Poetry Roundup: Rosemurgy, Dobyns, and Lantz

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Three reviews of new books of poetry by Catie Rosemurgy, Stephen Dobyns, and Nick Lantz.

The Stranger Manual
By Catie Rosemurgy
Graywolf Press

In Catie Rosemurgy’s second book, Miss Peach is the character who steers most of the poems with an irreverent, American girlishness that slaloms through beauty, identity, meaning, and driver’s ed. The frantic-yet-thoughtful feel of these poems is echoed in both content and title: for example, in “Miss Peach Imagines She is an Aging British Rock Star and Considers the Human Condition While Responding to a Beautiful Woman Who Has Just Said ‘I Love You’”, Rosemurgy canvasses human self-importance wryly: “What more is there to say? Nothing, but, my god, / listen to us.” This teasing tone continues in “Miss Peach and the Problem of Human Beauty,” where the speaker opens with “I agree with the central conclusion of all pop songs: you’re gorgeous / and I’m angry.” Rosemurgy juxtaposes this pop culture sensibility with surprising, riddle-like imagery: “She sat up and said / that she’s the pretty mute holding the daisies who we’re all looking for / as we peel away the layers and layers of girls.” The resultant mix is a poetry that is both accessible and disorienting for the reader, much like the negative image of the doll imprinted on the cover of the book, holding its head in its left hand. Rosemurgy seems aware that she has created this tension for the reader in poems like “A Poem about Poetry by Miss Peach, Hobo/Provocateur,” where Miss Peach tries to engage a friend in a discussion about poetry; the friend embodies this tension by trying to change the subject. This animates the distractibility and disengagement of the average person from poetry with humor that is just a touch black: the friend is avoiding the conversation by making a sandwich (which later becomes a ninja star), while Miss Peach indicts meaningless poetry, which “sounds like a breakdown but doesn’t lead to the hospital”. The poem is an homage to the awkward moment; Miss Peach cannot be diverted. She prattles on beautifully: “And the only thing / more fashionable than an unflappable, translucent person is a poem that flies and flies / without ever landing.”

Winter's Journey
By Stephen Dobyns
Copper Canyon Press

There is patience and clarity in Stephen Dobyns’ fourteenth collection. Patience, because he allows himself ample space to work through the poems—as Dobyns said in a 2004 interview, “I write poems to find out why I write them” —and a long-lined poem here might amble through five pages of quiet reflection to reach that “why.” Clarity, because Dobyns does not cloud his intentions: after the title page, he tells the reader when the poems were written and why (in response to the 2007 U.S. political climate), and unfolds lines such as these, from “Mourning Doves”: “Sorry, sorry, I’m getting off the subject again, being / guilty of writing about politics and furry terrier butts / when, really, that’s not my intention. This is an elegy.” And it is an elegy—he mourns his mother and celebrates her love of history and imagined skepticism of religious images in cheese sandwiches—but it is also a meditative poem. Most of the poems in this collection could be classified as such, in the more secular form that Emerson envisioned, with their focus shifted to nature. Dobyns’ poem titles— “Rhinoceros”;  “Ducks”; “Rabbits”; “Chainsaws”—act as focal points from which a poem unspools into thoughtful contemplation, then circles back. For example, “Possum” moves through a dog-possum encounter, to a reminiscence of an old job, to a discussion of the morality of exchanging food stamps for a few bucks’ worth of alcohol, to Homeland Security, to meditative poetry itself: “A lyric poem can be a burst of emotion in one moment / of time and a narrative poem can employ its story line / to set up a lyric moment, but a meditative poem can be / a fretful thing, with dark musings coming and going / like crows weaving through winter trees.” Dobyns’ meditations here are not as dark and fretful as much as they are bittersweet, asking large questions of himself and of the reader while remaining colloquial and grounded in the everyday : “Is it nuts to think that each day safety gets farther away? / With all this talk the dog has fallen asleep. The waves / keep doing what they’ve done forever, and I hope / they never stop.”

We Don't Know We Don't Know
By Nick Lantz
Graywolf Press

Nick Lantz’s first book, winner of the Bakeless Prize at Bread Loaf in 2009, is divided into four sections: Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns, and Unknown Knowns. If these sound familiar, it is because Lantz derived them from a quote popularly attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld’s ability to create tongue-twisting aphorisms is echoed in some of the wordplay in Lantz’s poems; from “Too Many, Too Few”: “I look out and I see too many / people and too few, which is a different / way of saying / the same thing, which is a way / of saying I’m tired / of saying the same thing.” More political is the single poem in the section Known Unknowns: four pages of questions inspired by the 1983 CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual. Lines such as “Will you have an unconscious man dragged past the open door at a predetermined time?” followed by “Will you say, Excuse me, and then rise to shut the door?” disturb, and not subtly: they question directly the politics of the day. There is more than politics here: Lantz also weaves quotes from Pliny the Elder throughout the book, and he covers ground from science to nature to art (there are a number of ekphrastic poems here, including a memorable meeting of Vermeer and Rumsfeld; Rumsfeld’s quote articulates his desire to mislead no one; the poem responds with “Vermeer’s light fools you”; followed later by “I want to believe in a room / filled with Vermeer’s light”.) In a Pliny-inspired poem, gray doppelgänger dogs trot freely down the road past the speaker’s house, all unnamed, in a town of similar houses. The sorrow the speaker feels on discovering the anonymous nature of a dying dog he carries in his truck bed is parried for the reader by the Pliny quote “they alone know their owne names.” Lantz’s Rumsfeldian organizing principle in this book creates space for him to question what it is we see and know, and think we see and know; he summarizes this human discomfort in “Potemkin Village: Ars Poetica.” “If / I say do not look there, / you will look more / closely, so I say, look, / for God’s sake look. / The men and women: / papier-mâché flesh, / one bare bulb burning / in each rib cage. From / this distance, light can / resemble life.”