Title: "Quaker Witness"Author: Irene AllenPublisher...

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January 23, 1994|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE Title: "In These Strange Times: Poetry as News" Author: Leon L. Lerner Publisher: Galaxy Press Universal Length, price: 189 pages, $14.95 (paperback) | SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE Title: "In These Strange Times: Poetry as News" Author: Leon L. Lerner Publisher: Galaxy Press Universal Length, price: 189 pages, $14.95 (paperback),LOS ANGELES TIMES

Title: "Quaker Witness"

Author: Irene Allen

Publisher: Villard

Length, price: 254 pages, $18 Elizabeth Elliot, the 66-year-old Quaker heroine of Irene Allen's mystery series, is a refreshingly different amateur sleuth. She realizes that sometimes one must employ trickery and deceit to catch a culprit, but she feels guilty about resorting to such methods. "Choosing the lesser of two evils was within Catholic, but not Quaker, tradition," she reminded herself soberly.

The cause of this moral dilemma is a Harvard paleontology student named Janet Stevens, who fled to the Quaker meetinghouse in Cambridge, Mass., to pray after being sexually harassed by her adviser. Soothed by the kind words of Elizabeth, the clerk of the meetinghouse, Janet turns to the Quaker for help after her adviser is found dead in his laboratory. The Harvard deans look upon Janet as a troublemaker for reporting the harassment and consider her the leading suspect bTC in the murder; it's up to Elizabeth to find the real killer.

"Quaker Witness" has its gentle charms, particularly in the depiction of the spiritual life of the Society of Friends, and Elizabeth is a thoughtful, compassionate woman who manages to be deeply religious but never holier-than-thou. But the dialogue often seems stiff and artificial, and the younger characters never come to life on the page the way Elizabeth and her Quaker colleagues do.

"Poetry can be the hottest editorial ever," local writer Leon Lerner explains in the poem "Poetry Can Be." It can set the facts straight, point to the known and the unknown, send messages, offer answers and alternatives. But it does not.

Poetry is ignored partly because poets are too aware of their own "oozing sensitivities." They write poetry that looks "inside self,/self inside self mulling microscopically/ at what's there/ and what isn't there." Poetry is also ignored because people do not see how poetry connects to daily life.

The poems in Mr. Lerner's latest collection, "In These Strange Times: Poetry as News," connect with daily life. Many of these, in fact, appeared in The Sun and The Evening Sun. They are not necessarily profound poems -- they're poems that seek to be relevant. Their purpose brings to mind a line from William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

DIANE SCHARPER

Title: "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"

Author: Sherman Alexie

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Length, price: 240 pages, $21

The imagination soars, unconquerable; the spirits inhabit every cloud, every blade of grass, every dream and story; but in real time, life on the Spokane Reservation is dismal. "At the halfway point of every drunken night," Sherman Alexie writes, "there is a moment when an Indian realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future."

Nonetheless, humor beams through the pervasive anomie in these tales -- sketches, really -- of reservation life. A wife leaves her husband not because he has cancer but because he insists on joking about it. A tribe stages the Thirteenth Annual All-Indian Burial Grounds Fire; conflagrations mean jobs helping the firemen. In the main, though, idleness fosters dreams -- dreams of dynamiting Mount Rushmore, of stealing horses and galloping across the plain, dreams of "watching all the ships returning to Europe" -- and languor leads to liquor.

Underneath these deceptively spare, simple tales of everyday life there is mythical power. Ancestors are as real as cracks in the wall, reminders of a proud past unencumbered by what passes for "progress." The Earth is our grandmother, says one of Mr. Alexie's tribe, technology has become our mother, "and they both hate each other."

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