Robert Pinsky’s ‘Selected Poems’ reviewed by Troy Jollimore

April 12, 2011

Robert Pinsky’s mind is a constant generator of metaphors. When he looks at one small thing, he sees a city, a country, a cosmos. Like William Blake, he seems to aspire “to see a world in a grain of sand.” A jar of pens is a “quiver / Of detached stingers. (Or, a bouquet / Of lies and intentions unspent.)” A shark’s yawning jawbone is “a scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.” A television set, meanwhile, is seen as a

Terrarium of dreams and wonders.

Coffer of shades, ordained

Cotillion of phosphors

Or liquid crystal

Homey miracle, tub

Of acquiescence, vein of defiance.

Each thing reminds him of yet another thing, so that the chain of association leads the reader through unanticipated and sometimes harrowing paths. In Pinsky’s later poems — the ones that come first in the reverse chronological order of this new “Selected Poems” — the chain leads, more often than not, to violence. A keyboard immediately calls to mind the story of Marsyas, the musician who lost a contest to Apollo and was skinned alive; and this leads us on to still worse things, to contemporary and entirely nonmythical horrors:

. . . then Marsyas was sensitive enough

To feel the whole world in a touch. In Africa

The raiders with machetes to cut off hands

Might make the victim choose, “long sleeve or short.”

A meditation on books, meanwhile, calls forth the sad ironies of history:

What progress we have made, they are burning my books, not

Me, as once they would have done, said Freud in 1933.

A little later, the laugh was on him, on the Jews.

Pinsky is, unusually for our time, a high-
profile public poet. He served as U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000 (the only writer to have been named to three terms), he has made guest appearances on “The Colbert Report” and he is likely one of the few American poets who is in danger of being recognized when he walks down the street. A certain cosmopolitan stance comes through in his poems, which helps explain the awareness of human suffering that informs his recent work. But Pinsky doesn’t dwell on or exploit suffering and violence; rather, they erupt periodically in his verse much as they do in regular life, part of the panoply of chaotic experiences that composes our contemporary existence.

His poems are striking in their desire to open wide (like the mouth of a shark?) and contain everything, to refuse absolutely to reject anything:

Nothing was too ugly or petty or terrible

To be weighed in the immense

Silver scales of the dead: the looming

Balances set right onto the live, dangerous

Gray bark of the street.

Everything, no matter how small or apparently uninteresting, is grist for the mill — literally so in “The Figured Wheel,” which describes an immense, flattening, death-dealing wheel that must be an instrument of the gods, if not a kind of god in itself, as it

rolls through shopping malls and prisons,

Over farms, small and immense, and the rotten little downtowns.

Covered with symbols, it mills everything alive and grinds

The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in unmarked graves and oceans.

It is hard to know exactly what this terrifying wheel represents: History? Destiny? Death itself? Pinsky’s poems rarely lend themselves to easy and decisive interpretation. (For this reason they tend to grow rather than wither with rereading.) One might say of his work, as one would say of jazz, that the point is less to interpret or understand it than to enjoy the sound and energy and mad improvisation.

That comparison is not idle: Pinsky is a fan of jazz, and his writing is frequently jazzy, a bumpy and discordant free jazz rather than a mellow lounge music jazz. His analogue is the John Coltrane of “Ascension,” not the Coltrane of “Ballads.” Indeed, he is so open to the harsh and difficult, and displays such a fondness for rough-textured words scratching and jostling against one another, that one is sometimes surprised to be reminded that he can also write straightforwardly beautiful poems. Yet such recent poems as “Rhyme” and “Samurai Song,” and such early works as the exquisite miniature “First Early Mornings Together” (from his first book, “Sadness and Happiness”) are melodic, fluid and graceful, suspending themselves like lovely songs in the mind and in the ear.

Sadness and happiness, beauty and ugliness, peace and violence — each has its place in Pinsky’s capacious poetry, for its universe is the one in which we all live. Meanwhile, that shark’s jaw, that “want bone,” continues to haunt. It’s a ring of sharp and multilayered wordplay surrounding a center that is not so much empty as unapproachable, unknowable. And in its bleached rawness, in the nakedness of its representation of desire, it reminds us that to be a poet — to aspire to feel the whole world in a touch — is painful and dangerous. To give oneself over so completely to the music of language is to risk losing one’s skin.

Jollimore’s new book, “At Lake Scugog: Poems,” appears in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Ron Charles will return next week.

selected poems

By Robert Pinsky

Farrar Straus Giroux.
209 pp. $26

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