Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems. By Charles Harper Webb. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Pp. 145. $16.95 pb.
Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010. By Maxine Kumin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Pp. 235. $29.95 hb.
The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems 1975-2010. By Edward Hirsch. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Pp. 237. $27.00 hb.
As all readers of poetry know, a special burden of significance weighs upon a volume of New and Selected Poems. Publishers rightly consider it an opportunity to spotlight an author in their stable and, on the most altruistic level, make a contribution to contemporary letters for which posterity will pay and repay them with gratitude (and cash). Unlike the single volume, which statistically fails to achieve visibility many many more times than it catches the eye of reviewers and readers, the first monumental collection of a poet's career, preceding the Collected Poems late in life and the Complete Poems posthumously, alerts the public that the history of poetry may shift a bit, or seismically, thanks to this amplified text. It is not just another book any more than the midterm examination is just another quiz. This one matters.
For the poet, of course, the New and Selected volume is fateful, not least because it is the point where he or she has to make those minute discriminations, those maddening choices, that separate the worthy survivors from the left behind. Especially if the poet has been prolific and massively published, like Charles Harper Webb, the triage must be painful - but also an opportunity to define himself as an artist. Webb has sacrificed not only poems from each volume he reprints but at least one whole book - Everyday Outrages (1989) - in order to shape this present collection, which selects from only nine years of published work and adds fourteen new poems, none of them more than two pages. In today's market such restraint is the better part of wisdom. Though poets and publishers complain about the public indifference to verse, in fact there is an overabundance of poetry volumes circulating in the back channels, if not at the big bookstores. Nobody any longer is thankful for books that present hundreds of pages of inferior writing, even from major reputations like Allen Ginsberg and William Wordsworth.
Because poets tend to define their careers by situating themselves among the constellation of public figures, including other poets, it's always interesting to me which historical persons they choose to praise, or even mention, in their work. Some, like Emily Dickinson, display almost no interest in big names; of her 1,775 poems, fewer than six make reference to non-Biblical personages (see especially numbers 371, 555, and 741). No Pound or Auden, she. Webb writes whole poems in tribute to Marc Chagall, Allen Ginsberg, Wynton Marsalis, and Little Richard. We get a cat's view of John Keats, and elsewhere Keats, Shelley, and Byron are reimagined as the Three Stooges - one of Webb's rare misfires. But the most surprising eminence to be honored by a poem in the New and Selected volume is Pliny, whose voracious curiosity about the mysterious nature of all things Webb elevates to a level of virtue higher than faith, hope, and charity. Pliny's capacity for wonder makes his writings on natural history a sacred book, Webb's guide in poem after poem about the oddities of existence, and the chief oddity of all, human nature itself.
"In Praise of Pliny" begins with several quatrains cataloguing the bizarre creatures Pliny reported in Historia Naturalis as either actual or reliably rumored:
He tells of headless people with eyes on their shoulders,
dog-headed people who bark, one-legged people
who hop fast, mouthless people fed by the scent
of roots and flowers, whom a stink can kill.
Webb makes the case for Pliny as a model for the poet, whose task is to nourish our fascination with the extra-ordinary, the singular, even the monstrous. Webb's chief rhetorical mode in all his work is hyperbole. Fertility of invention is his main characteristic, so that his poems tend to pile trope upon trope, usually for comic effect but sometimes to fuel his vindictive rage or his exasperation with specimens of cruelty or misfortunes large and small. Excess and strangeness vivify his verbal imagination. And if we turn skeptic on him, or worse, on life, the conclusion of "In Praise of Pliny" puts us in our forlorn place. Pliny died while trying to escape the sulfurous fumes from Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
As he lay dying on the beach, could he have conceived
of people lacking all belief, devoid of wonder -
two-dimensional people who scoff at everything,
and swear their lives are dull and wretched as they roar
in horseless chariots across the earth he loved,
and soar in winged phalli through the astounding sky?
