Category Archives: Reviews

Meditated Stealth: The Life of Marianne Moore

By Meg Schoerke

Meditated StealthRelentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus

with its capacity for fact.

“Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,

its arms seeming to approach from all directions” . . .
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Although these lines from “An Octopus” (1924), Marianne Moore’s ambitious counterweight to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, can be interpreted as a playful analogy for her difficult, relentlessly detailed poetry, they also sum up the challenge faced by her biographer. “An Octopus” juxtaposes an overwhelming amount of precisely observed details yet, in true modernist fashion, refrains from overt declaration of meaning. Instead, the poem invites the reader to find and interpret the patterns that link the details. As in many Moore poems, an identifiable speaker is nowhere to be found, yet everywhere present. No “I” surfaces amidst the poem’s two hundred thirty lines, yet they are saturated with an assertive sensibility. The precise descriptions and shifts of perspective attest to the fineness of the observer: no one else but Marianne Moore could have written this poem.
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The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry edited by Ian Hamilton and Jeremy Noel-Tod – review

The Oxford Companion to Modern PoetryAdam Newey is baffled and buoyed by the updated version of the poet’s Who’s Who
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She’s a fickle creature, literary fame. While your Eliots and Audens can rest easy in the knowledge that their celebrity is for the ages, some will find her embrace all too brief, being quickly thrown over for a series of newer, younger gallants. In the case of Jeremy Noel-Tod‘s updated edition of Ian Hamilton‘s 1994 Oxford Companion, “all too brief” signifies fewer than 20 years – in literary-historical terms, a mere blink of the eye.

The passage of those years has necessitated a change of title, from “20th-Century” to “Modern” poetry. That, and the increase in pagination (Hamilton came in at a little over 600 pages), may make one suspect that we are dealing with the “long” 20th century here. In fact, Noel‑Tod’s starting point is 10 years on from Hamilton’s: 1910, when Kipling was in his pomp (it was the year he published “If”), Ezra Pound was making it new in London, and a 22-year-old TS Eliot was getting down to work on “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock“.
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Jim Harrison’s Last Poems—of Love and the Earth—Are the Arguments We Should Be Having

Dean Kuipers Reads the Poet’s Posthumous Collection

By Dean Kuipers

Jim Harrison’s Last PoemsOn the last day of September, 2015, I cooked a simple pomodoro pasta for writer Jim Harrison at his house near the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I chopped tomatoes grown by his wife, Linda, and I could see the little garden out there as the cottonwood trees released the last of the summer light. She was gravely ill, and while Harrison and I were talking she had called from the hospital to tell him he’d better come in the morning because she was near the end.
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I was thinking about this night as I read the new posthumous collection, Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems (Copper Canyon, May 2019). In this unforgiving literary moment, we must deal honestly with his life and work, as they are inextricable in a way that is not true of other poets. Harrison was a man of gluttonous appetites for sadness, for food, for a 1982 Petrus, for full immersion (if not reclusion) in nature, for the legs of a young woman not his wife that he could throw his arms around and declare that he’d found a reason to go on living. His resonant, necessary poems are even hungrier, and more demanding of proof that living matters. These poems bear-crawl gorgeously after a genuine connection to being, thrashing in giant leaps through the underbrush to find consolation, purpose, and redemption. In his raw, original keening he ambushes moments of unimaginable beauty, one after another, line after line. Harrison digs in the dirt and finds the stars.
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At nineteen I began to degenerate,

slight smell of death in my gestures,

unbelieving, tentative, wailing…

so nineteen years have gone. It doesn’t matter.

It might have taken fifty. Or never.

Now the barriers are dissolving, the stone fences

in shambles. I want to have my life

in cloud shapes, water shapes, wind shapes,

crow call, marsh hawk swooping over grass and weed tips.

Let the scavenger take what he finds.

Let the predator love his prey.

