- - Friday, August 30, 2013

By David J. Rothman
Entasis Press, $26, 137 pages

Edited by J.D. McClatchy
Borzoi Poetry, $21, 272 pages

Edited by Jonathan F.S. Post
Johns Hopkins University Press, $30.87, 365 pages

Whether it is politics, the law, journalism or the arts in general, life in Washington always seems to be in a cycle of crisis and then resolution. The state of poetry in our city is no different; it ebbs and flows between episodes of neglect and renewal. Happily, this summer is one of those times of a flowering of the poetic arts in our community.

What follows are reviews of three new books about poets and their art that I can recommend, plus a recounting of the conversation that led me to tie all three together.

First, consider “Part of the Darkness,” a new collection by Colorado-based poet David J. Rothman. The Washington connection is that the book is the latest offering of Entasis Press, the eclectic small press founded here by Ed Perlman, who leads the poetry program at the Johns Hopkins University advanced arts campus in Washington. Mr. Perlman has a keen eye for talent that has led him to launch into national prominence such new stars as short-story writer Susan McCallum-Smith and poet Moira Egan.

Mr. Rothman is his latest find. While most often using the basic sonnet structure, Mr. Rothman’s employs a conversational tone to ease us into the darker regions of our own souls. His women have lost the ability to love, his men have lost the joy and dreams of their youth. The poet’s world is the one that depresses every one of us when we turn on the evening news.

However, his poems also make us laugh out loud in places, if only because of the shock of recognition that his narrators are in a place where most of us have been, with nothing left to do but grin and bear it. Even in this era when God is supposed to be dead, Mr. Rothman’s everyman has a beer with God. The devil, too, makes frequent appearances, once popping up unbidden while our hero is in the shower; on another occasion, the demon mugs him in an alley.

If you had given up on the poetic posturing of the past 40 years, this is the collection that revives the tart taste of what good poetry can do.

Earlier this summer at the launch party for his book, I had a brief conversation with Mr. Rothman that drifted into both of us musing why it was that over the past 70 years or so there has been a dearth of poetry about the omnipresent scourge of our times, war and all its impact on us. When one thinks of past wars — our American Revolution (“Listen my children and you will hear “), our Civil War (“Up rose Barbara Fretchie, then, bowed by her four score years and 10 “) or the generation of English poets who came out of World War I, I confessed being unable to think of any war poet of our times. Plenty of prose writers came to mind, from Norman Mailer, James Jones and on to Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes.

Mr. Rothman demurred, “Well, there is Anthony Hecht.”

Well, yes, of course. When one thinks of Hecht it is forgivable to honor him as one of the — if not the — master poets for most of the 50 years that followed World War II. Like his mentor W.H. Auden, Hecht ranged across all the forms of poetic composition, which he coupled with illuminating imagery and a sharp-edged eye.

Hecht’s Washington connection is that he came here to be poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress in the early 1980s and stayed here until his death 20 years later. During his time here, he became the pater familias of Washington’s poetry community. Not the least was his friendship with Entasis Press founder Ed Perlman in his own early days as a poet and teacher.

In his later years, Hecht maintained a careful public appearance as the carefully tailored, bearded, bow-tied university don that he genuinely had become. So it is easy to forget that he came out of the poetry gate with a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his collection, “The Hard Hours,” which focused an stark recounting of his experiences as an infantryman in the final campaigns into the Ruhr Pocket of Hitler’s Third Reich. One of his final war ordeals involved interviewing survivors of the Nazi concentration camp at Flossenburg, an experience that led to a postwar bout of post-traumatic stress disorder.

To get a taste of Hecht’s war poetry, the all-encompassing sampling of the selected poems just published includes “Christmas is Coming,” probably the best account of what a terrified soldier stuck in a frozen foxhole in the Ardennes Forest might feel as he listens to the crackling of underbrush that heralded the arrival of the German assault in the Battle of the Bulge. In his best known long poem, “Venetian Vespers,” Hecht’s narrator is a medical corpsman who sees the random senselessness of death in battle.

After you get an appreciation for the range and depth of Hecht’s poetry, I can also recommend the collection of letters he exchanged during his lifetime with other superstars of the world of letters including Auden, Harold Bloom, Allen Tate and Richard Wilbur. He may have started out as a typically ambitious child of middle-class America, but he certainly became much more than that. His journey is as informing as his poetry.

James Srodes’ latest book, “On Dupont Circle,” has just been issued in paperback by Counterpoint Press.

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