Review: ‘Feminine Gospels,’ ‘Burnt Island’

Here’s a review of a couple new collections for you to read as you become benign and dozy on your Thanksgiving gluttonies. Both books sound like they’d be worth the time.


Two recent poetry collections–one playful, one pleasurably eerie–to get us through the 21st century.

by D. H. Tracy
Feminine Gospels, by Carol Ann Duffy. Faber and Faber. $11.00.

I gather Carol Ann Duffy is the most popular poet in the UK, and the American publication of her seventh (adult) collection may be an opportunity to extend her empire. It could happen: Duffy’s work is so rich that it can’t help but be thoroughly of the place it was written in, but her consistent moxie, her affable rambunctiousness, may well hit some kind of public bull’s-eye here. And Duffy’s poems are getting better and better. In her first couple of books you get the feeling that a claustrophobic talent is squeezing itself into the tight spaces of girlhood and minor monologues, when what she really wants to do is let it rip. She is now doing that; the poems feel simultaneously more playful and more necessary.

Utterly uninterested in wisdom, rhetoric, or meditation, she imagines the poems with systematic vigor, as if they were bathyscaphes she were going to descend in and their soundness depended on the quality of her invention. A poem may start out being about dieting or shopping and, just when it seems about to run into a brick wall of predictability, Duffy skid-turns into a fantastical variation that may be allegorical but is principally just clever. The dieter in “The Diet” shrinks into a mote drifting on the breeze and, accidentally swallowed, finds herself–where else?–“inside the Fat Woman now, /trying to get out.” My favorite romp is “Sub,” in which Duffy beats McEnroe to win Wimbledon in five sets, sets a Formula One speed record, decks Mohammed Ali, rides the winner at Aintree, performs some sort of cricket feat I dimly comprehend (involving–tantalizingly–“googlies, bosies, chinamen, zooters”), walks on the moon, scores the winning goal in the World Cup, and is tapped to play the drums when Ringo has the flu:

           Minus a drummer, the gig was a bummer
      till I stepped in, digits ringed, sticked, skinned,
      in a Beatle skirt, mop-topped, fringed, to wink
      at Paul, quip with John, climb on the drums,
      clever fingered and thumbed, give it four to the bar,
      give it yeah yeah yeah. The screams were lava,
      hot as sea, and every seat in the house was wet.
            –From “Sub”

If her readings are half this good on her next book tour, I’m there.

Burnt Island, by D. Nurkse. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.00.

In J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, the protagonist is a professor who has his students meditate on the distinction between, say, “burned” and “burnt” and “burnt up,” the difference being increasing degrees of grammatical perfection. Nurkse’s island is burnt, his past is burnt, for good, and the poet treasures any fragments he finds or retains: a pair of his late father’s shoes in the closet, a blood-fleck in the eye of a dead sparrow on the sidewalk, the name of an intersection where he witnessed a senseless beating. A heavy sense of the unrecoverable, along with short lines, figurative use of landscape, alternations of light and dark, noise and silence, give the book a pleasurably eerie sense of great intimacy and simultaneous impersonality.

The book is divided into three “suites,” which treat, respectively, New York and the events of 9/11, a troubled couple in a few places, including Burnt Island, and a number of curious facts about oceanography and marine biology. While the pervasive dreaminess is narcotic, it is not up to the task of getting around, under, through, or over the events of 9/11, which have an overwhelming prosaic quality in spite of themselves:

      A voice behind me shouted hurry
      and another screamed mercy.
      I braced my shoulders.
      All around me were voices
      pushing, pushing like men,
      and men crying like children,
      and a child calling help
      from behind a pebbled glass door.
            –From “The Evacuation Corridor”

When the related experience is fragmented and unable to account for itself, Nurkse’s style, already possessing these qualities, is not so much particularly apt as doubly confounded. In contrast, it works very well in the second suite, where the draining, incommensurable realities of couplehood lend themselves to floating:

      We made these bike tracks in the sand
      –don’t follow them–and this calcined match head
      is the last statue of our King.
            –From “Separation at Burnt Island”

Nurkse falters again somewhat in the third section, where he is writing out of (as he puts it) “an outsider’s fascination with biological language and the horizons it opens.” The poems here have a recherche quality that discombobulates his delicate, wide-eyed detachment. If you ever wanted to read a monologue by a sand lugworm or Ommastrephes pteropus, here’s your chance. These weaker poems aren’t deal-breakers, but leaving Burnt Island with good impressions requires making some allowance for the nature of Nurkse’s gift, which varies widely in effectiveness depending on its subject. Followed into the reaches of memory, disappointment, and loss, at least, that gift is considerable and entrancing.

D.H. Tracy’s poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2006 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on November 21, 2007.

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