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Poetry Microreviews

Crystallography
Christian Bök
Coach House Books, $17.95 (paper)

In 1999, in the glove compartment of every car they sold, Volkswagen placed a complimentary poetry anthology. With Crystallography, Bök has designed something suitable for Cartier to give away with their jewels—and, like most diamonds, it has essential flaws. After the runaway success of Bök’s one-vowel-per-chapter prose sequence Eunoia, Coach House Books has reissued the Canadian poet’s reportedly sought-after 1994 curiosity, a book whose ambition is to “(misread) the language of poetics through the conceits of geology.” Bök approaches language here through the shapes of letters themselves (their “axial symmetry”), through magic squares, fractals, numerology and so forth, and the results are often luscious, mysterious and classically poetic: “fluorescent algae on the ceiling can mimic / constellations never seen in the cave.” Throughout, the diction feels distilled into elusive hermeticisms; every possible glittering, gleaming, and glowing is heaped up, often ascending to LSD-brittle trippiness. But an intellect-driven, perfectionist poetics like Bök’s can too easily take on the hard-edged, bland coldness of science: “Never forget that fractal / music sounds the same / when played at any speed.” Paris’s game-playing Oulipo poets have staked out Canadian offshoots, and Bök is certainly the most ambitiously accomplished and self-willed of that strain, but his clever, often humorless Crystallography ignores the Oulipian Harry Mathews’s caveat that “[his] books are for those who are more intelligent than they are serious.” Bök at times surpasses his own sangfroid with a sense of the tragic toll it takes, and we get glimpses of how much fuller the book might have been, as in this Oedipal story of father and son: “OPENED THE FIELD / GUIDE TO CRYSTALS TO PAGES / WITH FINE PRINT TO SHOW ME / HOW TO DECIPHER A LANGUAGE // HE GAVE ME A GEMCUTTER’S / EYEPIECE, . . . / TO REVEL IN DETAIL: EDGES / OF SERIFS, FIBRES IN PAPER // ONLY LATER DID HE TEACH ME / HOW TO SOUND OUT THE WORDS.”

—Jeffrey Jullich


At Port Royal
Christopher Edgar
Adventures in Poetry, $12.50 (paper)

“Our nature consists in motion,” wrote Pascal—a pensée purring beneath the far-flung (and always fun) dispatches of Christopher Edgar’s first book. At Port Royal is a kind of travelogue ranging from ancient Rome to “Possible Gothams” to a non-existent land called Llewllyn. As he hops around a dizzying array of moments both historical and fictional, Edgar reveals, disrupts and revels in the logic underpinning standard modes of telling. And so Edgar’s book begins: “I have a confession to make.” But it’s a confession that leads us not inward toward Jungian self-discovery, but outward-from “the jungles of Southeast Asia” to a “Fish Factory in Astrakhan,” from a brother who “was Horatio Hornblower” to a father who “was a magistrate in Khartoum.” The ‘I’ here, in other words, lives in a history of ideas, imagination, thought. This is why Pascal is given headliner status-on display in the title (“Port Royal” was Pascal’s home) and the cover art (featuring a curve Pascal called “Pearls of Sluze”). For Pascal, thought is the best of what makes us human, getting us closer both to the known world (via Science) and to the unknowable (via Theology): “All our dignity then, consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill.” Edgar doesn’t separate thought from space–time. Instead he creates occasions where they might meet—something like “the dream of a map,” where order and reason, the logic of our manifest world, touches on lands born of belief and intuition. But ultimately it’s Edgar’s feel for language that makes the book such a kick to read, sending the reader zipping through line after line: “Hell-bent for damaged goods are you mistah.” Riffing off registers from the scholarly to the street-wise, Edgar pays expert attention to sound and the words that make a poem go go go: “Hugo van der Goes and the Galapagos / What are you doing on Earth / And where are you going?”

—Tom Thompson


A Beaker: New and Selected Poems
Caroline Knox
Verse Press, $14 (paper)

One might argue that nothing is sacred in Caroline Knox’s work, but it would be truer to its spirit to say that everything is sacred here—and all are welcome. In “Sonnet to the Portuguese,” whose title borrows from Mrs. Browning’s sonnet sequence, a latter-day Magellan shouts to the bar “I’ll have a double Branch Rickey, please, with a twist!” Elsewhere, Copernicus and Ptolemy share a stanza with the Anderson Window Company in a canzone about lost contact lenses. “The variety and multiplicity of the universe,” Knox knows, “is its joy as well as its puzzlement.” Readers new to the poetry will delight in Knox’s verbal somersaults (“symbolic birds sounding off around the clock and other earmarks”) and chuckle to encounter such vocab-builders as usufruct, smaragdine, and girandoles (as in “Freddy has had his girandoles electrified”) smuggled into a single nine-line poem. Longtime admirers will find much new work to savor alongside older favorites culled from three previous volumes. The curious Frobisher, who makes a debut appearance in “The True Meaning,” may be worth the price of admission alone: “The visionary is there to extend greetings, / Frobisher by name, who has done a lot of articles. / Shyly he approaches by the statues of imported lava. / He writes in a wildcat quarterly / and has made quite a name for himself although sort of a / tabloid one.” These poems travel quickly (Knox is a poet who wants to keep us moving, keep us noticing), but for all their twists and turns, there is a well-paced balance of depth and levity throughout. The later poems in particular often resonate long past their closing lines: “This light will hold all month. / This month will end the year. / A skylight will open.” Like the exquisitely engraved vessel in the title poem, A Beaker has been carefully executed by a master of the craft.

—Rebecca Frank


See Through
Frances Richard
Four Way Books, $14.95 (paper)

Frances Richard’s first collection offers great sonic pleasure without the sense of atavism that often haunts today’s more overtly musical poetry. See Through is rich, not stuffy; it is fine, not rarefied. The poems here often read like responses to queries posed to a newly-roused and malleable consciousness: We find the speaker half-awake to “Inchoateness as // synesthesia as I want! I want!” and seeking to describe the “Thrown conjecture as to what / I am where how / you made / me comprehending you.” Richard’s concerns include certain lost loves, memory, the maternal impulse, and an acute attentiveness to childhood, art, and depression. In short, See Through focuses on nothing less than the vicissitudes of a life fully lived. But for Richard, life unfolds in grammar’s most fertile and unusual greenhouse, where “the queen wants to be // queen of all her feeling, prepositional conjunctive // itch to be appassionata, relational, embraced.” She is aware of (and celebrates) language’s infinite fecundity throughout, and when she confesses, she refuses to collapse experience into well-mannered, reified anecdote: “I can vouch / for morning preschool and what passes / for world reassembles its subsequent whirring.” This re-assemblage is at times deliciously overwrought: The poet is ravished to see how “Lit signage clings to the air, corroded” in the dizzying city, delighted by the “Moist, glottal form / mollusk / echinoderm, bemused in squirm” at the sexy seaside. Portraying such richness, Richard pointedly admits: “Not equivalence. Approximation.” For approximation is what the world becomes in our perception of it, what perception devolves to as we recall it, what recollection translates into as we write it. Richard’s invincible vocabulary, her well-tuned ear and scrupulous intelligence make approximation her perfect plaything. But play like this is a sensitive and even spiritual endeavor (as Richard warns us by way of Robbe-Grillet): “if you begin / by believing in metaphor you will end // by believing in God.”

—Robert Strong

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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