'The Evening Sun': high-voltage verse

March 31, 2002|By Fran Wood | By Fran Wood,Special to the Sun

The Evening Sun, by David Lehman. Scribner. 160 pages. $16.

The poem is a renewable energy source," begins one of David Lehman's poems -- an opinion with which few booksellers will argue, given the sales boost in poetry in the wake of Sept. 11. And The Evening Sun isn't a bad starting point for anyone so inclined.

That is not to say Lehman's journal (it is subtitled "A Journal in Poetry") includes references to that event. On the contrary, the poems in this follow-up to the poem-a-day author's The Daily Mirror were penned during the year before the millennium and the one that followed it. But most are contemplative reflections that effortlessly engage the mind: "That year I had no car radio / I didn't need one / I had a very entertaining mind"

As you may gather, describing Lehman's poems requires saying what they are not as well as what they are. A goodly number deal with New York, though one needs not be a New Yorker to connect, as he doesn't so much define his surroundings as respond to them. While his observations are highly personal, his responses are universal and often laced with humor ("I thought happiness was a skirt and two-inch heels on Eighth Street").

The journal's order only seems haphazard. The poems run in the order in which he wrote them, with dates usually substituting for titles. Most (hardly any go beyond a single page) have a point, yet all are infused with fleeting thoughts that went through his head as he set them down.

Indeed, Lehman's great strength is his ability to infuse his themes with seemingly unrelated observations. Some of those observations resonate instantly, most on second reading. As for the odd phrase that never does register, one envisions his most devout followers smiling and saying, "Oh, that is so Lehman."

Traveling backward and forward in time (not infrequently within the same phrase), he revisits themes recurrent in The Daily Mirror -- jazz, poetry, sex, art, movies, baseball. He is the central figure in most cases, the observations being distinctly his. But his son Joe has more than a few walk-ons. And the poems are filled with recognizable names -- Churchill, Bush and Gore (Gush and Bore here), Tom Hanks, Walt Whitman and such. The likes of Coltrane, Brubeck, Mulligan, Marian McPartland, Art Blakey, Monk, Betty Carter and Ellington are summoned to illustrate his passion for jazz and vintage pop standards.

His fantasy confab with George and Ira Gershwin is utterly delightful.

If at first you feel like an outsider walking in on the middle of a stranger's life story, read on. You warm to these journal entries as you go along, and soon you'll find yourself reading one several times before moving on to the next. (Sometimes it's essential, given the dearth of punctuation.)

Occasionally, Lehman's touch is cavalier to the point of dismissive, but he can't disguise his core streak of sentimentality. If his wistfulness at remembering his father and mother doesn't strike a chord, his passion for baseball will. Or his penchant for movie classics. Or his musings on the death of a great man.

If the poem is, indeed, "a renewable energy source," David Lehman has packed 10,000 renewable watts into this journal.

Fran Wood is a columnist, editorial writer and book reviewer for The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.). Previously she was Sunday opinion editor and books editor for that paper. She was deputy managing editor for features of the New York Daily News from 1986 to 1995 and before that was art director of New Jersey Monthly.

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