The complaint is a familiar one, but the angle of regard upon a condition so familiar to us from sociological and narrative sources freshens our sense of the limits we impose on our curiosity and awe, so distracted are we from the physical, much less spiritual, opportunities for engagement and joy.
Given this aesthetic, one would expect Webb's poems to take as many forms as an anthology of postmodernist écriture by a hundred different experimental poets. But from the first volume (of five) to the final packet of new work, Webb relies on sturdy blocks of stanzas, uniform in length and, for the most part, in cadence, to build his house of words. The one sustained exception are the prose poems from his volume of 2005, Hot Popsicles. There are also a few shape poems, such as his now-classic "The Shape of History," which readers met for the first time in this journal and then in Best American Poetry 1995. The sturdy architecture of his page-and-a-half lyrics, with their methodical logic exfoliating into embellishments both Gothic and Romanesque, generates images, facts, metaphors, and extended conceits that keep the pleasure of the text at a high pitch. Rarely, though occasionally, does Webb present what Mary Gordon calls "the always dispiriting spectacle of overstrained originality." In fact, his least successful poems tend to be those that depend too much on one bright idea, overelaborated, such as "The Death of Santa Claus" (title tells all), "The Animals Are Leaving" (likewise), and "Kidnapper-Couple Who Forgot to Leave a Ransom Note Sentenced to 14 Years" (newspaper articles usually make for strained poems).
Webb praises Little Richard for his inspired anthems "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Keepa knockin' but you can't come in." Inspired in turn, the teenage Webb found himself "trying to jam / that wild abandon into poems." Webb spent fifteen years as a rock musician and later practiced as a psychotherapist. The two occupations have an obvious consanguinity, both concerned with sexual passion, with pain and suffering, with family dynamics. All these matters fill Webb's mature verse. He has never forgotten the adolescent basis of romantic love, and in "Love Poetry" he makes claims for teen adoration that none dare call exaggerated:
Most people think it's what all poetry is -
that, or incomprehensible, which love is too.
But wonderful. Enough to make you swim
the Hellespont - or try. Enough to make
you drink poison, or shoot yourself to warn
your lover of a trap. Forget the cynics
who call you "codependent." What do they know
about love? It's better than being president.
Better than discovering a cure for death,
your face on stamps from every country
in the world. Better than eating anything
you want and not gaining an ounce.
By the end of the strophe he is summoning the Gulag Archipelago as the world's twisted product when all that passion turns to lust for power. The poetic texts he cites without naming in the opening lines - "Hero and Leander," Romeo and Juliet, "The Highwayman" - are testaments to the extremity and fatality of love, so different - but not entirely different - from the hatred that constructs dungeons and blood feuds.
Webb is not a confessional poet; he lacks the harrowing wounds that demand constant probing. But he has found a phantom antagonist in aging, which in the new poems has become the thorn against his breast. A wife and son bring anxieties along with pleasures, and he is not above writing a complaint about losing his hair. Nostalgia seizes him on occasion, and he has a million memories to make the case against time:
Come back, cherry-red Datsun with candy
striped canopy. Thirty-inch waist, come back. Bring more
of your Hershey kisses, Carla, to Oaks Drive-In,
House of Dracula receding as, in the back seat of Dad's
gray Ford, we settled down to feed. Wake me to oatmeal
and toast with cherry jam, my clothes laid out, my Tarzan
lunch box packed - oh Mommy, Daddy, please. Come back.
How many contemporary poets would risk the plangent sentiment of these lines? How many poetry workshops would hold them up as a model for imitation? Here again, Webb undertakes an archeological dig into a lost world's riches, rather like the volume's title poem, preceding this one, "Shadow Ball," in which the ghosts of the Negro League fall across the bright green fields of urban ballparks and the consciousness of fans who scarcely remember now how much of the beloved game was once founded on racial hatred and segregation.
