"Life," a friend once said, "is just so damn daily." Readers of fiction get to escape their dailiness by spending a few hours living other people's lives. Shouldn't readers of poetry have the same privilege?
Bored with the East Coast WASPish academic grayness of my own life, I rummaged through several hundred new books of poetry seeking color. I wanted poems that would propel me out of myself and breathe new romance into my long love affair with the English language. I found myself drawn to poets with non-Anglo names and poets whose back-cover photos suggested complex bloodlines. I was attracted to poets whose names are not so well-known that prejudgments taint the reader's first date with the poetry.
Eugene Gloria, of Manila, San Francisco and Massachusetts, is an emerging poet as richly American as Mississippi's native son Yusef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa, that great contemporary poet whose dark face and sharecropper's bio have enlivened many, if not most, of the recent litmag covers, selected Gloria's "Drivers at the Short-Time Motel" (Penguin, 68 pages, $15.95) to become part of the National Poetry Series.
Komunyakaa praises Gloria's "artful concoction of American and Filipino vernaculars." Whether about Vietnam -- a helicopter rescue, a 12-year-old prostitute, a snapshot of in-progress torture -- or other topics, the imagery grapples you into the poetry's narrative web. Here's Gloria on a tenement fire:
That night the cold swept across our slippered feet,
the fire engines warm and still, their fat hoses
uncoiling from the giant metal spool
as my anthemless neighbors and I stood
clutching our breasts as if we were all
pledging allegiance to some cruel god
who stole us away from happy sleep. ("Winter Fire")
Dionisio D. Martinez, author of "Climbing Back" ( W. W. Norton, 112 pages, $22), has much in common with Gloria: both were selected as 1999 winners of the National Poetry Series Competition by a famous poet (Jorie Graham chose Martinez); are Americans born elsewhere (Martinez in Cuba); have Latin names; write with a strong narrative thrust and give you a good read.
Set to look like prose, Martinez's surrealist poetry uses a central character, "the Prodigal Son," to play both Everyman and the poet's alter-ego, recounting dreams as weird as, well, dreams. Sometimes they're the basic American Dream, as in "The Prodigal Son buys a new car": "because he has outgrown the one he bought when he outgrew the motorcycle they gave him when he outgrew his feet. In the interim, he has outgrown all his clothes, houses, marriages, his two children, and the one language he thought he had mastered ... he's wearing a suit and operating a forklift, moving pallets of money from one end of a warehouse to the other and back. Brand-new bills, large bills, all neatly wrapped and stacked. Beats driving a brand-new car, he says."
Sherman Alexie's back-cover photo lured me. He's unmistakably Native American. Right away I liked the lyric and rhythmic strength -- even a subtle "croon of iambics," as a poet-colleague aptly put it -- that support his conversational tone in "One Stick Song" (Hanging Loose Press, 91 pages, $15). Seldom relying on folklore lingo with its absent a's and the's -- that "Crow said to Coyote" sort of thing -- Alexie lets us Anglos in on a secret: "Non-Indian writers usually say 'Great Spirit,' 'Mother Earth,' 'Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged.' Indian writers usually say 'God,' 'Mother Earth,' 'Human Being, Dog, and Bird.'"
Kamiko Hahn drew me to her fifth collection, "Mosquito and Ant" (W. W. Norton, 102 pages, $12) with her WASP-free name. A New Yorker of Japanese heritage, she credits Baltimore-born poet Moira Egan as one of the "writers whose words I take to heart." Though I wish she'd learned more from Egan's syntactical purity -- Hahn's work is occasionally marred by sloppy grammar -- the book engages with its exuberant sexuality. It's rooted in the venerable Asian "pillow book" tradition: women's poetry so erotic it's more apt to be whispered to the pillow than to the beloved. Try it: she'll like it. Your girlfriend, that is.
And there's an actual pillow book available: "Ariake: Poems of Love and Longing By the Women Courtiers of Ancient Japan" (Chronicle Books, 80 pages). At $4.95, this gorgeous little volume -- illustrated by Rae Grant with a foreword by Liza Dalby, "the only Westerner ever to have joined the ranks of the geisha" -- would make a gift as effective as a queen-size jug of Shalimar perfume, but at a hundredth of the cost. Oddly, the translator(s) are not named, but she / he / they have scores of ways to say "sexy darkness," my favorites being "the blackberry night" and "nights as black as beads."