The shore (Houghton Mifflin, $10; paperback, $4.95) is 31-year-old David St. John's second collection. It is an enormous esthetic and emotional step beyond the apprenticeship of his first book, Hush -- a book rightly praised for its imaginative glamour, grace of phrasing, and, as one commentator suggests, its "amplitude of feeling." What was a gift in the beginner is a genius in the better poet. The Shore is a book of sustained moments, in which image and the language of image are at the service of larger, narrative needs. The ambition of these new poems lies in their acquisitional skills -- what they reach out for, what they gather in, and what they can, convincingly, hold together. Most of the poems are meditations, lengthy, embracing, deeply evocative, set on the shoreline of California, where: you can see the way The shore Approximates the dream, how distances Repeat their deaths Above these tables and panes of water -- As climbing the hills above The harbor, up to the lupine drifting Among the lichen-masked pines, The night is pocked with lamps lit On every boat off shore . . .
In most the continuity of the single, richly textured stanza intensifies and unifies the poem. St. John does not write verse exactly, with the usual attention to the integrity of the line. His poems do not so much return or even enjamb -- that is, cross and recross the page -- as they run on, progress and accelerate down the page, in a kind of lyric prose.
This is not to say that his poems lack music; rather that they internalize their rhythmic qualities, keep tem within the line, by repetition of image or word. By assonance or consonance, by the subtle pacing of the speed of his sounds and insights, St. John makes a modesty of a virtue. The point is important because understated, vertical movement, the momentum of the past brought suddenly into the present tense, is everything to his work. His is a music forced from the ambiguous center of the emotion: the poet cannot afford to linger; that would versify, make precious the moment. He can only afford to move on, at the pace of discovery, detail, and desire. For as lyrical and fluent as his meditations are, St. John has written himself into a love ethic, into a series of stories in which a women is the inevitable antagonist, the inevitable muse. The learning, the wisdom gained from the encounter is therefore accumulative. Poems such as "The Shore," "Hotel Sierra," and the beautiful last poem "Until the Sea Is Dead," simply and passionately add up . And with their accretive, narrative power, St. John's best poems open out. They achieve scope, particularly when they are most intimate. And from poem to poem to poem, just 12 all together, they achieve a totality that makes them among the best 50 pages of poetry published this year.
The Various Light (Viking, $12.95; Peguin paperback, $7.95) is Alfred Corn's third volume in just four years. It promotes the same polish and wit and high verbal energy and exhilaration as his earlier books. No doubt he writes in a hurry -- not that his work is careless or unfinished, not even that it feels particularly spontaneous. It simply reads fast , moves easily at the surface, partly because experience is received and returned at a rapid rate and partly because the pitch of the poems is invariably in the direction of the language -- often as if to announce that the artifice itself is at issue. Sometimes it is, sometimes the poet's language overloads the poem. The harps spewing icy fountains of soda, Virtuosic, ebullient, vitreous. The first violin polished to a snap, Ripples bright mercuries. Somethimes the artifice is the filling-out of formulae: Light, be laid like malleable leaf On polished branches, heraldic buds Side by side, across the springy compost. How much better these three lines would be without the adjectives! Also a number of whole poems seem to be extra added attractions. "Debates," "Songs for Five Companionable Singers," and "Lacrimae Rerum ," for example, begin and end in idea, in thinking that takes place mostly in shadow, in a chiaroscuro and subtlety almost too abstract to recognize, too rich with meaning to differentiate. These are poems that are lonely with sensibility. They make the Symbolists sound like literalists of the imagination.
At his best, however, Corn has a wonderful facility with form and phrasing, and the intellectual's gift for absorbing and making information immediately available. His good poems fix on the object, locate the place, focus an actual, articulate emotional source. In "The Village," likely Stonington, The milky, byword fog Blows in, punctuated now And then by dim C-sharps Out past the breakwater, the gamut Changeless as that half-ellipse Fanlight cut under the gables Of every Federal House On Main or Water Street. In "The Progress of Peace," the poet watches Milkweeds in flower, each with a monarch Pinned to it, divine right of laziness, The disbelieving suspension of will, Prone, supine -- it's no way to deliver The gods, themselves underachievers, but Who shed for this day (as though they were kings) Distilled light like a spirit glaze on things. And in poems such as "Grass" and "A Bid," he avoides any trace of rhetorical chat that might exhaust the subject before letting go of the language. These two poems in particular raise the ante on what talk, as direct address, can be in a poem, how even in the middle of the action the mind is sorting and selecting and converting -- "If certain moonstruck nights suddenly a tree/ Answers to the winds by having all its leaves/ Turn coinlike silver with a quick glissando/ Up the same shimmering scale, reflexively/ Harmonized as a school of herring . . . well, that/ Kind of choreography's too difficult, Granted . . . . " Corn is a committed formalist, which means that he perceives the world not only in language but as language. He sees it in the very speech of symbolization. That is why the risk in his work is always toward verbal excess or cleverness. Words live in the world as well; they depend, like birds and beachstones, on the resources of gravity. In his book's longest poem, "The Outdoor Amphitheater," Corn frees himself in order to extend himself. For more than 350 lines the poet explores and entertains "those first scenes, lapidary, paintbox bright" that help qualify his past -- whether he is on stage, as an 8-year-old alto, or watching his sister crowned beauty queen, "odd but touching, there, out of doors." In this piece more than any other he becomes "the spectator,/Taking it all in." The poem moves at the speed of the mind in recitation, over primary emotional material, making the hard choices about what the words should be and where they come from.