–from “Returning to Earth,” 1977

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Over a Career Spanning Six Decades, American Poet W. S. Merwin Transformed Anger into Art

By Steve Moyer

Over a Career Spanning Six DecadesW. S. Merwin, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, first tried his hand at poetry as a child. Growing up in Union City, New Jersey, he was moved to bring pen to paper after hearing his father, a Presbyterian minister, read from the King James Bible at church. Young William realized that there was a “distant connection” between that kind of heightened language and poetry. “And that’s what I wanted to do, to write poetry. And the more I did it, the more I wanted to do it.”
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Merwin developed an impersonal formalist style, but in time his poems trended toward a freer and more lyrical approach. His work, steeped in legend, the classics, and the Bible, is also anchored in the present, marked, above all, by a vigilance for all living things. Although he has been an angry poet at times, he has avoided bitterness by learning to transform his rage into art. Transformation is the key to understanding his work, as the hallmark of his poetry since the early sixties has been his mastery of “the turn,” the moment in a poem where an idea turns, often with a surprise, into something else.
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His first books of poetry were marked by objectivity, elegance, and formal constraints. He wrote in meter and tried his hand at a variety of poetic forms, including the sestina. One critic observed that his first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), “exhibits a young musician trying out his instrument.” His diction was elaborate, using such terms as “anabasis” (a difficult military retreat), “koré” (an ancient Greek statue of a woman), “saeculum” (an Etruscan word for a specific period of time, usually the length of a generation), and “penates” (household gods in Roman times). To understand the volume’s first two poems, “Anabasis,” parts I and II, it helps to have read Xenophon. History-laden words, as in the poetry of his mentor Ezra Pound, had for Merwin a creative force all their own.

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THE RETURN OF HOMER’S WOMEN

BY ELEANOR JOHNSON

THE RETURN OF HOMER’S WOMENEmily Wilson’s Odyssey, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Madeline Miller’s Circe speak the lost and muted voices of ancient Greek women. Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey focuses on the experiences and especially the injustices endured by female characters in Homer’s poem. Barker’s novel gives voice to the thousands of silenced women in the Iliad, through the specific voice of Briseis, former queen of a city allied with Troy, now enslaved to Achilles. Miller’s novel provides the backstory and afterstory of the witch Circe, Odysseus’s lover for a period during his voyage home.
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These three Homeric adaptations are all, in their own ways, piratic feminist manifestos. And in that dimension, they are laudable. But they all also body forth a strong impulse to shut down the moral undecidability that typifies Homer’s art. The Homeric tradition asks readers and hearers to practice forbearance in assigning justification or culpability to characters for their actions. Or, more precisely, the tradition encourages us to accept the fact that, almost always, we are constrained to think, feel, and act without moral certainty, without absolutes. Our heroes are often partially or even mostly self-serving, and our enemies are often brave. But we cheer for our heroes anyway.
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These three works are unabashedly feminist, unabashedly trying to set a record—maybe even the record, from the vantage point of European literary history—straight. They create space within which the countless unarticulated voices of ancient women can be conjured and reimagined, so as to resonate across millennia with contemporary readers. And they do a beautiful job at that, each in its own way, though that beauty would have been totally unfamiliar to Homer.
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Unfathomable Life

BY HELEN VENDLER

December 31, 1995

View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
(Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 214 pp., $20)

“Again, and as ever, … the most pressing questions / are naive ones.” The remarkable poet Wislawa Szymborska closes, with this remark, a late poem, “The Century’s Decline,” on the collapse of Marxist utopian hopes, after uttering one of her deliberately “naive” questions: “How should we live?” Szymborska, one of a generation of notable Polish poets (she was born in 1923), was brought to American attention by Czeslaw Milosz in his history of Polish poetry, by two slim collections of translations, and by Stanislaw Baranczak inSpoiling Cannibals’ Fun, his recent anthology of Polish poetry of the last two decades of Communist rule. Now Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, his collaborator in that anthology, have brought out the largest selection of Szymborska—100 poems—in English.

