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GOURMANDISING


NEW CENTURY NORTH AMERICAN POETS
edited by John Gorman, Donna Biffar andWayne Lanter, 214pp, $15. River King Poetry Press, PO Box 122, Freeburg, IL62243.

A hefty anthology which has been beautifully produced on cream coloured paper and includes a whacking 54 contributors, ranging in age from 87 to 10, as the birth dates on the back cover helpfully point out. There is no unifying theme, which lends an air of eclectic companionship to the collection. As a reviewer, I can't hope to cover every poet here, so I will be led completely by my own pleasure. I am a committed hedonist and open this book as a gourmand might sit down at a banquet to select whatever takes her fancy to convey to the plate. American poetry is always a feast as one expects, and gets, diversity, freedom and a different take on life which is refreshing and yet a suitable bedfellow with English poetry, with so much common ground juxtaposed with the tang of the unfamiliar.

First off, I am drawn to Chuck Miller's warm meditations, which lead the reader through his thought processes in a way that seems artless, yet lead one to ask philosophical questions. In 'over and again you see them at the pool', in which his observation of retarded children at the swimming pool leads him to wonder at their innocence compared to the small unpleasant cunning 'some average of intelligence' can bring. Seamlessly, this leads to a meditation on survival, concentration camps through Primo Levi, and how we are all brothers. It is a moving lyric which adds to the sum of our lives while being suffused with a touch of warm humour. 'extra virgin' is a Dionysian poem celebrating olive oil. It is fun, but there is a serious side too. Miller is erudite, genial, yet never takes himself too seriously. His line lengths are loose and the effect is to sound natural, never forced, despite the richness of his lexical choices.

Charles Levendosky's three poems are all very different. 'Into Dusk' is a formal, rather elegiac poem about a farmhouse which has fallen into disrepair. It is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's poems beautiful, understated and haunting:

Lean close to hear
what decay recalls
in unhinged syllables
and fragmented grammar.

Simplicity itself is often the best quality. 'Burden of War' is a three-part poem that recalls his father's experiences of the Korean War. Again, it is understated, allowing the stories to seep out matter-of-factly, adding impact because the reader naturally reads between the lines and is moved by that. The central story is when a beggar woman and her grandson asked the poet's father for alms, and as he searched in his pockets, the old woman and child prepared to shoot him. His life was saved by a fellow soldier, but he still carries the burden and his war experiences have left him broken, 'digging down / into himself'. His set concludes with a little love poem in two parts, which records a moment of tenderness. Clearly a versatile writer.

The whole book is dedicated to Paul Dilsaver, who died in May 2002, as John Garman writes in the preface. The four poems selected all focus on his illness. They are bleak poems but a wry humour prevents any self-pity. There is an honest acceptance here, for example 'Garden Lie':

Snakes have come
to collect the debt
owed them from Eden.

There's horror here as lies 'slither' around his feet, but he changes into a snake himself by the end of the poem. 'Disconnected' is a fine lyric in which he relinquishes his hold on the world, instructing his friends to:

Follow the buzzards
toward the jagged mountains
and setting sun

The dying fall of the cadence in the final stanza is poignant and the metaphor perfect. One can see why his friends mourn him. What better memorial could there be than poetry?

In 'Words', Dana Gioia bravely asserts that 'the world does not need words'. This poem glories in the wonderment of nature and describes it eloquently, denying her opening idea. It is, really, her version of why she writes because she can't help it, while knowing what she does is superfluous and dangerous, as words are untrustworthy. I'd like to send her a copy of my poem 'Translate This' as we are articulating some similar ideas, though in a totally different way. The four poems selected here all nourish the reader.

I'm getting full up now, so a few nibbles of tempting stuff follow that disappointing stage of a meal when the gap between hunger and satiation gets over smaller. Donna Biffar's 'Little Shavers' a gem; it's a mediation on those little disposable razors and how they return us to a state of hairless innocence. Delightfully but subtly erotic too. Pittman's jewelled description of a painting by a six year old, 'Boy Waiting for Snow' is too tempting to leave on the plate. There's not a slack word here:

The fleckless firmament
that saturates the paper
with cerulean possibility.

Marvellous! I love the slightly archaic lexis, the sure-footed alliteration and the reverberating sibilance, yet the poem is as delicate as snow and the paper of the painting.

There's some funny stuff here too. I enjoyed Houff's poem 'My Mother Was a Whore', which is narrative of 50s American values and a feisty woman who broke her hymen riding a stallion and was therefore frowned on. She prefers horses to men because:

they take the apples in good stride
and don't ask questions.

I laughed out loud at Lyn Lifshin's 'He said It Was a Saturday Morning' about a man who keeps the Jehovah's Witnesses talking for hours. It is written as a monologue, which is cleverly appropriate.

For dessert, it has to be Joanne Lowery's four beautiful 'Fruits of Memory' poems. She uses the strawberry, the peach, the apricot and the apple to evoke four memories centering round her life as a wife and mother. Like fruits, there is a sense of bitterness too, as the marriage failed and the children grew up. This is lightly sketched in, 'the future a bare tree', a sad backdrop which shows the fragility if happiness. The tactile quality of these four little poems is a joy: 'fuzz plus crease, scrotal shell' beautifully relates the peach to her baby son.

A well-rounded and nourishing meal but I can taste no more dishes now. I must apologise to the poets I have not mentioned this, I would assure them, is no reflection on the quality of their writing. I have been led bymy eye and palate; further items on the menu will be enjoyed at a later date.


                  Angela Topping 2003