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Ways of looking for truth in verse

The Baltimore Sun

Eagle Pond


By Matt Donovan

Mariner / 80 pages / $11.95

U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall's Eagle Pond brings together, in affordable paperback, two already published volumes with a poem and some uncollected writings about his life on his ancestral farm in New Hampshire, rich with family lore and tradition.

This is Walden with a difference: Hall never even pretends he's alone. A late section, "Fifty People Talking," gathers in its snippets of Yankee townspeople the ghosts of American intimacy, reminding the reader how things used to be when we lived in communities small enough to know what everyone was doing or to leave people alone as an act of consideration.

Hall's pleasure in thick description at points feels self-indulgent, and the locals-only exclusivity of Yankee customs may irritate some readers, but those features of the book also self-consciously ruminate on the near-impossibility of maintaining such a lifestyle in a rapidly changing world.

The best writing finds Hall at his most overtly cranky, from his litany of reasons to hate Vermont ("In Vermont the state flower is the sushi bar") to his own poetic insecurity: "Do I pave it over by writing it down?"

In her debut volume, Halflife, due out at the end of April, New Yorker Meghan O'Rourke writes concise, sophisticated poems that may dream of greener pastures but have their roots in urban, and urbane, concerns. "Once something must have happened here," a sonnet starts, making world-weariness a principle of investigation.

O'Rourke is the culture editor for and the poetry editor for The Paris Review, and her articles on art, culture and politics (she has written about everything from Thomas Hardy to the thoroughbred racehorse Barbaro) have enlivened Internet and print. Many of O'Rourke's poems have immediate magic; consider the first lines of Sleep, which have an insomniac speaker entreating that elusive nocturnal charmer:

Pawnbroker, scavenger, cheapskate,

come creeping from your pigeon-filled backrooms,

past guns and clocks and locks and cages.

O'Rourke's deadpan account of her autobiography creates one of the book's most compelling moments:

I proclaimed my love for the past,

wore fitted clothes from the 40s.

I came out against pointlessness.

Too often, the longer sequences descend into decoration and simile. O'Rourke effectively frames the sleepy powerlessness and dubious sense of domestic security that's familiar to the present-tense life of her generation. But her work's short lines can feel claustrophobically restrained, as if she'd listened too hard to one of her less-likable characters: "Supervision is so/much better than freedom."

Matt Donovan's Vellum, winner of the prestigious Bakeless Prize from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, moves through moments of historical anecdote, appreciations of artworks and arcane literary references in search of something true:

not some grandiose turn

from jaundiced house-rot to the pastoral ablaze,

but a bit of the actual, some proffered-up what-have-you.

In Donovan's hands, allusions sometimes seem like set pieces when they should feel like shots of espresso. But there's also a companionable sense of the actual in Vellum: Donovan is usually right in front of whatever he's talking about. Vellum offers 80 pages of activity, and I can't think of the last time since Hart Crane I've seen as many verbs in a poem as in these lines:

This is only another walk

in which I try to learn words for whatever's in my hand, in which

I'll skim drawings of quackgrass & sprangletop & six bluestems

& recognize none of it & give up this gray-blue bit of scrub

& despite today what I'd promised & planned, thread down the path

a few miles more where it dead-ends in a field of shot-up cars.

Vellum promises energetic delights when the speaker places himself most clearly in the poem, whether on a New Mexico trail or on a Jersey train.

Katie Peterson teaches poetry and the humanities at Deep Springs College in California. She is the author of the book of poems "This One Tree." She wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune.

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