Poets Wear Prada
42 Pages; Print, $12.00
When the extravagance of an editor’s preface includes a single sentence that runs to eighty eight words, one may reasonably expect some trouble ahead. Robert Kramer’s recent collection of twenty three poems, Wordglass, is not always notable for its economy and, as we know, more is mostly less.
That said, there is much to be enjoyed between the covers of this thirty page chapbook. I have no quarrel with Kramer’s sensibility nor with his refreshing quirkiness. He is patently erudite—a man of letters and the world. There is a sage and measured voice to be heard throughout the work—a voice that speaks of memories without nostalgia, or tells of lost love and youth with tenderness rather than regret. In a word, Kramer neatly sidesteps sentimentality and self-pity, and he does it quite naturally through a thoughtful pragmatism and a quiet personal integrity. As he says simply, and with restrained pathos, near the end his small poem “Late Love”: “…this is already the past.”
Another means by which the poet keeps nicely clear of emotional excess, is to administer a bite of wickedness with every verbal caress. This device—of charming the reader with lyricism then taking them off-guard with sly, dark humor, or a touch of the grotesque—though deployed with near formulaic regularity in the closing lines of Kramer’s poems, is almost always elegantly effective. In the evocative description given of a first-time hunt for fishing worms under the guidance of an uncle in “A Child Under the Moon in the Wet Grass,” we are started abruptly out of a reverie of innocent childhood memories with the macabre X-ray vision of an old man’s teeth beneath his cheek in “…that curve along the jawbone, / ascending to each ear, / and grinning in the dark.”
Similarily, in the softly-worded final stanza of a shorter poem, “Hesitation,” Kramer surprises us by following the exquisite lines: “In a labyrinth of flowers: / the shadow of a dream – / the dream – of the shadow,” with the playful but disconcerting punchline: “Did ever a lemming look back?”
It is regrettable, in some instances, that the vitality of Kramer’s verse is mostly in the finish. Far too often, he falls short of honoring a perfectly good twist with a clean set-up. A prime example would be “The Archaeologist and His Glass” which opens strongly with a Bergmanesque image: “As the last drummer boy marches in his shroud / across the empty world,” but then, in the second stanza, falls into the purplest of poetry when Kramer describes bottles in a bar as being where, “…cheering spirits from warmer climes dwell, / waiting in their crystal cells like lovely nuns / full of yearning for their thirsty lovers…” The poet finds his feet again in the close with, “…this clutch of cobwebs over bone dust, / this taste of ash?” but it is too late—the damage has been done and the poem has lost traction.
More often than not, it is through Kramer’s penchant for unsophisticated repetition that he weakens a perfectly good structure. “Hamburg Zoo, 1943” details the horrific demise of an elephant as the result of an Allied air-raid, and comes to a chilling close as the reader is quietly reminded that the city’s own holocaust is about to be continued with another massive fire-bombing. The technical tragedy here, is that Kramer wears down a fine conceit with bland reiteration. The burning elephant “shrieks” in the opening lines, with “…undersized eyes that blink and roll…” But then, a little further into the narrative, the animal’s “…small eyes roll” again and, toward the close, it “shrieks” again. In the middle stanza the elephant is described as “writhing” but then, in the next and final stanza, the poor beast “writhes” one more tome for good measure. If Kramer’s editor had not swallowed the thesaurus, the poet might have found it useful here. But that is not the end of such naiveté in this 41-line poem. I imagine most pre-schoolers could tell...