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Martin Johnson Heade, Cattelya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds Book Design: Valerie Brewster

Joseph Stroud, Of This World
(Copper Canyon Press, 2008)

Tracking the ancients back into the past by living deliberately in the present, Joseph Stroud blazes a passageway into the “Pure Land.” He is forever heading for Cold Mountain as he follows the pollen-burnished bees to their honeycombs of sifted time. W.S. Merwin put it like this: “Mr. Stroud’s poetry comes from the clear source.”

A world traveler, Stroud weaves a tapestry of magical places from the ghats of Varanasi to the sun-flamed piazzas of Castile. His steady eye and emphasis on natural metaphors fits in with his Californian compatriots such as Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder. A devotion to poetry leads him to parlay with giants such as Li Po, Lu Yu, and Han Shan. It’s a treat to be “Drinking wine with T’ao Chen.”

In “Provenance,” Stroud grieves for his father. His observations of everyday incidentals act as ballast. They keep the heavy tides of emotion from capsizing him until he can unearth what lies at the end of pain, past the “rainshined cobblestones…I didn’t know that grief would give him back to me.”

There is an elegiac seriousness throughout—but now, after four decades of writing, the author crystallizes his search. He tries to find a “way back to the past…where I stood/for a moment with the immortals.” Stroud astoundingly folds the bittersweet wisdom of a lifetime into this “moment we can turn into forever.”


Sharon Olds, One Secret Thing
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Sharon Olds always struck me as the ultimate poet of the flesh. She steeps her experiences in the cadences of a mortal coil and then infuses them with imagination. Memory, details, and primal bonds are probed with visceral corporeality. Each poem has the unflinching honesty of a “Self Exam.”

In her ninth collection, Olds concludes a family cycle with her mother’s passing. She describes Calvinist parents and a Puritan home so tight-knit that when her widowed mother tucks her in at night, she “squeezes” her between the sheets in an obsessive ritual.

In “The Cannery, 1942-45,” Olds’s mother takes her to visit a “war-effort kitchen.” The inspiring owner, “a woman Hephaistos,” commits suicide at the war’s end. Olds’s chthonian narratives are often studded with dark incidents like this. A horror magazine’s story on a cannibal makes her muse on her mother’s lonely hunger. When a schoolmate disappears, the author pins a point of light. “They found her” in her “brassiere…as if/a covering of any/kind could be a hopeless dignity.”

Olds is as spunky as a child, swimming under a float in the lake and facing the melodramatically dangerous anchor chain. Physically and metaphorically, Olds dives deep. In the epiphanic “Cassiopeia,” the author sees her mother “alone, out ahead, a scout for the mortal, heart breaking into solo.” Olds is a headlight out on the highway—a beam.

Alex Lemon, Hallelujah Blackout
(Milkweed Editions, 2008)

Alex Lemon’s Hallelujah Blackout is a blowback fireball of a book. Think Ezra Pound’s inscrutable “Cantos” lightning-charged with a twisted wick.

Experimental but rigorous, an incantatory frenzy spirals around the freewheeling narrator.

With an ear hopped up on the pulse of the street and tempered by an Objectivist spirit, Lemon leavens his edginess with Romantic overtures. Hard-boned and raw-knuckled, lyric and overblown, the insistent voice is “a shock of blooms abuzz.”

The title poem pounds us with relentless inventions peeling off in blazing lumps: “I squeeze the glass shards.” Epic in its scope and tone, echoes of Keats, Lorca, Crane, Ginsberg, and the Dylans (Bob and Thomas) barrel-ass through a heartbreaking jubilee under an “eight-track sky.”

The poet’s relation to the city is penned in the cinematic “Ingots.” Its open verse is filled with spaces and isolated phrases: “Heavybright.” The tempo is allegro but the timbre changes from a whisper to a choir. “Happy asshole alleluia/chants the city’s wrecked neon.”

The staggering landscape is punchy Gothic. The gutter gives it up to the steeples en route “to the lightswarm/The whorl.” For the poet, every moment is horribly wonderful. “Each wave on the river is a call for help.” Lemon fulfills his own august directive: “Let us sing that dark.”



The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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