BECAUSE SHE WRITES from "illusion: our usual point of view" and inclines toward "a literature that disolves in the air" Carol Muske's second book, Skylight Doubleday, $5.95), forms an unusually oblique poetry. Enigmatic and unyielding, she describes a world of contingency, hypothesis and speculation where little is clearly known and style is heroism since "nothing remains but the same questions, flowers in the garden." Muskie writes of language, love, death, memory and sexuality as if, to parphrase Flaubert, her poems might seem about nothing at all. She mutes dramatic circumstances for image, and referential speech for elliptical colloquy. Occasionally she turns the inexpressible surprisingly sensuous, but she is mostly asexual, impersonal, registrative: A background drops. She inhabits her body again and listens to the riveters, the shadow whip unwinding night, winding her woman's body in the silk clothes of the assassin. ("Choreography")
Cool, dreamy, self-reflexive, intensely ironic, Muske's style is a compound of surrealism, sumbolism and literary journalism. At her best she achieves a nervy precision; at worst she is blunt as bricks. Poets in search of pure poetry, as Muske is, succeed in luminous epiphany and fail in porentous phrases: "the stubborn evidence of light"; "the blue depot of reeds"; "the sprinkler's self-deprecating gestures." Refusing the inherent interest of story and communication, Muske's quirky assertions lead her to ask "Is there life after rhetoric?" "Well, yes, with clarity. But perhaps neither after nor within the rhetoric of "Coincidence": For example, this dumb lullaby we speak. The crooked hem of language grazing our lips in sleep and sleep's incandescent syllables that become the day's predictable grammar. Nevertheless, "War Crimes," "Cheap Scent" and "Skylight" show Muske writing impressively about the vortical darkness of passion. Skylight has enough moments of heat amd human contact to make it interesting but only when Muske penetrates into the literal, prosaic, impure nightmares she is forever hinting at will many of us be convinced that "In that final hour,/ we will stand on our words / for proximity to haven . . ."
Susan Wood's first collection, Bazaar (Holt , Rinehart and Winston, $10.95; paperback $5.95), has the impressionits's but also narrative's direction. Her poems are the evidences of memory's particulars, loosely and gravely joined, which seek the composure of paintings to counter a life Wood regards as love-abandoned and death-haunted. Her insistently sober tone reminds me of Phillip Levine but she might as well be described by a remark made by Georgia O'Keeffe of Stieglitz: "There was a constant grinding like the ocean. It was as if something hot, dark, and destructive was hitched to the highest star." In Wood passion's grinding is grief's for failed love, failed dreams and desire's inability to find its objects. Unlike Muske, Wood's world is as obvious as bruised flesh: emotional savagery and the mind's clinging to hope foreknown as empty. Yet bazaar is remarkable for its felt courage and a syntactical, musical subtlety of clean speech: Now I want to lie down in the light of what field, to lie down in my body, to cover myself with your skin as with the waters of a lake. To disappear against morning. ("In a Field, In August")
With Susan Wood one feels invited to know a woman of intelligence, innocence and mettle under stress. This is a happy beginning for any young poet. Yet it is not an unblemished beginning. Wood sometimes suffers from peotic jargon, melodrama and a failure to draw the poem to its fullest opportunity. An example is "The Names of the Dead" where the poet, as a child at summer dusk, says the names of grandmothers until they "took on the attitude of flesh." Isn't this merely shape ? The poem ends watching the dead: rise, luminous, over the rooftops, leaving behind them only the delicate bones of silence in the slowly deepening night.
The pushbutton rhetoric of bones, silence, darkness (stones?) and the habitual "deeping" is a manipulative failure of imagination which does not include but kills the poem. Fortunately, however, this poem is a typical. Bazaar is a dignified an auspicious start for Susan Wood, poet to be watched.
David Wagoner is not precisely a narrative poet. He tells interesting, necessary stories, but his poems are less fictions of character, suspense, and resolution than natural hymns and moral lessons. He is perhaps our talkiest, most metaphysical poet, though he masks this with events. In Landfall (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $9.95; paperback $5.95), his 12th collection, he is perpetually moving in (and looking at) two landscapes, the suburban and the wild. In the former he is the dreaming son among ghosts of city-dwellers, always slightly alien and incomplete. In the latter he tracks and backtrcks to find his truth and, by implication, our truth. Echoing Frost's choice of roads in his "Some Other Roads" Wagoner says, "He wanted a way where thinking would be the same / As walking" and ends the poem kneeling in a meadow where deer browse. In "Wading In A Marsh," that familiar locus of Wagoner's imagination, he says: I learn why I came here Out of order: in order to find out how to belong Somewhere, to change where all changing Is a healing exchange of sense for sense.
