History, No Matter What
Repp, John, Michigan Quarterly Review
White Papers. By Martha Collins. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. Pp. 69. $15.95 pb.
A Map of the Lost World. By Rick Hilles. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. Pp. 96. $15.95 pb.
American poets are sometimes criticized - to a large degree rightly - for their poems' lack of the historical and social engagement so common in the work of other writers, regardless of geography or aesthetics. No matter the disparate styles of poets such as Paul Celan, Pablo Neruda, Marina Tsvetaeva, Antonio Machado, Adam Zagajewski, and Wislawa Szymborska, sociopolitical content seldom overwhelms the art with which their poems are made. By contrast, American poems made up of such material too often amount to agitprop, from the vicious buffoonery that infects so much of Ezra Pound's Cantos to the post- Black Arts work of Amiri Baraka to the poems of sexual abuse Louise Glück critiques in "The Forbidden," perhaps the finest essay in her 1995 collection, Proofs & Theories.
I've oversimplified the facts in order to register the particular kind of pleasure the collections under review have given me. Martha Collins and Rick Hilles write poems of social, political, and historical engagement that also embody a rich inwardness, psychological acuity, and command of poetic technique. Reading these poets of distinct styles and preoccupations, I kept thinking of two by-now-cliché pronouncements Ezra Pound issued before going completely off the deep end: "Literature is news that stays news" and "Literature does not exist in a vacuum. Writers as such have a definite social function exactly proportional to their ability as writers."
A Map of the Lost World comprises dramatic monologues and narrative meditations in no hurry to arrive at conclusions sometimes as ambiguous as they are satisfying. Hilles's personae include poet Richard Hugo ("Missoula Eclipse"); Lisa Fittko, who, as a member of the French Resistance, led Walter Benjamin (among many others) across the Pyrenees to the Spanish border ("The Red Scarf & the Black Briefcase"); and poet Larry Levis ("Larry Levis in Provincetown"). In a sequence of ten free-verse sonnets that seek to emulate the elegant, learned playfulness of James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandhover, "Nights & Days of 2007: Autumn" recounts Ouija-board consultations conducted during a stay in Merrill's apartment in Stonington, Connecticut. Another Merrill homage cobbles a charming elegy "From Three Words of a Magnetic Poetry Set Found Caked in Dirt Beneath James Merrill's Last Refrigerator."
In his less overtly historical poems, Hilles often indulges an extravagant lyricism that sometimes gets sweet enough to pain the teeth. The "six rain-flecked white skullcaps" the speaker finds in "Mushroom Picking" grow in a setting that yields exact imagery:
Along one fallen tree limb -
a shrunken arm, mummified black
partly sheathed in a gray fraying
weather-beaten sleeve of bark
now purling with crescent moons
of buckling Us and Cs edged in
medals of pale gray -blue lichen
Notice the filaments of sound intertwined here, how "fallen," "limb," "shrunken," and "mummified" not only make a pleasing melody, but also render the progressive rot from which the tasty fungi grow. Notice, too, how the "k" sounds in "black," "bark," "buckling," and "lichen" embody the crack and crunch of the forest floor.
Similar satisfactions crop up in the rushed cadences with which "Grappa" registers its speaker's unwillingness to enter the silence that grief requires, and in the way "Larry Levis in Provincetown" captures that poet's way of melding formal and colloquial diction, and the many places in the book's poemsincluding-history that evoke the world's sensory pleasures.
But pushed too far, lushness can fast ripen to rot. A dramatic monologue in the voice of Richard Hugo, "Missoula Eclipse" so faithfully renders Hugo's characteristic style it verges on a parody of the dreaming-disillusioned-male-deep-image writing that typified a good deal of American poetry published in the 1970s. …