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  • Poetry
  • Malcolm Woodland (bio)

In 'First Lessons in Symbiosis,' Brian Bartlett offers a sympathetic portrayal of the 'harmless protozoa / in the human alimentary tract / [who] earn the food and warmth given them.' I don't know for certain whether Bartlett would extend his sympathies to so parasitic a creature as a literary critic, but I hope that I'm not wholly unjustified in finding comfort and support in these lines. I definitely won't claim that I've achieved any sort of symbiosis with the poets I've reviewed this year. This is not to say, of course, that I'm wholly out of sympathy with any of them, and I'd like to think that my opening quotation shows at least that I'm on Bartlett's wavelength : Bartlett himself borrowed 'his' words from Strange Partners, 'a children's book of natural history,' and now I have borrowed them again. Furthermore, those words from part of a sequence of 'found' poems in his new collection, The Watchmaker's Table, and I like to include as much of the 'found' as I can in my reviews; I try, that is, to let the poets' words speak for themselves, and then let my words, harmless or not, speak for me. I hope that what follows will fulfil these intentions. [End Page 229]

I've organized this year's review a little differently from the previous two. I've split the books into two broad categories: first, lyric collections; second, long poems and strongly unified book-length sequences. The lyric collections are further divided into five subcategories, four stylistic (formal verse, free verse, 'hybrids' of various 'conventional' and 'experimental' modes, and more clearly 'experimental' verse) and one thematic (a conglomerate of diasporic, post-colonial, and so on). The difference between the collection and the unified sequence may at first seem slight but is still, I think, a real one, and I've tried to allocate 'borderline' works to the most appropriate category. The long poems and unified sequences are further divided along thematic lines into three subgroups, and I'll describe the last two first: the second offers biographical sequences concerned with celebrated personages; the third includes variations on the genre of topographical poetry. I'm not making any special claim for the importance of these genres, and these groupings emerged largely by chance: I just happened to receive enough books of each type to make such a grouping plausible and convenient. My first grouping, on the other hand, is more of a catch-all, or catch-everything-else: these works don't fit into the biographical and topographical categories but don't offer enough examples of any other distinct kind to justify another subcategory. Some, such as Marlene NourbeSe Philip's Zong! share features with some of my lyric subcategories, but I preferred to treat long poems as a distinct genre. The titles of each section are borrowed from the poets I've reviewed, though the source of each title may not be reviewed in that particular section; where necessary, I've added a word or two of explanation. It may be too extravagant to hope that the present paragraph will prove to be the dullest one in the review; I'm tempted to keep it going a little longer just to ensure that the rest of this piece will look good in comparison (the poets, at least, should be thankful for a setting that lets them shine still more brightly). But such a practice would be unfair to the assorted proofreaders, compositors, and editors who have no choice but to read each word I type; hence, I will mercifully move straight on to the main business.

'Thou Song of All-Powerful Individuality': Lyric Collections

'Form Itself Makes Us Content'

The poets included here show a marked preference for conventional forms, especially the sonnet, and even when not working within established genres, continue to use metre and rhyme in a manner descended from the centuries-long tradition of formal verse. First in this group is Matt Rader. I don't know if Rader talks to the trees, but they seem, at least, to talk to him. They even seemed to be...


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pp. 229-285
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