An Embarrassment of Riches 

Fall's best poetry books—stocking stuffers for the literary set

Fall's best poetry books—stocking stuffers for the literary set

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon

By Mary Jo Bang (Grove, 97 pp., $13)

Strike Sparks:

Selected Poems 1980-2002

By Sharon Olds (Knopf, 224 pp., $16.95)

Breath

By Phillip Levine (Knopf, 96 pp., $23)

A Companion for Owls:

Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c.

By Maurice Manning (Harcourt, 144 pp., $22)

Writing poems about art is nothing new. The practice dates to Homer. The difficulty, however, is enormous: The poet must fuse the spatial quality of visual art to the temporal quality of poetry. Artwork and poem must converse, but not everyone agrees this kind of civilized discourse is possible: According to philosopher Suzanne Langer, "There are no happy marriages in art—only successful rape."

In The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, Mary Jo Bang's fourth collection, each of the 52 poems is paired with a piece of visual art, of which only the title and date of composition is provided. The artists range from Picasso and Dali to David Lynch and Bang herself. Bang's work in Strange Balloon is at times as challenging as contemporary poetry gets and always as exhilarating. Art is a subjective business, and good poetry is often wonderfully ambiguous. Couple that inherent subjectivity and ambiguity to questions about the nature of representation and reality, and you have a sense of the complexity Bang aspires to in this book. Sometimes the intellectualism here is impossible to comprehend—which is, one suspects, part of the point.

But the ironic marvel of Bangs' work is that at its most incomprehensible it can still be approached and appreciated at the much simpler level of sound. Even as the poems dispense their unconnected fragments of light and dark, they sound fun, a bit like David Byrne happily singing "Psycho Killer." The senses understand it before the mind does—in exactly the same way that certain works of art can be grasped at a visceral level long before that impression could ever be articulated. This is the end of "Etched Murmurs (Or, The Common Green Libretto)":

The sock stuffed

in the child's mouth. What

a world.

Surreptitious

puddles. Essence of borrowed

speech, suffused throughout

with ether or ethered sleep.

The little lyric bottom

of the grooved green moon

redeeming nothing.

Off-white shimmering

doom-kiss. Good-

nightandgoodmorning.

Whether these poems are a conversation or a literary rape, they're intelligent and supremely crafted. And they sure do sound good.

Sharon Olds has always had detractors, despite her prodigious achievements. The nay-sayers come from two camps: 1) Poetry outsiders, who fear the body and what it wants; and 2) poetry insiders, who fear the body and what it does. (Both are especially afraid of the female body.) The outsiders are more honest: Although they couch it in terms of morality, they admit their fear. Insiders, afraid of what the female body actually performs, resort to quibbling about manners, admitting that the word blowjob, say, is not inherently bad but to use it in a poem shows poor taste. This is perhaps the reason there are more poems about trees than bodies.

Hallelujah for Olds, then, who has been writing for a quarter century about the body: what it does and doesn't do, feels and doesn't feel, wants and doesn't want. Thankfully, it does, feels and wants a lot. Her first book, 1980's Satan Says, was dedicated in large part to opening up a space in which to speak the unspeakable, which for Olds was and still is largely about bodies and desire. This is from "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure":

As soon as my sister and I got out of our

mother's house, all we wanted to

do was fuck, obliterate

her tiny sparrow body and narrow

grasshopper legs. The men's bodies

were like out father's body! The massive

hocks, flanks, thighs, male

structure of the hips, knees, calves—

we could have him there, the steep forbidden

buttocks, backs of the knees, the cock

in our mouth, ah the cock in our mouth.

To pigeonhole Olds into the role of shock-poet, as many have done, is to miss the point. Her poems are rarely, if ever, gratuitous. Instead they rely on an acute accounting of physicality and the resultant emotion, or vice versa. Moreover, often lost amidst the hand-wringing over her subject matter is the quality of the verse itself, which is a textbook lesson in extended metaphor, expert line breaks and the poet's most important skill, the ability to match emotion to image.

