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Poetry Roundup

Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

Half of poetry is suspended silence… a white blank on the page. Frank Bidart cultivates that space as he collects the seeds of language and positions them. High tone and complex diction set the stage for fear, ghosts and tragedies.

Bidart has been described as fastidious—the work is chiseled but admits a touch of humor and genuine piety. “Your new poem must, you suspect, steal from// The Duchess of Malfi. Read it tonight alone.” The internal aside of “you suspect,” advances a dry (yet droll) argument—backed up by the rigorous instruction to read it.

The poet strings communication lines between the living and dead. The casualties of Gettysburg file by accusing us of betrayal (and recalling Robert Lowell’s “Union Dead”). The title poem is based on Tu Fu’s observations of an imperial fete in 753. Power is illustrated, exposed and recognized as dangerous.

In a later poem, Bidart returns to the “Festival” and accepts responsibility for “the problems of making// art.” He even identifies one big problem: “a great abundance/ which is the source of fury.” His moral compass isn’t lost in the bid for immortal verse.

Finally, “Collector” is a reverie in which the poet hoards and stores seeds (read words) to carry sustenance and design into the future.

Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover, eds. and trans.,
Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry
(Milkweed Editions, 2008)

The flavor of a country is best savored in its poetry. The history shared by a people brands their collective zeitgeist, and poetry, by noting local particulars, can reveal the universal.

In considering Vietnamese poetry, one expects a meditative and naturalistic kinship with ancient Chinese poetry… a topography of rivers, flowers, lanterns, rice, bats and perfume. But that’s only one ingredient.

Vietnam’s French colonial history supplied an impatient surrealism just as Communism brought Mayakovsky and Neruda via Russia and Cuba. This comprehensive overview spanning sixty years (and including Vietnamese Americans) makes for a supreme read. It also represents that rare combination of insiders and outlaws.

Poetry is serious business in Vietnam. Several of the best poets included spent years in the “prison without bars,” excluded from civic life and sometimes sent to reform camps—for poems!

Dang Dinh Hung fought for freedom of expression in the 1950s. His long poem “From the New Horizon” was seminal in creating a modern style and melds Western existentialism with traditional folk songs. His metaphors are arcs of triumph: “I eat new silent symbols, feeding myself one/ at a time with the fork of memory.”

Vietnam’s war for independence evokes heroism, sorrow and undying resolve, while the countryside provides endless delight, from Dong Quang to Ba Trai.

Gabriela Jauregui, Controlled Decay
(Black Goat/Akashic Books, 2008)

Jaguar warrior, globetrotter, political provocateur, shape-shifter—Mexico’s Gabriela Jauregui is off to a propitious start with her debut. Lean and lithe lines spill and unfold down the page, sometimes breaking out into liberating open verse. This freedom captures the spirit of an inventive maverick (who still respects her elders).

Aztec plant names, Saharan place names, an assassinated Lebanese journalist’s name; Jauregui’s range vibrates with worldliness. From a Paris window we imagine Jules Verne. Mandelstam’s widow writes a letter to Anna Akhmatova. We hear soliloquies from grassroots revolutionaries fighting for indigenous rights in Chiapas. And in the tradition of the late Cuban artist Anna Mendieta, nowhere is the poet more at home than in her own body.

“Twig” is a taut little three-stanza poem. “I keep coming back/ to the same aridity/ I call home.” That’s solid. Sometimes Jauregui disconcertingly mixes metaphors. “Tough” turns a heart into a Kleenex and then into stale bread.

When Jauregui rips the cord on the chainsaw though, she cuts straight through. “After Goya (and Fallujah and Kigali and Juarez and Da Nang…)” reaches a passionate fever pitch we associate with Latin giants like Ernesto Cardenal and Nicanor Parra.

The neo-rococco cover by Assume Vivid Astro Focus complements the poems, presenting a non-hierarchical bustle of organic and technical beauty.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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