A FEW DAYS. By James Schuyler. Random House. 91 pp. $14.95; paperback, $8.95; DREAM PALACE. By Herbert Morris. Harper & Row. 87 pp. $16.95; paperback, $8.95; CATS OF THE TEMPLE. By Brad Leithauser. Knopf. 70 pp. $14.95; paperback, $7.95; ORRERY. By Richard Kenney. Atheneum. 108 pp. $17.50; paperback, $10.95.
THE GUIDING PHILOSOPHY of James Schuyler's fifth collection of verse, A Few Days, is indicated at the beginning of its lengthy, concluding title poem. A few days, writes Schuyler,
are all we have. So count them as they pass. They
out of breath: don't dwell on the grave, which yawns
one and all.
This 25-page-long poem, with its long lines, is atypical; all but one or two of the other poems in A Few Days are as short, and as short of line (and, for that matter, as unprobing and colloquial), as Robert Creeley poems. Schuyler's modus operandi is simple: he totes up his days, at least those he feels like toting up, in chatty, offhand, stream-of-consciousness fashion, with each poem (except the quasi-epical title poem) covering no more than a single day's events, thoughts, emotions. We get dates, weather reports: "It's a hot day:/ not so hot/ as the days before:/ it's that July,/ the one in 1981, the hot one." Or: "it's/ February first, 1982,/ and they say (on the radio)/ torrents of rain will/ descend and the temperature/ drop to well below/ freezing." We get reports on Schuyler's moods ("I really/ love this day"), descriptions of his surroundings (the flower on his desk, the view outside the train window), and rundowns of his daily activities (walking the dog, watching The Jeffersons). We also get plenty of confidential, if utterly unrevealing, details (his Blue Cross number, his monthly rent). And we get confessions -- extremely personal ones. In several poems, for instance, the middle- aged poet (Schuyler was born in 1923) bewails his unrequited love for his young, blond secretary, whom he names in full:
Tom, Tom, Tom
why do you not lie beside me
I mean to say, why
Oh, tell me why
why do you not lie beside me
entwined in one another's arms
my head upon your pliant marble shoulder
you asleep and me awake,
decked beside me
body pressed body to body?
Tom Tom Tom Tom, Thomas Paul Carey
I love you so: forever and forever and forever
and a day
through all eternity
and yet beyond that
Characteristically, this sentimentality is undercut, in the succeeding lines, by a slangy parenthetical flippancy: "(when the inspiration/ to write this poem/ came to me/ en route to see my shrink/ I envisioned/ twenty or so pages and this is only six: oh well, can't win 'em all)."
Schuyler aims, it is clear, to experience every facet of life with the freshness and vigor of a child, and to render it with a child's brash, no-holds-barred honesty. Like a child, he is quick to declare his love -- whether for a man or a woman, the month of October or his notebook from Italy -- and his poetry, as a result, is often marked by a primitive charm and sweetness. The principal consequence of his approach to poetry, however, is often marked by a want of nobility, depth, intelligence, and linguistic beauty; all too frequently, his verse seems to skate sloppily across the surface of life, grabbing at the first locution to come along. While its energy and feeling are incontrovertible, then, one can't imagine anyone being enchanted by its music, captivated by its play of ideas, or lost in the world it creates.