In 1990 Webb coedited an anthology titled Stand Up Poetry: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond. In a manifesto published as its introduction he made the claim that "Stand Up poets are found nationwide, but flourish in Southern California, an area famed for glitz and hype, and not smiled on by insiders." Webb has gradually distanced himself from the stereotypical poems of this school, as exemplified by Charles Bukowski. (The same is true of another then-unknown contributor to the anthology, Billy Collins.) But he has never abandoned his belief that certain features of Stand Up Poetry deserve a presence in poetry that seeks an audience beyond cultists and metacritics, namely (I use his terms) natural language, humor, performability, flights of fancy, a strong individual voice, a close relationship to fiction, wideopen subject matter, use of urban and pop culture, and willingness to take risks. Manifestos of this kind don't guarantee good poetry, but they provide proof of consciousness about the craft and social function of poetry. Webb's poems deserve the visibility and careful reading that this New and Selected volume will give them. They will enlarge the taste of their readers, even or especially those who have long resisted this mode of writing based on their memories of slack, simplistic poems emerging with unmerited fanfare from the West Coast. Shadow Ball presents a complex sensibility in poems as deep as they are clear.
Maxine Kumin lives in another part of the world, on a farm in central New Hampshire; her New and Selected Poems covers the same twenty-year period, from 1990 to the present, as Charles Harper Webb's volume. Her collection, however, is a sequel to a previous New and Selected volume, Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, which featured poems written from the mid-1950s to 1982, updated slightly in a Selected Poems of 1997. It is fitting and proper that her poems be constantly visible in new bindings under new titles, for there is no poet like her, in her lifelong practice of a language of land, creatures, and natural systems that has become less and less current in our urban and electronic environment. Teaching her work over a period of decades, I have found students highly receptive to poems one might think would strike them as old-fashioned. "The Excrement Poem" still shocks them with its home truths about dung; it is the finest short poem on its topic (A. R. Ammons's booklength anatomy of waste products, bravely titled Garbage, is the epic version of the theme.) The poem's final line - "I honor shit for saying: We go on." - never leaves the poetry reader's memory. And her scary lyric "Woodchucks," an allegory, among other things, of the Nazis' treatment of the Jews, is worthy of Robert Frost at his best. It tests his mandate "provide, provide" by asking, in the same semijocular tone of Frost's tough-minded poem, what one should ethically do when one's vegetable garden is being decimated by animal pests. Serious poets do not consider consolation their business, and "Woodchucks" is a disconsolate poem.
Maxine Kumin was born in 1925, so the poems in this collection belong to her official period of retirement. We once thought we could define the late style in the arts as a harmonizing and reconciliation of opposites. Artists would forego the youthful temptation to set one force against another, one sex against another, one color or tone against another, but instead would manifest the merging and mingling, the erosion of boundaries and the disowning of edge, that expressed their anticipation of absorption into the Great Dark. Recent scholarship and theory have cast doubt on this fatalistic scheme. Kumin could serve as the perfect example of a poet who, if anything, has grown more adamant and partisan not only in her social and political views but also in her insistence on clear definitions of objects, people, and creatures who share space with her and each other. If her late poems seek to draw her closer to the objects of her affection, the bond she seeks is not a denial of difference but a revelation of fellowship, of community that leaves her free as an individual to amplify her self as a distinct thing among things. Solitude and constant writing remain high values for her, as they were when she declared in an essay of 1994: "A 'Good! No visitors today' mentality isn't limited to snowstorms or Monday mornings. On the contrary, this feeling of contentment in isolation pervades every good working day." She withdraws from the world in order to both remember and imagine the variety of relations with it.
Her love of horses is exemplary of her Wordsworthian stance toward reality. (Oddly, Wordsworth showed little interest in horses, except in his comic narrative ballads "The Idiot Boy" and Peter Bell.) Kumin has watched horses through their lifecycles and those of their offspring, and she tells their stories with a clarity and simplicity that is harder to achieve than it looks. Here is part of a new poem, "The Unfinished Story of Boomer":
She is the daughter of Taboo,
former slave in
a drug scam running
cocaine from Miami
to Boston under
the trailer's floorboards.
When the state
sold her [Boomer] to the slaughterer
we bought her back
for 30 cents a pound and
bred her to a little
Arabian stud with a clubfoot.
