In three new collections, both the natural world and mythic realms are transformed by the poet's gaze.Some poets have a knack for self-transformation, but most pick a path and stick to it. Elegy for the Southern Drawl (Houghton Mifflin, $22) is vintage Rodney Jones, and it's a book that makes me wonder whether vintage is good.
Elegy is Jones's sixth book. At first I enjoyed his laugh-out-loud storytelling, his self-observing dissections of life at home, at work and in nature, his lamenting about changes in the Alabama he left, his satirizing of his life as a professor in Illinois.
In poems such as "Owls" he achieves a halting, lifting steadiness of language in addressing the ordinary wonder of things: "Because I had not seen them in the woods until I saw them in a book/ And then only a shadow darting among shadows,/ I am not going to quote the silence of their wings."
But his need to show awareness ultimately robs many of Jones's poems of dimensions they should have. A pared down poem called "The Limousine Bringing Isaac Bashevis Singer to Carbondale" -- in which the limo bearing the famous writer breaks down -- starts well. Singer jokes dryly with the driver: "Kenny asked, in that modest/ And considerate way he has,/ `Have you ever been in a car this long?'
`Oh yes, once in Sweden,/ They kept me in a car for weeks.' "
After noting that Singer writes in Yiddish, Jones provides the meaning-elaborating turn at the end: "Nothing survives that has not been scarred/ Lovingly in the brain/ And dented by the human voice." The reader is left flat.
"The Fruit House" succeeds because he doesn't tell you what to feel or exactly where he is. We only learn that "The Fruit House was a form of suffering./ Its dour lattice of ancient, moldy jars,/ Its apparatus of egg sacs and spiders,/ Grew suddenly plush as a burial vault." It is the rare Jones poem in which a free sense of ambiguity becomes a thread by which he lowers himself into an experience and feels his way out.
Winter Hours (Houghton Mifflin, $22) shows Mary Oliver at her best only when she returns to her dialogue with the natural world. Oliver starts off by saying she's exploring new ground, "my private and natural self," in this book of prose and some poetry that she introduces, over-optimistically, as "happily unfinished." This Pulitzer Prize-winner can write poems about nature as if she got a look at it before anyone else. Sometimes these essays, in a round, approachable style, draw on the original fire of her poetic impulse, especially when entering the lives of turtles and spiders. But much of Winter Hours makes you wish she'd push harder.
In "Sister Turtle," she meditates on eating and the way in which writers nourish themselves on memories of other writers. Carefully, she describes an "old giant" snapping turtle, destroyed by raccoons. "I found leg bones nearby, also claws, and scutes, as they are called -- the individual shingles that cover the raw bone of the shell."
A female turtle has thrust herself into the sand, Oliver notes, with a wonderfully nutty joy, "almost vertically, like a big pie pan on edge." Beneath her: "heaped, round eggs."
Oliver links the life-giving turtle to the continuity of literature, from Wordsworth to Rachel Carson. Yet her pieces on writers read like a bright student's notes. She talks intriguingly about Poe's "lack of confidence in the world entire," but drifts into a jumbled account of his life and some undeveloped ideas. Writing on Whitman previously, she pulled together insights with a magnet of personal feeling. This time, she settles for such banalities as "Whitman claims for his work the physical landscape and spiritual territory of America."
In Craig Arnold's powerful debut, Shells (Yale, $18; paperback $11), the latest entry in the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series, he makes the search for change his whole subject. Arnold takes Whitman by the horns; seeking him as an icon of oceanic resourcefulness, he takes the longer of the two epigrams for Shells from "Song of Myself." It begins: "To be in any form, what is that?/ If nothing lay more developed the quahaug and its callous/ shell were enough."
His other quote, evoking nature's hold on man, comes from the German arch-materialistic philosopher Feuerbach: "Humanity is what it eats."
Between the American free will asserted by Whitman and the deterministic limits declared by Feuerbach (Marx read a lot of Feuerbach), Arnold plays out narratives of desire sifted through varieties of savagery.
He writes in quasi-traditional stanzas, with rhymed and off-rhymed couplets and longer kinds of stanzas, crossing the methods of poetry and the short story with a resonance that always becomes allegorical. Among sensual shell images -- mussels, clams, snails, turtles; hats become shells; the mouth is a shell -- Arnold's dark, often aggression-filled poems are written from extreme poles of anger and grief, mediated by much confusion.
