The latest American Poetry Review has an immensely quotable essay by C.K. Williams “On Being Old.” In it, he says he doesn’t “blab” about poets whose work he doesn’t like. He once, to his current chagrin, dismissed the work of the great Elizabeth Bishop. He writes, “I think we all tend to believe we can see through the vagaries of our moment to some absolute standard of judgment—this must be a characteristic of human consciousness itself—but the conviction is absurd.”
It’s awkward to try to write either a good or bad review after reading this essay; if one writes negatively, one risks sounding like one of the “obnoxious” young poets Williams mentions who passionately wants to protect the world from bad poems. (Williams writes, “Danger! they’d cry. Don’t even look! You might turn to poetry stone!”) If one writes a good review, though, one runs the risk of sounding overly influenced and intimidated by Williams.
Luckily (or not) for this reviewer, it is difficult to find anything negative to say about the July/August 2012 issue of The American Poetry Review (APR). Its newspaper-format isn’t pretty, but the low cost of its production keeps it affordable for grateful readers. The prose is often dense, but well worth working through. The selection of poems is so varied that although not all readers will like all the poems, few will be able to call any of them bad or even mediocre. Most readers will find much to “blab” about, including the heart-breaking Kaddish-like “The Griefs” written by Stefi Weisburd about a mother’s death. Also worth noting is Catherine Barnett’s “The Right Hemisphere,” in which she says, “The part of the brain where music gets processed / is close to my memories of a few men / in flagrante . . .”
In a special supplement, there are selections from Four Hundred Men on the Cross by Henri Michaux, translated and introduced by Gillian Conoley. Some are concrete poems, written in the shape of crosses. Some are one-liners, such as “Number 42, a lout” or “(254) If he prayed to God, it would be for the crowd to be sent away.” The overall effect, even of APR’s short excerpt, is mind-blowing.
This issue also includes work by Sherman Alexie, Matthew Dickman, Jeffrey Skinner, Dara Wier and many other excellent poets. It is worth reading for Adélia Prado’s poems alone, however. In “The Mystical Rose,” translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson, Prado talks about the first time she wrote in form about her father dying and of how she “understood that words grouped like that / made it possible to live without / the things they describe.” It was as though someone had painted a picture of a basket of fruit and said, “now you can eat the fruit.” Prado and Watson have given us an ars poetica poem worthy of anthologizing.
In “On Being Old,” Williams says that although he no longer “blabs” about work that doesn’t move him, there is still work out there that does move him to speak: “But there are, however, thank goodness, poets the power and force of whose work once nearly knocked me down with delight and envy, and still does, so that when I read them again I feel like an apprentice.” He follows with a poem of his own entitled “Whacked,” about how he gets “whacked” every day by reading “some great poet or other.”
Readers looking to get “whacked” by great contemporary poets themselves should check out this issue of The American Poetry Review.