Just below the surface of awareness in Baltimore, words and emotions coaslesce into something quite incredible: the local poetry scene. Who is emerging as Poetry Month 2003 begins?
Fittingly, the first poem in Elizabeth Spires' new book, Now The Green Blade Rises (Norton, 80 pages, $21.95), chronicles a visit to Robert Frost's Ripton, Vt., cabin. Not only does this poem harbinger the Frostian influence within many of her poems (in particular "Two Chairs on a Hillside"), but in its ending lines -- The wind, / is picking up, moving the trees softly to whisper, Ssshh! / A spider on your shoe is listening to all you say -- it rightly prepares us for the poetic voice of Spires, one that is almost a whisper, but just above.
Many of the poems respond to her mother, alive and dying, of whom she realizes: Everything was yours for the taking, / the pale wisteria, a bloom off the dogwood, / diffuse and free and calm as a mind / that spends itself completely on its blossoming and for whom she wishes Now, if I could, I would sit / with you in a simple pew / somewhere quiet and dim. / To be there would be enough. / There'd be nothing we'd have to say. / The moment, held like a book / between us, a silent offering.
Reflectively, this poet -- I sat for a while on a fallen log / the sun slanting through the trees the way / it does in late fall, / warming one cheek, / leaving the other in shadow... ("Chapel in the Woods") -- ends her fifth volume of poetry with "In Heaven It Is Always Autumn," a lovely homage to the generosity of poet Josephine Jacobsen.
Two recent books -- Hero-Surfing (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 64 pages, $12) by Anne Sheldon and The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn (Milkweed Editions, 66 pages, $14.95) by Jean Nordhaus -- continue, with differing results, the extensive poetic heritage of storytelling that many feared threatened by the self-referential or confessional poem.
Sheldon's poems drift through mostly formal confines -- rhyme, slant rhyme, form -- all methodically comforting. Sometimes the poems, heavy with historical fact, are slight -- poems condensed into sound bites of history. The historical snippets that form the 24 poems of the "Lancastrian Letters" seem to want expansion into fiction rather than compression by poetry.
Sometimes drama seems forced, as in the lines: By night the loud black river charms you -- / the cobbled path of cream it makes the moon. / You stargaze. I wish you wouldn't offer up / your throat to owls or ghosts. I urge you back, / close the cabin door, slide the beam / in place, and bank the little fire. Sometimes stanzas are just inaccessible: King Harald back in Norway / also had a son that made him cringe. / 'Halfdan Longleg,' he was called. / He murdered Einar's father / and called himself the Earl of Shetland.
Nordhaus, by genre, has elected to sketch the life of Moses Mendelssohn, known as "the Jewish Socrates," rather than flat out paint it in biography. Each poetic sketch captures an energy of the moment, which moves both characters and reader along quickly, mimetic of life. In "A Bowl On My Back," Mendelssohn describes himself: I was born with a frame / so twisted even goblins / would have cast me out.
Nordhaus triumphs in this volume by not only skillfully bringing such specifics to life; her ability to capture the universal is striking in such lines as For man / is a field of departures, flinging himself / away; God, the enclosure where nothing / is lost... / If many paths lead to God, / then truth's a dry bone any dog / can chew... ; Skin is the only coat / a man cannot remove; and I tell you / to be chosen is to live forever / in a state of longing.
In the past decade, Lidia Kosk has published three books of poetry in her native Poland. Now, thanks to a translation showcasing the poems in Polish as well as in English by Kosk's daughter, poet Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, a wider audience can enjoy sampling previously published work as well as new poems in niedosyt / reshapings (Warszawa, 104 pages, $12).
Kosk's poetic skill is evident even in the dedication to the memory of her husband Henryk: We walked a long valley / We stumbled over stones coming down the slopes / Sometimes stars fell on us. Her descriptions are often evocative: The river gets dreamy / Water snuggles in shores' arms / Alongside snowy egrets stand guard / Dusk dripping down their wings into the ground.