Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 1998 (#9)

Save Twilight

Save Twilight

Julio Cortázar

City Lights Books ($12.95)

by John Serrano

This book, a selection from Cortázar's collected poems which he labored on throughout his life and which appeared only after his death, is a fitting addition to City Lights' famed Pocket Poets Series (Cortázar himself calls his verses "poemas de bolsillo"). While Cortázar's poetry cannot scale the heights of his fiction, it does offer an alternate glimpse of this master wordsmith.

The poems range from traditional rhymed sonnets to surrealist wordplay. There's no chronology to follow--Cortázar, not surprisingly, envisioned the book as a "game" with "no other schedule than that of unplanned encounters, the true ones." It's also no surprise, then, that the more successful poems are those with more adrenaline--the unrestrained first line of "The Knitters," for example ("I know them, those horrible women, the knitters wrapped in fuzz") or the caustic "To a God Unknown" with its refrain of "Whoever you are, don't come," or the magnificent long poem "Get a Move On," in which time, one of Cortázar's great obsessions, is envisioned as "a truckload of rocks." Stephen Kessler's translations are good, though occasionally too stilted to capture Cortázar's ironic tone. In "To a God Unknown," for example, Kessler translates the final words, "Dios mío," as the stately "God of mine," where the more colloquial "my God" would have picked up Cortázar's dismay more effectively.

Peppered throughout Save Twilight are prose passages in which Cortázar reflects on his poetic endeavor and offers quirky biographical hints as to its genesis. These tender manifestoes remind us why Julio Cortázar's writing, no matter what the form, is so animated. "Life provides the dreams but dreams return the deeper currency of life."

From the Devotions

From the Devotions

Carl Phillips

Graywolf Press ($12.95)

by Heather Wang

Carl Phillips's latest collection, From the Devotions, centers on the absolute necessity of faith. For Phillips, faith is the only way of understanding one's existence as having some purpose in "the world's machinery." Without that understanding, there would be no reason for human beings to struggle through a life which would only seem intolerable.

Phillips writes with a maximum economy of language, a strong sense of rhythm, and the greatest structural elegance, making it all the more amazing when a single word or phrase stands out as being truer than the rest. "Tunnel" forces you to hold seemingly unconnected fragments of story and imagery distinct in your mind while waiting for relationships to emerge. "Two Versions of the Very Same Story" has an opposite effect: each "version" hits the reader with such breathtaking force that the poem's meaning is momentarily obscured. In "The Full Acreage of Mourning", Phillips takes you deep inside the speaker's grief ("The truth is, I was at the point of utter ruin"), then goes deeper, showing the difference between describing a thing and becoming its very echo.

The arrows in "As From a Quiver of Arrows" are questions flying out toward God. They start out specific and become progressively more universal, as the poet discovers that his need for acknowledgment outweighs his need for instruction. Whether the continuing silence that greets his questions is meant as a rebuke for his lack of faith, or portends something more ominous is unclear. What is clear is that while Phillips intends for these poems to serve God, their expression of human experience is a gift to the rest of us.


Braid

Roger Mitchell

The Figures ($10)

by Chris Fischbach

The first thing you'll notice when you open Braid are its braid-like stanzas, seven lines each set in strict syllabics. (Those familiar with Marianne Moore's poetry will immediately recognize the similarity.) It's not always apparent why Roger Mitchell has chosen such a constraining, seemingly arbitrary form, but that's half the fun of this unusual, difficult book.

At first, Mitchell's poetry seems merely at play in a landscape of language. It has all the prerequisites: the bathos one expects from New York/LANGUAGE school poetry, juxtaposed with meditations on life and the nature of language, its ability or lack thereof to represent any reality. Cheese sandwiches and Camaros vs. theology and poststructuralism. There is no immediate cohesion to these poems, but reading on, one discovers thin strands of narrative: that cheese sandwich mentioned on the first page is eaten pages later, now a metaphor for something like verisimilitude.

Like a braid (so that's what titles are for) whose strain of hair is hidden under others and resurfaces only to hide again, Mitchell's book-length meditation

          knows     no language adequate to its condition,         pretending, as it has for centuries, it is what it is not,     is where it cannot be, poem equal

to the world, to the tree, to the fragments of graying     styrofoam stuck in the Sargasso Sea, or strung out along     the fence with the wrappers and torn bags, crushed         aluminum cans, possum carcasses, dried grass.

Language, in Braid, is its own reality, based on a wide range of human perceptions and varying senses, and we construct forms, however artificial and syllabic, based on them. These become the forms we use to make sense of the confusing narratives of our own lives.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth

John Diamond-Nigh

York Press ($10)

by Paul D. Dickinson

Using a breezily inflected mind web, John Diamond-Nigh slips this elegant collection of poems somewhere right between the eyeball and the brain. Inspired by his travels and his roving vision of the cataclysms of life, both external and internal, this poet builds little castles that may tremble but will not fall. Obsessed with history and architecture, Diamond-Nigh uses words to pry open rusty worlds and bring them to light. The images he plays with respond as if they are electrified. This linguistic concoction reveals and unfolds itself to the reader in "kilelkopf," a section of the poem entitled "Three Swiss": " a long diaphanous iron stair / spirals down a gray abyss / past smoky rainbows / waterfalls / walls pocked / with pattering loggias of lichen and moss / past the cold shutters / of a sunless underworld." As this book comes together, expanding and contracting, one begins to believe that every old brick and piece of iron is alive and ready to pounce. Diamond-Nigh also gets us lost in the drama of his hyper-charged secret history, one that he seems to get locked into with every glance and rumination, every dream and every abstract thought. Labyrinth draws us in to seek out this "sunless underworld" lost within its walls, to see what can be found. (Paul D. Dickinson)

Click here to buy Save Twilight, From the Devotions, Braid, and Labyrinth at Amazon.com

Spring 1998 Table of Contents