David Lehman's new book, When a Woman Loves a Man, demonstrates that "literary" can be a term of praise, not, as it sometimes is, of blame. The book begins with an exuberant adaptation of Vladimir Mayakovsky's poem about the Brooklyn Bridge. It also contains a sestina that uses the names of poets at the ends of its lines and is full of allusions.
The book is also inventive and often winningly sincere. The antic but persuasive title poem is indeed a love poem: a New York literary man's description of behavior between a him and a her, as heartfelt in its own way as the great Percy Sledge tune alluded to and reversed by Lehman's title. Like the late Kenneth Koch, and like the other "New York School" poets about whom Lehman has written in his The Last Avant-Garde, Lehman is candid as well as ironic -- sometimes, both at once. He generates a maniacal, irreverent, fast-thinking range of references to movies, poems, history. His poems responding to the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, because of their improvisatory, alert feeling, are not out of place among the love poems, the meditations on movies or music, the formal japes and backflips. Lehman's writing is "literary" in a way that shows how literature, along with the other arts, is not a meadow for ruminative academic grazing, but a field of energy.
This kind of energy would become tedious or tricky if it were merely amusing. Frank O'Hara knew how to spin suddenly from making the reader giggle to breaking the reader's heart. On a lower frequency, in his own way, Lehman can turn from a deadpan, reasonable soul's misgivings about T.S. Eliot's pronouncements to a reflection on history that cuts deeper than mere mockery:
Dante Lucked Out
T. S. Eliot held that Dante was lucky
to live in the Middle Ages
because life then was more logically organized
and society more coherent. The rest of us however
can't be as sure that if we'd had the fortune
to walk along the Arno and look at the pretty girls
walking with their mothers in the fourteenth century,
then we, too, would have composed La Vita Nuova
and the Divine Comedy. It is on the contrary
far more likely that we, transported
to medieval Florence, would have died miserably
in a skirmish between the Guelphs and the Ghibelines
without the benefit of anesthesia
or would have been beaten, taunted,
cheated, and cursed as usurers
two centuries before the charging of interest
became an accepted part of Calvinist creed
and other reasons needed to be produced
to justify the persecution of the Jews.
This poem makes a significant transition from an unexamined, complacent and generalized use of the pronoun "we" ("if we'd had the fortune/ to walk along the Arno") to something more specific and real. The point is not merely to deride Eliot's comfortable upper-class viewpoint. The wiseguy quickness of "without benefit of anesthesia" taunts nostalgia for an idealized 14th century, then moves forward to a more-than-wiseguy perception. The word "anesthesia" serves as a hinge to the last six lines, which sweep ahead to consider a lack of moral feeling, or an imaginative numbness. Real nastiness and historical savageries bubble under the surface of the nostalgia.
If any reader objected that those last six lines, covering usury, Calvin and the whole history of European anti-Semitism, oversimplify with their summary, Lehman would have available to him a response in the informal American playground idiom represented by the "lucked out" in his poem's title. Making it too simple? . . . . Well, the poet could say, T. S. Eliot started it.
(David Lehman's poem "Dante Lucked Out" is from his book "When a Woman Loves a Man." Scribner. Copyright 2005 by David Lehman.)