HERE ARE three poets with little in common other than being young, gifted, and American. And their nationality, moreover, is actually a source of differences, since the places they have inhabited, those nurturing locales so important to poets, are as different from one another as, say, Scotland is from Ireland or Spain from Portugal. David Bottoms' Georgia is a long way, physically and spiritually, from Jonathan Aaron's Massachusetts, and both seem light years from Cathy Song's Hawaii. The differences are revealing.
The setting for Bottoms' title poem is a small Georgia town on Route 45. If the implied juxtaposition of a rental truck and the Biblical Damascus creates a small frisson, this is of less importance than the evocation of a specific Amercian locale. The poems, in fact, are filled with place names, especially of the area's rivers--the Wakulla, the Etowah, the Ocmulgee. In this context Damascus is not a remote historical city but a place where 18-wheelers pull off the road.
Bottoms is a solitary observer who takes in and transmutes into lucid English the flora, fauna, sounds, and sights of a landscape he knows intimately. We are made to see "the sea oats wash back and forth in a gold froth," to hear the frogs' "bass-throb belching in the starless night" and the wind "cutting high notes over reeds of broken glass." The play of words on "high notes" and "reeds" is typical of this poet, who likes to discover secondary meanings in ordinary locutions. The speaker of the title poem, for example, after leaving his wife, finds himself moving "from one state / to another," for once "in the driver's seat." In a poem about a father teaching his son to lay down a bunt, we can be sure to find a reference to "sacrifice." Time and again the literal is translated into the figurative, as when the speaker sees a gull catch a bait in midair, and suggests "We've all swallowed a line or two, / a real estate deal, some bad investment of faith. . . ."
The imagery of being hooked, or trapped, is recurrent, suggesting a world in which Faulkner's wilderness has been domesticated to "half-acres of razored grass, / trellised vines, boxwoods manicured by wives." When these wives are not taming suburban yards they are worrying about groceries, throwing dishes in anger, or guarding the Gatorade (and asking foolish questions) while the males play baseball. Women clearly represent a threat in this good-old-boys world in which true satisfaction comes from throwing knives into animals--even if they are merely Magic Marker images on plywood squares-- gigging frogs on the Allatoona, or drinking beer on a fishing boat. "Kinship" is dedicated to James Dickey, and one finds in several of the poems, with their emphasis on guns and adolescent values, a sensibility that suggests the author of Deliverance. The titles of Bottoms' first two books, in fact, reveal something of his muscular posturing: Jamming With the Band at the VFW (1978), and Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump (1980).
I say posturing because he is clearly a meticulous craftsman whose highest pleasure is not in shooting rats or gigging frogs or killing squirrels (why in the world would anyone want to do these things?) but in finding a language, supple and evocative, to communicate the implications of these experiences. I should stress that one need not be attracted to Bottoms' material (as I obviously am not) to find his poems satisfying. They are sensuous, accessible, and, well, entertaining, a quality not always associated with contemporary poetry. The book, too, for all its self-conscious virility, has moments of enviable delicacy, as in these lines from "Sounding Harvey Creek":
What I love about water is mystery,
the something unknowable
curling under roots, the thing lost
into sludge with each current,
the obscurity of depth
and the infinite variety of oddities
crawling out of that depth
to reveal nothing: frog and stinkpot,
waterdog fanning red gills,
the mole salamander, the common newt,
the dwarf siren, the copperhead
burdening the reeds
with a beautiful danger.
DDD The dangers of Jonathan Aaron's world are not so palpable as the copperheads or rabid foxes that threaten Bottoms' speakers. His New England, the home of Hawthorne and Melville, is a place of shadowy presences, of ghosts and ominous footsteps. We have clearly moved to a different climate, emotionally as well as physically; even when the poems are set in Europe there is about them a kind of chilly Cambridge reserve, a certain ascetic severity.
Where Bottoms explores a teeming physical landscape, Aaron inhabits a dreamlike place where actual things and people metamorphose into the surreal:
The new mayor himself is a dietitian.
Moments after his inauguration, I hear him
explain why his first offical act will be to move
his family into a house carved from a gigantic
I've never felt better in my life! he announces
from his half-peeled doorstep, his face shining
with tears. This is witty and winning. In his brief introduction to the book, Anthony Hecht, himself one of the wittiest poets in America, says that Aaron charms and puzzles, and this passage proves him right.
