Reviews of new poetry collections

April 1, 2009 at noon
Updated March 31, 2009 at 11:01 p.m.

By Carmela Ciuraru



—"Collected Poems" by C.P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn; Knopf ($35)

—"The Unfinished Poems" by C.P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn; Knopf ($30)

Newly translated and a decade in the making, these two volumes are a tremendous gift to the literary world — particularly the unfinished works, published in English for the first time. Constantine Cavafy, who died at age 70 in 1933, is now Greece's most celebrated 20th century poet, but in his lifetime he was a modest civil servant; his poems went unrecognized until late in his career.

He was, on the surface, an ordinary man leading a prosaic life. Mendelsohn notes that in his writing, however, Cavafy was highly subversive, masterfully addressing themes of "erotic longing, fulfillment and loss. ... That the desire and longing were for other men only makes him seem the more contemporary, the more at home in our own times."

Cavafy's longings transcend his sexuality and seem universal, even though so many of his poems read like private, consoling notes to himself. "Don't cling to the past and torment yourself so much," he writes in "Remorse," one of his unfinished drafts. "Don't give so much importance to yourself./The wrong you did was smaller than you/imagine; much smaller."


—"American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry," edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John; W.W. Norton ($25.95 paper)

Cross-pollinated, mongrel, hodgepodge, hybrid — whatever name you give it, contemporary American poetry has become so complex that the old notion of two distinct, hostile camps can be safely declared dead.

As editors Swenson and St. John argue, today's poetry is no camp and all camps at once. It might employ a conventional approach (narrative, a first-person speaker), but disrupt it with nonsense words ("thumpthumped") and idiosyncratic syntax; follow a strict poetic form (say, a sonnet or a villanelle) but yield something wholly experimental and peculiar. "I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based on plurality, not purity," writes St. John. "We need all of our poets."

Readers are hardly monolithic, either, which means that the bold inventiveness that makes some readers uncomfortable will feel exciting and alchemical to others. Regardless, the more than 70 poets represented here (including John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Ann Lauterbach and Susan Wheeler) adhere marvelously to Ezra Pound's famous dictum: "Make it new!"


—"Bicycles: Love Poems" by Nikki Giovanni; Harper ($16.99)

The focus of Giovanni's latest collection is love in all its forms, from the quotidian (jazz, roasted chicken, a long drive) to the romantic. The poet favors short, simple lines (often just two or three words long) that have a singsong quality; sometimes she seems to be rapping as much as writing.

In lesser poems, Giovanni offers trite utterances ("I do not know/Where I am/Or how I got here/I am lost/I want to find myself/In your arms"). In stronger poems, though, these spare rhythms are evocative and the language specific, as in the erotic "Field Notes (On You)": "Someone hears a moan/That would be me/ Someone heard a sigh/That would be you/A pile of sugar/A pile of salt/I dip my finger/ And taste."

In the prose poem "Clean," Giovanni reveals her comical habit of obsessive household tidying, yet ends on a plaintive note, wanting to open "that really wonderful bottle of wine I've been saving for when I fall in love again. I'm not in love but drinking a vintage redmakes me wish I were."


—"Speak Low" by Carl Phillips; Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($22)

In his 10th collection, Phillips contemplates matters of yearning and loss, memory and awareness, faith and reason. In the title poem, what begins as an observation of wind, water and light becomes a meditation on "the less-than-clear distance between/everything we know we should do, and all the rest — all/the rest that we do."

In "The Centaur," the poet captures the ambivalence of desire as the speaker lays in bed with his lover: "It was as difficult to know, anymore,/the difference between being truly dissatisfied/and merely unastonished/as it was to look at him." And in "Distortion," the sight of peonies, bursting in full bloom "near to breaking," reminds him of how "excess, even in its smallest forms, seems to have its cost."

Regardless of subject matter, Phillips writes with lovely restraint and an intimate, humble voice that sounds something like prayer.


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