- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

A fine little book that one can take on the bus or train is Selected Poems/James

Wright (Farrar Strauss and Giroux/Wesleyan University Press, $13, 176 pages) The poems in this fine edition were edited and selected by Robert Bly and Anne Wright, the poet’s widow.

Open this one at random and you will not be disappointed. Both Ms. Wright and Bly (a long-time family friend) read through the collected works to cull their favorites for this volume, and the care they took, and the love they each had for James, is made evident by the strength of their selections. This would make an excellent gift for someone who truly appreciates poetry.

I must admit to some prejudice against titles which sound artificially constructed so as the better to pique the browser’s curiosity. So when I first saw Jan Heller Levi’s new collection, Skyspeak (Louisiana State University Press, $16.95, 72 pages paper), I was more than a little apprehensive.

Needlessly, as it turns out. Ms. Levi’s work is often simultaneously personal and universal. Her use of language (without the “equals” signs) is careful and deliberate, the empty spaces in some of her poems as evocative as any word she might have selected to fill in the blanks.

In the section entitled “from The Handbook of Inconsolable Forms,” for instance, it is the poet’s “Tongue” which is silent. A lovely post-modern surprise when encountered. How mute a voice given form by her manipulation of words on the page? Poets listen. Here’s some of “Earlobes” from that same section.

nor stay here

Hypercatalectic. Velvety,

but not overly

so undersides of needle

point pillows tossed to

the side

which is the center of the

family romance, which

is not about romance,

it’s about history … .

Poets see, as well. From

her poem “What Be

comes of the Broken-

Hearted,”

… is that we build the world.

Out of our sorrow,

out of our lack of: outlines,

file cards, good study

habits.

Children, don’t you know

what you’re getting into,

going to school everyday

with your lunchbox

bumping rhythmically on

your thigh?

… is repetition,

regress, coupled with the

inability to tell a story

straight through,?

This book is filled with delights and surprises for the reader who appreciates the finely wrought construction of poetry where each word is as important as the next, where the innate sense of each word takes on a new coloration, whose author’s love of language is obvious, yet who does not waste a word. Prim, in places, tight, and in others expansive (but by no means the sort of poetry-on-diuretics one often encounters) and generous, this is a book I will encounter all over again for the first time each time I pick it up.

Finally, comes word of a new edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, $35, 1,000 pages paper), edited by David Lehman. Mr. Lehman is quite gracious in his introduction to his predecessors, but the fact is that he puts back in several poets who had been omitted or excised from previous editions.

The book is hardly encyclopedic; to be that he would need to more than treble its size, and he leaves to future editors the decisions on whom to include of the more contemporary American poets. None of the poets in the collection were born after 1950, for instance, but that’s probably a good thing. A little historical perspective clarifies a great deal.

Here, once again, perhaps for the first time since the reader was in college or graduate school, are poems by Anne Bradstreet and Philip Frenau down through Longfellow, Whittier, Dickinson and so on. Since I am now an inveterate re-reader of those things which my teachers in junior and senior high school tried to force-feed me, I will buy a copy and read with fresh eyes those things that would have been good for me had I but the sense to listen and learn way back then.

That goes for the later writers represented here as well, from Edgar Lee Masters and Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore and John Crowe Ransom, through 210 American poets.

Indeed, for the reader otherwise disinclined to pick up a volume of poetry, you may also find yourself enjoying the selections in this collection. It will be a purchase that will stay with you far longer than any meal at a fancy restaurant upon which you might spend the money. And it will be better for you as well.

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


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