Close — but not too close — observation

Two recent collections of poetry dwell in the revealing details.

by Sandra Gilbert
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Burn the Field, by Amy Beeder. Carnegie Mellon University Press. $14.95.

Amy Beeder is a poet whose bio note provides a suitably salty background as “a political asylum specialist” and “a human rights observer in Haiti and Surinam.” Closely observed and linguistically rich, Burn the Field has rough spots but constitutes an impressive debut for a writer who reveres the heft, texture, and taste of words. In the sonnet “Cabezòn,” for instance, the lumpy, clumpy phrases at first delineate mere grotesquerie. The “Bighead” is:

chub & bug-eyed, jaw like a loaf
hands in your pockets, a smoke dangling slack
from the slit of your pumpkin mouth;
humped over like the eel-man or geek,
the dummy paid to sweep out gutters.

But deformity becomes increasingly sinister as the speaker slots “Cabezòn” into the old plot of “Death and the Maiden,” wondering “what are you slouching toward–knee-locked, / hippity, a hitch in your zombie walk, Bighead?”

Beeder’s weaknesses are aspects of her strengths–in particular the intensity she lavishes on details. “The Body’s Luck,” a mini-encyclopedia of hypochondria, goes on too long, with digressions on tonsils (“twin bunches of lymph twitching / in the throat’s crypt”) and effusions on:

the inside of my retina
that sad planet, that blood and yellow atlas
where mitochondria and air bubbles cruise

like Greyhounds on wet road.

Much of it, like Beeder’s other lesser pieces, is a failed channeling of Plath.

But mostly Beeder’s focus on what matters–gained, perhaps, from her days as a human rights observer–pays off. The poignant “Yellow Dress,” set in Port-au-Prince, elegizes a dead girl mysteriously abandoned “on a heap of street sweepings high / as a pyre,” while “Last Photo” renounces lushness in its stark notation that the “photo of my mother bald / looks more like her than any other,” as if:

the lips
and eyebrows say: I know the reason
for this photo of me, all dressed in black
before a bone-white wall. Go ahead and take it.

Less is more in this brief snapshot of diminution–a lesson Beeder herself is likely to learn.

Riding Westward, by Carl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $20.00.

Carl Phillips fills his latest collection–his eighth–with work that could never be considered nerveless, slack, or clumsy. In this volume, as in most of his others, his poems are taut with muscular periodic sentences, disciplined yet apparently casual phrasing. As its title suggests, Riding Westward turns persistently toward the shadows of annihilation. Despite Phillips’s extraordinary syntactic and prosodic expertise, however, this swerve toward darkness often feels willed, even precious, as though despite the gloom that gathers over his lines he isn’t ready to face the specificity of such intimations.

The beautifully written “After” suffers from similar bouts of angst, as the poet records pain–“A bell swings, in darkness”–and first remembers early mystifications, “Dark, like the bottom of the well / of childhood, up to the steep walls of which I’d spend hours shouting / words like anthracite, gingko–.” He then reminds himself that:

it’s fall again, the usual fireless fire the leaves make
as they give themselves over, first from their branches,
then a second time when–crushable, as the diminished tend almost as
willingly, it seems, as instantly to become–they give way beneath
and around those of us who have places to go, still, and believe
in getting there.

The second passage here is so precisely focused that it exposes the arbitrariness of “anthracite, gingko” as mannerism, while also putting in question the grandiosity of the rhetorical question into which the poem’s opening line evolves: “A bell swings; then darkness.–Is dying like this?” No, it probably isn’t.

But perhaps one resents imprecision in Phillips because when he’s good he’s so very good, as in this book’s title piece, which follows the god-as-lone-ranger-muse-lover into a tuneful sunset:

the singer turning this
and that way, as if watching the song itself
–the words to the song–leave him, as he
lets each go, the wind carrying most of it,
some of the words, falling, settling into
instead that larger darkness, where the smaller

darknesses that our lives were lie softly down.

From this particular poet, one wants more such song, and–like Goethe–“more light” in or around those various darknesses.

Sandra Gilbert is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Belongings, and two works of non-fiction. She is a professor emerita at U.C. Davis.

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~ by ericedits on May 6, 2008.

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