There is a precise, liquid music in this language as Arnold suggests the fluid chaos of lives in which the last traces of order are culinary: "The recipe is written in your voice: Saute the rice to the color of a pearl/ in oil flavored with pepper, cinnamon bark,/ bay leaf and cardamom, the small green kind."
In "Saffron," these ingredients blend into a subtle nightmare about rare spices, money and a rich friend who has rejected the poet and whom the poet remembers for his violent loss of self-control. The poem, after sharings of food and sex, culminates in the destruction of a container of precious saffron: "Later, at the end, when I asked you what// you wanted if it wasn't me, you smashed/ the dark brown vial across the counter, swept/ spice and glass into your hand and said/ This is my gold standard, my one measure/ of value, the smell of money burning . . . "
Immersed in a culture of dangerous excess, people push feeling away. Yet the poet progresses toward it. The poet-narrator is a gay man (it seems), more clutched by his sexuality than handling it. He's married (or was), has a son, has loved men, mourns men, places himself at bars, back in memories of high school, in the company of various women -- but never feels complete.
Where, on such cross-currents of identity, can he go?
To a merman. That's right: a male mermaid. In "Merman" the title character warns, "if any of us are captured/ alive, we've sworn to die before revealing/ our natures." And we're visited by mermaids. They embody a self-transcending imagination, the promise of which Arnold clearly believes in. His "Watching for Mermaids" gives an aura of kind humor and otherworldly grace to intermediaries covered from the waist down in gender-evoking, gender-erasing sparkling flesh. The mermaid appears to a man looking for her through a telescope. She touches him on the shoulder, promising "a change before chancing/ a touch, a brush, a first/ contact."
We're on the edge between kitsch and extraordinary poetry. Feuerbach, to whom all religion and metaphysics ended in anthropology, would be appalled. Whitman, of course, would be delighted. Arnold verges on literary extravagance, but his book contains, like a brilliant shell, its own marvelous balance of fluidity and form.
Allan Jalon writes about poetry for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Saffron" by Craig Arnold
The recipe is written in your voice:
Saute the rice to the color of a pearl
in oil flavored with pepper, cinnamon bark,
bay leaf and cardamom, the small green kind.
Simmer until the spices have all floated
up to the top -- if you want to, pick them out.
Just before it's done, stir in the saffron
crumbled and soaked in milk.
such frail red threads,
odd how they bleed so yellow, so contrary
to what a purple flower's genitals
should look like. It was in a dirt-poor dive
somewhere in Spain that I had my first taste.
of paella -- how anything could cost
so much, I couldn't bring myself to believe
until you brought me out into the fields,
the ragged sweeps of autumn crocuses.
Not like the ones I've seen breaking the frost,
clumps of three or four, with the forced cheer
of things made to wake up too early
-- these were a paler purple, less audacious.
The harvesters were children, mostly girls,
working their way in no special pattern
from bloom to bloom. One of them let me plunge
my hand up to the wrist in what she'd gathered
-- they felt like bird's tongues sticking to
spotted with pollen, limp, bruised and damp,
with no smell to speak of. That handful dried
would not have covered my fingernail, and that
from a whole acre. Maybe it ended up
in your kitchen, in one of the many dishes
you taught me how to make, and which we never
ate more than half of -- our tongues couldn't absorb
that much, so dense and yet so delicate:
We'd dull the taste with smoke, knocking the ashes
into the champagne flutes you had shipped back
from Murano, on our way up to bed.
There can't be that much saffron in the world
-- as if to think it passed through my
would make it all appear less of a waste,
that wild, endlessly nuanced fugue of flavor,
so much variety, so much to spend.
Later, at the end, when I asked you what
you wanted if it wasn't me, you smashed
the dark brown vial across the counter, swept
spice and glass into your hand and said
This is my gold standard, my one measure
of value, the smell of money burning
-- anything more expensive would be illegal.
I couldn't even begin to afford your taste.
My fingers, stained gold with its dirty sting,
still look to me like those of a small brown hand
drifting across a field, spreading the petals,
the womb pinched out like an unsightly hair
a thousand times a thousand times over,
all for a fleeting pungency, a touch
of yellow, all to prove how much
attention you command.
("Saffron" by Craig Arnold from Shells. Copyright 1999 by Craig Arnold. Used with permission from Yale University Press.)