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Volume 15, Issue 2: Poetics

Poetry Reviews

Douglas Jones

Tony Hoagland.Donkey Gospel
St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998. 71 pages. $12.95.

Tony Hoagland's voice stands out among contemporary poets for its clever, unsentimental tone. In the poem "Candlelight," Hoagland describes walking across a porch, crunching ants but still walking because "in this world / you have to decide what / you're willing to kill." The poem shrugs at all the necessary killing involved in the act of saving a marriage over a steak dinner—a cow, rain forest, ozone, a future grandchild's scalp cells, elephant tusks on the piano. So many contemporary poets, especially those of the Toi Derricotte school, have veins full of Rousseau's tears, where resentment of every evil becomes the badge of righteousness. Donkey Gospel largely avoids that, even more than his first book of poems, Sweet Ruin.

The voice of this second book is not just refreshingly unsentimental, it even moves beyond a typical cynicism. It adopts an often hilarious mock cynical tone to better seduce contemporary readers but betrays that cynicism with evidence of celebration and construction. Hoagland weaves in blatant psychological and philosophical claims that other poets wouldn't touch as being "unpoetic"—"the woman thrills with the power of her weakness" and "On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness, and it is good."
None of this could stand alone, though. The punch of these poems comes not so much through content but imagery and intriguing contrasts. "The mouth," he says, "is a terrible instrument, / such a bloody harmonica." One poem exhorts trendy, progressive Berkeleyites to walk "like you are very popular with yourself" and "not / like you are walking through sunshine / singing / in chains."
Hoagland can't escape the tiresome obligation to try and shock us with graphic tales of sexual experimentation and locker-room rebellion. But what else is there to do in a one-dimensional world? Donkey Gospel was the winner of the 1997 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets.

Joseph Millar. Overtime.
Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington Univ. Press, 2001. 61 pages. $14.95.

This first book of poetry from Joseph Millar excels at intricate, detailed imagery (easily more than Hoagland), with a strong ear for musicality. The really odd thing about his imagery in this collection—presumably written over several years—is its focus on three recurring images: connections (cables, bridges, roads, rivers, lines) that occur in 31 out of the 35 poems; water/liquid in 30 out of 35 poems; and most distinctly, fractured light in 33 out of 35 poems—glittering faces, spraying sparks, fractured reflections, dust-riddled glow, dancing cinders, glittering webs, broken glass under light, and plenty of flickering TVs.

If this is unintentional, then it seems to be a serious flaw; if it's intentional then it may just be overdone. You can perhaps tease out some connections between all the fractured light and the themes Millar wants us to consider. The poems circle in piles of resentment and selling-out, offering male confessional poetry—miners, electricians, mechanics—that doesn't confess failure so much as ask us to embrace this reality as is. One doesn't get the impression that the poet would return the favor, though. Overtime has one of the best designed covers I've seen.

B.H. Fairchild. The Art of the Lathe.
Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 1998. 78 pages. $12.95.

This finalist for the National Book Award shows great advances over Fairchild's previous books. Everything here is heightened. The book is wonderfully unified around several themes—the sublime, craft, music, labor, silence. And yet the topics and settings somehow differ widely—Florence, Hopper, a basketball court, Los Angeles, Kansas, and that sublime lathe:

The long line of machinists to my left
lean into their work, ungloved hands adjusting the calipers,
tapping the bit lightly with their fingertips.
Each man withdraws into his house of work:
the rough cut, shearing of iron by tempered steel,
blue-black threads lifting like locks of hair,
then breaking over bevel and edge.
Any book of poetry includes poems of strength and rest. I suspect that Fairchild has a few more "resters" than is normally acceptable, but the strongest poems in this book are so strong that one easily forgives and perhaps needs the rests. Some of the strongest poems are "The Machinist Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano," "Old Men Playing Basketball," and "In the House of the Latin Professor." But, by far, "Airlifting Horses" is one of the most amazing poems I've ever read and read again, a seemingly simple narrative that smoothly expands into the sublime.

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