NAVIGABLE WATERWAYS. By Pamela Alexander. Yale University Press. 75 pp. $12.95; paperback, $5.95; WHITE DRESS. By Brenda Hillman. Wesleyan University Press. 57 pp. $15; paperback $6.95; THE LAMPLIT ANSWER. By Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 83 pp. $12.95; FUGITIVE ANGELS. By Jeanne Murray Walker. Dragon Gate. 85 pp. $14; paperback, $7; THE UNLOVELY CHILD. By Norman Williams.Knopf. 52 pp. $13.95; paperback, $6.95
ONE OF THE MOST interesting things to watch for in the work of any new poet is how close in the reader is invited to be and from what angles we come to grips with experience. In what way is the "I" of the poet introduced? What accumulated meanings are there? And is poetic form seen as primarily revealing or dramatic, if such a distinction can be made?
These five collections have in common no more than that they are all first or second books by poets who have already attracted considerable attention. Most of the poets are in their thirties. All are honorable and concerned with craft. It seems fair to ask, finally, whether a genuine book has been created, one that has vision and character beyond the sum of its materials.
Pamela Alexander, whose Navigable Waterways is the 1985 selection of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, zeroes in on her world from high up and far out to sea. She starts with Amelia Earhart's flight map. Her intention is to find order without ceasing to take risks, and the "I" is first glimpsed when a bird flies in and out of a sailboat cabin, past the poet awake/asleep. As Earhart drowns, the self comes morally alive, and this is accomplished honestly and without self-pity. Looking (not just seeing) is crucial to Alexander, but meanwhile how she sees is often a delight: "Husky-masked, bologna-tongued, Pfoxer/ settles her hulk on the bed and props/ a long jaw on the window sill/ like the muzzle of a pioneer's rifle." At the same time as we go deeper into the book's "interiors," there are lines and eventually whole poems that attempt to render submerged states of consciousness through rather disconnected physical detail and word play, as in this passage on sex: "The book about caves is filled with pictures,/ words and pictures, the moving cat/ in several positions./ The leaves of a vine or a sentence." The last section is almost nothing but word play, and while I respect Alexander's ear and invention, I wish she hadn't ended her book that way, because it feels almost as if her talent were dissolving into particles. On balance, though, this poet is fully present, witty, scrupulous, strong even in her reserves.
It's too bad Wesleyan chose a photograph of what looks like a wedding veil for Brenda Hillman's first full-length collection, White Dress, because the actual whiteness begins with her mordant "How terror does become you, like a white dress" and ends, in a poem for the poet's birthday, with the image of a flock of birds against snow, "turning like a huge page/ White, nothing, white, nothing, white." One can't help thinking of Emily Dickinson's white dresses, especially as this is a poetry of extremity. I admire both the stripped-down, epigrammatic, suggestive common speech of most poems -- there are some brilliant lines -- and the architecture of the book as a whole, which through epigraphs from Einstein, Leonardo and Chekhov explores "free fall," the possibilities of relationship, and what lasts. The most dazzling section is the first, the hardest to hold onto the second. But such judgments are relative concerning a book that is one of the vividest under review. We are very close in indeed here, the voice has authority from the beginning, and though Hillman seems rather alone, she takes us into her confidence almost recklessly.
GJERTRUD SCHNACKENBERG is probably the best known, most heralded of these five poets, having won an impressive number of fellowships and prizes. And hers is an impressive talent. But The Lamplit Answer, her second book, is uneven, full of experiments in the grand style (Lowell seems a presence behind the opening poems, the Byron of Don Juan behind her vigorous, self-mocking love poems). One part of me wants to applaud her ambitiousness; she takes on huge projects and then finishes them with all the skills at the traditional poet's command. And there is abundance here, a glowing sensuality not just of the ear. Yet the drawn-out sentences of "Kremlin of Smoke," its baroque rhetoric, make what is surely a political parable into a literary tour de force that connects with little else, even in the first section of the book where it appears. There is some way in which Schnackenberg is still most at home in the tender myth-making or childhood poems of the final section, in the circular poem about books called "Paper Cities," or in the evocation of Darwin's hallowed and almost purposeless old age:
He lies down on the quilt,
He lies down like a fabulous-headed
Fossil in a vanished riverbed,
In ocean drifts, in canyon floors, in
In lime, in deepening blue ice,
In cliffs obscured as clouds gather
He lies down in his boots and overcoat,
And shuts his eyes.
This is so good simply as writing, so human yet so visionary that one can only shake one's head and hope for a more fully integrated volume next time.
To go from Hillman and Schnackenberg to Jeanne Murray Walker and Norman Williams is like stepping outdoors into a peopled world, working-class and American. Jeanne Murray Walker's Fugitive Angels, her second book, is long, substantial, energetic. She is both story-teller and metaphysician, and just as one is thinking that her stories are almost too full of ordinary violence, one comes on a poem as complex and unpredictable as "Making the Painting," with its severe climax: "But no. We are like drunks, mistaking our own tears for rain./ We see ourselves in everything. Whoever that boy was,/ we crossed looks only once, and in an art museum." The book is in four sections, the first and last quite fictional, the long second gathering together poems of family and Philadelphia, of which the best have the plain radiance of Walker Evans photographs. There is a variety of forms in Fugitive Angels, solidly accomplished. I am least sure of the sonnet sequence in the third section, where the form seems to lead to restraint and even turgidness until burst apart by the baffled, repetitive speech lines of the ending. For Walker redemption, too, wears an ordinary face.
NORMAN WILLIAMS gives the impression -- awesome in one who has just published his first book -- of doing almost nothing by accident. The Unlovely Child opens with his characteristic grave sweep and extended syntax:
In the dark morning when most children are born,
When only a few all-night lights star
And the east shifts slowly from black
When farm wives have their worst
and most accurate dreams,
The girl in danger inside the only
Believes with all her strength there
are in the sky
Planets crossing. . . .
So the poem moves in through time and space to face the puzzle of our expectations, how we always believe that this child will be the miraculous one and are thwarted. Just at the end the poet brings himself in as neutral witness: "Or so I imagine it must have been . . ." The tone is quiet yet capable not only of irony but of a certain grandeur. There is a lot of space in this book, the space of the grand sky over the burnt-out fields of the Midwest, the space accorded even to disappointment by a historical consciousness. Williams is a poet who can summon up the ghosts of unremarkable people and make them significant, just as he summons up the ghosts of things, the 19th-century tool chest with its "unimpeachable odor of ancestral Bibles,/ Antique dolls, or the undergarments of old women." And the book is beautifully structured, as gradually the bankrupt figures of those "giants of the Midwest" give way to the tawdry revelation of the personal bankruptcy of the poet's parents, and finally he is released to travel east and so to Europe. Actually, most of the European poems don't have the resonance for me of the American ones, but I was moved by how the same themes are rediscovered in "The Dream of South" and especially "Ancient Rites and Mysteries." Williams may have to watch out not to repeat himself, but this is a memorable debut.