Book reviews: Poetry from Kay Ryan, Edward Hirsch and Robert Hass

By Steven Ratiner
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; C04

A guide to new collections from acclaimed poets.

As numerous literary fashions have come and gone, Edward Hirsch has resolutely produced the personal, quietly narrative, image-centered lyric poems that were the hallmark of the 20th century. Throughout The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2010 (Knopf, $27), we find work rooted in the old-fashioned concept of the poem as a tool for discovery, whether the subject lies in the self or our shared world. When a Hirsch poem strikes its mark, you feel the utter necessity of its impulse: language unveiling the lived moment.

Unfortunately, the poet's penchant for punning and witticism sometimes distracts from his deeper purpose. "Milk," for example, opens with: "My mother wouldn't be cowed into nursing," leaving this reader wincing, hard-pressed to fully engage with the poem on anything but a literary level. "Dark Tour" offers 30 haiku-like glimpses of locales from the poet's life, but many do not rise much above wordplay.

Yet I can forgive Hirsch his clever misses because they are derived from the same unshakable belief in the vitality of language that gives us his solid hits. His elegiac poems about the Terezin concentration camp or the lost Jewish towns of Poland come by their tears honestly. His sensuous depictions of love's pleasures and defeats are unmistakably the product of a heart placed at risk. And when, in "Special Orders," he borrows a metaphor from his father's work at a box company -- "I don't understand this uncontainable grief" -- the poet opens a memory that can secure and assuage our own grief as well.

When I first came across Kay Ryan's poetry, I half suspected she was simply writing formal verse fractured into unorthodox lines to disguise its beauty (beauty being anathema to the postmodern sensibility). But in truth, our current poet laureate has been crafting her own idiosyncratic thought-journeys and lapidary poems for several decades. Only now, with the convergence of several poetic trends, has she been thrust into the national spotlight. Though Ryan is comfortable exploring the natural world, her work is more preoccupied with the realm of ideas than things. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove, $24) brings together selections from four of Ryan's previous books plus two dozen new pieces. When she's at the top of her game (and, happily, the section of new work contains some of the book's strongest material), she has the uncanny ability to construct a tiny word-mechanism that produces the experience of genuine wonder. Here's the poem "Virga," a particularly heady dose of her lush musicality:

There are bands

in the sky where

what happens

matches prayers.

Clouds blacken

and inky rain

hatches the air

like angled writing,

the very transcription

of a pure command,

steady from a steady

hand. Drought

put to rout, visible

a mile above

for miles about.

In the utter complexity of her vision and lyricism, I'm reminded of those mechanical devices of the ancient world meant to show us our place among the stars and help us navigate the uncharted darkness beyond. And in the very best examples, Ryan's poems do precisely that.

At the outset -- and, I suspect at the core even still -- Robert Hass is a poet of praise: praise for the beauty of the natural world, for the long unfolding of our human story. ("Praise" was even the title of one of Hass's early collections.) But he is a modern man, engaged with the philosophical, aesthetic and political turmoil of our times. The Apple Trees at Olema (Ecco, $34.99) offers new poems and a generous sampling of five published collections, and his achievement is often nothing less than splendid. From his first poems in "Field Guide" onward, the poet relishes the tactile sensations of life in Northern California. "Of all the laws/that bind us to the past," he writes, "the names of things are/stubbornest," and so he offers up long litanies of names: fish, flowers, mushrooms, towns, elements of the body and mind. But the Vietnam War still troubled his early visions. (Human conflict continues to serve as the thematic counterpoint throughout his writing, whether on the grand scale of nations or the most individual and intimate circumstances.) The attempt to reconcile those two contradictory forces produces, in his best poems, moments of genuine redemption.

Conscious of language and its limitations, the tug-of-war between mind and body, Hass's newest work still manages to wholeheartedly engage with the world around him, as in this two-line, epigrammatic piece titled "Iowa, January": "In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow./Over and over, he enters the furrow." As does this poet, who views the wretched and the sublime on equal terms and with a measure of compassion -- a generous gift for any reader.

Ratiner's interview collection, "Giving Their Word -- Conversations With Contemporary Poets," was recently reissued.

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