy in Rome, exploring every nook of a place he already knew well, the whole city an ekphrastic dream where each time you dig a ditch the sins of the emperors come boiling up. Even if Stumbling Blocks reads like a guidebook commissioned by the Rome Tourist Bureau, everywhere lines flaunt themselves, the poems moody in their measured way and gorgeous in the plumage of particulars. Some children in Rossellini’s masterpiece of Italian Neorealismo walk home:
St. Peter’s is in the background,
its dome floating like a miracle they do not notice.
I watched the movie again last night. Beyond
my window were patches of filthy snow
as grudging winter yielded and spring returned;
but only when the bloody-handed thugs in the Via Tasso
had tortured the Resistance leader to death.
The poem is titled after the film, and not without irony, “Roma città aperta.” In this book, Kirchwey has let darkness gather against the light.
Claudia Emerson wrote furiously in the months before her death four years ago. Claude Before Time and Space is the second of her posthumous books, composed with a hard eye toward extinction.6 Death comes for all, often with no more than a peremptory knock—for Lowell in the back of a taxi, for Bishop in her Boston apartment. The courage of mind required to write with death hovering at your shoulder should not be underestimated.
Emerson backs her way into a poem, often as not, the way Southerners tell stories. Even when she’s more abrupt than usual, the openings seem off-center, giving up only what’s necessary:
The town’s trees, roomy with winter, have begun
of late to fill with them, a settling
that commences with dusk. The widows complain—
claim they can smell them, can hear them shuffling
in the trees, a wing hitting a branch a sound
sharp, they say, as ice cracking. They cannot
Emerson backs her way into a poem the way Southerners tell stories.
Crows? Black vultures? The Valkyries? You never learn—perhaps only a Virginian would know. (In fact, they’re the vultures.) The poem isn’t about bird-watching; it’s about harbingers of death, random killing, the blind need to return home. That the widows complain is a touch Frost would have admired.
The post-war world destroyed a narrow sense of the local. The roots that made Ransom and Tate poetry’s Southern gentlemen, Frost and Lowell a maple-syrup or saltbox Yankee, and Whitman and Williams yawpers of the New York suburbs have gradually rotted away. Now you have to go a far piece outside urban Dixie to hear a strong Southern accent; and to hear the Boston accent pure, except in pockets like Dorchester, you must drive as far as Fitchburg. Emerson was always, helplessly, a Southern poet—it was a communion of blood.
Death haunts the borders of this book—it haunts the interiors as well. A doctor lists the odd ways people die:
there is the time the lightning
strikes the plow and kills the mule and the one
behind the mule: the time it strikes a nail
at the back of the head of someone leaning against
a country store.
Death is never naturalized here, just part of nature. A father teaches his daughter how to dress a dead rabbit: “You can skin it easy with your fingers;/ it’s slick—he leans over, slips the sock off/ your foot—as this.” Emerson approaches Southern childhood with no interest in the mythic trappings, though this mixture of fondness and macabre bullying is rarely the preserve of father-daughter poems.
Claude Before Time and Space is divided into three parts divergent in style: back-country tales in Williams’s triadic line; rural lives trapped rather than freed by phrasal forms (this section weaker than the others); last, poems in the self-made Hawk-eye world of her father. That final strain of Southern yarning tries to pass on lessons of survival, lessons a poet mortally ill and without children no longer requires. The poems come to terms with a man who must have been a difficult father. Having smuggled in a tincture of his cruelty, his moral blindness, Emerson perhaps reveals more than she means to; but this origin tale is all the darker and more unsettling.
The father poems are cast in free-verse sonnets, a couplet with a pair of tercets either side—what pleasure it must have given Emerson to discover the shape. (There ought to be a rhymed version, aba cbc dd ebe fbf, say, or aba in the tercets with the couplet bb. Perhaps lines could repeat, as in a villanelle.) These taut quasi-sonnets are among her most moving; but the finest poem comes earlier, a dream of survival in which, as sometimes happens, a violent fever burns out the cancer:
And when I wake
as from the childhood
bed, it will have
broken, all of it,
the veil of seeded
water on my brow
a sign there: something
out, now, blown away,
by the arson that has
become the God in me.
The metaphors scattered here and elsewhere are worth the wait—the “propulsion gear of a bee in a blossom,” or a new moon “red and thin as a bass’s/ gill, clean and bloodless.” The sweat becomes dandelion seeds, perhaps, to be blown away.
Emerson was afflicted with charming modesty, not the worst vice for an exemplary life. A few of these final poems, those longer and more languorous than necessary, are what she seldom was, irresolute. The best move toward their ends by slow degrees (a method Frost knew well), like a bather immersing herself step by step in a freezing lake. This lovely, haunting book is a fit memorial to a talent that, despite the Pulitzer, hasn’t received its due. I knew Claudia well enough to hesitate before reviewing her a last time, but the poems forced my hand.
1 Wi the Haill Voice: 25 Poems, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated by Edwin Morgan; Carcanet, 93 pages, $14.95 (paper).
2 Night Sky with Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong; Copper Canyon, 92 pages, $16 (paper).
3 The Astropastorals, by Douglas Crase; Pressed Wafer, 23 pages, $10 (paper).
4 A Memory of the Future, by Elizabeth Spires; W. W. Norton, 81 pages, $26.95.
5 Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems, by Karl Kirchwey; Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 89 pages, $16.95 (paper).
6 Claude Before Time and Space, by Claudia Emerson; Louisiana State University Press, 74 pages, $39.95, $18.95 (paper).
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 64
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