Farrar Straus & Giroux ($21)
by Piotr Gwiazda
Robert Pinsky's sixth poetry collection is not a disappointment to his readers. The book contains a number of apt, solid, and vivid poems, precisely what should be expected from a writer who up to this point has successfully welded tacit autobiography and restrained discursiveness, and with this new volume still continues to do so. Already past the "collected poems" stage (The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-96 appeared in 1996), Pinsky has hordes of admirers and detractors, a fact which didn't prevent him from serving as the Poet Laureate of the United States for three years; during his tenure, he made himself available not only at poetry festivals and readings, but also in unconventional and essentially unpoetic vistas: what can be more disarmingly incongruous than a poet reciting verses about memories, mothers, and money on the News Hour With Jim Lehrer?
Pinsky's efforts to popularize poetry, his across-the-nation conspicuousness and academic prominence (he has a permanent teaching appointment at Boston University), make him a perfect candidate to become somebody this country hasn't had for a long time: a distinguished man of letters. In his desire to create an audience for poetry in the United States, Pinsky inches toward the position once occupied (only half-heartedly, to be sure) by Robert Frost—a national bard, the conscience of American people, a consistent and trustworthy voice reminding us where we came from and where we are going as individuals and as a nation (recall Pinsky's 1980 book-length poem An Explanation of America). What Pinsky is risking in his tendency to take himself seriously as a public figure is the danger of becoming a poet whose presence in literary and public spheres becomes so ubiquitous that his work may lose its ability to surprise. Frost was able to avoid that fate; likewise, Jersey Rain offers no indication that Pinsky is becoming a national bore.
The collection consists of pieces already familiar from Pinsky's public appearances, and of altogether new work. The major poems in the volume belong to the first group: "Ode to Meaning," "Biography," "To Television" and "The Green Piano." "Ode to Meaning" is a superb poem, one of the best Pinsky has ever written, a sober investigation and celebration of the concept that became the twentieth century's most transformation-prone and abuse-provoking myth. Never in fear of abstractions, Pinsky is able to skillfully combine philosophical, personal, and satirical elements in his brooding apostrophe:
Untrusting I court you. Wavering
I seek your face, I read
That Crusoe's knife
Reeked of you, that to defile you
The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah.
"I'll drown my book" says Shakespeare.
Drowned walker, revenant.
After my mother fell on her head, she became
More than ever your sworn enemy. She spoke
Sometimes like a poet or critic of forty years later.
"Biography" addresses the circularity of events in the poet's life while achieving a fascinating circularity of form. "The Green Piano" is very much like Pinsky's older partly retrospective, partly reflective pieces, while "To Television" pays a reserved though honest homage to the medium so often accused of robbing life of its meaning:
Your patron in the pantheon would be Hermes
Quick one, little thief, escort
Of the dying and comfort of the sick
Hermes is the guiding spirit of this collection; several poems in Jersey Rain invoke or allude to this most busy of all gods in charge of prudence, cunning, fraud, invention, roads, doors, commerce, good luck, sports, games, sacrifice, and (most appropriately in Pinsky's case) eloquence. At times Pinsky's eloquence enables him to see vestiges of life in the inanimate world around him. Years ago poets used to seek life in a mountain or a tree—today they are more likely to find it in a television set or a computer.
Several pieces in this volume deserve to be called Pinsky's worthiest compositions, but there are also few that seem to be mere leftovers, afterthoughts, or distractions, such as his cold depictions of inanimate objects ("Machines") or personal, quasi-poetic reminiscences ("An Alphabet of My Dead"). But this is not to say that the book is uneven. Many readers are familiar with a Pinsky poem: taut, thick, rich, meaningful, resonant, compact, and complete, such a poem has become so unmistakably his own that, regardless of one's individual preferences, one can still grant his work a degree of consistency, plenitude, and sheer logophilia that makes all good poetry possible. When he is at his best, Pinsky offers his audience an intellectual satisfaction that almost verges on a sensual one, like the self-sufficiency of the speaker of "Samurai Song":
When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000