Oyster Boy Review 12  
  January 2000
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Read & Recommended

Jeffery Beam

The Great Unknowing: Last Poems.

Denise Levertov.

New Directions, 1999.

80 pages. $19.95 (paperback).

These 40 poems found after Levertov's death in December 1997 clarify the world with the same freshly intense, loving, and masterful gaze as any of her work. The poems move within Nature, intelligence, politics, and the spirit as deftly as ever, requiring ultimate quiet to appreciate their simple conversational tones. Work as honest and spiritual as any of the great Christian mystics, in "First Love" she claimed physical energy as holy eternal communion: "Perhaps through a lifetime what I've desired / has always been to return / to that endless giving and receiving, the wholeness / of that attention, / that once-in-a-lifetime / secret communion." And in "The Métier of Blossoming" she reflected: "If humans could be / . . . intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried, / swift from sheer / unswerving impetus! If we could blossom / out of ourselves, giving / nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!" One of the most important women modernist poets, now silent.

Living is What I Wanted: Last Poems.

David Ignatow.

BOA Editions, 1999.

84 pages. $12.50 (paperback).

David Ignatow was an altogether different poet, distinctly understated and plain-spoken. Ignatow's ruthless self-questioning considered living and dying as one project—testimony, dissension, forgiveness, and wonder. He regarded our human and blemished ways as starkly as he celebrated our ecstasies: "In the ripe nectarine / is the sweetness of dying / as though we had a choice." ("As Though Life Were A Question") Levertov and Ignatow shared clarity and light, but Ignatow's darknesses were more palpable, frightening. His resolutions, however, were as calming, centered, and eternal and Levertov's: "shortly to be sent down / in a relationship with earth / close as I have lived with friends. // The thought is not nearly so comforting / and yet where else may I turn / for reassurance, earth of the magma / from the deep center of itself." ("Thinking My Father's Thoughts")

Interior With Sudden Joy.

Brenda Shaughnessy.

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.

84 pages. $21.00 (hardcover).

A youthful first book. Brenda Shaughnessy's language blows a sirocco, as if controlled by a Greek goddess—angry, sexual, seductive, demonic, proud, archaic, fine, playful, and insistently omnipotent. She refuses language's confines: "I will make something of you both pigment / and insecticide." (Still Life With Gloxinia") Eros and love wage wanton and delicious battle in her gender-stripping lesbian "tight No-love-you's in a tongue // thicker than water." ("Letter to the Crevice Novice") Shaughnessy's poems display a classicist's force, an avant-garde rebelliousness, and the vitalism of post-post-modernism's hypertext: "Perfection is the campsite for those who have stopped halfway." ("Transpassional") These prodigal oracular poems, "Svelte with eventual sex" ("Swell"), risk much, dangering themselves close to self-caricature. For now, Shaughnessy has the stage and her irresistible rhythmic raunch slays or Medusa-freezes: "To come into my room is to strike strange. / My plum velvet pillow & my hussy spot / the only furniture." ("Interior With Sudden Joy")

Blood, Tin, Straw.

Sharon Olds.

Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

125 pages. $15.00 (paperback).

Sharon Olds manages to walk a similar tightrope—but her rhythms, personal themes, and sheer energy drown out any arguments against her. Accused of self-indulgence she would stand reprieved by the resolute universality and convincing sincerity of her work. Sometimes you think she is writing the same poem over and over—voluptuous, ecstatic, Whitmanesque, with a threat to go limp. Her fever and light-filled body catalogs, however, almost always slam the reader onto a roller coaster or sucks into a tactile word-quicksand ("When It Comes"):

Even when you're not afraid you might be pregnant,
it's lovely when it comes, and it's a sexual loveliness,
right along that radiant throat
and lips, the first hem of it,
and at times, the last steps across the bathroom,
you make a dazzling trail, the petals
the flower-girl scatters under the feet of the bride.

Read this, from "The Necklace," out loud:

At the worst of the depression, one moment in the office,
suddenly, my necklace shifted,
flowed across some high ribs
and sank down along the top of one breast
as if a creature had gone into my shirt,
yet I felt its will-lessness, caress
of matter only, small whipper or
snapper, milk or garter, just
the vertebrae now, as if stripped
spine had taken its coccyx in its jaw
around my throat's equator, and now
stirred on the mortal plates."

We Did Not Fear the Father.

Charles Fort.

57 pages. $12.00 (paperback).

Reynolds Chair Special Editions.

University of Nebraska, Kearney Press, 1998.

As the Lilac Burned the Laurel Grew.

Charles Fort.

15 pages. $35.00 (paperback).

Reynolds Chair Special Editions.

University of Nebraska, Kearney Press, 1999.

Charles Fort lacks the high profile the previous poets enjoy, but he deserves better. In poems not as ostentatiously word-wise, but every bit as surreal as Shaughnessy's, Fort "attempts," as he once said in these pages: "to write in the mother tongue tampering with the mother tongue and the nuances of the spiritual and the collective unconscious, a surreal and haunting rendering of what we call human. Much of my work also derives from working-class poetics: my father, hometown, the brownfields of the burnt out factories he used to toil." His poems, illogical and wise as feeling, catapult into "the human wages / awakened in the filaments of the heart." ("Twilight") They burlesque and shake with African-American chant holding them up: "There was fresh air camp and lilac / in bloom along the river's edge / a skinny dip into dark water." ("As the Lilac Burned the Laurel Grew"). The late rural surrealist Frank Stanford is the only poet to whom I compare Fort. We Did Not Fear the Father selects poems from past works (The Town Clock Burning, Darvil), new poems, and the work-in-progress book-length title poem. Fort's father worked in a ball-bearing factory, landlorded the tenement in which the family lived, and ran a barber shop: "He worked at the furnace door / as ball bearings hissed in the snow / plowing the brown field as he wept / and pounded the ice with his barehands." ("Ploughing the Brown Field") Fort's poems float above consciousness and grab with a sharp hook.