33 years later,
Boomer has a metabolic
We'll give her one
last summer on grass,
the vet said cheerfully,
stroking her mane.
Pick out a good place
to dig the hole.
Kumin's occasional fondness for short lines and unsentimental anecdote serve her well in a poem like this, where she covers a lot of thematic territory crisply, not excluding glimpses of sociohistorical facts not friendly to the booster version of patriotism. Indeed, the life and death of horses provide Kumin with opportunities to bring into conflict the depredations of greedy and mercenary commercial forces with the humane intentions of those who have only words and sympathy to protest cruelties against animals. The moral and aesthetic go together in poems like this one, and more so in "The Whole Hog," where the process of efficiently degrading an animal on a corporate farm is told in hair-raising detail:
big corn-fed hogs
bawling, knowing they were going to die,
like those guys beheaded in Iraq[.]
Well, this is factory farming smack
in the heart of the USA in 2008
so follow your star. Bon appetit.
Maxine Kumin is not going quietly into that good night and she sees no reason why pigs, cattle, and chickens should do so.
Kumin's poems have always had the best virtues of prose, including respect for serious readers who enjoy stylistic embellishments and surprise. She descends from a long New England tradition going back to Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow, and Dickinson that reached a dramatic culmination in the work of Frost, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Kumin's best friend, Anne Sexton. These are all storytelling poets with obvious links to English and Irish models, and though their poems are technically innovative in ways that have had an enduring influence, they all prized lucidity of expression. (There is no longer a New England tradition in American verse, and regionalism as a whole has been dissipated by the tendency of American poets to follow jobs in academia rather than settle down in their homelands.) I am not saying that such poets are provincial, but that they had and have a consensual commitment to certain ways of framing dramatic content in discursive blocks of stanzas. In anecdotal poems Kumin pays tribute to authors far in time and place from her New Hampshire study: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Maxim Gorki, Czeslaw Milosz, Marianne Moore, William Meredith. She experiments with the pantoum, the ghazal, the shape poem, and the sonnet. She speaks truth to power with caustic poems about, among others, Ulysses S. Grant, who issued a so-called "Jew Order" (overruled by Lincoln) at the beginning of the Civil War:
expelling all Jews as a class from Union territory
in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys
within 24 hours of receipt of this command
for violating every regulation of trade.
Describing herself in a different poem as "this restless Jewish agnostic," Kumin makes use of outsider status (once, she was "the one Jewish girl in my class at Holy Ghost / Convent school") to act as teacher and guide for her readers. She is willing to shout "No in Thunder" like the legion of New England saints - Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Fuller - who declaimed against the misuse of power in their own time. In a poem protesting the uninhibited hunting of animals, Kumin seeks out a target who likes to be noticed:
Court Justice Antonin
Scalia, pudgy son of Sicilian
immigrants, indulged in
when, years later, he had
scores of farm-raised birds
beaten from their cages and scared
up for him to shoot down
which brought him an inner joy.
to him when he was a boy?
Again, there is much to admire in this plain-style passage, following one on Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, about a notably autocratic figure, whom Kumin places among Sicilian immigrants as an obvious innuendo. And surely Wordsworth, who often rhymed "joy" and "boy," would appreciate the satirical turning of the screw in Kumin's usage.
Kumin claims that she subscribes to a religion more nourishing, though lacking moral fervor, than Judaism: "Bucophilia, I call it - / nostalgia over a pastoral vista." She is a post-Romantic nature poet, knowing that there is no going back to the pieties of Wordsworth or even Hopkins. Nevertheless, she has acquired the experience necessary to write movingly and persuasively about the rewards of submission to Nature, the everyday labor that keeps a vegetable garden or horse stable in order. "I plan to spend the rest of my life on my knees," she asserts, not praying but tending her flowers and vegetables. Part of this willing submission is to get into her poems as many natural beings as possible and to do so by writing what she observes. Kumin always keeps it real, and the sound of her poems keeps the reader alert and entertained:
The animals have different enzymes
from us. They can eat amanitas
we die of. The woodpeckers' fledglings
clack like a rattle of drumsticks each time
crumpled dragonflies arrive and are thrust
into the bud vases of their gullets.
