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Nonfiction : Alternate Means Of Transport

December 29, 1985|CAROL MUSKE

by Cynthia MacDonald (Knopf: $14.95). Cynthia MacDonald has been a maverick among poets. Her fans and detractors alike are surprised by each new occurrence in her work--her verses have seemed more like events than poems. No one else writes quite like her. Her work is a circus of variety: If one poem is surrealistic, the next is unrelentingly literal; if a few are "Orphic journeys," others are self-igniting cartoons. In her fourth book, "Alternate Means of Transport," she provides the freak-show grotesqueries and operatic passions, but the carnival-barker atmosphere seems to exist less for its own sake and more in ultimate service of a gentler integrating sensibility--her diction smoother, harmonious; a more lyrical and resounding line. Further, these poems are all part of a sequence, woven together like cloth figures on a loom: Words, phrases, images recur in patterns throughout the book. The unifying effect of this visual leitmotif gives profundity and compassion to her treatment of theme. To be sure, characters are humiliated in reassuringly weird ways, a population of hats conducts itself like Hitchcock's "The Birds," we enter a painting and find the painted figures have indigestion and put camphor in their woolens, but they are never one-dimensional, and the author turns from them to lines like these:

We are in the dark. Illuminated by static, by the electricity

of the synthetic, love--a plain song, a pliant is asked

to do more than it can. It is perhaps, what we have left.

It would be all right to be left with this strummed lyre: Ulysses is far away on his wine-dark sea, and Penelope is weaving a whole new plot, a whole new poesy. This is not just verse that will suffice, it is verse that will alter everything we take for granted about poetry.

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