OF THESE THREE mature poets, two are playing at the top of their game. William Merwin begins with songs of praise for the natural world in his familiar voice: that sonorous blend of elegy and ecstasy, tinged with bitterness about the earth's degradation at the hands of humans. Like his earlier poems, these rejoice in beginnings—the freshly wakened spirit, "April with the first light sifting/ through the young leaves," the Hudson River before British explorers arrived. Then Merwin turns his attention to history and aging. Exploring the past that shaped him, he finds it like "the ancient shaping of water/to which the light of an hour comes back as to a secret." Thus the poet of mornings makes a kind of peace with history and change.
The River Sound
by William Merwin (Knopf, $15 paperback)
by John Hollander (Knopf, $15 paperback)
The Lost Land
by Eavan Boland (Norton, $11 paperback)
It's a dazzling collection of poems, wise and playful. "Lament for the Makers" is a series of quirky eulogies for poets who influenced him and who died during his lifetime, as well as a confession of his tendency to see himself (partly because of his early rise to literary fame) as "the youngest on the block." This self-image lasted, he admits, long after "the notes in some anthology/listed persons born after me." The glorious heart of the book is the moving and funny 60-page "Testimony," a family history about reaching an age when "the open unrepeatable/present in which [we] wake and live" becomes "a still life still alive": at last we "know/ what to do with it." The poet ends "Testimony" by bequeathing treasures (a dawn shared, a river heard together, a Manhattan city block) to each of his life's companions.
Merwin's sentences often run together without punctuation, less to echo the rivers winding through these pages than to invite readers into his syntax—as collaborators in its rhythms, listening for the sounds of the phrases in the mind's mouth. This intimate sharing of speech is just one of the great pleasures of The River Sound, written by one of America's finest poets at the pinnacle of his craft.
JOHN HOLLANDER'S poems are both games and masterpieces. In Figurehead the poet rings playful changes on the stories of Sappho, Arachne, Minerva, his mom, and the duchess of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," who tells us, in perfect Browning-style verses, that nobody murdered her. She's very much alive, thank you, and enjoying some peace and quiet in the convent to which she secretly escaped from the "mad fool" of a husband who doubtless, now, pontificates to bored listeners about the quality of her smile in the portrait he had commissioned. She faked that smile, you see, and she's freer behind her walls than the oafish duke can ever be outside them. "At which," she concludes, "I truly smile."
Hollander plays with the names of assorted ailments: "quinsy," "whiffles," "glanders," "pip," and "glottis" ("nature disposes," quips Hollander, but "medical science proposes" the names for nature's gifts). In "Variations on a Table" he ponders a poet's writing table, Locke's tabula rasa, the multiplication tables, and a motion tabled at a meeting, then segues to Babel, sable coats, Mabel, and transatlantic cables before "turning the tables" back to the polished surface upon which a writer does his work—each free association in the series becomes integral to a cogent essay on language. Hollander's juggling of paradoxes, puns, and demanding forms is more than a literary form of Olympic-level gymnastics. In this virtuoso poet, a brilliant mind is at work.
Eavan Boland's The Lost Land has her characteristic dignity of voice, beautifully managed lines, and transparent diction. Focusing on her alienation from Ireland and from daughters who have grown up and away, the book doesn't quite satisfy. Perhaps it's a poetic experiment with a psychic state of emptiness; but the loss and pain are too abstract and a lexicon of pathos ("tears," "hurt," "scar," "wound," "grief") won't fill the void. The better choice for readers new to Boland's work who plan to hear her at Hugo House and Kane Hall this weekend is Outside History (Norton, $10.95), in which she explores themes of loss in light of a rich abundance of life filling the pages.
Eavan Boland leads a workshop at Richard Hugo House, Sat. October 7, and reads at UW campus, Kane Hall, on Sun. October 8.
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