- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

Colette Inez’s Spinoza Doesn’t Come Here Anymore (Melville House, $12.95, 83 pages) is a new book of poems by a longtime friend. Ms. Inez’s work has always fascinated me, especially because of the manner in which, origami-like, she seems able to fold reality inside-out, to take the personal and sometimes commonplace and evert from it a startingly new image, a whole new way of seeing.

That she can continue to reinvent herself through her work and train her critical eye upon the overlooked seems to me nothing short of phenomenal. “Spinoza” is a small book which fits neatly in the hand or coat pocket, but its 83 pages are densely packed. Her work is replete with depth and indicators of her impressive range of knowledge as well as of her wide reach of experience.

If you’re shopping for friends who read poetry, consider The Selected Works of Elinor Wylie (Kent State, $29, 238 pages). Wylie was one of the most highly regarded and influential poets of her day, but owing to the fact that she wrote most of her work, and published what she did, within the narrow range of less than a decade (1920-1928) she has been all but forgotten today. Her impact would have been longer lasting had she not died so young, at the age of 43, in 1928.

Perhaps the reason that her reputation has been in decline since her death is, in part at least, due to her unabashed romanticism and the strong influence Shelley had on her work. This influence shows in her sonnets and her frequent use of allegory and myth.

One of her most famous poems, “Beauty” (1920), which appeared in the New York Evening Post, is so simply profound and profoundly simple that it might be easy to dismiss the poem as slight, but isn’t.

Say not of beauty that she is

good,

Or aught but beautiful,

Or sleek to doves’ wings of

the wood

Her wild wings of a gull.

Call her not wicked; that

word’s touch

Consumes her like a curse;

But love her not too much,

too much,

For that is even worse.

O, she is neither good nor

bad,

But innocent and wild!

Enshrine her and she dies,

who had

The hard heart of a child.

A romantic, yes, but Wylie also had something of the postmodernist about her, as the self-awareness of part three of her poem, “A Red Carpet for Shelley,” (1927) shows: “The little sum of my experience / Remains the sole contrivance I produce / To weave this mesh, to colour and confuse / These ragged syllables with soul and sense.”

And some of her most interesting poetry can be minimalist. In “Incantation” (1920), she wrote: “A white well / In a black cave; / A bright shell / In a dark wave. / A white rose / Black brambles hood; / Smooth bright snows / In a dark wood.”

Two important new books of poetry are The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry (Oxford, $32.50, 464 pages) edited by Arnold Rampersad, the Stanford University professor and biographer of Langston Hughes, and American Sublime (Gray Wolf, $19.50, 96 pages) by Elizabeth Alexander.

Mr. Rampersad writes in his introduction, “This collection was not to be a historical survey of verse by black Americans, much less a ‘scholarly’ edition replete with footnotes, but rather one designed to paint a portrait of African-American life and culture … .”

Although he makes a strong case for his choices for inclusion and the thematic divisions into which his anthology is organized, one cant help but wish that he had left his bias against the historical survey and the scholarly edition out of the process. Frances E. W. Harper, who was born in 1825, is the sole representative from the first half of the 19th century, for instance.

Despite its feeling much more like a textbook for contemporary high-school students in which the great bulk of the writers featured are from the Harlem Renaissance to the late 20th-century, this remains a valuable compilation of African-American poetry. Seldom has so much fine work been assembled between the covers of a book.

Happily, Elizabeth Alexander possesses a voice that is solid and assured. Mr. Rampersad might be well advised to include the entire third section, “Amistad,” of her new book in later editions of his collection. While all of the poems in “American Sublime” are wonderful, this third section coheres in such a strong manner as to make the missing of any one poem out of sequence seem to be a loss.

For the “Amistad” section alone, much less for all the additional fine poems, Ms. Alexander should be considered for the Pulitzer Prize. If the kindest thing one poet can say to another is, and I believe it is, “I wish I’d written that poem,” I found myself repeating that wish to myself over and over.

Despite the fact that many practical-minded Americans view poetry as worthwhile as a single galosh, we do have a poe laureate. And it is good to report that Ted Kooser’s Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985 (University of Pittsburgh, $14.95, 158 pages) proves how much people really need poetry, even if they don’t recognize that fact.

In “There Is Always a Little Wind,” for instance, we read:

There is always a little

wind

in a country cemetery,

even on days when the air

stands

still as a barn in the fields.

It is a portrait every bit as evocative as a still-life by Andrew Wyeth. Mr. Kooser’s work is delicious, a Thanksgiving repast for the mind through both sound and sense. This is a volume I will open and thumb through for years. There is not an off note in the entire lot of poems which cover two decades of Kooser’s production.

I eagerly anticipate a companion volume for Mr. Kooser’s next 20 years that follow 1985. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his preface to “Parnassus,” “Poetry teaches us force of a few words, and, in proportion to the inspiration, checks loquacity.”

James Brown is a poet and used book store proprietor in Milton, Del.

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