A bagful of verses for beach reading

Poetry for Summer

August 04, 2002|By Ken Tucker | By Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

Summertime book reviews frequently take up the notion of escapism, of the "beach read," and what's usually recommended is a roundup of some thick yet short-chaptered thrillers or a few lightweight comic novels. But why not toss poetry into this sun-baked category?

There are always new collections of poems strong enough in literary quality yet accessible to any open-minded reader that would make for perfect hot-day entertainment as well as (this is an extra added bonus, the verse equivalent of relish on your hot dog) edification.

Here is a batch of new poetry collections I found both fun to read and worthy of re-reading at any other time of the year as well. Plus, thanks to publishing economics, most of these volumes are slim, easy to toss into a beach-bag. You get the utility of reading material that can be picked up and put down at the splash of a wave (who doesn't have time to read a one- or two-page poem during even the most hectic day at the beach?) even as you expand your literary horizons beyond courtroom suspenses and girl-seeks-decent-guy fantasies.

Take, for example, Terrance Hayes' new second collection of poetry, Hip Logic (Penguin, 96 pages, $16). Hayes writes streamlined verse, funny and sexy and chock-full of culture references both high and low (Pablo Neruda and hustling detective Shaft both get name-checked in this volume). He declares in "Preface" : baby, I've got at least an acre / of desires you can reap.

In "Toenails," an entire ode to a favorite body-part, he writes: they can be shellacked to shine like satin / they can steal the light of Tinsel / Town a woman moseying down the aisle / of a supermarket their gleam isn't lost in the dark nest / of a shoe each toe holds a slate / upon which a lover's note / is written or each toe is a window his nose / is pressed into.

"Hip logic"? Hayes is modest: Sounds like common sense and sharp observation to me.

Malinda Markham tells complete, compacted stories in her collection Ninety-Five Nights of Listening (Houghton Mifflin Co., 64 pages, $12). An American who teaches in Japan, Markham brings worlds together, captures colorful scenes. In "Gold Filigree Sharp On The Neck": the pagoda is deserted / we photograph / all that exists of it / see, the bottle of rum really was / speckled like that, red and black, / on entire spread of cards. how green the moon / on which so much of the secrecy / rests. instead, the stars soldered in place, / houses lulled to submission.

Over the course of Ninety-Five Nights of Listening, Markham describes flowers, fruit, the wind, and: a woman who split herself in two, one to live / with a man she was forbidden, the other to work in her father's home.

She tinges each of her subjects with poignancy.

Stan Rice's new seventh collection, Red To The Rind (Knopf, 96 pages, $23) is full of tough little poems -- flinty, argumentative and sensual. He yearns for days: before there was TV ... before microwave ovens / when everything took longer to do.

He talks about why sex exists (his odd hint: The iguana is key), and sometimes rambles on too long -- reading the 16-page "The Underworld" is, as he puts it at one point: like eating lamb chops of philosophy.

Carl Phillips has two current collections; his 2001 book The Tether (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 80 pages, $12) has just come out in paperback, and the new Rock Harbor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $21) are fine showcases for Phillips' bracing nature poetry, in which descriptions of the evening light or a tattered lawn are briskly vivid. Phillips can make an image of a mule into a subtle aphorism: the mule is neither / justice nor injustice, but / another muscled / abbreviation in which / right and wrong take in / each other no apparent / interest.

If you like first-person-singular poetry that avoids meandering autobiography, John Koethe's marvelous North Point North: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 224 pages, $26.95) is a magnificent, endlessly provocative book.

Koethe, who is also a philosopher, ruminates in language that gathers us up in his stream of thought, contemplation and doubt. In a poem such as "Dorothy Words- worth," Koethe makes inner uncertainty lucid and moving, writing at one point: I thought I'd composed my life / Around a series of weightless moments / And that each moment culminated in one of those remarks / People made at home, or overheard, / Or lost track of in a conversation, / And which were supposed to be as light as feathers. / But now I don't think anything like that ever really transpired at all.

I'm not inclined to quote jacket blurbs, but in the case of Roger Fanning's terrific sophomore collection Homesick (Penguin, 80 pages, $16), I agree with Mary Karr: "Anyone not a bonehead should read this book." Fanning writes comic yet slicingly true poems about jealousy, which he terms "the ill, pale octopus" who: works one / tentacle then another under our door / when we discuss an ex-boyfriend or / ex-girlfriend.

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