With Taking Notice (Knopf, $9.95; paperback, $5.95), Marily Hacker has written what constitutes the last volume in a trilogy. Her concerns are basically the same -- esthetic and sexual confrontation -- as they were in Presentation Piece and Separations . It is their sequence that swells a progress. Their titles, effectively, speak for themselves. The first book is an introduction to and exploration of relationships, friendly and familial; the second centers on the difficulty and eventual disintegration of a long-distance marriage. This third book, a taking and nailing-up of notice, begins with "one man, not some indifferent Must to me" and ends with "the woman I love, as old, as new to me/as any moment of delight."
Running in a kind of counterpoint beneath these major chords is the poet's relationship with her child, Iva Alyxander, her birth, babyhood, and growth ("You are braver than your mother/and I am not a timid woman").
Loving and mothering, feeling and form. These are Hacker's preoccupations. It should be said at the outset that at her best no one handles the colloquial sublime -- a language that is both common and classical in forms both strict and serial -- better than Marilyn Hacker. She is a master of progressive pentameter, of measuring, interrupting and holding the line, and of letting it go on, of letting it pile into sentences and juxtapositions.
There are few poems in the present volume that free her of this formal bias, and when we run across them ("Up from D.C.") they sound a little odd, out of place, out of tune. Hacker's voice blends almost pitch-perfectly with the standard iambic five feet in English. What rescues the sound of that voice from the rhythm of the metronome is what also makes possible her passion in and for form: hers is emphatically a poetry of imperative speech. Like Browning, Hacker is a monologist -- dramatic, intensely personal, vulnerable, aggressive, and conclusive. Her persona is herself, in performance, "lover, fabulist, feminist, wit." Underneath the "jackbooted choreography" of her verbal exterior, the political, passional utterance of her speaker, is a woman obsessed with the body, its soror as well as its sexual compulsions. And under that is a poet obsessed with embodiment, the form her passions should take: You separate perception from perceiver; I make it sound like virtue that I can't. In this imaginary argument we've had repeatedly when we're together, my mind is limbic, weighted like the weather. You're sunlit on another continent. It's rained five days here. The first two I spent indoors, ate cheese, read magazines, neither nourished nor informed. My anger paired with your absence: lonely parameters. I want to be the child-philosopher cross-legged in the drop-leaf table's shelter; bare legs crossed on the nubbly pile, who felt her mind's flux find form in fixed faces of chairs.
Taking Notice offers a number of forms, from sestinas to canzones to pantoums. But the predominate form, and perhaps Hacker's true emblem, is the sonnet, 14 fixed lines in which the division of labor into octet and sestet magnifies at the same time that it mirrors the complicated working out of the emotion. This new book makes the word most flesh when it permits the sonnet its consecutive and completed sequence. Too many of the other forms here are time-serving and the writing plain bad ("My body is cored with hunger;/ my mind is gnarled in oily knots of anger"). Hacker is a poet of enormous intensity and focus. The Petrarchan form is her place, "concise, ornate, colloquial, allusive."
Charles Simic is almost unique in American poetry. He was born in another country, into another language. His middle European, Yugoslavian origins still make him an immigrant, an outsider to formal and experiential assumptions that most American poets are not even aware they have. Not that Simic is not an American poet. In fact, Classic Ballroom Dances, (Braziller, $6.95) his latest book, is more in the American grain of Williams than any recent collection one can call to mind. It is a question of sensibility. Simic's profoundly ironic and gnomic distance, his gallows humor, his implacable sense of the absurd come from a source at one remove from the popular, sometimes sentimental attitudes about what we call experience. His taproot runs to something older than social culture, deeper than the social sources of the individual. The real figures in his poems are from primitive folklore, tales, a medieval shadow-world of the literature of memory. He makes a contemporary of the archetypal by treating it as part of the condition of the moment. It is a rare existential discipline, this treating the temporal as if it were eternal, the eternal as if were temporary. His antagonists live in the present as they likely lived, we realize, in the deep past. Simic does not write so much in deep images as he writes from the depths of imagination: The Virgin Mother walked barefoot among the land mines. She carried an old man in her arms. The dove on her shoulder. barked at the moon. The earth was an old people's home. Judas was the night nurse. He kept emptying bedpans into river Jordan.
Simic sounds so ancient and child-wise due to the pristine terms of his transormations. His perceptions read like distillations, which is why he seems just a shade this side of the allegorical. dEven his voice is surrendered to the medium, the correlative, the primary object of the poem itself -- whether it be paradigm or parable, or a thing simply beautiful, like "December Trees." Dark Wood, I give myself entirely over To your craftsmen. In a clearing, They sized me up and then took their distance. Quiet folk, bent, emaciated, For such is the season. Without clues, With hands raised, I stood like a mare In a blacksmith's shop. Smoke Of a late December sunlight . . . Soft bellows of approaching dusk, As the birches put on their heavy aprons And reached among the branches for irons, They hid there, so long, with leaves on.
Classic Ballroom Dances is remarkable in that it yields to all the familiar totemic and lapidary techniques that have made Simic's reputation. What is new is that its important lyrics close further the distance between the poet's stance and his real subject, the ghost in the heart. And among the willow trees: Water before water made up its mind to be water. My sister says if I drink of that water I will die . . . That's why the heart beats: to waken the water.
Never has Simic been so vulnerable to the human needs of his material; never has he been so willing to let his method open to the pauses and pacing of the whole page, to the resonance of the phrase and the image. Poems such as "The Stream," "Elegy," and "Like Whippooriwills," move with a grace of understanding and evocation and feeling reminiscent of the movement in the best of Williams' "simple" poems: Nothing that comes to nothing for company comes the way a hurt the way a thought comes comes and keeps coming
It is as if an idiom had changed for Simic, as if he could allow his inherited language to absorb the fuller, the more direct report "of the particulars/ and their ture/magnitudes."