So What Is Poetry Good For?

By Steinman, Lisa M. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

So What Is Poetry Good For?


Steinman, Lisa M., Michigan Quarterly Review


SO WHAT IS POETRY GOOD FOR? Midwest Eclogue: Poems. By David Baker. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2005. Pp. 108. $23.95.

Self/Pity. By Susan Hahn. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005. Pp. 67. $39.95.

Into It: Poems. By Lawrence Joseph. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. Pp. 67. $22.00.

The Hoopoe's Crown. By Jacqueline Osherow. Rochester, New York: BOA, 2005. Pp. 98. $14.95.

In all four of the volumes of poetry reviewed here, one hears first what sound almost like interrogations of Keats. However, all four poets seem unsure not only of whether beauty is truth, but-even if it is-of whether that knowledge will suffice or offer solace. Admittedly the beauty invoked varies from the visionary to the natural, visual, or aural. Yet, a surprising number of the poems in these 2005 collections, all by writers well into their careers, are haunted by questions about beauty-whether it can be trusted, whether it serves as recompense for (or presses back against) the instability and violence of the world in which it appears, and above all whether it could be what poetry offers people. Further, all four books take seriously contemporary suspicions of unity or certainty or even reassurance, although none has abandoned the lyric in favor of the fragmentary even if they betray differing views of how to make connections (with beauty, with truth, with the realm of the social or political) and differing ways of making narrative connections as well as the connections between poetry and the world-the historical here and now-in which it circulates.

David Baker, for instance, talks about Midwest Eclogue, his eighth volume of poetry, as "a blending or overdubbing of narratives, so that details from one scene or story might bleed into another . . . a juxtaposition . . . collision or collusion . . . a connective obsession." Still, it is clear the poems here are not postmodern pastiche. The volume at times is even narrative, dedicated to Baker's wife and daughter who then figure in several of the poems, all of which are rooted in place and (faintly) in autobiography.

The first of Midwest Eclogue's five sections is prefaced by a line from Robert Herrick-"I sing of Times trans-shifting"-and the first poem, "Monarchs Landing and Flying," surprises by not using the titular butterflies simply as emblems of ephemeral beauty, although they are likened to "wisps of ash or the delicate / prism sunlight flashing off the city glass." The poem, though, focuses on a couple ostensibly out to watch butterflies but visibly in distress, presenting a fleeting glimpse of unexplained grief, as ephemeral as the butterflies and unassuaged by the sight of them. Another poem in the first section of the book, "Hyper-," describes the narrator's daughter, diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, watching for deer in the field near the family house. The poem explores a feeling of stillness (of pastoral, one might say), set against what Wallace Stevens called "the flight of emblemata through the mind." Throughout, a clear, singular consciousness registering the world becomes one of the poem's characters:

Then a stillness descended the blue hills.

I say stillness. They were three deer, then four.

They crept down the old bean field, these four deer,

for fifteen minutes-more-as we watched them

in the field, in the soughing snow.

The modulations of sounds-from "stillness descended" to "say stillness" to "soughing snow"; the T sounds in "field," "four," "fifteen"; the repetitions and rhyme of "four . . . four . . . for . . . fifteen . . . more"-as well as the colloquial voice hold the narrative together, even as the diction is decidedly mixed: when was the last time "soughing" and "tyrosine hydroxylase / activity" showed up in the same poem? The deer's stillness is set against the daughter's (like the narrator's) racing mind and the drawing of portraits (the narrator's poetic description and the daughter's sketch of the deer) offers an antidote to the confusing flood of images, of chaotic modernity. …

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