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Poetry Roundup

Basil King, 77 Beasts—Basil King’s Beastiary

(Marsh Hawk Press, 2007)

One of our most prominent poet/painters, Basil King studied painting and writing at Black Mountain College with such lions as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Estaban Vincente. His new book is an inventive romp through the prism of painters.

A little like Spoon River Anthology, King starts with a name. All 77 poems are titled by names of painters. Within that framework King alternately speaks in their persona or digresses on their technique or milieu. Occasionally he breaks out into sequences as in an open field, five-part section based on “The Maids of Honor” by Diego Valesquez.

In “Thomas Eakins” King states, “there is no truth/but the truth that contains fantasies.” This decree could equally apply to King’s drawing of three benign-looking beasts opposite the text and is an altogether fitting description of his own incisive invention.

Sometimes surreal (“Blake”), sometimes terse (“Jean-Michel Basquiat”), sometimes naughty (“Balthus”), King shuffles his deck of painters with cardshark skill. You can open this book at will and be amazed at the array of tricks up the poet’s sleeve. Each poem is layered with imagery and history and has a separate voice united by the overall project. As John Collins wrote about King, “the imagination…is in charge here.”

Jillian Weise, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex

(Soft Skull Press, 2007)

Pleasure and pain, like Venus and Mars, go at it in Jillian Weise’s unnerving verse debut. Likewise, form and content join up to tell a personal story with mastery as in “Ode to Agent Orange.”

Weise evokes an updated Emily Dickinson with her frequent couplets, triplets and quatrains. The strict rhyme scheme in “The Surgeon,” aba, aba, is enriched with electric metaphors: “You left this behind when you came,/sticking sleep to me like glue./ Please call and tell me its name.” “Us, Like a Bad Mix Tape,” tugs at the heartstrings, as do most of the works. Here, lovers are paired even in separation, both humming favorite songs and trying to cover up the screams. Finally an “apparition…undresses, steps in the shower/where you’re the goldfish & I’m the castle.” This resolution to find the fairy tale in the disaster resonates profoundly throughout this gripping collection.

Filled with “grit and grumble,” as Weise describes her muse in “Sleep Talk,” many poems describe a damaged physicality that references operations, screws, hooks and tubes. Throughout, language is forged by grace from an ultimate witness. There’s treasure here, the final balance between the reassuring and devastating, the “okay and not okay.” Unflinching, the author lays bare her soul and then covers it with discoveries.

Allan Kaplan, Like One of Us

(Untitled, 2007)

A good poet can walk a mile in the vernacular of another person and refine their essence. Allan Kaplan has walked many miles and often speaks in the voice of a character. But no matter who is speaking—the “hired man…the pensioned bargeman of the Moselle…the scholar of China”—they all sound like one thing—a good poet!

The wife in “Korean Grocer” admonishes her sons to “clean the lettuce,/the soil’s elegant skirts.” One of Kaplan’s best strategies is using someone else’s station in life to add flavor while ratcheting up the subject matter with such timeless gems.

Ancient poets carry on in “Failing Dynasty (12th Century)” showing that Kaplan has mastered their oeuvre while creating an avant send-up. Likewise an epistle from “The Exiled Poet Nazim Hikmet…” perfectly captures the great Turkish poet’s nationalistic musings. Finally escaping from jail, he dreams he is “Under stars, big reddish,/I’m like a young peasant looking up at your apricots.”

Able to call on mythology, geography or literature for an armature, Kaplan can also stand alone. Compressed, yet rich and ornate, his finely wrought passages lead him to le mot juste, just about every damn time: “while with the gulls/my mind circles/fore and aft/I’m traveling light.”


Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Wright is a New Romantic poet associated with St. Mark's Poetry Project.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2007

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