Poetry excerpts used with permission of the publishers:
`City of Coughing and Dead Radiators,' by Martin Espada, W. W. Norton, 89 pp., $17.95.
`Constance,' by Jane Kenyon, Graywolf Press, 59 pp., $11.
There's a thin line between perfection and failure, poetry and good intentions. The balancing act must be learned by all poets, with narrative and imagery firmly underfoot.
Martin Espada moves across the page with bold strokes and aggression. Like a skater who begins his program with the most challenging jumps, Espada writes about difficult, often ugly situations.
You know what you're in for right from the title of his newest book, ``City of Coughing and Dead Radiators.'' The world you'll enter isn't warm: It doesn't have heat at all.
But even if this kind of poetry - with its implied political messages - is not your preference, Espada's skill is worth watching. With a few penstrokes, he establishes a haunting situation in the first stanza of ``The Arm.'' A man pushing onto a subway train gorged with bodies is blocked out by the doors squeezing shut, but for one arm, caught within.
The reader can feel the bustle of the subway, can see the whole scene clearly. The clean line breaks, with their sure progression unimpeded by any excess words, add to the narrative's impact. If you continue reading, it's because Espada has wrought beauty out of ugliness and made you care about a nameless human. Such a feat isn't easy to pull off.
But in skating and in writing, getting into the air is only half the battle; landing firmly is perhaps even harder. Poems often fail because they haven't taken the narrative far enough: The ending comes too quickly. When an ending does succeed, it resonates like the last stanza of one of Espada's more uplifting poems, ``The Carnival Leaves For the Next Town.'' Three AM now, as you sleep, I puzzle at evaporated days when my fingertips could read the grain of the ball like holy Braille, when I could squeeze a planet in my sure hands and flip it through a hoop.
Even without having the rest of the poem, you know you've seen a solid landing. An ordinary basketball becomes the medium through which a young man sees beyond his limited existence. The ball is both known to him and knowing. It's so powerful that it can only be described as a planet, and the speaker is its confident master.
Just a few short lines and the reader's perception has changed. The stanza works on that part of you that feels and responds without intellectualizing, although that may come later. The audience responds because the poet handled his tools so well that the final product looked easy.
Poets who are known for gentler, more elegant performances sometimes rely on simpler narratives and more subtle language. Jane Kenyon writes meditative work that often explores the subject of spirituality. Her latest book, ``Constance,'' furthers her traditional theme, with some poems delving into the question of whether Christianity can relieve mental illness.
While sections of ``Constance'' may not appeal to all readers, the poem ``Not Writing'' demonstrates Kenyon's signature style. The narrative itself is very basic. Not Writing A wasp rises to its papery nest under the eaves whee it daubs at the gray shape, but seems unable to enter its own house.
It would be easy to underestimate this poem, just as one might think that a slight skater will lack power. The beauty of these six lines comes from the fact that the poet doesn't try to adorn the image. Kenyon doesn't add a jump where a slow spin will suffice. The more readers look, the more they will find. It's no accident that a wasp - rather than a bee or a yellow jacket - is having difficulty. The wasp's disposition suggests something about the speaker's inability to write. The fact that the wasp is trying to enter a house, instead of a nest, and daubs instead of darts, also says much about how the speaker perceives the writing process.
On a more basic level, the use of two stanzas slows down the reader and emphasizes how the speaker's experience seems to be filling up so much time and space. If you try to read the poem quickly, you'll lose both the mood and the meaning. Instead, you must watch the unfoldment.
Often the quiet, understated figures in a poem prepare the way for delicious surprises. In ``Peonies at Dusk,'' Kenyon sets up a mundane image of flowers along her porch. The simplicity of the first stanza balances and grounds the next observation. Outrageous flowers as bis as human heads! They staggered by their own luxuriance.
Graceful or daring, a poem must be more than the sum of its parts. It must hold the page with confidence, dazzling readers with its skill and the indefinable something that makes people come back for more.