Verses for a troubled time

Two poets who understand the nature of terrible beauty

In an age of terror, poetry may look ridiculous, its ambiguities luxuries we can't afford. But two recent volumes from very different poets suggest otherwise. Leonard Nathan's Tears of the Old Magician contains 59 poems, each composed of three unrhymed tercet stanzas. Nathan never raises his voice. He doesn't have to. An astringent compassion elevates his lines. As witnesses to public violence, we may find his poems oddly comforting. Here is "Recess":

Think of it this way, children: the world given only once is beautiful.

Recess, the children flee, playing at war, meaning it. She winds her shawl tighter.

And weeps softly for all the ugly worlds still to be born and no one ever to love them.

The perfect joining of idiom and speaker gives Nathan's new poems the absoluteness of a lyric by Thomas Hardy: in possession only of their own passion for truth, they remind us of our own neglected potentials.

Irish poet Medbh McGuckian's new book, The Soldiers of Year II, also focuses on the public-private intersection in a bloody time. For the Irish, this would be the whole 20th century and more. McGuckian draws from the potato famine onward to the present. Her art, notable for the fission of its imagery, rises to each occasion, lifting it to terrible beauty. This stanza from "Ballerinas" commemorates a friend who lost her life in the Abercorn Café explosion: "A ringlet of hair tied with black silk/ rests in a medallion of white shell, a machine-gun/ in its nest, a crease in the middle of a flower./ The hair describes a protecting curve, a repetition/ that is a completion, a dip in a mountain."

McGuckian captures the miracle of creaturely differentiation: in our likeness, each one's uniqueness. Her theme becomes explicit in the sublime plainness of "The Colony Room": "If you are touching, you are also being touched:/ if I place my hands in prayer, palm to palm,/ I give your hands new meaning, your left hand calm."

Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence.

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