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Volume 15, Issue 3: Poetics

More Poetic Reviews

Douglas Jones

Jeffrey Harrison. Feeding the Fire
Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2001. 74 pages. $20.95.

Feeding the Fire easily surpasses Harrison's prior book of poetry, Signs of Arrival, which though it promised more was rather one-dimensional and scattered. This latest collection, though, tries less hard and accomplishes far more. Though this book lacks any overt thematic connections between poems, their emotional interior is very tightly connected; they share a depth. He easily captures the whole in a slice, something he didn't pull off so well in the prior book.

"Family Dog," "My Double Nonconversion," "Time Smear," "Salt," "Golden Retriever," and "Horseshoe Contest" stand out as special successes, but "Rowing" should get some sort of award for best erotic poem, the sort that should naturally flow out of the Christian tradition—lovely, suggestive, mysterious: "How many years have we been doing this together, / me in the bow rowing, you in the stern / lying back, dragging your hands in the water."

A.E. Stallings. Archaic Smile.
Evansville, IN: University of Evansville Press, 1999. 71 pages. $15.00

I pursued A.E. Stallings' Archaic Smile because I had run into a rather stunning poem of hers in a magazine, but I subsequently lost that first poem. It had caught my attention because it was a wonderfully understated bit of formal poetry, regular meter and rhyme, that somehow worked its spell without billboarding its mechanics—a very rare feat.

Stallings was trained in classics (Univ. of Georgia and Oxford), and many of her poems in this, her first collection, pursue classical themes: "Eurydice's Footnote," "Medea, Homesick," "Daphne," "Ariadne and the Rest," and more.
The entire collection of Archaic Smile is a prime example of contemporary formal poetry, and among other awards for individual poems, it won the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award, judged by Dana Gioia.
I found all sorts of Miltonian objections rising as I read through this book. A lone rhyming poem, especially against a sea of free verse, can create quite a mark, but a book of them, even as wonderful as many of her poems are, creates a disturbing feel. Yet books of poetry are supposed to hang together in important ways and not demand atomistic readings. But the piling of rhymed meter invokes comical connotations, as much as I tried to push them aside. Perhaps sometime in the future the sublime can once again be captured in rhyme, but that's still a long way off. Rhyme seems to clash within more serious poems like "The Mistake"—"The mistake was light and easy in my hand, / A seed meant to be borne upon the wind. / I did not have to bury it or throw / Just open my hand and let it go." Ouch.
Most of Stallings' poem in this book, though, openly tend toward the comic, and this is why it largely succeeds. One of my favorites was "The Machines Mourn the Passing of People." It's second stanza reads: "We were kicked like dogs when we were broken, / But we did not whimper. We gritted our cogs— / An honor it was to be treated as dogs, / To incur such warm words roughly spoken."
The fourth section of the book succeeds much better than the first three, and that is the part that attempts the most humor. Most of her classical-content poems lack energy. You can find more about Stallings at http://www.geocities.com/aestallings/.

Julianna Baggott. This Country of Mothers
Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Crab Orchard Review and S. Illinois Univ. Press, 2001. 84 pages. $12.95.

Perhaps it's not fair, but reading Baggott on the heels of Stallings provokes immediate comparison. Like Stallings, This Country of Mothers is an award-winning book (Crab Orchard Award), and unlike Stallings, Baggott's book is free verse poetry. Baggott's book is much more organically connected, too, following a chronological course from the poet's conception—"my mother's quiet breath in his ear."

Baggott's themes, like her title, follow various paths of motherhood and family, from her childhood to her own husband and children. In addition, various Christian meanings interlace these poems, some invoking her Roman Catholic upbringing and rebellion, others citing the shells of Christian categories but empty of power, such as in "Mother as Judas" where "Love makes us capable of the ugliest sins."
Even where one refuses the direction of particular Baggott poems, they reveal a profundity that Stallings's form blocks. Why does rhyme undermine the sublime? Is it just popular connotation or something deeper? In the end, though, Baggott repeatedly shows herself a master of the line. For both depth and line, my favorite poem in this book is "My Daughter, like Eve, Realizes Nakedness." Amazing.

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