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.


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.


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.


"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.

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