The Pick of Pathfinding Poetry

EACH of these recent poetry releases is special, even a pathfinder, scouting the territory, and gathering evidence.

Fifteen of the poems in Letters From Darkness, by Daniela Crasnaru (Oxford University Press, 47 pp., $10.95 paper, British pounds6.99 UK) are from a manuscript which, in pre-1990 Romania, the author hid in a box of onions. The other 20 poems, previously published under censorship, are shrouded in the symbolic code familiar to poets in totalitarian societies. Translated by Fleur Adcock with the author, the two parts of the book are moving, and form sad antiphons to each other.

Here is the translation of two lines from a shrouded poem, aptly entitled "Oxygen":

"Soiled with ink as if with alien blood / this thought which writes itself."

A continuing motif of the secret poems is hunger. These are lines from "Still Life":

"... this corner of a table on which are lying a knife / and two slices of salami. Still life. / Heterogeneous objects / monstrously magnified / under the lens of a tear through which I see the world."

Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, by Bruce Michelson (University of Massachusetts Press, 258 pp., $32.95), is the first book-length study of Richard Wilbur's poetry in 25 years. It is high time, and only the most soreheaded of postmodernist critics will gnash their teeth over the attention given this perennially "flawless" poet. For the rest of us, readers and scholar-readers alike, the book brings insight and pleasure.

Michelson's overview of the scholarship on Wilbur is sure, and handy, but does not stand in the way of his own reading, with rich examples, of the poet's work (translations, as well as original poems). He creates a lively picture of Wilbur as a combiner and synthesizer of modern times. Wilbur's rigorous awareness of the "minute particulars" of everyday living results in a poetry constantly fresh, alive, and relevant.

Particularly welcome are discussions of certain Wilbur poems, like "The Mill" and "Beowulf," which are deserving of a wider audience.

The ancient Mexican calendar, the 584 days of the revolution of the planet Venus, provides the impetus for Octavio Paz's Sunstone (New Directions, 59 pp., illustrated, $18.95), a 584-line meditation. Shot through with surreal imagery of often scorching impact, this poem, which originally appeared in 1957, is considered a key achievement of Paz. The poem ends with the same six lines that begin it, creation "forever arriving."

Native American deities, Mary, Persephone, saints, history's henchmen, prophets, and figures of personal memory throng the book, which is translated by Eliot Weinberger. Distances and differences dissolve, under eternity's light, in an epic-like panorama of human experience.

This is Paz's prompting mystery: "... a mind transfixed by an eye that watches / it watching itself till it drowns itself / in clarity."

This is a beautiful edition with ancient illustrations.

A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose, by Donald Justice (Middlebury College Press, published by University Press of New England, 171 pp., $17.95), is a lucid orchestration of 73 poems and six varied prose pieces, including fiction. It is a sign of Donald Justice's clear, retentive mind that so many of these works, assembled over decades - verse and prose - talk to each other. This writer's vision has been steady. The "smoke of memory" pervades his lines, "childish days," family portraits, e legies for friends and mentors, the mystery of music. His memoir "Piano Lessons" is especially to the point here for the way Justice connects early experience with his mature intellectual activities.

The subtlety of Justice's art, his grace with rhythms and structures, draw the reader in.

Note this excerpt from his poem "Crossing Kansas by Train:" " ... this / Is Kansas the / Mountains start here / Just behind / The closed eyes / Of a farmer's / Sons asleep / In their workclothes."

Here is a real gift.

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