I confess that before reading this poem I had never heard of "amanitas," which the dictionary reports is "any agaricaceous fungus of the genus Amanita." A city boy, I always have to reach for reference books when, say, Kumin writes that she is "laying the timothy / and brome in windrows to be tedded." But I am grateful that I know as much as I do about nature, thanks in some part to her guidance over the years.
At one point Kumin quotes, in an epigraph, Adorno's notorious remark that after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric. Kumin is convinced, and rightly so, that poems both pastoral and political, or both at the same time, are quintessential critiques of barbarism. Somebody has to demystify the debased vocabulary of an era - waterboarding, rendition, black sites, ghost prisoner - which she mocks unremittingly. Somebody has to remind those of us without horses what it's like to watch them gambol and frolic with joy - and, if only for the sake of biographers and literary historians, describe how she and Anne Sexton would put on pop music in the 1950s, with a couple of males, and dance with abandon:
Lights off a long minute at midnight
(squeals and false moans) madcap Anne
long dead now and Jack snowily
balding who led the drive to halt the bomb
and I alone am saved to tell you
how they could jive.
Readers who followed American poetry during the 1960s and 1970s had no trouble recognizing the genealogy, or pedigree, of Edward Hirsch's first volume of poems, For the Sleepwalkers, when it appeared in 1981. The poems situated themselves in the neo-Romantic tradition popularized by what were then called "deep image" poets, though in fact their work drew upon a variety of manners principally derived from modern European and Latin American masters. I am thinking of the cultural assumptions and poetic practices that inform such poems as Galway Kinnell's "The Bear," Elizabeth Bishop's "The Manmoth," Robert Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," James Dickey's "A Screened Porch in the Country," and Denise Levertov's "The Ground-Mist." These are poems that rely on the pictorial image as a means of summoning some other, more profound or ineffable mode of experience, so that the image takes on a symbolic character. "The image . . . keeps a way open to the old marshes, and the naked hunter," Robert BIy argued in a seminal essay of 1981. "The image moistens the poem, and darkens it, with certain energies that do not flow from a source in our personal life." Poems of mystery and enchantment rolled off the presses. Each carried the antirational message announced by another bard of the counterculture, Jim Morrison: "Break on through to the other side!"
The speaker of the title poem praises the sleepwalkers, who seek the open door and not the mirror, who occupy in their trance "the skin of another life." "We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness / and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised," the poem concludes as part of its moral lesson. "Darkness" is one of the key words of this school of poetry, along with resonant nouns like clouds, wind, water, stones, fog, sleep. Other poets and critics complained loudly about the strained mysticism and overworked archetypes of this new gospel of surrealism: poetry as dream, poetry as the shutting-down of the rational faculty. (Robert Pinsky's polemic The Situation of Poetry  and Paul Breslin's The Psycho-Political Muse  press the case for a poetics that does not depend so much on intuition and the romantic imagination.) It was a culture war worth fighting and it's hard not to feel nostalgic now for the zealous cut and thrust of it all.
What made For the Sleepwalkers so interesting was that Hirsch had already predigested this controversy and made it into one of the subjects of his volume. That is, he had a powerful intellectual disposition sharpened by his graduate studies and professional ambitions. He had no intention of drinking one cup of darkness after another until he fell into a permanent stupor. In one of the new poems in The Living Fire he recalls visiting an occult bookstore as a student and reading "the mystical tracts of the Golden Dawn" that formed Yeats's Rosicrucian philosophy. He describes himself as a "dreamy skeptic" and remembers vowing to keep both sides of his brain in communication with each other. Yet the poem ends with one of those classic deep-image closures, as if paying homage to the visionary techniques that seized him then and never loosened their grasp:
I carried my books through a labyrinth
of mysterious buildings, obscure signs,
and ended up on the edge of a vast park
where the sky suddenly brightened
overhead, a west wind lifted
the wet leaves from the wet ground
and trees shimmered in the distance
like the airy shades of women
dancing in black slips.
