"When language cools, it becomes a corpse," writes Robert Bly in his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1999, decrying the blanding of the culture. The best defense against language becoming "merely useful"? Poetry, of course.
Bluebloods and Beyond
Despite its title and some well-regarded contributors, The Best American Poetry 1999, edited by Robert Bly, series editor David Lehman (Scribner, $16; hardcover, $30), shouldn't be mistaken for the last word in American verse. It's more like the social register of poetry.
Robert Bly, the editor of the 1999 volume, demonstrates safely cosmopolitan taste in his selections, like the guy who's comfortable ordering a California roll at the sushi bar but stays away from anything with tentacles. I will confess here to not knowing a whole lot about the contemporary U.S. poetry scene; if Bly's contributors ring a bell with me, it's a sure sign that he hasn't swum too far outside the mainstream. Louise Gluck, Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, John Hollander, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright: These are pedigreed names, familiar to anyone who has thumbed through a recent New Yorker or one of the venerable, smaller literary magazines like Poetry and AGNI. Sonia Sanchez and Yusef Komunyakaa are about as adventurous as this volume gets.
Do poets improve with age? Bly must think so. He displays a clear preference for his contemporaries: Most of the poets included were born before 1950. Good though many of the older generation are, it's pleasant to see a few brash youngsters represented: Larissa Szporluk, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Revan Schendler (a former colleague of mine). Here's the beginning of Schendler's "The Public and the Private Spheres": "How much of you/ must I withhold,/ forget, that you/ have sung to me/ as to a child,/ that I have watched/ you grating onions,/ shared your tears?"
Sonia Sanchez returns in The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin (Univ. of Virginia, $19.50), a collection of essays and conversations generated by a conference held at James Madison University in 1994. The conference and the book owe their titles to a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, the grand old woman of the gathering: "The time/ cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face/ all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace."
Brooks had good company at the event, which featured readings by and conversations with Rita Dove, Amiri Baraka, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni and other literary lights. For the book, Gabbin has organized the discussions and papers into three sections: "African American Poetry and the Vernacular Matrix"; "Critical Theories and Approaches in African American Poetry"; and "Writing a Literary History of African American Poetry." Book World senior editor Jabari Asim contributes an essay on "What Is This New Thing?", about the striving, thriving group of poets who are his contemporaries: "How best to characterize this new generation of poets? I hesitate to use terms such as movement because I don't see much evidence of the kind of cohesion such terms imply. It's probably safer to say that here are writers coming of age in a time and place where the idea of poetry is reemerging and evolving" -- an argument made, strangely enough, by Lehman and Bly in their introductions to The Best American Poetry 1999, though The Furious Flowering offers up fresher evidence for its argument.
Words From Bedlam
One way to keep language simmering is to look back now and then at those who turned up the heat in years gone by: Anne Sexton (1928-1974), for instance. The Complete Poems (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner, $18), with a foreword by longtime Sexton friend Maxine Kumin and a haunting image of the poet herself on the cover, is a good-sized but not daunting book that begins with the poet's first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and concludes with posthumously published work, including 45 Mercy Street (1976).
Enough time has passed that readers should be able to see past Sexton's in-your-face titles -- "In Celebration of My Uterus," for instance, which once rattled some male critics' cages -- to the poetry beneath. It would take a flinty heart not to be at least a little moved by the renunciation -- a letting go quietly strangling in anger -- that concludes "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife": "She is so naked and singular./ She is the sum of yourself and your dream./ Climb her like a monument, step after step./ She is solid.// As for me, I am a watercolor./ I wash off."
Maybe it's just that they suit this post-Angela Carter moment, but Sexton's recastings of fairy tales (published in 1971 as Transformations) still have a let-me-tell-you-something-Mister feminist verve that's bracing. At the opening of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," Sexton riffs on the conventions of the heroine's doll-like loveliness, then turns right into the sexual heart of the matter: "No matter what life you lead/ the virgin is a lovely number:/ cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,/ arms and legs made of Limoges,/ lips like Vin Du Rhone,/ rolling her china-blue doll eyes/open and shut./ Open to say,/ Good Day Mama,/ and shut for the thrust/ of the unicorn."
