Title: "Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems"Author...

BOOK BRIEFS

June 26, 1994|By DIANE SCHARPER Title: "Criminal Conversations" Author: Evan Hunter Publisher: Warner Length, price: 384 pages, $21.95 | DIANE SCHARPER Title: "Criminal Conversations" Author: Evan Hunter Publisher: Warner Length, price: 384 pages, $21.95,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Title: "Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems"

Author: Yusef Komunyakaa

Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Length, price: 178 pages, $14.95 "I look for a softness behind these voices wounded by their beauty and war," writes Yusef Komunyakaa in "Neon Vernacular." This collection won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and in these sinewy, yet oddly tender, poems, Mr. Komunyakaa, an African-American poet, finds that softness.

Serving in Vietnam, Mr. Komunyakaa received a Bronze Star and found inspiration for much of his work. He began publishing poems in the 1960s.

"Neon Vernacular," containing poetry from seven of Mr. Komunyakaa's previous works, is written in everyday language, heightened by simile and jazz rhythms. The poems describe mental states caused by war. It can be the war in Vietnam, as in "Dien Cai Dau" -- a work whose title means "crazy American soldier." It can be the Civil War, in which "our lost uncles and granddaddies stumble home like swamp fog." It can be war inside a man -- "how hatred runs into the soul like red veins in the eye."

It can be war inside a man's family, as in a poem addressed to Mr. Komunyakaa's father. "We walked circles around you . . . rooted in the day's anger," he writes, "hungering for stories to save us from ourselves." The best of these poems tell such stories.

There is no author in America quite like Evan Hunter. From his breakthrough book, "Blackboard Jungle," in 1954, he has written more than 100 novels. But what is remarkable is his scope: the 87th Precinct series (under the pseudonym of Ed McBain), the Matthew Hope series, children's books and screenplays. He recently published "Criminal Conversations," a novel of betrayal and revenge.

Michael Welles is an ambitious assistant district attorney in New York. Married, with a beautiful wife and wonderful daughter, Michael is a rising star in the D.A.'s office. He and a team of investigators are trying to jail a new Mob leader; wiretaps are in place and conversations from the banal to the erotic are picked ** up. One, involving a woman, is particularly erotic and disturbing, and police know that she is the key to the operation's success. But Michael has no idea of the price to be exacted when her identity becomes known.

Mr. Hunter paints an urban landscape that would make Charles Dickens proud. He manages to delve into the worlds of the Mob and of the police; each has its own family, with an implicit order and values. And then there is the Welles family and the price it has to pay, not only for Michael's dedication but also for a betrayal of the family.

BOB BAYLUS

Title: "Traveling in Italy With Henry James"

Editor: Fred Kaplan

Publisher: Morrow

Length, price: 413 pages, $27.50

Henry James, sower of wanderlust, patron saint of bon vivants, is collected here in a tincture of Italy, his voluminous travel essays boiled down to a manageable book of letters and essays from his travels there between 1869 and 1907. This allows the reader to compare James' first impressions with those later, supposedly more somber, reflections on Venice, Rome, Florence, the Bay of Naples, etc.

On Venice: "It is a city in which, I suspect, there is very little strenuous thinking," and later: "These steps are cool in the morning, yet I don't know that I can justify my excessive fondness for them any better than I can explain a hundred of the other vague infatuations with which Venice sophisticates the spirit." Florence, in his first impressions, is "the sanest of cities," with a "temperate joy" that in later years becomes a "grave brilliance." In Rome, he writes to Alice James: "The excitement of the first hour has passed away & I have recovered the healthy mental equilibrium of the sober practical tourist."

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