POERY READINGS: SOMETHING LOST, BUT MUCH GAINED
by John Freeman, Special to The Star Tribune
March 24, 2006
Stephen Burt may possess the emotional cool of an amnesiac, but it's clear
he's in search of something lost. In the opening poem of his latest collection,
"Parallel Play," (Graywolf, $14) we find the poet stranded in
adult life, far from New York, a city he clearly treasures like an old
lover, wondering how it is he wound up here. He probably isn't the first
St. Paul transplant to have felt this way.
Gradually, "Parallel Play" reveals that Burt's confusion comes
less from weather and more from time -- from puzzling over how to let
it pass without grasping after his memories, how to take the world in
without being ravaged by it. In the end, he settles on juxtaposition as
his defining metaphor, refracting his emotional life through the experiences
-- both imagined and real -- of countless others. There is a secondary
sadness that comes from this exercise, as Burt recognizes the fundamental
unknowable quality of other people's inner lives. The collection takes
its title from the observation that two children when placed in proximity
will often play separately but not together.
Thankfully, "Parallel Play" does not let its central theme strait-jacket
the poems. One celebrates the brazen optimism of teenage summer jobs,
while another imagines what Moscow might be like for teens. The lack of
overlap showcases Burt's lyric virtuosity.
Burt is a keen collector of what he calls "slight/ things, small
charms,/ the jagged ones you have to learn to hear." He can turn
a night at a noisy New York club, the Bowery Ballroom, into a kaleidoscope
of the senses. His jump-cut to the subway in "On the 'A' " shows
him at his observant best, a modern-day Frank O'Hara, who does not merely
find a poem in the city's humdrum life but makes one from its sounds.
In poems like these, we appreciate Burt's realization that perhaps the
visible world is more than enough.
LAMENT FOR THE FINITE
There are really two books inside Frank Bidart's latest volume of poetry,
"Star Dust," facing off like duelers at 20 paces. On one side
stand lyrics of love and art, and Bidart is apt to note how both these
activities aspire to transcendence. But it is Bidart's lament for the
finite and the destructive that creates this book's pocked beauty. "We
could have had ecstasies," the poet cries bitterly in the breakup
poem "Luggage." Other lyrics focus on lost friends or on talent
left to languish. Memory mulches pungently in Bidart's work -- the backward
glance always encircled by a fog of regret. "We are darkness,"
says one lover in the exquisite title poem. "We are the city/ whose
brightness blots the stars from night." The only long poem in this
volume, "The Third Hour of the Night," which is told in the
voice of Renaissance sculptor and murderer Benvenuto Cellini, reveals
how very dangerous the fusion of creation and destruction can be. But
it is in the shorter poems where this message is most clearly unveiled.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Entering Ed Bok Lee's debut volume, "Real Karaoke People," (New
Rivers Press, $13.95) is not unlike walking into a strange new neighborhood,
where sights and sounds smack you across the face. "Ey, what is that
smell," begins one poem, "skulking through the city this summer,/
snapping at my dreams like a headless/ duck on hooks." Lyric but
not excessive, wry without being glib, these are very companionable poems,
the sort that make a strong impression and then reward with rereading.
The best draw from memory. In "A Fable of Fruit," a meditation
on the mentality of "us and them," Lee, who grew up in North
Dakota and Minnesota and now is based in New York and Minneapolis, finds
a world of meaning in an old dusty tomato once handed to him by a Korean
green grocer. "Kimchi" swirls around and around his childhood
kitchen, before switching off like a television set. Proust had his madeleines;
Lee apparently had cabbage. It's about time we had our vegetables.
KNOW MY PAIN
"I've made a study of bearing/ and forbearance," writes Mary
Karr in her latest volume of poetry, "Sinners Welcome" (HarperCollins,
$22.95), which reads like a stylish dumping ground for all the bitterness
this attitude has engendered -- not to mention drama. "I'd left my
homeland/ fleeing a man I'd fake first caring, then not caring about,"
she drawls in one poem. "He once wrote/ he'd take the third rail
in his teeth, which is how/ loving him turned out," struts another.
Make no bones about it, Karr worships toughness, turns it into a religion
and a whip. With it she keeps the reader in line. But the posture grows
old and wearying -- a shtick long since blunted by repetition. Know my
pain, these poems urge, as they wind around and around an invisible center
on the page. Obviously, irritatingly, Karr remains convinced her suffering
dwarfs our own.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He
lives in New York City.
Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.