The passage is a surrendering to epiphany, a self-mesmerizing in which mantric gestures of deep-image poetry irresistibly obtrude, as in the useless word "overhead" (where else would the sky be?), and the repetition of "wet" for a needless intensification. Some readers might object as well to the high-toned image in the final couplet, though it does seem to be related to those glimmering girl-faeries in Yeats's poems who so often exchange identities with natural objects.
Throughout The Living Fire, then, a conflict of impulses constitutes the (melo)drama of Hirsch's sensibility. His clear-eyed portraits of friends and lovers, and of himself, eschew the mystical strain, except for local effects. "Fast Break," from his second volume Wild Gratitude (1986), is his signature poem, and for good reason. An elegy for a fellow sports fan and colleague at Wayne State University, this swiftly moving sequence of seventeen couplet stanzas, forming a single sentence, follows a powerforward down to a successful score, but leaves him stretched out on the floor, under the basket, like a figure of sacrifice. Likewise, "Execution," from The Night Parade (1989), links sports and death in its narrative of visiting a former high school football coach, "cancer stenciled into his face," and recalling this mentor's obsession with play-making strategies to fend off and score against the opposing team. The poem concludes:
And I remembered the game in my senior year
When we met a downstate team who loved hitting
More than we did, who battered us all afternoon
With a vengeance, who destroyed us with timing
And power, with deadly, impersonal authority,
Machine-like fury, perfect execution.
You can't beat cancer, is the reductive kernel of meaning; but beyond that simplification lies the larger fatality working within us and around us as we execute our well-designed rules for success. Throughout the 1980s Hirsch develops a tragic view of life, grounded in some family history he relates in numerous poems, and amplified by his experience in American and European cities and his immersion in twentieth-century postwar literature, especially from Germany, France, and Eastern Europe.
The first tutelary spirit in Hirsch's poetry is John Clare, the English peasant-poet of the Romantic era who suffered from terrible poverty and hunger throughout his life, while writing poems ranging from hymns of great sweetness to mad songs troubling to us still. Clare's example allows Hirsch to confront an Other in social class as well as temperament. This is no glamorous sleepwalker but a tormented wanderer in search of work and food. Hirsch finds a modern figure to match him in Simone Weil, the subject of several poems. Weil maintained her Catholic faith even as she underwent the grueling experience of being victimized first by the French authorities and then by the Nazis. Writing itself now becomes in Hirsch's work the magical act of resistance to meaningless life and sordid death. Authors are summoned to testify on the power of love in his volume of 1998, On Love. Monologues by the likes of Charles Baudelaire, Margaret Fuller, Gertrude Stein, and Colette offer ways of thinking about the spiritual and physical demands of love, in a variety of formats that favor fixed forms like the villanelle and rhymed stanzas. This volume of virtuoso pieces shows off Hirsch's versatility and erudition, though it arguably betrays an over-dependence on literary sources for his language and subject matter. These other voices, mimicked and subjected to often humorous correction, threaten to usurp the grain of his own speech. It's no surprise that the bulk of the first-rate poems fall into the earlier part of this anthology.