Though Herbert Morris is a member of Schuyler's generation, his poetry could not be more different from Schuyler's. The poems in his first collection -- thwidely acclaimed Peru, which he did not publish till 1983 -- were long, elegant narratives written in restrained, pensive blank verse; devoted, for the most part, to the remembrance of things past, they were inspired by childhood memories, old photographs, and history, and they conjured up an exquisite memory-world of ghosts, shadows, and luminous dreamscapes. The 12 poems of Morris' second volume, Dream Palace, are essentially more of the same. "Boardwalk," for instance, describes in elaborate and affectionate detail a snapshot of the 4-year-old poet-to-be on a holiday with his parents, and purports to fill in the history of that now-mythical long-ago day; "Road Construction Workers, Westerwald 1927: A Photograph by August Sander" describes a photograph of a German road crew, and attempts to read the story behind the photograph in the faces of the young workmen (many of whom, Morris reasonably implies, doubtless went on to become Nazi soldiers in World War II). "Sackets Harbor, 1866" and "The Park Hotel, Munich, 1907" are both extremely well-executed dramatic monologues; in the former, a 19th-century spinster unburdens herself to a visitor, and in the latter an elderly Sigmund Freud explains a fainting spell to a young Munich physician, and discourses upon the necessity of (among other things) a "belief in the possible":
allow me, if you will, to entertain,
at least a little longer, the idea,
extravagant as it may very well be,
that, as a young man, you may still be open
to possibility, to variation
in human life, to some remnant of music,
if you will, to those things, as one grows older,
one seems eager to close off in oneself,
almost as though one struggled to ward off
too vigorous an onslaught by those forces
which would keep us accessible to feeling,
to passion, to the poetry in us,
all things unprecedented, unexpected.
And without that conviction, Doctor, without
that belief in the possible, what are we?
These poems are so admirably written that when one comes across an error (e.g., "awhile" for "a while") one can hardly believe it; perhaps their major flaw, indeed, is that they are sometimes too composed -- not only in the sense of "made," but in the sense of "placid." There are no great, inspired lines here; there is nothing quirky or surprising; and there is little versatility of tone. Nor is Morris' poetry characterized by an overabundance of humor. But these are relatively minor objections. On the whole, Dream Palace is a lovely accomplishment, the work of a consistently effective poetic craftsman of entrancing gifts.
BRAD LEITHAUSER and Richard Kenney are both young poets whose debut collections -- Hundreds of Fireflies and The Evolution of the Flightless Bird, respectively -- were mightily acclaimed by critics upon their publication in 1984. Both poets have received numerous grants and prizes, and, like Morris, have begun to develop widespread reputations as masters of form. Each has now put together a second full-length volume of verse.
Leithauser, in an introductory note, asks us to regard his new collection, Cats of the Temple, "as a sibling companion" to Hundreds of Fireflies. This is not too difficult to do, for like its predecessor the book is a slender rural travelogue of sorts, a series of coyly baroque, nature-centered studies in poetic technique marked by extensive internal rhyme and alliteration, elaborate imagery, and a highfalutin', flowery diction that often seems out of place. While Fireflies tended to hover about the Michigan countryside, Cats takes us to Ireland, Guam, Nova Scotia, and -- especially -- Japan, whose poetry would seem to have influenced Leithauser's highly visual, compressed lines. (Japan was, by the way, the setting for his run-of-the-mill first novel, Equal Distance, published last year.)
Some of Leithauser's descriptions of nature are quite accomplished. Too often, though, there appears to be little or no real emotion beneath the highly polished surfaces. Here, for instance, is the beginning of "Sea Horses":
Kin to all kinds
Of fancied hybrids -- minotaur
And wyvern, cockatrice,
Kyrin and griffin -- this
Twist of whimsy
Outshines that whole composited
Menagerie, for this sequined
Equine wonder, howsoever
Exists! Within his moted
Medium, tail loosely laced
Round the living hitching post
Of a coral twig, he feeds at leisure
As befits a mild, compromising
Creature with no arms of defense
Save that of, in his knobby
Leithauser wants to achieve a tone of wonder here, but it doesn't come off; the enthusiasm strikes one as forced, the diction as unduly precious; the poem is a sparkling but largely soulless exercise in versification. Similarly, the abstruse metaphysical conclusions he supposedly draws from his observations of flora and fauna in such poems as "The Buried Graves" and "Two Suspensions Against a Blacktop Backdrop" seem facile.
