- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

Maxine Kumin has had a long and unusually distinguished career as a poet and prose writer, having won a Pulitzer Prize almost 30 years ago for the fourth of her dozen or so books of poems, and having served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. It is pleasantly startling, therefore, to reflect that The Long Marriage (Norton, $21, 118 pages) could possibly be the best book of poems she has yet published.
The poet has since her first book displayed a unique blend of formal technique and relaxed delivery, as if the right level of amusement could be maintained only in, say, amphibrachic dimeter, as in these lines about thistles:

Its taproot runs deeper
than underground rivers
and once it's been severed
by breadknife or shovel
two popular methods
employed by the desperate

the bits that remain will
spring up like dragons' teeth
a field full of soldiers
their spines at the ready.

A few of the more powerful poems here arise from the poet's near-fatal carriage driving accident, recounted in her recent memoir, "Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery." The miracle of this book, however, is in the subordination of that incredibly difficult episode to the larger concerns that have animated Maxine Kumin's poems since she began to write them: the uniqueness of every birth and death; the blind semi-purposefulness with which we exterminate ourselves and our fellow creatures; the likelihood that murderousness is below, or even above, the surfaces of natural things; the urge to love a hateful world. Poetry doesn't get much better than this.

John Engels has been writing and publishing excellent poetry for a long time; his first book appeared in 1968. House and Garden (University of Notre Dame Press, $28, $16 paper, 93 pages), his 10th book, arises from the idea that Adam and Eve are now a contemporary couple, having set up housekeeping outside of Eden, in the world we have come to know. Adam speaks 33 of the 59 poems; Eve speaks 22, they both speak one, and three have unspecified first-person speakers.
The first of these "unassigned" poems grounds the book somewhere near the poet's own experience. "The Guardian of the Lakes at Notre Dame" recalls an old retired Brother who "patrolled the lakes at Notre Dame/and ran the kids off":

There is perhaps something to
in favor of old men who raise
the guardian arm and voice

the hunting children
who, but lately come
to Paradise, pursue the prece-
dent beast
unto its dumb destruction, and

It is only the specificity of place, and the first-person narration, that suggest autobiography; such delicacy gives us the freedom to enjoy the rest of the poems as if they were the fictions that, to be finally sure, they are. Whatever personal materials the poet has drawn upon, he has left out plenty of others, and the speakers here are more creations than self-portraits.
The poems are strongly made, with the low-key yet tense energy of the lines quoted above, and an astonishing ease with the names of birds and plants. Mr. Engels has always been brilliant at observing the natural world, and it is the round of the seasons inside and outside that finally makes a larger and deeper tension even than the long life between the characters. This is a fine book.

The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way (Crown, $18, 137 pages) is a book of noteworthy oddity. It is the work of Ethan Coen, who has previously published a widely praised book of stories, and who is justly celebrated as one of the film producing Coen brothers. He has an unusual degree of proficiency with a weirdly dated kind of light verse. There hasn't been much of anything like it since Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947), whose "Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing" (1928) and "Year In, You're Out" (1930) appear to have had an influence on Mr. Coen, though the latter works in the age of freedom of expression, and so refers with more frequency and less taste to bodily fluids, excrement, and associated indignities.
Mr. Coen is considerably more accomplished than most of those who have published poetry on the strength of their nonpoetic reputations Jimmy Stewart, say, or Jewel. A few of these poems are witty. Like Hoffenstein, Mr. Coen essays parody; his treatment of Charles Bukowski is fair and amusing.
Here are two brief samples; the first is the second of "Three Places":

On Big Bear Lake

High-sloshing through the
San Bernardino Mountains
Lies Lake Big Bear and this is
My brief Big Bear account ends.


I sit before my desk and stare;
Perhaps you wonder whether
I see at all. I'm looking where
Just out of sight yet just at hand,
The words take shape. I weigh
them, and,
With vacant eyes and groping
I fit the words together.

Quite competent. Still, a quatrain of Hoffenstein's has a sobering pertinence:

The lion roars, the echoes try
To simulate that lordly cry;
But having said their little say,
The echoes quickly fade away.

Henry Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently "Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews." He teaches poetry, translation, and literary journalism at American University.

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