The Old In and Out
The Priapus Poems: Erotic Epigrams From Ancient Rome, translated from the Latin by Richard W. Hooper (Univ. of Illinois, $14.95; hardcover, $35), make Anne Sexton look like a blushing innocent. "Is the Priapea pornographic?" asks translator Hooper. "The short answer . . . is yes." Probably of Eastern origin, Priapus was a minor, extremely well-endowed fertility god in the Roman pantheon; his charms were, well, obvious.
The Priapea, or Liber Priapeorum, "is presented as a collection of graffiti. This is natural enough, for many red-blooded Romans could have passed a statue of the garden god and felt inclined to scribble some obscene verse over it." More likely these off-color antics are the work of one author (some have attributed them to Ovid, though Hooper's dubious). Whoever wrote them, they're saucy to a degree that makes them nearly impossible to quote in this newspaper. This plea for divine aid loosens the corset-strings of propriety: "With this gift of dirty pictures/ from the tract of Elephantis/ Lalage asks if the horny/ deity could help her do it/ just like in the illustrations."
Why bother with smut, even if it's ancient? For one thing, much of the Priapea is quite funny even if not fodder for the family hour; for another, as Hooper takes pains to point out, these rude verses uncover Roman sexuality and sexual mores in skewed but revealing ways.
Not nearly as racy but still reveling in the pull of physicality are the poems in Dusty Angel, by Michael Blumenthal (BOA Editions, $12.50). In "To His Coy Mistress (II)," the poet updates Marvell: "Had we but world enough and time,/ this coyness, -- -- -, would be no crime./ We'd sit and talk and eat and flirt/ and never even lift your skirt./ . . . But I am nearly forty-two/ and know the things that time can do/ to would-be lovers prone to pause/ at passion's hem for caution's cause." That last line's a bit chewy, but the poem gets at something sad and true about desire consummated only in the mind: "I know the lure when what's surmised/ seems safer than what's realized,/ when hands stay still and eyes undress/ and safety triumphs, more or less."
My favorite in this collection is "December Days," with its quiet here-and-now exuberance: "Oh well, the day's yours -- why not/ make a small mess, a puddle of contrition/ somewhere? . . . // Yesterday, you were a moralist -- / things seemed somber, judgemental. But/ today you're heavenly, like sunrise:/ everything you ever knew of good & evil/ is just foam, now, in the steamed milk/ that's the cloudcover over your cappuccino./ And, as for your childhold -- well,/ why not forget it? So you were/ miserable once. Wasn't everyone?"
Dusty Angel won the 1999 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, "given biennially to a poet in mid-career whose manuscript is of exceptional merit."
No references to Andrew Marvell turn up in Terrance Hayes's Whiting Writers Award-winning collection, Muscular Music (Tia Chucha, $10.95; distributed by Northwestern Univ.), as far as I could tell. Hayes grabs his references -- "The Lost World," Charlie Rose, Head & Shoulders shampoo, breakfast cereal -- right off the airwaves or the movie screen or finds them on the shelves of the local grocery store.
Here's a taste of "Buy One, Get One": "The old white man reading a box of Corn Flakes is like me./ Do you ever get up to go no where at sunrise? I shop at dawn/ before all the good eggs are cracked. Only I & the elderly/ know the super market is the last vestige of America -- / namebrands & generic condiments, blackeye peas, white rice,/ spanish onions -- everything has its cost. This morning/ it's Ain't Jemima's Authentic Maple Syrup With Artificial Flavoring, BUY 1, GET 1 FREE. Meaning, one's half as much as usual/ & I'm getting something for nothing. . . . // `Buy one, get one free,' said the slave trader to cotton heads/ when pregnant African girls mounted the auction block. America!/ Everything has its price; nearly everything has been bought." Now that's hot.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com