Wisdom, Truth, and Beauty—Who Could Ask for More?

Michael Heller
This Constellation is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010
(Nightboat Books, 2012)

An expert on the Objectivist poets, Michael Heller is himself an exemplar of the tradition. Clear, precise, and grounded, his poems display adamantine form and inscrutable technique.

His portrayal of the world captures the visible and in doing so reveals the invisible. Heller can begin with a description of a stranger on a park bench, for instance, and switch to a profound meditation on our conjoined state of loneliness.

The Objectivists, expanding on tenets of the Imagists before them, aimed to write direct, economic verse in the natural music of spoken language. Heller transforms the objects he focuses on into revelations. In the poem “At Albert’s Landing,” a path in the woods takes on immediate metaphoric import.

Relying on the physical world, the poem nevertheless arrives at the metaphysical. “There is no paradise to enter or leave. / Just the real, and a wild nesting of hope in the real / Which does not know of hope.”

Drawing inspiration from his Jewish heritage (plus Zukofsky, Rakosi, and Reznikoff), Heller pursues language relentlessly. He questions it and tests it, “calling forth.” He wrests from it “urgent words,” a validation for living and for writing.

The poet shows us how to “shed our words / as artifacts / when we are released / out of ourselves.” Memory, meaning, and legacy are grasped in this tome of 600 pages.


Marilyn Buck
Inside / Out: Selected Poems
(City Lights Books, 2012)

A prisoner for 30 years, an “enemy of the state,” Marilyn Buck’s poems buck the system and champion the struggle. Alternating between the political and the personal, they explore society and an individual’s place in it.

The title Inside / Out places a filter over the whole book. Some poems are in the joint while some are memories or recreations. Turning oneself inside out to reveal the real demands a sacrament. Hence, some intense poems.

Giving the language no quarter, Buck attacks the complacent and complicit in “Rescue the Word.” In a firm, unpretentious voice, we’re adjured to save the “sacred words in danger,” and “sing them shout them / teach them.” In a final, convincing conceit she tells us to wear the words like “amulets against amnesia.”

 “Boston Post Road Blues” starts at a roadhouse club. “Music probes the velcro night.” This exciting textural invention counterweights Buck’s direct accounting. Out late making a phone call, the protagonist envisions promise. But her coin runs out.

Driving by the club the next day in stark daylight, “the blues house stands blank / bone dry and noiseless.” Life gives and takes. But we go on. In another poem, a nocturnal fantasy with “Lupe” ends with the dawning of a “khaki-clad day.”

With the grace of Lucille Clifton and the force of June Jordan, Buck establishes undeniable presence. Courageous and compelling—make room for some new “survival code.”


Allan Peterson
Fragile Acts

(McSweeney’s Poetry Series, 2012)

Consider the poet as a cross between a gardener and a doctor (who both speak Latin, as Allan Peterson points out in one of his Fragile Acts): “Cleyera Japonica. Dementia Praecox.”

The title foreshadows one of Peterson’s prime strategies. He lets birds, flowers, and blood cells do a lot of the acting. In “Falling Apart” he endeavors to find the name of “a new spider in the ilex.” Usually he knows his terms. Part of his charm is the precision of his whimsy. It’s a “tiger perch” in “Buck Lake.”

Another charm ensues from the integrity of each meditation. “Nightmare” begins with “gauze curtains and hazy furniture” and after a delightfully digressive tour of “scenes inconsistent,” it’s surprising to return to the premise as we arrive at “the folding chair.”

Memory, renewal, and dreams form an elastic subtext that vibrates with meaning. Humor and imagination mix. “Columbus discovered Ohio.”

Things are scrutinized and described with indelible delicacy even as they morph. It’s a seductive brocade based on description that allows for enormous associative range. This is a poetry of faith with “everything following / something else with beautiful intentions.”

Though Peterson occasionally leads you like Wile E. Coyote into thin air, he is more likely to deliver you. He is a glissando in words. “From here I wave to you like polishing the air.”


Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

JEFFREY CYPHERS WRIGHT is a poet, publisher, critic, collage artist and eco-activist involved in the community gardens of New York City.


JUL-AUG 2012

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