Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Poetry's refrains and introspections, its way of repeating itself in sound or idea, with each recurrence varying, link the art to a certain kind of thought. The word "reflection" can be a synonym for thought and also for a close resemblance. The way thought beholds itself is an important subject: Self-awareness, painful or ecstatic, is a central human experience.

Mary Kinzie's new book reflects on itself and on poetry in a spirit that is engaging, expansive, venturesome, sometimes comic or surreal. In a sequence about T.S. Eliot in California with his love interest Emily Hale, the couple visits the In-N-Out hamburger chain, as do other poets, including Emily Dickinson and Henry Thoreau.

Kinzie includes many prose sections. In one of these, she uses the phrase "windless, bony dusk" then reflects that the phrase is too showy and "pleased with itself" for prose, though it might be appropriately "chastened" in a poem she has not written. A few pages later, the phrase comes back (without its comma), in a poem with a prose afterword:


those streets down which

sun never falls

Above which

stories cloud up

with a god onlooking

twisting about the sky

The poems to burn through into code

like an opera in silver

When death begins

the muscles under the teeth and jaw

disintegrate down to the chest

That is death that

the flame goes on rotting

in the windless bony dusk

The last phrase is no longer a bas relief standing out, polished, "rather good," above the smooth ground. It is desolate. Anger watches it. Fear drains it. Spirit is already gone from it. It is an afterwards, not an apex. Nothing follows.

This exquisite self-consciousness rises far beyond the merely literary. The poem considers the resemblances among various kinds of absence: sunless streets, lost ideas, unwritten poems, death itself. The tone is not melodramatic. The feeling of "It is an afterwards, not an apex" and "Nothing follows" is analytical though not dispassionate. There is even a hint of satisfaction, a suggestion of the aesthetic principle that "nothing follows" because nothing needs to be added. The word for that tone of voice, weighing its own formulations along with their object, is "reflective." Mary Kinzie's achievement is to make the reflective into something lyrical, as well.

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Gulf Music."

(Mary Kinzie's poem "Lost Poems Like" is from her book "California Sorrow: Poems." Knopf. Copyright ¿ 2007 by Mary Kinzie.)

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company