Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds, Jonathan Cape, 87pp, £10 (paperback)

 

Nice Weather, Frederick Seidel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 102pp, £14.99 (hardback)

 

The Eternal Ones of the Dream – Selected Poems 1990 – 2010, James Tate, Ecco/HarperCollins, 272pp, £12.49 (paperback)

 

Mayakovsky’s Revolver, Matthew Dickman, W. W. Norton & Company, 93pp, £17.99 (hardback)

 

The fact that contemporary English and American poetry are different is a literary truism, but one that clearly still needs repeating. Critical and aesthetic battle lines have been drawn across the Atlantic at least since the time Walt Whitman sounded his ‘barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world’ in ‘Song of Myself.’ (And which contemporary English poet of Whitman’s would have indulged in such nakedly autobiographical and self-revealing poetic nomenclature?) Some English critics remain sniffy and suspicious about modern American verse, seeing Whitmanesque, or Beat or Frank O’Hara-style amplitude as simply an excuse for metrical laxity and poetic self-indulgence. For years, the reputation of Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn seemed like a test case in this regard, with his work often seemingly judged on the basis of its US influences alone. Poetic nakedness and truth- telling have been the stock-in-trade of Sharon Olds’s work for more than thirty years. Stag’s Leap is a minutely detailed exploration of the end of the poet’s thirty-year marriage. But while Olds’s approach is simplistically termed ‘confessional,’ her work is often almost self-consciously literary and meticulous in its methods and means. And in the case of her latest collection, Olds waited many years before setting down these poetic illuminations of marital breakdown. In fact, it’s arguable that there’s a little too much emotion recollected in tranquillity. Raw passion is often transmuted into a meandering form of poetic philosophizing, such as ‘Unspeakable’:

When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow,
or a well, I’d gaze up, at noon, and see
Orion
shining . . .

Another weakness in Olds’s work is seeing significance, with a capital ‘S’, in almost every form of human interaction, no matter how trivial, which can sometimes tip over into poetic sententiousness. But when Olds successfully marries her distinctive propulsive poetic line with the right human context, the lines carry a considerable emotional and narrative charge, as we see in ‘Telling My Mother’:

And the moment I told her,
she looked at me in shock and dismay.

But when will I ever see him again?!

she cried out. I held hands with her,

and steadied us, joking.

Olds’s verse really takes off when she achieves a balance between emotional candour and a spare, chastened poetic voice. But while this latest volume has been hailed in some quarters as Olds’s finest to date, it seems a pale shadow of her true poetic masterpiece, The Father, published in the UK in 1993. And doubts remain for some English critics about the ultimate poetic value of such public autobiographical stocktaking, doubts expressed by Sean O’Brien in his Sunday Times review of this volume: ‘Olds has some brilliant successes, but as Ezra Pound said, technique is a test of sincerity. In favouring the latter over the former, Olds places her art at risk.’

 

Frederick Seidel is the well-heeled, Big Bad Wolf of American verse. Taking a blowtorch to political correctness, Seidel’s poems emanate from an amoral, rarefied hinterland, situated somewhere between Park Avenue in New York, the Savoy in London and the Paris Ritz. Ducati racebikes speed through his poems as frequently as aristocrats in designer suits and champagne- quaffing hedonists wearing watches from Patek Philippe. Good taste and social empathy are rarely part of the equation for Seidel in ‘Midwinter’:
Midwinter murder is in my heart
As I stand there on the curb in my opera pumps,

Waiting for the car to come and the opera to start,

Amid the Broadway homeless frozen chumps.

 

 

Seidel challenges the reader to be appalled or to look away, but the surface brilliance and brio of his poems is a welcome antidote to much anaemic, pusillanimous mainstream verse on either side of the Atlantic. While Nice Weather doesn’t shake the rafters as much as his previous individual collection, Ooga-Booga (2006), it still features many of Seidel’s typically savage poetic flourishes, as one of the few leading poets rarely photographed in anything but an expensive, double-breasted suit comes on like a nihilistic Cole Porter, such as here in ‘The Yellow Cab’:
Tree-lined side streets make me lonely.
Many-windowed town houses make me sad.
The nicest possible spring day, like today, only
Ignites my inner suicide-bomber jihad.

