THE TRIUMPH OF ACHILLES. By Louise Gluck. Ecco. 60 pp. $13.50. A FRACTION OF DARKNESS. By Linda Pastan. Norton. 64 pp. $12.95; paperback. $6.95. ALTERNATE MEANS OF TRANSPORT By Cynthia Macdonald Knopf. 76 pp. $14.95; paperback, $7.95; THE LONG APPROACH. By Maxine Kumin. Viking. 80 pp. $14.95.
LOUISE GLUCK has one of the most distinctive voices in current American poetry, as she demonstrates once again in The Triumph of Achilles. The strength of that voice derives in large part from its self-centeredness -- literally, for the words in Gluck's poems seem to come directly from the center of herself. "Direct" is the operative word here: Gluck's language is staunchly straightforward, remarkably close to the diction of ordinary speech. Yet her careful selection for rhythm and repetition, and the specificity of even her idiomatically vague phrases, give her poems a weight that is far from colloquial. This becomes most apparent in her powerful last lines.
You're like me tonight, one of the lucky ones.
You'll get what you want. You'll get your oblivion.
is the way she closes "Night Song," while "Adult Grief" ends:
But you will not grow,
You will not let yourself
In both these instances, "you'll" or "you will" becomes the internal rhyme around which the colloquial language shapes itself into a poem.
Gluck speaks to a "you" by virtue of being an "I." Her poems, especially in this book, are usually a claustrophobic conversation between two people, one of whom is absent. Whether she's speaking to a lost lover or a dead feather, it is the loss itself which provides the occasion for the poem. She acknowledges as much when she says in the collection's excellent titloem:
Always in these friendships
one serves the other, one is less than the other:
is always apparent, though the legends
cannot be trusted --
their source is the survivor,
the one who has been abandoned.
Gluck's intense poems are the impassioned cries of "the one who has been abandoned." Her griefs are self-dramatizing and excessive, but even this quality of center-stage breast- beating is accounted for by the poetry. "But nakedness in women is always a pose," she says in one poem, admitting that her self-exposure is in fact a consciously modeled piece of art. Yet if she can see herself from the outside ("I can imagine how my face looks,/ burning like that, afflicted with desire -- "), she does so from the enclosed vantage point of her own imagination.
LINDA PASTAN's poems stem from a much less
tortured sensibility than Gluck's, though she too is
interested in those who get left behind by loved
ones. The title of her book, A Fraction of Dakness, comes from her poem about Orpheus:
When Orpheus turned
and looked back and knew
that genius wasn't enough,
I wonder which he regretted most:
the failure of will,
or what it must mean for her
a fraction of darkness?
For Pastan, the dilemma is to combine the roles of both Orpheus and Euridyce, the poet seeking life and the woman wedded to death. She does so throughout this collection of poems by dealing with tragic or difficult topics in a surprisingly light way -- with humor, or with metaphorical play. Often, as in an Elizabethan conceit, a metaphor will take over the entire poem, the way it does in "root canal":
under the anesthetic
sing to me
in the very moving poem "Remission," which begins:
It seems you must grow
into your death slowly,
as if it were a pair of new shoes
waiting on the closet floor,
smelling of the animal
it came from, but still too big
too stiff for you to wear
You steal on tiptoe
past the closet door.
Pastan's "you" and "I" are a much more casual, everyday pair than Gluck's. They like (respectively) gardening and reading, they notice small natural details, they make jokes. They are individuals one gets to know, placed within a setting of afternoon light and plants and luscious foods and doctors' offices. Yet the outer world, though it represents a saving objectivity, is not an entirely separate realm for Pastan: it exists and is given meaning largely by virtue of its incorporation into the world of the poem.
THIS IS TRUE to an even greater degree of Cynthia Macdonald's work, which draws its technique from the workings of the unconscious. In the long sequence which provides the title for Alternate Means of Transport, hats become haloes, figures in paintings come to life, religion and art merge in worship of the physical body, and buzzing flies become the act of flying. This sort of transformation, obviously derived from the characteristics of a dream, is the trademark of Macdonald's work. She is fond of things that turn into other things, as in the very good poem "The Tune He Saw," where a man's saw becomes his musical instrument (and the title verb accordingly changes its meaning). For similar reasons, she is fond of puns. Occasionally her use of punning becomes a bit too self-conscious and cutesy, as when she says of a trip to Hungary:
Here M. and I live in Buda
Looking at Pest across the river. Ginsberg
Came through last month and proclaimed himself the
But all the poets here agree that, sitting in a chair
A table, instructing them on instant meditation, he
(If you got "Buddha" and "Pest" the first time around, you're a sharper reader than I.)
Macdonald's great virtue as a poet is her ability to create compelling visual images woven magically together, like a Chagall dream-painting designed by Freud. Her weaknesses, from my point of view, are her penchant for epigraphs (they overwhelm the poems in this volume) and her reliance on abstract final lines. But at her best, as in "The Erythrobic Man," she overcomes these drawbacks, using the epigraph ("Erythrobia: fear of turning red in public situations") to lead into a vibrant fantasy
Red blots out de Witt: floods of
Roses, breeching the banks of the Mississippi,
Red petals rising higher than the houses;
Blood spilling from the tubes and plastic sacs in the
which finally closes in a characteristic but well-aimed pun:
They have read you, read you
They have read you like a book.
IN CONTRAST to the intense introspection of the ther three poets, Maxine Kumin's poems in The Long Approach are aimed resolutely outward. Unfortunately, Kumin's poems on "issues" -- the Middle East situation, the Holocaust, the environment, world hunger -- founder on their opinion-making. The most appealing poems in the book -- "Grandchild," "A Distant Grandchild Listens to Farm Sounds," "Sundays in March" -- are those devoted to family and old friends; here description is allowed to generate feeling on its own. Elsewhere we are personally escorted by "the poet" (as she refers to herself in "The Poet Visits Egypt and Israel"), who points out to us what we are meant to think about this political problem or that. It's too bad that Kumin's efforts at political poetry tend to result in hackneyed diction, as when she refers to
Yahweh, Allah, Christ,
those patriarchal fists
in the face
>What ails you, cherry tomato?
Why do you blossom and never bear?
Is it acid rain you're prey to
or nicotine in the air?
One would like to feel that good poems can be written about socially important topics. But Kumin's well-intentioned failures of language tempt one to side with the inward vision of Louise Gluck, who begins a poem called "The End of the World" with the lines:
It is difficult to describe, coming as it still does
to each person at a different time.