Wagoner heals by the refusal of wordly sense (rationality, will) and the employment of natural sense (intuition, physical apprehension).
Readers have come rightly to see Wagoner as the poet of awe, love and serenity evoked in forests, swamps and riverbanks, anywhere essentially without man, particularly man as rapacious imperialist. While Landfall seems wiser and finer than any Wagoner yet, his vision of man and nature is so comfortably Emersonian, some will bluster about evil blinked away. If Landfall is an arrival at Wagoner's quintessential sur-naturalism, it is not untroubled as the poet describes his sea/time voyage as directionless and speaks, in "The Calm," of monsters "slewing toward us / Where we drift like lures." But he is quick to add, "They never strike." Though Wagoner seems to feel the haunt of age and death more formiably and passionately at 55, he is consolded end to end by nature as the text and process that reveals life and lifelessness as a spiritual round-trip. In consequence his poems are figuratively and literally lessons (see "My Path," "The Shooting Lesson," "chorus" and "A Sea Change"). These lessons inseparably concern poetics, morality, ethics, survival and the reflective self.
A feigned nonchalance in subject, circumstance and form may deny Wagonerr's gravity, but his mission is salvation and joy. A paradoxical and wonderful poet, David Wagoner is our Audubon -- abundant, various and careful, yet repetitive as as any good preacher. Thinking, walking and feeling are, in him, virtuous knowledge. When he does not convince, we may suspect he is unconvinced. Oddly, this makes him a more accessible, valuable poet. Landfall is to our poetry what David Wagoner is to his epitaph "For ya Birdwatcher": He does what he loved to do: hold still, stares up And makes no noise, breathlessly holds his breath And stays invisible, a part of the landscape Among the singers over and under the earth.
Before Sleep (Viking, $12.95; Penguin paperrback $5.95), Phillip Booth's sixth collection, continues his chiseled style of poetry. Like Wagonmer, Booth, is a poet of nature's coasts as scripts of knowledge, but more skeptical of answers. He has composed his book as a loose tale of time whose core is the dialectic of death and art's revelations of resistant life. He writes that "That question / is not how to outlive / life, but how / -- in the time we're / possessed by -- to face / the raw beauty of being." Essentially a lyric poet, Booth has extended his songs of consolation into contemplation through a shadow-narrative meant to accomodate moments of joy, despair, change and permanence is simultaneous coexistence. The book opposes one skein of poems about the definitive scenes in a man's aging life (houses, weather, fishing, boat-building, writers, friends and loves), generally celebrative of the will to live with brave dignity, to a counter-thread of poems, untitled and irregularly inserted, which consider the everpresent nothing life seems.
Boot writes, "He has sorted life out; / he feels moved to say all of it," which, for him, is the flux of being and the edge of dissolution; he regards life as meaningful only when tested, named, and shaped. This labor is dramatized as the necessary courage to be, as our best answer to contingency. Booth implies in "Eaton's Boatyard" that life, art and vision mean "to be able to find, / for whatever it's worth, / what has to be there: / the requisite tool / in this clutch there's no end to." Elegiac, spare, lucid, Booth always had the imagist's gift to see through the world's rock and face. But with a fictive architecture an argument added, Before Sleep rises to an emblematic depth and finality: one feels the bleak, history-ridden, yet hardy fist of New England life hurting and working on.
Where David Wagoner's vision leads man to wilderness, Phillip Booth sees the wilderness in men where a man struggles to carve the house of life from nature as element and pressure. Booth's image is Cezanne's commonplace, inviting and infinitely variable house. To this house Booth brings the severe, domestic music of ordinary speech. I can think of few poets who give us more clarity, humility and translucent dimension than Booth does in "Recall," "Fog," "Dragging," "This Day After Yesterday," and "Building Her." Poetry, one wants to say after looking into "The House in the Trees," lives well with Booth and is the house every day he painted he took to sleep and woke up in, barely clothed in the freedom of knowing before it could ever be done he would have, finally, to leave it.
It may be that one true test of a poet's writing is that when we have left their house of words that house has not left us. Before Sleep stays enormously well.