Two poetry collections, but not a pair: a round-up of recent reading.
I keep leaving the people I cherish the most,
so I can go back and ask them what it’s like
to watch someone disappear.
Escape is the underlying theme of Patrick Rosal’s third collection, Boneshepherds (Persea Books, 2011): escape from propriety, expectations, hierarchies, stereotypes, humanity, even life itself.
In the introductory poem, the deftly written “Boneshepherds’ Lament,” a boy who entertains the narrator’s parents with his Chopin interpretations in the next two lines gruesomely murders another boy.
The narrator of “Stockpile” talks leisurely about trespassing in a munitions-storage facility with a meek friend who allows himself to be led around on a leash, only to discover a year later that Dudling has gained a few inches and made the school football team.
The book’s title connotes the ultimate escape. Who but the Grim Reaper is the preeminent bone shepherd?
The poems are largely narrative, told in Rosal’s natural, confident voice. Details appear organic rather than imposed. I should warn you, / every guitar has its ghosts, / and they’ll ask you whom you love and how much he writes in “Guitar” (We can’t flee the ghosts in our lives, can we?). Having been a guitarist for four decades, I know exactly what he means.
The book contains two missteps, “Aubade: The Monday Bargain” and “Dream of the Girl With Eight Limbs.” Both employ what I would call extreme anaphora. The first adopts “If only” as its motif (If only that and nothing more / If only the wicked hiss of the wind to rattle the steel door in its jamb). The latter chooses “Hands to” (Hands to hustle / Hands to hatchet / Hands to alight) and continues onto a fourth page. This type of poem allows the writer to go on automatic and is best left as a creative exercise meant to stay in the desk drawer. One such poem in a published book can be overlooked. Two seem like padding, something Boneshepherds didn’t need.
Still, all the narrative poems, like the aforementioned “Boneshepherds’ Lament,” “Man Hanging Upside Down” and “Ars Poetica: After a Dog,” are the collection’s main acts.
Consider the following:
Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
Right solitude oils it.
Harsh words break no bones,
Kind words butter no parsnips.
One couplet appeared in a fortune cookie at Sammy’s Noodle Shop in Greenwich Village. Guess which. If you picked the second, congratulations, we have a winner.
As for the other, it opens “Vinegar and Oil,” a poem from Jane Hirshfield’s latest collection, Come, Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). Personally, I prefer the after-dinner aphorism because it’s clever. Hirshfield’s lines sound like Dr. Phil.
Hirshfield’s is a gold-plated name in the poetry world. She’s a Zen-infused writer bedecked with awards, fellowships, publication credits in top journals and a major publisher. My reading of Come, Thief ratified my insight—it’s not unique—that once a poet has secured a name and reputation, quality control gains license to relocate to an auxiliary shelf.
The work in Come, Thief seems less like poetry and more like an 89-page litany of inchoate thoughts, not so much a case of “first thought, best thought,” but of “any thought, final thought.”
The poems by and large are brief and thin, their tone consistently flat. Too often, as in the example cited above, her lines have a fortune-cookie quality. Other times (e.g., It is the work of feeling / to undo expectation and A window is only a window when stepped away from) they seem like the master’s enigmatic sayings in David Carradine’s flashbacks to the monastery on Kung Fu.
Poems collapse into wearying formula. Hirshfield lards many of them with lists that, at least to this reader, result in one poem lazily running into another:
- In “First Light Edging Cirrus” she writes, An alphabet’s molecules / tasting of honey, iron and salt, / cannot be counted—
- “These Also Once under Moonlight” includes the lines Fossils greeting fossils, / fearful, hopeful. / Walking, sleeping, waiting, wanting to live.
- In “Fourth World” we get Absence, anger, grief / cruelty, failure—.
More poems, sadly, follow the pattern.
There’s the occasional graceless line: “The Decision” concludes with it cannot be after turned back from. I read the line several times and wondered if a Knopf copyeditor had missed an error. Cold leather of fog on the day introduces the second stanza of “Red Wine Is Fined by Adding Broken Eggshells.” For the life of me, I can’t relate fog to leather, even symbolically. Cheesecloth, yes; leather, no.
Hirshfield’s reputation orbits her affinity for the Far East. She has published translations of female poets of Japan. She offers a single example of a Japanese style of composition in Come, Thief: the haibun. However, the haiku that closes “Haibun: A Mountain Rowboat” lacks the sense of revelation or insight one associates with the form: amid summer trees / blue boat high on a mountain / its paint scent drying.
The poems in Come, Thief are anemic in comparison to some of Hirshfield’s earlier work. After all, the lines I quoted above came from the same pen that wrote these lines in Of Gravity & Angels:
Distinctions matter. Whether a goat’s
quiet face should be called noble
If the flies did not hurry themselves to the window,
they’d still die somewhere.
None but a nationally established poet could have interested Knopf or any other major house in publishing a collection like Come, Thief.