 

 

Conflating sexual reveries, the death of Osama bin Laden and tea at the Connaught Hotel, Seidel can sound like a potty-mouthed Ogden Nash. Exquisitely made and boasting a bracing, if morally fractured soco- political sweep, Seidel’s precision-tooled poems stand defiantly outside the conventional canon of American verse, giving the finger to literary good taste and refusing to be ignored.
Although usually grounded in the mundane, small-town routines of America, James Tate’s poems are given to extraordinary flights of fancy. But despite being widely considered the USA’s most famous exponent of poetic surrealism, Tate generally begins and ends with the quotidian. While essentially a darkly comic poet, Tate also inhabits what Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, calls ‘a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet . . . ’ Tate’s narratives, in which anxious or terrified ordinary citizens are trapped in Kafkaesque scenarios, can appear plain as day, but often dissolve or develop into nightmarish poetic fairy tales, pitched somewhere between W. C. Fields and Hieronymus Bosch, as in ‘The Florist’:
I realized Mother’s Day was just two days

away, so I went to the florist and said, ‘I’d
like to send my mother a dozen long-stem red

roses. The guy looked at me and said, ‘My mother’s
dead.’

 

The Eternal Ones of the Dream is a generous selection of Pulitzer Prize- winning Tate poems over the last twenty years, a period in which his style has become increasingly and distinctively prosaic. (Fellow leading US poet and admirer Charles Simic has usefully said of Tate: ‘He makes me think that anti-poetry is the best friend poetry ever had.’) Admirers of neat English stanzas may well be resistant to the blocks of extended prose poems which make up a typical new Tate volume. Unlike John Ashbery or more cerebral US contemporary poets, Tate couches even his most bizarre tall tales in the ordinary, folksy language of Mid-West America, where alien beings and unexplained raids by shadowy malevolent authority figures on innocent and uncomprehending victims occupy the same dull poetic landscape as the local bar, coffee shop or general store. While Tate’s poetic method has become starkly prosaic, the reader is never sure where he or she will end up. Narrative surprise in Tate’s work is its only predictable feature. But while there is a laugh-out-loud quality to many of his poems, Tate’s most recent individual collections, Return to the City of White Donkeys (2004) and The Ghost Soldiers (2008) are his darkest books to date, the latter seemingly shadowed by war. But whether Tate is alluding to the USA’s military involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, we are never told. Rather, the poet is more interested in exploring the state of heightened anxiety military conflict induces on the paranoid homefront, such as in ‘National Security’:
I said, ‘I want to go home.’ ‘I told you, we have no home,
’
Anne said. ‘What happened to our home?’ I said. ‘The government
took it,’ she said.’What for?’ I said. ‘They said it was for
strategic reasons,’ she said. And, thus, we commenced our roaming.’

 

 

Tate’s ‘he said, she said’ has become a stylistic tic in his most recent work, but while couples and strangers and drinking pals talk frequently in his poems, typically in a rambling, discursive manner, there is often the sense that real human communication is strictly limited. Tate’s work was last generally available on this side of the Atlantic in a selected volume from Manchester-based Carcanet in 1997, making another UK collection long-overdue, but this latest US catch-up volume serves as the perfect introduction to one of America’s most compelling poets.
Compared to James Tate, who started publishing in the 1960s, Matthew Dickman is a new kid on the poetry block. He’s also part of a unique literary double act from Portland, Oregon, with his twin and fellow poet, Michael Dickman. Both have not only featured in a Steven Spielberg film (Minority Report) and enjoyed profiles and publication in leading US journals, but have also won critical plaudits for their books – plus, perhaps inevitably, faced some criticism following their rapid literary ascent. After making his mark with his debut, All-American Poem (2008), Matthew Dickman consolidates his growing reputation with Mayakovsky’s Revolver. Like Olds, Dickman uses his own life as raw material. Both the Dickman twins have explored in verse the suicide of their older brother and the latest volume from the literary siblings is anchored by a thirteen-part sequence, called Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral. This begins with a visualisation of his brother’s ashes – ‘a beautiful white bundle of lace, a silver bow/looped where his neck should be’ – borne on the wind and becoming intertwined with the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, in ‘My Brother’s Grave’: ‘Someone will throw an empty bottle of vodka over their shoulder and he will have to catch it.’
But Dickman, like Louis MacNeice, also understands the importance of celebrating ‘The drunkenness of things being various,’ and his latest book is as joyous as it is elegiac, with poems fired by grief complemented by those inspired by love – ‘Because I miss you I have made a pile of clothes/ along the bed, your exact height and weight (‘Weird Science’) – while in possibly the volume’s most moving poem, ‘Blue Sky’, a former troubled girlfriend is hymned and brought to life, with all the vivid tenderness of first love:
I wonder if it matters that I loved her when I was fifteen, that her
left breast had three freckles making a triangle
of the nipple, or that she wrote a letter on my back with her finger
so I could never read it…

 

 

Matthew Dickman is the more Beat-like and occasionally lyrically excessive of the Portand poetic twins, but he possesses an enviable narrative gift and a talent for freshly-minted phrasemaking. The best poems in Mayakovsky’s Revolver suggest contemporary American verse is fresh, crisp and alive.

 

 

Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap was awarded the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize.

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