As Strike Sparks, her new collection of the best of her first six books, amply proves, Olds has mapped the body as it moves from childhood through adolescence and adulthood, through childbirth and motherhood. Now the 60-something mother of two is an elder stateswoman of a confessional tradition begun by Sappho and furthered by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

It is almost unbearable to know that Philip Levine's body will break down one day, that he will die leaving poems still in his head unwritten. In the way that matters most—the matter of heart—he is America's finest male poet of the past half-century, his monumental achievement not the cache of literary awards or admirers he has won, but a body of work written straight from the center of his being. Levine's center is his heart, but his poems are powered by his lungs, birthplace of his breath, with "its curious taste, / part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes / from me into the world." The septuagenarian poet's newest book is aptly titled Breath.

Levine was born and raised in pre-Eminem, pre-Motown, pre-almost-everything-we-remember Motor City. This is from "The Lesson":

Years before, before the invention of smog,

before Fluid Drive, the eight hour day,

the iron lung, I'd come into the world

in a shower of industrial filth raining

from the bruised sky above Detroit.

But if we do not remember it, Levine can never forget it. That gritty, revolution-in-full-swing world and those who worked it forever inform his poetry. Decidedly working class, he dropped out of Detroit's factory life at 26 to attend the University of Iowa, where he studied with literary giants Robert Lowell and John Berryman. They encouraged the young Levine to write what he knew, and what he knew was work: backbreaking, heartbreaking, rarely redeeming work. His poems are neither condescending paeans to the glories of labor nor rants against its injustice. He tells flesh and blood stories about women and men who perform the tasks—factory and assembly line workers, yes, but also maids, janitors, bakers, seamstresses, office workers, and with a special fondness and emphasis in this collection, jazz musicians like Lester Young and Charlie Parker, whose breathtaking work can make a fallen world bearable, much like Levine's own poems.

A fallen world is what Daniel Boone feared. That's Maurice Manning's contention in his astounding new book of poems, A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. Manning's work is a fictionalized journal by the frontiersman Boone, in whom the poet invests a meditative and insightful voice, subtly humorous, that becomes tinged with sadness at the death of loved ones and the land he cherishes.

Manning's Boone is a solitary figure, a speculator of great and small truths gleaned from his experiences as hunter, explorer, warrior, captive, surveyor, innkeeper, brother, husband and father. What he sees in his country's future disheartens him: a falling from the natural bond between Man and Creator (a single-eyed god with wings) to an unnatural linking of Man and Commerce.

The poet's genius here is in capturing what he imagines to be Boone's understated, soulful and sometimes elegiac voice. Boone's "journal," its entries formed into free verse stanzas of varying length, is split into three parts: "Meditations," "Fancies" and "Apologies." There is also a section called "Letters from Squire," fictionalized epistles written to Boone from his brother, and at the end of the journal is a marvelous addendum called "Illustrations, Inventories, and Maps," which includes Manning-as-Boone's hand-drawn "Image of My Foot Showing Blood, Sundry Wounds, and the Ring of Sadness" and another image, "A Map of Heaven," in which is drawn "the compass which proves all directions are one." The titles of the entries, or poems, are appropriately straightforward: "The Meaning of Time," "The Sum Result of Speculation," "Pissing in a Stump."

The poems collectively are a wonder, capturing Boone's depth of feeling and thought—capturing, in essence, his soul. Individually, they are by turns funny, smart, sad, mournful, angry, questioning and humble. These are the final lines of the journal's final poem, "Testament":

[I] recovered to hunt again. Yet I know my days

are winding down; I will go and not return.

My estate is a simple matter to resolve—

I leave my rifle to whoever wants it.

Don't dress me up for death, leave me naked

and fill my box with mast; I'm taking seeds

to heaven in case God needs more trees. When I swim

the pitch-hewed river, bury me beside

Rebecca; and when his days run out of numbers,

bury Derry next to me.

At the end of the book, Manning has included a set of historical notes, roughly one note per journal entry, elucidating aspects of the given poem. Ordinarily this might seem condescending or, worse, an admission that the poems can't stand alone, but Manning's notes are in fact wonderful augmentations, full of intriguing and funny asides, as well as insight into his own take on Boone's actual history.

My advice: Read the poems first, and then read the notes. Then read the poems again.

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