Book Review: In Print
The latest from two celebrated elder statesmen of poetry
Reviewed by Amy Smith, Fri., Feb. 5, 2010
Planisphere: New Poemsby John Ashbery
HarperCollins, 160 pp., $24.99
In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991by N. Scott Momaday
University of New Mexico Press, 143 pp. $18.95 (paper)
Two recently published collections from two celebrated elder statesmen among American writers – New York poet John Ashbery and New Mexico poet N. Scott Momaday – offer two vastly different perspectives on life. Yet, read together, the books carry similar celestial themes, with each poet drawing on his own life experiences, from the worldly to the world-weary.
Ashbery's poems can be frustrating. Many people agree on that point. But rather than trying to understand them, poet and Slate columnist Meghan O'Rourke advised a few years ago, "take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through." Perhaps the meaning may still be lost on the reader, but who cares? Sit back and delight in the tempo of Ashbery's words, the harmony of his voice – pretty, witty, and sweet. Who could not appreciate such vivid imagery as, "The land stretched away like jelly into a confused cleft"? In his new book, Planisphere, dedicated to his longtime companion David Kermani, Ashbery provides a fresh bouquet of poems, the titles of each one cleverly sorted in alphabetical order, from "Alcove" to "Zymurgy." Indeed, the poems run the gamut of topics and emotions, literally from A to Z. While Ashbery's many scholarly accomplishments in his long life have earned him plenty of lofty accolades, this writer in residence at Bard is hardly a stuffy academic. Imagine Ashbery sitting at a typewriter in his pajamas, wearing a playful grin, pounding out passages for the sheer fun of it. The poem "He Who Loves and Runs Away" draws a chuckle: "The bad news is the ship hasn't arrived;/the good news is it hasn't left yet./It is still being loaded by natives with cone-shaped/hats on their heads." Unless you're looking for true meaning, few poems from this collection fall flat – provided they are read with an appreciation for good music and wry humor: "Don't hold your breath but/hold me responsible/for what happens after that./If he hollers just keep walking/passively, hand with/peashooter in pocket." Peashooter in pocket. What rhythm.
Momaday's In the Presence of the Sun is a reprint edition of a 1992 collection of work spanning 30 years of prose, poetry, and drawings. The reissue is a blessing of sorts, a celebration on two fronts: the American Indian voice in contemporary literature and the versatility of Momaday's ability to steadily produce over a period of several decades. In the preface, Momaday explains how he came to work in so many different forms. "When I knew what it was to write a poem, I wanted to know what it was to write a novel, then a travel piece, then a film script, then a play. When I had found my way with charcoal and graphite, I went to watercolor and acrylics, to oils, to printmaking." Yet he calls himself a "productive artist, not a prolific one ...."
While he received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his first novel, House Made of Dawn, the Santa Fe resident of Kiowa heritage considers himself a poet first. Clearly, his poems in this reprint collection bear out his claim.
The book is laid out in sections – selected poems occupy the first 39 pages, followed by a fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, followed by "The Story of a Well-Made Shield." The final leg of the book returns us, thankfully, to his poems.
A couple of favorites: "Comparatives," for its salt-of-the-earth sensibilities in the final lines: "It is most like/wind on waves – mere commotion,/mute and mean,/perceptible –/that is all"; and "Buteo Regalis" for its language: "His frailty discrete, the rodent turns, looks./What sense first warns? The winging is unheard,/Unseen but as distant motion made whole,/Singular, slow, unbroken in its glide."