GHOSTS, SEX, PHYSICS

Two recent poetry collections offer a range of pleasures.
by Peter Campion and D. H. Tracy
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE

Poets of the Civil War, ed. by J.D. McClatchy. The Library of America. $20.00.

by Peter Campion

The Civil War was our defining tragedy. Most of us know that commonplace. But maybe because it’s so obvious, the war can also seem like a blind spot on our collective consciousness. After the atrocities in New York four years ago, the experts on TV kept referring to the War of 1812 as the last conflict in which an American city was attacked. Vicksburg and Atlanta could have been cities on the moon to them. You can see how such reasoning worked. It’s easier to discount the suffering a country inflicts on its own. It’s easier, especially since this war ended the abomination of slavery, to gloss its horror.

What makes this collection of Civil War poets so valuable is the power with which it disrupts that trend, corroborating William Faulkner’s claim that “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” It’s not necessarily the consistent quality of the work included that gives the anthology its power. (Many of the poems, as their editor openly admits, are second rate; several seem awkward imitations of Milton or Walter Scott.) No, it’s the immediacy with which poetry itself confronts us. McClatchy explains in his elegant introduction that, while there remains no “American Iliad,” he has set out to create a panorama made up of the partial glimpses that the poems provide.

What does that leave to readers who desire more from poems than historical interest? A good deal. There are six excellent poems by Emily Dickinson, which set an explosive interior drama against their uncharacteristic topicality. The strongest poem in the collection is Walt Whitman’s devastating “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” and the twenty-six pages of Whitman form the center of the book. Fine work by lesser poets also lends power to the anthology. The disillusioned poems of the Connecticut writer John W. De Forest seem particularly striking to me.

But maybe the most impressive selection is that of Herman Melville. Some of the ornament that Melville could sustain in his muscular prose seems like conventional clunkiness in his poems. But consider “Inscription,” a poem written after the horrific battle of Fredericksburg:

      To them who crossed the flood
      And climbed the hill, with eyes
           Upon the heavenly flag intent,
           And through the deathful tumult went
      Even unto death: to them this Stone–
      Erect, where they were overthrown–
           Of more than victory the monument.

This poem flows from the same impulse that led Melville to give Billy Budd the subtitle “an inside narrative.” It endeavors to remind us of the ineffable “something more,” the incommensurable lost lives that haunt our official histories.

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.

© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.

Poems 1955-2005, by Anne Stevenson. Dufour Editions. $64.95 cloth; $29.95 paper.

by D. H. Tracy

Anne Stevenson was born in England, raised and educated in the US, and has been living in various parts of Britain since the sixties. Poems 1955-2005 draws from thirteen publications since 1965, as well as from some early and late uncollected work. The poems are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which was at first quite irritating (it is almost a reflexive response to want to compare early and late work) but grew on me. While I hesitate to imply Stevenson’s writing has been static, she maintains a consistent sensibility and clustered interests that are able to make thematic categorizations work as more than curiosities. There aren’t many poets who could profitably mix up work spanning fifty years, but she can.

Stevenson has written alertly on Sylvia Plath (she’s Plath’s age, but didn’t start publishing until after Plath’s death) and Elizabeth Bishop, and has obviously gone to school on them in her own work. More socially constituted than either of these poets, she possesses a charity that neither of them had, and suffers from an excess of consciousness that neither of them had either. I say “suffers” because the excess often manifests itself as literary mannerism or a chattiness of tone that does not entrain itself to the formal or dramatic requirements of the poem. Her challenge, generally speaking, is disciplining this excess. Her loose voice sounds like this:

      For what traveller or exile, mesmerised by the sun
      Or released by spaciousness from habitual self-denial,
      Recalls without wistfulness its fine peculiarities
      Or remembers with distaste its unique, vulnerable surfaces?
            –From “England”

Compare this to:

      A field of barley, feathered;
      a fen full of sky-blue butterfly flax,
      undulations like the ocean’s
      rolling right up to the cameraman’s
      pollen-dusted loafers.
      And when Anthea sets up her easel

      to catch in watercolour
      a picturesque angle of the almshouses,
      she scrupulously omits

      electrical wiring and tv paraphernalia
      that, in strange time, connect her to
      
      “the brutish, uncivilized tempers of these parts” …
            –From “A Tourists’ Guide to the Fens”

When in the latter mode, Stevenson’s wry-but-not-bitter worldliness (it’s striking how much she resembles Mona Van Duyn in this quality) is expansive enough for public elegy, light verse, social satire–there’s something eighteenth-century about it. It just doesn’t seem to lose its footing. Usually poets’ most ambitious work is their worst, but Stevenson’s jewel is the 1974 Correspondences, an extended portrait of a Yankee family based on a trove of letters Stevenson discovered at Radcliffe. She shows in these pieces a talent, not otherwise much on display, for mimicry–the voices throughout are distinctly and plausibly old, young, male, female, northern, southern, English, American, grave, flippant, and of their time. As technique, it is impressive; as an act of empathy, it is broad and sustained in a way that any one lyric cannot be. Her strongest short poems (I would nominate “Gannets Diving,” “The Women,” “Forgotten of the Foot,” “Skills,” “American Rhetoric for Scotland,” “The White Room,” “Elegy,” “The Traveller,” and “Willow Song”) occur early, middle, and late. But whatever the case for the poems in it, the book compounds its successes in being a deep record of a robust and elastic sensibility, and in delivering us another not-so-minor Atlantic Goethe.

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

© 2007 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on December 19, 2007.

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