Washington is obsessed with language. Whether lobbying, legislating or campaigning, this has always been a city of wordsmiths. At their best, our politicians have written phrases to inspire the world; at their worst, they’ve deliberately tortured phrases into nonsense. But the greater Washington area is also home to another group of people devoted to the careful parsing of language. Several of the nation’s finest poets live or have lived here. And the publication of four new collectionsgives us a chance to reflect on the remarkable literary resources of this region.
1The title of Michael Collier’s new book, An Individual History (Norton, $25.95), may lead some readers to expect an autobiography in verse. But this collection is more diverse, more fragmented, ranging not only between various levels of the personal and the social, but also between various degrees of the real and the imagined. “History,” the longest piece in the book, is a travel memoir and a troubling meditation on political evil and anti-Semitism. Collier, who teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland, remains intriguingly coy and evasive as he speculates about the destiny of various passenger liners he might or might not have been a passenger on: “Who knows the fate of the U.S.S.R. Felix Dzerzhinsky, / perhaps it’s a casino aground on the Aral Sea, / or like his socialist-realism sculpture, toppled by a crane.” These speculations give way to questions about the author: