So what is the poetry of the new century going to look like? Here, for the new year, is the work of two young poets. Get ready for a ride. They aim to be alive in their language, but they do not aim to be clear in the way that many of the poets of the '60s and '70s, in revolt against what seemed like the academic appropriation of high modernism, of the difficulties of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, aimed to be clear. This new work comes from several different directions -- surrealism, semiotics, the jump-cut rhythms of video and film, an impulse to make language rather than story or personal history do the work of poetry. One critic has called this vein "the new difficulty," and it has sometimes looked to models like the Jewish poet Paul Celan, who fractured the language to find a way to use it after the Shoah, or the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, who, in one of his books (Trilce -- partly written when he was jailed in Lima for his political activities in the late 1920s), wrote poems in a riddling and fractured Spanish, or the American poet John Ashbery experimenting with language the way the abstract expressionist painters had experimented with paint.

The first is Tessa Rumsey, whose first book, Assembling the Shepherd, has just appeared from the University of Georgia Press. Surrealism doesn't quite describe her method. But she's inventing language; she's a poet capable of writing, "Fish be ruby-weeping" or "no one knows who wind pitches for." This poem assembles its own half-mythological world. It seems to be trying to trace the shape of some ancient and buried grief:

Poem for the Old Year

January. The archer aims at himself.

His target is the eye of a fish. River

is frozen. Field rises in mist of lost

desire and steams the sealed sky open.

Fish be ruby-weeping. Fish be nailed

through scale onto door of silver birch.

Over the mountain beaten boy searches

for his teeth inside a clump of brambles.

The sound of thorns through his skin

is mercy. The sound of a beautiful fish

being nailed to a door is mercy, mercy.

Nobody knows the origin of music,

or who wind pitches for between rock

and rock like a bronco heart kicking

in its cage. Breeze seduces bow. Bow

abandons arrow. Boy finds shelter

in thicket and hears music of his breath

through ugly, twisted thistles. Come

home. It's time to begin again. A boy

is nailed to the door and a fish is aimed

at an archer, mountain is weeping rubies

onto frozen river while wind grinds

two new teeth. Who are you

inside the music of another's suffering?

When I was a nail I loved only

the hammer. When I was a breeze I died

on a door. When I was a fish

I swam without knowing not yet, or last

breath, or shore.

The second comes from Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge, published by Singing Horse Press in Philadelphia in 1995. It's written in quatrains, four-line poems or stanzas, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. What they do is invent, play with language, play with ideas, make all the sounds the poet can discover. It's an exuberant performance. Here's the end of it:

blessed are stunned cattle

spavined horses bent under their saddles

blessed is the goat as its throat is cut

and the trout when it's gutted

Jesus is my airplane

I shall feel no turbulence

though I fly in a squall

through the spleen of Satan

in a dream a book beckoned

opened for me to the page

where I read the words

that were to me a sign

houses of Heidelberg

outhouse cracked house

destroyed funhouse lost

and found house of dead dolls

two-headed dreamer

of second-sighted vision

through the veil

she heard her call

they say she alone smeared herself

wrote obscenities on her breast

snatched nappy patches from her scalp

threw her own self in a heap of refuse

knowing all I have dearly bought

I'll take what I can get

pick from the ashes

brave the alarms

another video looping

the orange juice execution

her brains spilled milk

on the killing floor

"Poem for the Old Year" by Tessa Rumsey from "Assembling the Shepherd. Copyright 1999 by Tessa Rumsey.

Used with permission of the University of Georgia Press." Muse & Drudge" by Harryette Mullen, available for $12.50 postpaid from Singing Horse Press, P.O. Box 40034, Philadelphia, PA 19106.#