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Why W.S. Merwin endures, and other best poetry to read this month

By Elizabeth LundWhy W.S. Merwin enduresThe Essential W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon) beautifully demonstrates why Merwin has been one of America’s most decorated and important poets for more than 60 years. Edited by Michael Wiegers, this concise collection contains the best of the two-time Pulitzer winner’s work, including selections from Merwin’s first book, “A Mask for Janus” (1952) as well as “The Lice” (1967) , “The Carrier of Ladders”(1970) and “The Shadow of Sirius” (2008). The book, which will be published in September, also includes translations and prose pieces that help give readers a fuller understanding of Merwin’s range and changing aesthetics. His earlier poems reflect the formal style of the time and are influenced by classical myths, biblical stories and medieval poetry and ballads. Over time, Merwin’s writing became looser and more experimental, eventually dropping all punctuation. His focus, too, shifted from a keen sense of impending loss to an abiding connection with the natural and unseen realms. What remained constant was Merwin’s striking, evocative imagery, as in these lines from “The Unwritten”: “Inside this pencil/ crouch words that have never been written/ never been spoken/ never been taught/ they’re hiding/ they’re awake in there/ dark in the dark/ hearing us/ but they won’t come out/ not for love not for time not for fire.” Merwin’s skill is matched by his wisdom and his ability to connect a particular moment with something larger. A singing bird in “The Wren,” for instance, is “one of those voices without question/ and without answer like the beam of some/ star familiar.”

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Neruda’s Voice

by David Mason

Neruda’s VoiceI live, I still live, and I think many of us live inside the world Neruda discovered.

—Ariel Dorfman
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. . . the voice is perhaps the most lasting incarnation of any existence. . . . It is in voices . . . that the dead continue to live.

—Alastair Reid
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There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.

—Pablo Neruda
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Forty-five years after his death, Pablo Neruda’s poetry still has the power to astonish and appall, awaken and chill us and leave us shaking our heads in bafflement or respect. There is such breadth and profligate intelligence in the work, which ranges from opaque surrealism to bighearted populism to Pan-American epic to shocking propaganda, that one hardly knows where to place it in our era of thwarted emotions. Clearly it is not of our time. Given Neruda’s relations with women, it is certainly not of the time of #MeToo. The work will not always sit well beside a mature feminist consciousness, and of course it will not please ideologues who can’t tell one form of socialism from another. Neruda changed, and his circumstances changed. As a man he could be a monster of egotism and a courageous dissident, a purblind Stalinist and a Roosevelt democrat. His poetry incarnates these shifts and siftings and restless experiments. The past is a moving target. Poetry keeps it alive.
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Neruda’s poetry is embodied, contradictory, expressing public and private iterations of the life of a man, but we live in a time strait-jacketed by either/or thinking: either you’re a womanizer or you’re a flawless saint; either you’re a Libertarian or you’re a Stalinist; either you’re with us or you’re against us. Neruda frustrates contemporary appetites for correctness and justice, and some readers will dismiss him precisely on such limited grounds, as if the past could be purified to meet our astringent demands. To say Neruda was flawed is laughable. Humanity is flawed. That’s what makes us human.
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James Tate’s Last, Last Poems

By Matthew Zapruder

James TateWhen James Tate died on July 8, 2015, at the age of seventy-one, he left behind more than twenty collections of poetry and prose, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, published right around the time of his death. Most of us assumed that this was his final book. But it turned out there were more poems, which have been assembled into a truly final volume, The Government Lake, to be published by Ecco in July of 2019. One of those poems, “Elvis Has Left the House,” appears in The Paris Review’s Spring 2019 issue.
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Over the course of his career, Tate won every imaginable award available to American poets, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He was revered by poets of virtually every aesthetic persuasion, from stern formalists to wild experimentalists. He had a legion of poor imitators, whom my friends and I called “lost pilots” after the legendary, eponymous poem of Tate’s first book, which won the most prestigious prize for young poets of its time, the 1967 Yale Series of Younger Poets award. When he wrote that book, he was only twenty-two, a kid from a deeply religious Pentecostal family in Kansas City, who somehow found his way to poetry and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The legend goes that he just showed up, showed them his poems, and was admitted on the spot by the director of the program, Donald Justice. If that story’s not true, I don’t want to know.
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‘The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin’ by Geoffrey Hill

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin

From The London Review Bookshop

Geoffrey Hill’s last work, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, is an astonishing late sequence, his final ‘sad and angry consolation’. Formally and thematically expansive, the poems explore the relations between art and politics, heresy, and spirituality. Hill’s generous rage is a tonic for our dark times. ‘In truth he is a Parnassian and a sassy man,’ he writes of Hopkins; the words apply, just as exactingly, to Hill.

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