Estrangement is Hirsch's frequent theme, in his memory poems, in his homages to other authors, in his flaneur poems set in a multitude of cities. I want to call attention to two longer poems, one earlier, one later, one in relation to beauty and one in relation to horror, that seem to me among his best at evoking the strangeness of life. "Earthly Light," from his book Earthly Measures (1994), is a meditation on seventeenth-century Dutch painting. One might expect Hirsch, like so many other poets of our time, to write at length on, say, Edward Hopper, but thankfully there is only one poem about a Hopper painting in the collection. Instead, he focuses on the meticulously detailed canvases featuring kitchen and parlor objects, costume, furnishings, and, most of all, light. Already in For the Sleepwalkers his poem "A Chinese Vase" displayed his reverence for an object of art, though that poem is marred by an excessively pietistic deep-image closure. (He brings on an assortment of admirers who kneel down before the vase "to forget the impossible weight // of being human, to drink clear water.") In the later book he has learned to put his talent for aphorism, quotation, and historical recreation to excellent use. Dutch painting, he argues, deserves our highest respect, for we now appreciate the bourgeois comforts, as those painters did, as a form of spiritual grace. Spending a day at the museum eases the estrangement that comes from neglecting the kind of minute particulars noticed by the painters: "the household bonds, / flowers, oysters, lemons, flies / ... all those pearl earrings and lace collars." So powerful is the visual spell, presented in a litany of forms and colors, arranged in a sequence of tercets, that the ekphrastic mode gives way to the religious:
That February day I looked directly
into a wintry, invisible world
and that was when I turned away
from the God or gods I had wanted
so long and so much to believe in.
That was when I hurried down the stairs
into a street already crowded with people.
Because this world, too, needs our unmixed
attention, because it's not heaven
but earth that needs us, because
it is only earth - limited, sensuous
earth that is so fleeting, so real.
Having exorcised the ghosts of his ancestral religion in poems like this one, however, Hirsch paradoxically steeps his work increasingly in Jewish content. Memories of family provide ample opportunity to wrestle with the melancholy history of the Jews in Europe preceding the poet's childhood. The long poetic sequence "Two Suitcases of Children's Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944" from Lay Back the Darkness (2003) recreates poignantly the lives and artworks of children imprisoned in the Czech ghetto named Theresianstadt by the Nazis. In this collage of fragments, Hirsch does not include himself as a character; he retracts personal commentary in favor of victims' voices, usually in declarative sentences that need no rhetorical heightening.
We did not make graven images
we made images from the grave
Not even the teacher
who studied at the Bauhaus
could draw the face of God
The Rabbi said that Adonai
hides in the Hebrew alphabet
but we didn't know Hebrew
and we didn't believe him
Someone wrote in tiny letters in pencil
I don't believe God forgot us
but someone scrawled in thick letters in pen
I don't believe
God forgot us
As with the poem on Dutch painting, and in Hirsch's regional genre scenes, imagery both palpable and affecting is foregrounded, and with more tact and taste than in his earliest volumes. The prison landscape is filled with consciousness that resists the clichés of Holocaust literature. The success of this method can be tested by comparing a sequence like this one to the well-intended but often turgid skeins of imagery in some recent poetry of witness by Americans and Europeans alike.
In the final volume of this compilation, Special Orders (2008), the poem most like the one on Terezin is "Elegy for the Jewish Villages." But the more modest urban sketch "Boy with a Headset" stands out for me as a promising return to New York City as a subject after the long immersion in European culture throughout the previous volumes. If one wished to assemble a slim volume titled Edward Hirsch's America there would be barely enough poems from The Living Fire to fill it. Indeed, some of his most trenchant lyrics - "In the Midwest," "Nebraska, 1883," and "Devil's Night," just from Earthly Measures - are not included in this New and Selected volume. Hirsch has cultivated, from graduate school days to the present, a scholastic habit that has enriched his best poems with deep thought, strong emotion, and canonically approved imagery and diction. ("Love, for Jews, is nothing if not bookish," he quotes with approval from a bygone source.) But the subjects that he may need most as he steps back from his customary historical themes are those nearest to hand: the fast break and rushing offense, the crumbling cities set on fire, the subway, the bag lady, the boy with a headset. All those ordinary facts of life that have previously glowed in his imagination, intermittently, like the light in a Vermeer.
LAURENCE GOLDSTEIN, Professor of English at the University of Michigan, edited MQR from 1977 to 2009. He is the author, most recently, of a book of poems, A Room in California (Northwestern University Press, 2005), and the coeditor (with Robert Chrisman) of Robert Hay den: Essays on the Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2005). He is currently writing a book-length study of poems about Los Angeles.…