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The State ofTheirArt: A Look at Current Poetry by Brett Foster "More light! More light!" were supposedly the words eighty-twoyear -old Goethe spoke from his deathbed. Readers of contemporary poetry may recognize the phrase from Anthony Hecht's often anthologized poem of the same name. If the author who had just months earlier completed Faust somehow remained unsatisfied, then how much more acutely must early- to midcareer poets—those over the hump of their first book—feel the desire for more: more formal mastery, richer imagery, increasingly ambitious themes and subjects. Here's a look at how six poets are striving for more in their second (or third or fourth) efforts. Many of the poems in James Harms' The Joy Addict (CarnegieMellon , 1998) speak of an insatiable need, Uke Goethe's, to see again, and this time more clearly—to create what Harms calls "new inventions of grace." He articulates this desire in the opening poem, "Sky," which dovetaUs the narrative of a young man's dismay at a bluegum eucalyptus being cut down in his backyard with the story of his sister's emotional struggles, including—the poem implies—her pregnancy. The two narratives come together in a lovely resolution, with the speaker/uncle imagining the day he'll accompany his niece to the stump site, recall how the tree blocked the stars and point to where its limbs once reached. This imagined moment is one that elevates personal history and family inheritance, two dominant themes of Harms' book. Harms' poems, many of which are autobiographical narratives of his California chUdhood, are fiUed with the kinds of Ught endemic to his West Coast setting. Surdight in the canyons , streetUghts, "Ught trapped in places like blood fixed in a bruise": such imagery dapples "Los Angeles," a memorable poem whose only misstep is an unfortunate "angel" pun near the end. The poet's voice is as native as the incidents it conveys, likable and humble, sometimes aimless and often lonely. While splitting a pitcher or catching a show at the Roxy, his speakers consume more beer than the characters in a week's worth of Cheers episodes. Occasionally we have to endure lines such as "it's kind of cheesy, but nice," or a needlessly loopy opening ("The day I mistook my mailman/for Jesus"), but only the most fastidious reader will be unwUling to forgive these sUps. At his best, as in the final poem, "Epithalamium," Harms is tender and colloquial but never too far from elegant. Lf JuUa WendeU's third book were set to music, the key would be minor. Wheeler Lane (Igneus Press, 1998) is full of ruminations on transience, injury and loss. "Music Lesson" features a woman who, after nearly hitting some deer, recalls her long-forgotten, surly piano teacher. Both the narrative of the near accidents and that of the remembered lessons derive much of their texture from music. As a pupil, the woman struggled with the "lushness of Brahms," and years later a Bach 210 · The Missouri Review chorale plays from her car radio. At one point the speaker says, "The finer points ofmusic finally faUed me," but the reader sees that it is actually she who has failed the music: "I had the heart for it, all right,/but my fingers never learned the language/of the masters, which requires rapt/capacity for repetition—/scales ascending and descending over time/and always fine-tuned to the daUy." Tedious piano lessons are also partly the subject of the first poem, "Prolapse," in which the speaker admits, "I did not believe in the music/in myseU." In the book's four remaining sections we are confronted repeatedly with accidents, injuries, deaths. One deer is not as lucky as the ones in "Music Lesson," and a daughter must watch her father put the suffering animal out of its misery. A pet dog is buried, a fetus aborted. A husband and wife, going out together for the first time after the birth of their child, encounter an auto wreck in which two teenagers have been kUled. All of this tragedy culminates in the concluding focus of the collection, the emotional violence of a marriage that fails...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 210-215
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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