Four Poetry Books & a Masterpiece

By Stampanado, Jonathan | Chicago Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Four Poetry Books & a Masterpiece


Stampanado, Jonathan, Chicago Review


Peering onto the racks of the poetry section at your local megastore emporium is an increasingly depressing affair. Who are all these people? How is it a poet I've never heard of can have a retrospective brick just out on Norton? The Collected Limericks of Angus MacKilt, with Notes & Commentary by Glyn Maxwell: I think I'll pass. And then the endless stream of matte-finish volumes of verse: this one's won a prize (the Olga Klumpff First Book Over 60 Pages Prize); this one's gotten a wink from Marjorie Perloff (the poet cites Cage, Benjamin, and Baudrillard in the title suite). Where's a young boy or girl to turn for the News That Stays News?

Turn first to Mark Nowak's first book, Revenants, finely produced by Coffee House Press (2000). The pages are big, the typesetting is handsome, and, most importantly, the poetry is dynamite. Nowak, who edits Xcp: Cross-- Cultural Poetics, and can be spotted around Minneapolis impersonating a dragon, has written one of the most engaging books of poetry, let alone a first book, I've read in a few years. Revenants is comprised of three poem suites, two of which I'd seen before: "Zwyczaj," which was a Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet, and "Back Me Up," which appeared in Xcp. But I had never seen the major sequence of the book, "The Pain-Dance Begins," which is a sixty-page Polish-American cosmogony, replete with myth, city grit, cultural skepticism, and that crucial ingredient frequently missing nowadays, greasy mythopoeisis. Excerpts of the poem won't do it justice. Reading it, I found myself asking the question: When did young poets stop reading Olson in favor of Theory? Nowak's book shows irrefutably why this has been a mistake. Not quite Maximus, these are the Zwiastowanie Poems, and St. Casimir is glad for them.

Next, track down any copies of Ibis Edition books you can find. Ibis is a collectively run outfit, relatively new, located in Jerusalem, dedicated to producing books of writing from the Levant. So far, titles have included two books of Harold Schimmel's poetry (Schimmel is from Jerusalem), admirably translated by Peter Cole; Ahmed Razim's The Little Bookseller Oustaz Ali, translated by Gabriel Levin (Rassim was an Alexandrian who wrote primarily in French); and most recently Taha Muhammed Ali's Never Mind, translated by Cole, Levin, and Yahya Hijazi (Ali is a Palestinian poet presently living in Nazareth), a book that captures some of the sense and senselessness of living in a land of frequent political and religious chaos, as in these lines:

I do not consider myself a pessimist,

and I certainly don't

suffer from the shock

of ancient, gypsy nightmares,

and yet, in the middle of the day,

whenever I turn on the radio,

or turn it off,

I breathe in a kind of historical,

theological leprosy. (41-42)

Another recent Ibis Edition is Michael A. Sells's Stations of Desire, which translates some love elegies of Ibn Arabi, the medieval Sufi, to which some of Sells's own poems are added. …

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