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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Many excellent movies and novels have dealt with the ordeal of alcoholism. So, too, has poetry, including the recent book by Californian Kenneth Fields. Reflective and vivid, cool rather than melodramatic, these compact poems have a grotesque comedy that makes the booze-curse more dire, not less. Fields presents his characters -- "Billy," "Burton," a woman called "Billie" -- with blunt appraisal, clear-eyed sympathy and understated judgment.

Though the material is sad, the poems have the bracing, redeeming and even exhilarating effect that comes from precision. Fields has also mastered the difficult art of writing good dialogue in verse:

Cutting His Losses

Bars were his life. He kept getting thrown out.

"I drinks a bit," Billy would tell his friends

Back when he had them. He never threw things away,

He simply lost them, or he left them behind,

So a little less of him came back each day.

"It'll be safer there," he always said --

A shirt, a knife, a photograph, his name,

A list left in a bar or on the bus.

He drank a bit the morning he walked downtown,

Only two beers on the way to the liquor store,

When the seizures caught him, black suns, bright suns --

He couldn't shake them, couldn't lose these things --

The slap of the sidewalk, the electric yellow faces.

He didn't hear the sireens. He talked to them,

The paramedics, as if they were old friends:

"You guys like things that I don't more than I do --

I can't stop thinking about it."

"What?"

"I can't remember."

The weird kilter of speech in the last three lines, that quality of almost making sense, has a muted counterpart in the almost conventional, subtle strangeness of idiom, the way losing and throwing away proliferate; "He simply lost them" making a distorted harmony with "He couldn't shake them, couldn't lose those things." The art of the poem, including its iambic pentameter, is kept quiet in a way that emphasizes the banality of ruin. This is the voice of misery, in the verse measure of John Milton and William Wordsworth, and the colloquial sureness of excellent detective fiction.

In "Tangled," the peculiar music of distortion -- "Her toos cant moos" -- is more evident, less held back:

The rabbits were at the door, a little bulge

Just above the left eye. The rattlesnakes

Tangled above her knees as the bedclothes turned,

"Another transparent night." The songs were singing

Every day now even while she was driving,

Her little finger buzzing like the end of a tail,

Her toos cant moos, this was not being well.

She began to dream of someone who needed her,

Somebody lost on the highway, left

To dry on the line, barbed wire, telephone wire --

The whips and jangles, nothing coming clear,

The buzzing static on the radio,

Heat-seeking, diamondhead,

And safety somewhere beyond those coils of sound.

It's notable that these poems are clear without being judgmental. Imaginative details such as the buzzing little finger, the three kinds of wire, unexpected adjectives like "diamondhead" -- because they come to the reader partly through Billie's consciousness -- create an intimacy, a shared viewpoint or imagining. The poet's art, by being so closely attentive, is generous to its desperate characters.

(Kenneth Fields's poems "Cutting His Losses" and "Tangled" are from his book "Classic Rough News." Univ. of Chicago Press. Copyright 2005 by Univ. of Chicago.)

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