Poetry Blows

Two new collections showcase the weaknesses of contemporary verse

National Poetry Month is upon us once again. Indeed, the ninth annual grassroots celebration promises to be the largest in the history of American arts and letters. So, roll away the mass-media boulders and prepare for poetry to ascend into the heaven of our imaginations, where words forever bind us to the powerful currents of Emerson's Oversoul.

Well, despite more than 150 books published in April--most by established talents like Robert "Iron John" Bly, Mary Oliver and Carl Phillips--the truth is, you'll be hard-pressed to find a sharp-edged book in this dull, monotonous haystack. This month's "major" books are as vague and numbing as their titles suggest: A Dream of Summer, Acts of Love, The Long Meadow. Perhaps devilish folk at the Academy of American Poets substituted romance-novel titles in their list of newly published books as an April Fool's prank? Sadly, methinks not.

In any case, National Poetry Month saw the release of two Tucson-related collections, each displaying symptoms of a larger malaise in American poetry.

First up, Gina Franco's debut, The Keepsake Storm. Franco, a professor at Knox College in Illinois, works hard to fashion verbal tempests--which she then bottles up inside tightly controlled stanzas. Occasionally, she allows her lines to run long, as she does in the marvelous "The Spirit That Appears When You Call," a messy poem about the speaker's messier relationship with her Mexican-American father, the sordid details ripping tornado-like in every line.

Indeed, Franco is original when she takes risks. "Velvet" is a stunning meditation on sex and violence, using the evisceration of a rabbit as its central conceit. And poems like "The Bells," "That He Will Land and Find His Feet" and "Where the Bodies, Half-Dressed, in Pieces" are moving elegies to people and places decimated by floods, including the twin mining towns of Clifton-Morenci, Ariz. The latter is scary, recalling the more harrowing moments in Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner": "When it was time, water swallowed me, too, down / in a cold flash to the streets where the hill / ends, where the bodies, half-dressed, in pieces, / are torn away from dreams."

Franco falters, however, when she embraces postmodernism. The lengthy and ill-conceived "Where It Goes" collects e-mail messages, the lines broken into something resembling stanzas. Indeed, there should be a moratorium in poetry: no more Raymond Carver-like titles (The man has infected contemporary poetry, too!) and no more "e-mail poems." Thankfully, Franco redeems herself with lyric poems like "Paraffin Days": "I kneel and watch the shadows cross / a letter someone's left to the saints. The writing / aches among the candles, desire flitting / from flame to flame, furious to realize / its transience, transcending my own / doubts." Uneven, The Keepstake Storm has its moments, though they're as random as any summer monsoon.

Kore is a feminist, Tucson-based press. I'm all for feminism, but the movement's poetics could use some improvement if Jennifer Barber's debut, Rigging the Wind, is any indication. I understand what Barber is up to with these spare poems: She seeks to fashion small, lyric moments of infinite grief and longing. The problem, though, is that spareness is the hardest effect to achieve. Every word counts in poetry, but every word counts even more so in a lyric poem. Charles Simic and Mary Oliver succeed with their lyric poems because they startle the reader with violent, unusual juxtapositions, placing one carefully placed word next to another, causing us to feel something we might not have felt before.

Barber seems to understand this in her co-translations of poets like Amrita Pritam (translations which are, strangely enough, included in Rigging the Wind). But when she herself handles the form, any energies--odd, aggressive, chaotic--are absent. Even read straight through, one after another, the poems are devoid of playfulness, lying flat on the page, inert, empty. Images are the lyric form's bread and butter. Without images, a poem starves.

The Keepsake Storm and Rigging the Wind are not failures, though. They are erudite, refined and obscure, like much of today's academic poetry. Their shared flaw is in seeking to nail poetry to the floor like a piece of furniture, then throwing a sheet over it to disguise the fact that it's, well, furniture.

No wonder so few readers are willing to curl up in front of the fire.

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