The weakest part of Cats in the Temple, however, is the brief section devoted to "minims" (that's Leithauserese for "light verse"). These verses are so slight and witless that their inclusion in this volume is puzzling. Here, for example, is "Manifest Destiny":
Now if, somehow, offered a brand-new New
World, an endless, arable tabula rasa,
Wouldn't we dedicate that one, too, to
The billboard, the smokestack, the shopping
It is perhaps in these "minims" that Leithauser's major flaw is most manifest: he simply has nothing to communicate that is original or interesting or vital. One comes away from his poems impressed with his technical facility, but one feels nothing.
RICHARD KENNEY's new book, Orrery, takes its name from an 18th-century instrument that plots the orbits of the planets. Indeed, the book is not only named after the orrery, it is, as Kenney explains in an extensive prefatory note, supposed to be an orrery -- metaphorically speaking, of course. How so? In the sense that the book, like an orrery, takes the yearly cycle as its organizing principle. The poems in its main sequence, "Apples," which relate episodes occurring over a period of several years in the lives of three people on a contemporary Vermont cider-milling farm, are not ordered in true chronological sequence but, instead, are arranged seasonally -- from fall to summer -- as if they chronicled a single 12-month period. Why has Kenney chosen to do this? Because, as he tells us in his note, he thinks this is the way the memory actually works: we associate events in our past not with a specific year but with a season.
Though I'm not sure I agree with this notion, I could admire a well-executed book based upon it (as, for example, I can admire the theory-ridden poems of Yeats). But it can't really be said that Orrery is a well-executed book. Kenney is altogether too strongly in the grip of something that, as one reads along, looks less and less like an insight and more and more like a bad gimmick. The entire book, one comes to realize, hinges upon that prefatory note: a reader who failed to study it before reading the poetry would be totally at sea -- and that's a serious weakness. (Even Yeats' poetry, for all his devotion to bizarre cycles, can be appreciated without such preparation.)
The "Apples" poems themselves -- most of which are rhythmic, low-voltage, telegraphically brief atmospheric pieces about harvesting apples, repairing chimneys, and observing the stars and the weather -- are competent enough. But few are sufficiently strong to stand on thir own. (Of the 67 poems in the section, only 12 have appeared in periodicals; the best of these include "Inertia," "Starling," and "The Starry Night.") Many are obscure and tiresomely descriptive -- by the end of the book, one feels as if one has learned altogether too much about cider making -- and most are cluttered with ugly, esoteric words like chert, scry, coign, and retrodict. And the redundancy! Even the titles repeat: there are two poems apiece called "Solstice," "Shadow," "News" and "Orrery," and no fewer than six entitled "Dream," one of which reads as follows:
I seem to juggle green apples
in the crown pane;
a dream of new breath tippled up
on stems of green champagne,
where bubbles rise the glassy flue
like notes blown off a reed,
or once and future zeroes through
Orrery's two other sections -- between which "Apples" is sandwiched -- are "Hours" and "Physics." The former comprises seven pages of text, each of which con"sonnets" separated by a quatrain in dimeter; the latter consists of 14 poems, in iambic dimeter, of 28 lines apiece. Kenney's explanation for these formal choices is more baffling then enlightening. Suffice it to say that the poems in both of these sections essentially form an abstract complement to the concrete "Apples"; in them, Kenney philosophizes, often very ambiguously, about "the simple solar systematics/ all our lives involve alike." In general, "Hours" is the best-written part of the book (and, not coincidentally, is also that which most clearly betrays his stylistic indebtedness to James Merrill); in a representative passage, he rejects Einstein, saying:
I'll keep Sir Isaac Newton's
world, all crankcase cogs and whirring gears; Ikhnaton's
axletree's a god, here; sunlight's light, not curd-
and-whey. Who keeps the time in Janus space? Oh,
eye! What curvatures we're knotted in!
This passage, in its renunciation of Einstein -- and, by extension, the 20th century -- is emblematic. But Kenney's rendition of old-fashioned farm life is ultimately dull, simplistically nostalgic, even condescending.
There are, then, some interesting passages in Orrery. Kenney is, indeed, a good poet. But what this peculiar book demonstrates more dramatically than anything else is that he, like Leithauser, seems to be grasping at themes.