"The Chameleon's Dish": Ten New Poets

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Christopher Bakken. After Greece. Truman State University Press 2001. 72 pp. $22.00

Quan Barry. Asylum. University of Pittsburgh Press 2001. 72 pp. $12.95 (paper)

Peg Boyers. Hard Bread The University of Chicago Press 2002. 93 pp. $14.00 (paper)

Major Jackson. Leaving Saturn. The University of Georgia Press 2002. 75 pp. $15-95 (paper)

Sarah Manguso. The Captain Lands in Paradise. Alice James Books 2002. 55 pp. $12.95 (paper)

Peggy Penn. So Close. CavanKerry Press 2001. 91 pp. $14.00 (paper)

Steve Scafidi. Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer. Louisiana State University Press 2001. 64 pp. $22.95 $16.95 (paper)

Katherine Starke. Tip to Rump. Mid-List Press 2002. 63 pp. $12.00 (paper)

Marc Woodworth. Arcade. Grove Press 2002. 78 pp. $13.00 (paper)

Andrew Zawacki. By Reason of Breakings. University of Georgia Press 2002. 72 pp. $15-95 (paper)

If I were to herd these eleven debut volumes of poetry under a single umbrella, it would be that provided by the hyperbolic blurbs which shelter every one of these books. One learns over time to read the language of blurbs as one does its close kin, the language of recommendations, so that the ballooning praise deflates a bit, and one actually begins to see what the more restrained blurb-writers may have had in mind. Nonetheless, blurbing (I forbear to quote) has gotten out of hand.

Happily, the diction and vision of these ten debut volumes varies more than the hyped-up jargon one encounters on their back covers. But though this clutch of poets displays plenty of contrasts in temperament, theme, and tone, one common feature is that the poets are by and large uninterested in poetic form as conventionally construed-most crucially, in measure. A few villanelles and sestinas crop up, and the rare patch of iambics, but mostly the poets turn to other ways of singing when they want to be most expressive. Any resulting eloquence tends to sound muffled, like a diva who fails to project. It becomes wearying to read so much verse that often doesn't seem to hear itself-verse by poets who rarely choose time-honored prosodic routes to their respective goals.

When poets have no time for form, it's often because such conterns seem to them outmoded or cumbersome, stumbling blocks on the way to an epiphany; the poem's matter trumps its manner. Some of the poets in this particular crop, though, seem not agenda-driven but rather fashionably wary of having anything pressing or immediate to say. (Note that all these volumes were completed if not published before September 2001; next season's books may look very different.) Much of their work is distinctly reflexive in mode; some poems ponder poetry, some history, some seek to inhabit the past. A trend I didn't expect is evident in several of these books: the revival, if that's what it is, of the dramatic monologue. Oddly for beginners, some of the poets seem more intent on assuming the voices of others than on finding their own. And yet these doers of the police in different voices can sound oddly flat.

Without further ado, let's see what the books have to say for themselves.

Steve Scafidi writes with a fluency bordering on the torrential; his poems can be as loud and impenetrable as a waterfall. True, stanza breaks let welcome air into some of the poems. At first I thought Scafidi was using such breaks as punctuation, but in fact his stanzaic poems tend to be written in relatively short sentences anyway. Here are the first two stanzas of "Twilight's Swimmer":

Having jumped finally into the river and drunk it up,

his body floats for two days in May heat. Is found.

Claimed. Cleaned, but not displayed. Is imagined.

Now the sun rises over the resting ground and new

grass chins with the soft bodies of young crickets.

Someone says the syllables of the word crepuscular.

Someone else walks down a driveway to the mailbox,

laughs at a postcard. …