Poetry That Reaches Out
Recent books range from a light-hearted baseball anthology to a major poet's selected works
AMONG recent new poetry releases, there are some books that let the world in. Their poems reach out to include neighbors, friends, public figures, and corporate domains such as the universes of sport, war, or politics. Even the self-portraits spring from experiences shared with others. These authors invite a public, not a coterie. Their poems are for the general reader.
Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves: Contemporary Baseball Poems (edited by Don Johnson, foreword by W. P. Kinsella, University of Illinois Press, 130 pp., $29.95 cloth, $12.95 paper), an anthology of baseball poems, is a charmer. Some titles include: "Late Innings,Baseball, Divine Comedy,4th Base," "Mantle." On the roster are poets like John Updike, Gregory Corso, Robert Penn Warren, Donald Hall, and Richard Eberhart. The collection includes heroes, villains, and the high and low drama of sport. There i s also philosophical bite, as in "Fly Ball," by Carol Masters: "damn thing never stops/ blazing with possibilities/ and it's yours/ you claim it" Fate plops into the glove.
Here are 84 poems written by 37 poets over the last 25 years (my own baseball statistics). As a high-quality, composite portrait of American culture - the money, grit, glamor, and dross - the book speaks real truths. It is also fun, and for pep and variety this collection can have few rivals. It will satisfy browsers, reminiscers, and both baseball and poetry fans. There is art here and a significant contribution to today's poetry ferment. Many of these poems not only soar over fences but also over the i vied walls of academe, inside which poetry has been known to strike out.
Lucille Clifton's ability has always been to make personal the issues of our time. In quilting: poems 1987-1990 (BOA Editions, 89 pp., $18 cloth, $9 paper), questions that nag us all spring forth with relevance. Her seventh poetry collection, the book includes poems like "february 11, 1990, (for Nelson Mandela and Winnie),ways you are not like oedipus,defending my tongue." She writes, in an untitled piece: "i am accused of tending to the past/ as if i made it." The past, for Clifton, is always present, a nd its silences speak out: the unnamed graves of women in a slave cemetery, Eve's version of Eden, the unrecorded saga of childhood.
This is a carefully wrought book in which the stories, the vignettes, and the documentation of the lives of martyred heroes or of brave friends and neighbors fall together with the rightness of proverbs. Note the deft cadences of the stunning title poem, quilting," in this excerpt: "in the unknown world/ the woman/ threading together her need/ and her needle/ nods toward the smiling girl/ remember/ this will keep us warm."
The late Howard Nemerov, former poet laureate of the United States, put a pun into the title of his last book of poems. Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (University of Chicago Press, 161 pp., $16.95) is a pointed selection from seven previous volumes, plus a last section of 23 new poems. Trying conclusions was Nemerov's business, and he liked ideas that, like the pun, had sides to them. Notice the flair and wistful wit of the closing stanza of his well-known poem "The Blue Swallows:"
"O swallows, swallows, poems are not/ The point. Finding again the world,/ That is the point, where loveliness/ Adorns intelligible things/ Because the mind's eye lit the sun."
A prolific, many-faceted writer, Nemerov has a roomy, funny side as well. Poems like "Walking the Dog,Long Distance," read well before live audiences, as do his stinging epigrams on American life and culture. In a poem addressed to Congress with a long, patriotic title, he seems to end by praising the person who invented the wheel, but reserves his punch line for the usually unmentioned poor soul who invented the brake.
A combat pilot in World War II, Nemerov gives us war poems that rank with Thomas Hardy's. His "Night Operations, Coastal Command RAF" is a chilling reminder of the pathos and terror of soldiering.
In "To Clio, Muse of History," he builds on a childhood memory of a visit to a museum to see the once famous statue of an Etruscan warrior, now known to be a forgery. Notice this stanza: "But tell us no more/ Enchantments, Clio. History has given/ And taken away; murders become memories,/ And memories become the beautiful obligations:/ As with a dream interpreted by one still sleeping/ The interpretation is only the next room of the dream."
The "us" in that first line is telling. In Nemerov's major poetry, private concern is always identified with a public universe. This is sensibility writ large. It explains this poet's wide readership and prize-bedecked career.
Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, continues to be a poet surprised by life. His latest book, Provinces: poems 1987-1991 (Ecco Press, 72 pp., $19.95), sparkles with celebration. In "Creating the World" he writes: "Gloria, gloria, sing objects called to being./ Hearing them, Mozart sits down at the pianoforte...."
Endowed with a deep-seated, religious sensibility he cannot tame, he puts art and science to use in his quest for understanding and composes a masterpiece, "Linnaeus." The ode moves like a hymn of gratitude not only for the great classifier and his books, but also for the innocence of earth and for his own childhood. The poet associates his duties with those of Linneaus: "To gather and to name, like Adam in the garden/ Who did not finish his task, expelled too early."
This poet's range is wide, as befits his years. Milosz not only explores seas and shores, but also experience itself and, most trenchantly, his memory and old age. In "A New Province" he writes: "Certainly, not much is known about that country/ Till we land there ourselves, with no right to return." The collection throngs with characters, historical events, and profound philosophical discussions vivid with analysis and imagery. There are also serenely attentive poems on great paintings, museums, librarie s; we have here the mind of a world.
That world encompasses old Europe, California, the gulags of Siberia, and the glittering hotel of the past. Especially poignant are some poems about soldiers, both friends and enemies. All these recapitulations, imaginings, debates with himself form a travelogue of the human spirit.
Not the least moving are the two lyrical prose pieces included in this gathering. One hypothesizes about a high-technology god not available to the thought of the ancients, our mentors. These poems were translated into English by the poet himself, with the help of Robert Hass. They are a national treasure. At 80, Milosz is a true athlete of poetry.
Paul Mariani is a poet of tough, exciting detail. Now in paperback, his Salvage Operations, New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton, 185 pp., $9.95) aspires to epic. In poems like "The Coming Changes,Fog Warning,To An Aging Athlete," and especially "The Eastern Point Meditations," Mariani etches sharp-edged portraits about art, war, the struggle for personal education, the hard life of working stiffs, and strong religious faith into a unified song of praise and blame for his tribe, the world. Like Whitman, like William Carlos Williams, he has a talent for ransacking history and rich, private memory at the same time.
His "Ars Poetica" describes the bumpy flight of a single-engine bush plane over hill and dale. It is a compelling paean to poetic inspiration, pure mind-flight.
The last poem in his book, "Then Sings My Soul," springboards from the familiar hymn. It grieves for a dying Spanish friend who awaits the bull of death. The last stanza, in language and rhythm all muscle and heart, is vintage Mariani: "Teach me to stare down those lowered horns/ on the deadend street that shall have no alleys/ and no open doors. And grant me the courage/ then to still sing to thee, how great thou art." We have here an openly vulnerable, fiercely honest poet, well worth reading.