Three Poets Who Find Meaning, and Material, in Lived Experience
DANGEROUS HOUSEHOLD ITEMS
By David Orr
Poetry lovers tend to see the world through irony-colored lenses, so most will take one look at the title of Orr’s debut collection (after several books of criticism) and say nah, not really. And they’ll be right. These poems by the Book Review’s poetry columnist aren’t warnings but gentle invitations to come have a look around. Titles like “Renovation,” “Recycling,” “Inflatable Pool” and “Sandbox” say as much. So does “Daniel,” a poem about the Chez Orr ghost of the same name who has “a history of whispered exploits, / All of them harmless, like nursery rhymes.” When the Christmas tree falls over, it’s Daniel’s fault. When the wife loses her ring, Daniel. The kids forgot to feed the goldfish? Yep: Daniel again. As the dad walks down the hall at night, the children think it’s Daniel and call his name. Even when the focus widens and trouble shows up — an abduction, a typhoid outbreak, Dick Cheney — matters are put to rest with clinical finality. The former veep, for example, isn’t embroiled in foreign wars or hunting accidents but is simply trying to locate a newspaper and coffee as he waits for a train. Some of these poems are in rhymed quatrains, and almost all are snapshot-size, taking up no more than a page. “South Tower” is the single horrifying entry, but even it focuses less on the loss of life and property than on the macabre beauty of the paper blizzard that covered Lower Manhattan the day the World Trade Center buildings went down. More typical is “Water,” a quiet poem that speaks loudly for the whole book because that mealtime beverage is “At home at any table” and it “has no expectations. / All settings are all right. / It doesn’t judge your cutlery / Or appetite.” When your house is haunted by a ghost but it’s called Daniel and it becomes your children’s playmate, even a jaded reader gets the message. We’ll be O.K.
79 pp. Copper Canyon. Paper, $16.
By John Koethe
Like Orr, Koethe stands at a slight distance from the small pleasures that await us daily, but like other older poets — Auden, Merwin, Jack Gilbert — he amps those pleasures into deep significance. From start to finish, the speaker in “Walking Backwards” is filled with waiting and wonder, yet he spends his minutes lunching with friends, going to movies, flagging a cab. Not only that, Koethe seems to be playing with the idea, often attributed to the French Surrealist Paul Éluard, that there is another world, but it is inside this one, and to attain its fullness, that world has to be recognized and voiced. Easily the best poem here is the magnificent “Ninety-Fifth Street,” an eight-pager that takes Koethe through his thrill-packed days as a young poet on the rise in New York but also looks back on that time in a way that defines both existence and poetry and suggests that, for some people, the two are the same: “For that’s what poetry is — a way to live through time / And sometimes, just for a while, to bring it back.” This collection draws from 10 earlier books and concludes with new poems, and as Koethe writes more, he knows less: Whereas the earlier poems swell with certainty, the later revel in a secular version of what theologians call the mysterium tremendum, the fearful mystery we can neither fathom nor turn away from. In one poem, “some fragments of the truth” appear “in ways I didn’t recognize” but still “lent me something more than words, / Yet less than wings, and that were simply / Parts of what it meant to be alive.” A professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Koethe has accumulated many of poetry’s highest honors, including the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and he has also published books on Wittgenstein and other philosophers. When someone has been writing and publishing as long as he has, in such quantity and at such a high level of distinction, it’s not easy to put your finger on the moment at which his poetry stopped being one thing and became another. Still, it’s clear that at some point, something happened to him — life, maybe.
366 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $40.
By Sarah Gambito
And now for something completely different. Anthony Bourdain urged travelers to eat the traditional dishes of other countries because to do so is the best way to take in other people’s culture. In “Loves You,” her third collection, Gambito pursues that idea with a vengeance. After every six or eight poems on some aspect of Filipino culture, a recipe pops up: not a recipe for love or friendship but an actual recipe-recipe, with an ingredients list and step-by-step directions. Even the poems are often about appetite: “One Night Only,” for example, crooks a finger at the reader and asks: “Would you like some of my sandwich? / I really mean you can come forward / with your mouth open.” This poem, like the others here, doesn’t roll out with Orr’s playful casualness or the solemnity of Koethe but in a herky-jerky, start-stop way. It continues: “Once, I wrote a play. There was only one scene. / A girl lists the food she wants to eat. / Jasmine rice sauteed in garlic and sesame oil. A fish you caught yourself. / I put gold flecks in the sauce so everyone will know how happy we are.” Critics often praise the well-made poem, and poets sure strain to write them. These are not well-made poems. In their fragmented roughness and swift change of direction, they read like lyrics sung by Sappho and backed by Fats Domino’s band, cutting 45s in the back of some New Orleans appliance store around the time that rhythm ’n’ blues turned into rock ’n’ roll. If this is the future of poetry, fine: Poetry can be anything it wants as long as it’s welcoming. The recipes help get that idea across, because while a lot of poems out there don’t care whether you love them or not, a recipe wants you to come forward with your mouth open. Pro tip: If you cook just one dish from “Loves You,” I suggest it be the chicken adobo on the first page, especially if you serve it, as Gambito suggests, “with so much white rice.”
88 pp. Karen & Michael Braziller/Persea. Paper, $15.95.