Poetry Roundup

Anselm Hollo
Guests of Space
(Coffee House Press, 2007)

After thirty poetry books, Anselm Hollo looks back in these epic sonnet. “Guests in Space” is full of friends and authors from across the ages. An elegiac tone permeates and percolates as Hollo ruminates over life. Reflections are punctuated by quotes and observations. Lyric cement and incisive comment bind the lines into powerful amalgams.

A very close friend of the poet Ted Berrigan, the collection echoes Berrigan’s long sonnet sequence, Many Happy Returns. Like Berrigan, who interwove recurring lines, Hollo repeats his own title three times in separate poems, reinforcing the theme.

“Succession of words so agreeable’/ yes they are yes they are.” A footnote attributes the opening line of one sonnet of Gertrude Stein. “So many ladders of grief,” lead up to the end where Hollo caps a line by Alan Watts with a rhyme to make a traditional couplet.

Hollo’s grand world of erudition and emotion is by turns funny, cranky, and bittersweet. Italian, German, Norse and Middle Dutch ring out like spider veins of gold. “Martinis uber alles.” We hear Schopenhauer, Berlioz and Mel Torme. We hear the troubadours. We hear the voice of a great poet. Listen up. “O that it were otherwise/ friends did not have to die.”

 

Poetry by Bill Knott, Collages by Star Black
Stigmata Errata Etcetera
(Saturnalia Books, 2007)

In 1968 Bill Knott burst onto the scene with the first of Yale’s Big Table Books, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans. He braided Surrealism and Romance into an American idiom His forlorn poems shook with fervor. They were pure fire. Still pure his new poems are ice—refined, crystalline and sharp. The scansion is taut as line after line is wrought into place. In an opening poem called “Total” he writes of his method:

“words…
I try to stack…
which are
counted forth
in columned patience.”

These dense poems reward patience with delightful discoveries. Rhymes are formal but not predictable. In a pattern of a-b-a-b, Knott gives us the following slightly slant end rhymes: shame, subsequent, scheme, innocent. The subject: the loner and survivor. And sometimes the survivor’s inevitable demise is addressed, as in “Epitaphs,” noting the ubiquity of “REST IN PEACE” in graveyards, Knott declares, “This sameness betrays a bewildering faith/ in the inadequacy of words….” Like an alchemist, Knott transforms “inadequate” words into piles of immutable verse.

Sixteen full color collages by the artist and poet Star Black accompany the poems. The handsome collages echo the poems in their orderly rhythms and quixotic groupings.

 

John Ashbery
A Worldly Country
(Ecco, 2007)

At 80, John Ashbery is on top of the poetry world. The critics fall over each other making up their encomiums (and rightly so). “Dazzling…” “Exhilarating…” “Greatest…” So read the jacket blurbs. Ashbery’s amazing gift is to supercede reality and bring us into a convincing, convivial conversation. At times it seems that an old friend is addressing us. At other times we are seamlessly engaged with the cosmos.

Ashbery engineered the ambiguous pronoun, which is why this conversation works so well. In the fifteen lines of “La Bonne Chanson” the poet introduces he, someone, they, you, I and us. In addition to the indefinite people, colorful characters are generously sprinkled throughout the book: Ovid, smitten firemen, a fat lady, a slave master, an a conductor all make appearances in “They are Still Rather Lovely.”

Ashbery’s faux narratives launch us on a novel adventure, expansively conflating time and space. The off-hand remark is deceptive in its familiarity and adds a mesmerizing surface texture. There is a perfect balance between high and low vernaculars, between “O I tell you,/ the things we had….” And “the caliph’s calipers.” Rhythmic, lyrics, oracular, you’ve got to RECOGNIZE!

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