American Literature 76.1 (2004) 199-201
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This newest volume by the author of books on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop shows Bonnie Costello again at her admirable best: astute comprehension of a poet's entire oeuvre, thorough attentiveness to the subtlest operations of language, and scrupulous analysis supported by a modicum of contextual information. In Shifting Ground, Costello's primary goal is to "highlight the continuum in which landscape operates as an artistic focus, and to override the distinction between nature as reference and as trope" (9). To this end, she examines how landscape, or the physical world apprehended by the mind, configures the work of six American poets from the early and late twentieth century. These poets respond in fascinating ways to the changing realities of modern America and their effects on American landscape. Far from idealizing the past or rejecting the new conditions, these poets situate landscape as a space of intersection between the given and the made, reinventing landscape as both object of description and source of figuration.
The book's opening chapter, "Frame and Flux," provides a helpful outline of Costello's main argument. If one wonders why a book about American landscape poetry contains no chapters on poets like Robinson Jeffers or Gary Snyder, the answer is that those poets' engagement with the natural world is largely nonambivalent and thus uninformed by the problematic of frame and flux. Costello's poets—variously representational and nonrepresentational, traditional and experimental, accessible and difficult—offer a version of the relationship between self and world in modern America that is more [End Page 199] eccentric, unstable, revisable (hence, the "Shifting Ground" of the book's title).
The modernists, of course, wanted to frame the flux. But as Costello demonstrates, the story of their engagement with the idea of landscape was in fact much more complicated. Frost wrote about the antagonism but also the reciprocity of human and natural realms; Costello is particularly interested in Frost's use of the chiasmus, which in her view allows "for the human mind to seek its reflection in nature" (26). Stevens acknowledges both center and edge, organizing principle and individual eccentricity, and his poems depict tensions between landscapes as both seen and imagined. Moore seeks "the genuine" in the physical world, as well as in tourist sites, travel brochures, postcards, maps, and other simulations.
Costello approaches the work of postmodern American poets with similar subtlety. One could generalize, again, that for these poets the flux is a frame. But Costello's discussions of Amy Clampitt, A. R. Ammons, and John Ashbery reveal that such a formulation is both validated and challenged in the work of these three important late-twentieth-century poets. Clampitt transforms her sense of dislocation from the American landscape into an all-encompassing poetry of nomadism. Ammons with his quest for the visionary and the ordinary, relentlessly interrogates the parallelism of nature and mind. In Ashbery's poems, landscape becomes a dimension of consciousness.
Because Costello is a superb reader of lyric poetry, her book offers brilliant, sophisticated analyses of many poems' rhetorical strategies and figurative maneuverings, of their trappings and tropings. She brings nothing particularly new, however, to our general understanding of these poets, excluding perhaps Clampitt. The reader will find no surprises here, no major interpretive shifts, no unexpected theoretical realignments. For example, when Costello's discussion of Ashbery swerves from what she calls the "predominant view of his work as language-centered poet" (175) and proceeds to examine him as a poet of the romantic meditative tradition, she follows what is by now the all-but-orthodox view of the author of Chinese Whispers. But when she turns her investigative...