Sometimes, however, he puzzles but doesn't charm. His images and ideas are often private, obscure, uniniviting, with the result that a reader, discomfited by an inability to respond (how can one respond to what is vague and unfocused?) tends to become alienated. Aaron is intelligent but it is not always clear just what audience he has in mind.
The problem may be that he has ignored William Carlos Williams' dictum, "No ideas but in things," providing instead abstractions not rooted in a reality we can touch, see, or hear. His work is most satisfying when most accessible, and it is invariably accessible when it is grounded in the concrete world. A fire hydrant, for example, is nicely described as "that thumb with warts on it," and a distant dog's barking "sounds like someone / hammering nails." The two most successful poems, moreover, are descriptions of objects. "Stray Dog" puts words around the famous Giacometti "Dog," in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which provides the cover illustration for the volume.
is a thin blanket
thrown over the old argument
of his skeleton
to keep the rain out
and the dry guts in.
In "Cooking an Omelette," Aaron once again combines the palpable with the freshly imagined. I remember admiring this poem when it appeared in The New Yorker some years ago, wondering whether it should be filed under "art" or "recipes." I opt for the former, since the poem transcends the cook-book genre with observations on matters weightier than what Aaron calls a "lozenge- of-egg:
If you've cooked it for your sweetie--
she having just arrived to find there's nothing
in the house--you might want to please her
further by tossing on some more chopped herbs
If it's for yourself, forgo
such niceties, which only
measure solitude. Pick it up
with both hands and begin. I don't know about picking up an omelette with both hands, but the rest of the passage, especially "which only measure solitude," is luminous. Second Sight, by the way, is a first book, one of the five works selected in open competition for the 1982 National Poetry Series. It represents, as I hope the passages I have quoted suggest, a promising debut.
DDD Picture Bride is also a first book, not surprising given that Cathy Song is only 27; the work won the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, open to any American under 40 who has not previously published a volume of poetry. The judge for this contest was the late Richard Hugo, a man whose own work is robust and earthy. It is clear that he was responsive to language different from his own, since the words that most readily come to mind in describing Song's work are delicacy, sensitivity, restraint, elegance, control.
I am reminded as I read these touching poems of two quite disparate writers, Maxine Hong Kingston and Robert Lowell. Kingston, in China Men, provides loving portraits of her forebears who settled in the New World from China, and Cathy Song, for her part, gives novelistic descriptions of the migration of her grandparents from Korea to Hawaii, and of their life in that unfamiliar setting. And Robert Lowell? Picture Bride is a kind of gentle Life Studies, a series of sketches of family members as seen through the observant eyes of a child. Unlike Lowell, however, Song is almost wholly without irony:
By evening, it was raining hard.
Grandfather and I skipped supper.
Instead, we sat on the porch
and I ate what he peeled
and cleaned for me.
The scattering of the delicate
marine-colored shells across his lap
was something like what the ocean gives
the beach after a rain. This is not a poetry of ideas but of gestures and voices. We are given some memorable portraits, especially of women. There is, for example, the bride of the title poem, arriving in Hawaii from Korea to meet a stranger, 13 years older than she, who is her husband. There is a lonely woman, suffering from migraine, who is trapped in a life of caring for her old mother:
It seems it has always
been like this: the two of us
in this sunless room,
the splashing of the bathwater. We meet the poet's taut father, "the burning cigarette / dangling from his mouth / is the fuse to the dynamite," and her young mother, who seems nervous except when cooking. Her hands would assume a certain confidence
then, as she rubbed and patted butter
all over a turkey as though
she were soaping and scrubbing up a baby. There is a good deal of quiet music in these portraits of individuals who endure unlived lives and of the more fortunate who find outlets for their passion and art. Song, herself obviously devoted to the most scrupulous craftsmanship (there are no excesses in these poems, no unpolished corners), is especially acute in describing various modes of expression, whether growing orchids, preparing vegetables, or, in a stunning poem called "The Seamstress," sewing perfect seams:
It seems I have always lived
in this irregular room, rarely needing
to see beyond the straight seams that fit neatly,
the snaps that fasten securely in my mind.
The world for me is the piece of cloth
I have at the moment beneath my hands.
From the cloth in her own confident hands, Cathy Song has fashioned something wondrous and fine.