The variety in contemporary American poetry is great. Our time may be remembered as producing a poetry commensurate in range to the tremendous variety of American culture itself. Here are two recent books by poets of about the same generation -- war babies, approximately -- but of vastly different regions. Philip Schultz's book-length sequence, Living in the Past, tells quick, vivid memories, many of them set among immigrant families in the city of Rochester, N.Y. Robert Wrigley's Lives of the Animals is largely a book of the West.
Among the qualities shared by the town poet and the country poet is a sense of humor. Wrigley knows that the title of this poem, and its action, have a funny side:
Kissing a Horse
Of the two spoiled, barn-sour geldings
we owned that year, it was Red --
skittish and prone to explode
even at fourteen years -- who'd let me
hold to my face his own: the massive labyrinthine
caverns of the nostrils, the broad plain
up the head to the eyes. He'd let me stroke
his coarse chin whiskers and take
his soft meaty underlip
in my hands, press my man's carnivorous
kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one, just
so that I could smell
the long way his breath had come from the rain
and the sun, the lungs and the heart,
from a world that meant no harm.
Wrigley puts considerable weight and precision on the final noun "harm" and the verb "meant," in the sense of "intended." A horse may be "prone to explode" and cause harm incidentally, but a man may mean to explode, quite intentionally. The poem acknowledges the difference between the two creatures with a cool, clear sense of the mysteriously compliant though "barn-sour" horse as something deeply other.
The harm that is part of people, and another kind of clear-sighted observation, both come into this poem (untitled, number 63 in the sequence) from Philip Schultz's book:
Everyone's life is eventful. I hoist hundred-pound
sacks of coffee beans with a few caffeinated rats
and surprised snakes and then volunteer to protest
Port Chicago, where all the napalm gets shipped from,
New Year's Eve, 1967. Drive over the Golden Gate
across narrow ever-darkening roads, a VW bus packed
with rollicking ids, bumping over the countryside.
Stoned vigilantes freezing our shadows off round
a puny fire, we get punched, ridiculed and ignored
while the napalm keeps flowing east. Our honeymoon
with God is over. The world refuses to love us enough
so we quote Nietzsche: "Escape from the bad smell!
Escape the steam of these human sacrifices! Only
where the state ends, there begins the human being. . . . "
The sky opens its accordion pleats and it's the New Year,
but we haven't escaped anything, in fact, we barely
have time to say good-bye or wish ourselves luck.
Like Wrigley's poem, this is in part a charm to speak against the curse of self-importance. As Wrigley does not deny his interest in the animal world but acknowledges the limits of his knowledge, Schultz does not deny his frustration with the political organism of the state, which he cannot control. The poems also share poetry's thirst for knowledge, to know the ineffable auras and undertones of a moment, the insatiable wish to know more about the fleeting, particular occasion.
Robert Wrigley's poem "Kissing a Horse" is from his book "Lives of the Animals." Penguin. Copyright © by Robert Wrigley. Philip Schultz's poem numbered 63 ("Everyone's life is eventful . . ." ) is from his book "Living in the Past: Poems." Harcourt. Copyright © 2004 by Philip Schultz.