Watching the Spring Festival
By Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 58 pages, $25
The subject of Frank Bidart's new collection, "Watching the Spring Festival," is the construction of artifice, and the poems tackle some of art's largest themes. Bidart never takes his eye off the high poetic material of desire and destiny. His poems aim for the heights but always return to the stuff of popular culture to illustrate them: "Love craved and despised and necessary/the Great American Songbook said explained our fate."
Bidart's tone is oracular and austere but always intimate. Full of rage even when most melancholy or sweet, his voice leaps off the page toward his subjects, and toward the reader. "Watching the Spring Festival" teems with vocal power, favoring imperatives and addresses over description and meditation. Laced with stinging lines from that same American Songbook that explains our fate (one poem ends with three lines from "Home on the Range"), the poems argue that our hungers explain and exhaust us.
It is fitting that Bidart begins the collection by directly addressing one of America's hungriest souls, Marilyn Monroe, whose mother (the notes inform us) never revealed her father's identity:
what you come from is craziness, what your
mother and her mother come from is
craziness, panic of the animal
smelling what you have in store for it.
Your father's name, she said, is too
Famous not to be hidden.
Bidart's obsession with viewing (key poems in the collection focus on movies, performers, voyeurism, ceremonies) doesn't mean he's interested in mere gawking: In one poem the blue and grey dead from the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg collectively address the present moment in a haunting dream vision. By forcing himself to see, Bidart wants to make us see.
Grand poetic ambition, at its best, can make us feel that that which challenges the glory-seeking poet also challenges the ordinary life. In lucid moments of this wonderful book, Bidart accomplishes this feat. When he addresses himself, we know he's speaking in defense of our interior lives as well as in defense of poetry:
Tell yourself what you hoard . . .
commerce or rectitude cannot withdraw.
The Ghost Soldiers
By James Tate
Ecco, 217 pages, $22.95
You might not recognize James Tate's poems as poems at first, but instead as strange little stories about weird people doing things for obscure purposes:
"Somebody has to keep track of all the random stuff we do and say. There's a story line somewhere in your life. We just don't know what it means."
If you're already a fan of Charles Simic's you might like Tate, who revels in creating characters who love duct tape for no apparent reason, and who writes poems with titles like "Swordfish for Hire." Tate's dark humor is more wacky than weird: think Robert Frost meets Pee-wee Herman. The prosy narratives of "The Ghost Soldiers" appear to happen to ordinary people but reveal the current conditions of a world that's spun out of control:
"On the way to work this morning the news man on the radio said, 'A big part of reality has been removed, it has been reported. Details are not available at this time. It's just that, I am told, you will find things different on your drive to work this morn- ing.' "
Some of Tate's poems are cute ("When I got home from the office, the elves had rearranged my furniture."), but the best of them are slightly scary, revealing the terrifying consequences that obscure purposes can apparently generate. The more overtly political subject matter of the book will, perhaps, appeal to that group that might be our nation's largest swing vote: the confused. That is, if we can bear to identify with characters like the narrator of the book's final poem, "The War Next Door":
"There was a picture of a dead man. He had just passed my house. And another dead man I recognized. I ran back into the kitchen and looked out. A group of them were headed my way. I opened the door. 'Why didn't you fight with us?' they said. 'I didn't know who the enemy was, honest I didn't,' I said. 'That's a fine answer. I never did figure it out myself,' one of them said."
By Mary Oliver
Beacon, 78 pages, $23
If you know one contemporary American poet, it might be Mary Oliver, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and faithful scribe of some of our most direct, and well-loved (read: best-selling) verse. Her new book, "Red Bird," continues her characteristic attention with single-minded fervor to the work of praise, almost always of the natural world:
I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
Oliver quotes painter Vincent van Gogh at the start of her volume: "But I always think the right way to know God is to love many things." And love she does. She loves the red bird better than the sparrow, she loves her dog that dies and her dog that lives: "Love, love, love, it was the core of my life."
But this isn't a poetry for innocents (though you could read it to your children). Oliver insists on optimism as a kind of counterweapon. At one point she issues, "Instructions for living a life:/Pay attention./Be astonished./Tell about it." The effect of such pressure is not always the production of joy. Consider the poem "Iraq," in which the poet asks about how to praise, and even merely describe, the dead soldier in front of her in a picture: "What kind of song/would serve such a purpose?" However well-intentioned, her answer seems incomplete and, well, insufficient:
I think . . .
If I had known him
on his birthday,
I would have made for him
a great celebration.
The awkward but interesting moments of "Red Bird" are moments like these, when Oliver tries to know, not only to love. In such moments her directness seems to catch even her off guard, and her verse veers into the strange but appealing territory of confusion and darkness:
Something had pestered me so much
I thought my heart would break.
I mean, the mechanical part.
In the Pines
By Alice Notely
Penguin, 144 pages, $18 paper
It's difficult for a new reader to know where to start with a poet like Alice Notely, author of more than 30 books. Notely, stalwart member of the avant-garde, eludes most critical pigeonholing partially because every time readers get used to her doing one thing, she does another.
But certain constants shape her career, and those are present in her newest book, "In the Pines": a love of narrative paired with a lack of interest in giving the reader too much information, an interest in philosophical concerns that's decidedly not academic and a gravitational pull toward song: "If you don't know the song, you don't know anything."
The collection begins with the long title poem, which weaves together bits of popular American song lyric and strange conversations, and hints of a story in a voice that is at times deliberately awkward. Notely's trick is leaving things out. What a reader of her poems does, instead of following a narrative or a sense of things, is to follow the voice through its turns and twists, though the voice is not quite beautiful but rather intense, and determined, almost ferociously abstract:
Move it, you say, move the whole corpse of earth away.
Move the whole planet somewhere?
You say that you're dead and it's dead: can't it be pushed back through a hole in timelessness?
You say that I can't really get at you.
You're not where you expected to be dead, I say.
The title poem also has its funny moments, most of which well up out of dialogue: "How can there be a mind-body problem, if I blow myself up in Palestine?" Unpredictable "In the Pines" comments on culture by being a voice outside of culture and estranged from it.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun