Sunday, March 22, 2009

assorted poetry

Wendy Cope Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986) - Cope's first book is a mix of usually spot-on parodies and usually decent personal revelations (unless I'm mistaking more parody for honesty). She often uses set forms, villanelles seem most common, but the one that I really love is "Waste Land Limericks":
In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clarivoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me -
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

Eliot and Wordsworth nursery rhymes also work well and the title poem is a brief gag. Included is some work by her alter ego Mr. Strugnell, a deliberately awful but not unreadable poet.

Lisel Mueller The Need to Hold Still (1980) - I ran across a real jawdropping poem of Mueller's in Garrison Keillor's Good Poems and immediately found a collection. Unfortunately she turns out to be a real hit-and-miss writer. For every "For a Thirteenth Birthday" that intertwines maturing, aesthetic ways of looking at the world and what might be called "realism" Mueller gives us a few others that should have stayed in a workbook. "Picking Raspberries", for instance, starts "Once the thicket opens / and lets you enter / and the first berry dissolves on your tongue" and never improves from there. A longish piece about Mary Shelley never rises above "she had a hard life" while repeating biographical info. Mueller is somebody who would really benefit from a Selected Poems (assuming they were well-selected - obviously she can't be trusted to do it) but not a Collected Poems.

Tomaz Salamun The Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun (1988) - This comprises some translations from 1973 and 74 chapbooks done while Salamun was in Iowa along with recent translations by Charles Simic. I have no idea what any of the dates are so that the recent translations could actually be older poems but still I think this gets more interesting as it goes along. Salamun (there should be some diacritical marks in his name but I'm not about to look them up) draws from surrealism and influences like Rimbaud but is too grounded to really be called visionary. Several poems are boastful ("Tomaz Salmun you are a genius / you are wonderful you are a joy to behold") almost like blues lyrics while others are list poems. (The introduction doesn't give any information about what type of form these poems had in the original language.) Others work with nonsequiturs or build stray images around a central theme. A few are quite striking but the bulk seems a bit tossed off.

Jaime Saenz The Night (1982, English trans. 2007) - Bolivian Saenz was certainly a colorful character even if it seems half calculation and half true dementia - pet panther, hiding human body parts under his bed, long trawls through dingy bars, etc. He apparently wrote in many forms (novels, criticism, etc) but his poetry has just started being translated the past few years. The Night is a book-length work, attempting a kind of fever dream vision though to me it sometimes seems a bit forced and not a coherent whole. Perhaps a second reading is in order but why a second based merely on a "perhaps"? The Night isn't in a standard form (or at least none I recognize). Each poetic line is very long, taking up usually two to three lines of type, and each separated by space from the next. The result is more a succession of moments rather than interwoven verse, maybe appropriate for a journey through the night, maybe not. There are cetainly effective moments and enough of them that I'm planning to check out the selected poems.

Benjamin Peret Death to the Pigs, and Other Writings (1988) - Apparently the first English-language collection of Peret and originally published by the indispensible Atlas Press as a "selected writing" (with the slight title change for the US edition from University of Nebraska). The biographical introduction is amazing - Peret is somebody whose full biography would be a blast even if you weren't familiar with his work. But it's that work filling the rest of the book and a bit of a let-down. The poetry tends to be like much other surrealist poetry and instead of being liberating just becomes a long playground taunt where one thing after another is mentioned and that's it. More successful is "Death to the Pigs and the Field of Battle", labelled as a novel though it's certainly not. The images in constant flux work better in prose, at least for me, because there's a flow and a connection, however meaningless. In fact much of "Death" could easily be turned into an animated film, consisting as it does of descriptions of physical transformations. A collaboration with Andre Breton on "Calendar of Tolerable Inventions from Around the World" is a hoot - practically a parody of trivia books before such a thing would be likely. The book closes with a few letters and "polemics".