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Reviews 69 Songs for the Harvester of Dreams. By Duane Niatum. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. 64 pages, $7.95.) The cover jacket describes the book well enough: “the first part . . . directs us to a rich mythological past” ; in the second part, “Niatum leads us beyond the voices of nature,” examining “personal relationships, the lone­ liness of the city, beginnings and endings.” These are the subjects of the poems. But what is done with those subjects, how it is done, is not so easy to describe nor, especially, to judge. For there may be a culture gap here. What may seem to a white reviewer (this one) a strangely obscure and surrealistic image, phrase, may be a precise and clear reference to a Klallam Indian myth or ritual. Or it may just be a strangely obscure, even clumsy, surrealistic image. Certainly Niatum is writing out of a double tradition, Indian and Caucasian; certainly his audience is almost completely Caucasian. He writes in English, his language. And so he dangles. And so sometimes his poetry dangles, neither one thing nor another. This is a kind of defeat, of failure. But the poetry most obviously fails when Niatum is too “white’’— that is, as example, in his occasional refusal to specify persons in the poetry or the addressees of the poetry, as though in a too conscious, literary, attempt at mystery. Or in his sometimes refusal to use words exactly, letting them slide off into meaninglessness. Or in his too often purely rhetorical use of a question. But that first part of the book is a fascinating, suggestive poetry. Most of the poems are short, imagistic. “My love hears a green voice drift,” Niatum says in “Good Omen.” This “green voice” is a delightful pair of words, a rich diction. And, in Niatum’s continual celebration of the small and large natural things of this world (the American Northwest), “Spider,” “Owl,” “The Seed,” we find a subject matter that is important to us treated not just descriptively but as something alive. Too, although one could call such poems, such an attitude, “romantic,” this word conjures up a European meaning that is not what Niatum is offering. His “seed” is a living thing in that it still seems culturally important, not a symbol only, not the enforced expression of a poet who has merely a primitivist urge to make the world live. Perhaps this is why the poetry in the second part is weaker. It is here that the carrying over of “Indian” images seems most often to fail; the “allusions” have no body but are superimposed; and it is here that the language becomes deliberately or accidentally obscure without much reson­ ance: “Is your body collapsing from the bones, / Now a flutist for the ants?” One could defend those lines, particularly in their context, but one shouldn’t have to; they are willed, not felt. And it is in this second part that the poetry can drift off into the sentimental, sometimes when the subject is personal, sometimes when it is not realized, as in “The Musician,’’ with its “What warmth of place / In our hearts explodes / With your absence. Oh / Why did you leave / The piano, the city / Unannounced?” Oddly, though, one of the best poems in the book is the very formal villanelle, “The Art of Clay” —■ 70 Western American Literature one wonders how Niatum had the courage to write a villanelle in this poetic climate but one admires him for it. Here the form keeps him from sentimen­ tality, and, although there are obscurities that don’t always work, the poem does make us feel something intensely: “The years in the blood keep us naked to the bone. / Light breaks down the days to printless stone.” If those refrain lines seem to echo, in subject matter, a certain Dylan Thomas villanelle, they assert their own right in their imagery and their sound. In short, the usual mixed bag, but some of the mix is excellent — in any culture. L. L. LEE, Western Washington University Walt Whitman’s Western Jaunt. By Walter H. Eitner. (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1982. 123 pages, $18.00.) Because university professors and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 69-70
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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