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February 22, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Loving a Woman in Two Worlds, Robert Bly (Harper & Row: $5.95). "Is there enough left of me now to be honest?," asks Robert Bly. He never finds out in these passionate pages, but there is no anguish in his uncertainty, for Bly's is an unusual spirit--largely content despite indecision. We usually expect writers to convey a resolute point of view, but Bly is an observer, not an interpreter. His strength is not in emotional or intellectual resolve but in realistic depiction--his ability to capture a topsy-turvy inner world through precise, evocative word-pictures. Bly's other important asset is a voice that makes grief mystical, sadness liberating. His narrator sees sorrow as inevitable ("to do what we do / does not mean joy") but realizes that it helps build foundations ("among the timbers growing on earth grief finds roots"). He continually challenges us with new concepts of shelter and security. In "Returning Poem," for instance, Bly watches a boat sail into a shelter, brothers retreat to an attic bedroom, a deer settle on "her curving grass" and then confronts us with a1847620974sleep in the middle of a lake.

Bly is attracted to this unorthodox shelter--"I float in the current, calm and mad as a sleepy cork"--but not always strong enough to make it his home. In "Rainy September," he realizes that a love relationship should end, for it brings only paralyzing dependency: "The time has come. I have put off choosing for years . . . The love I have had with you is / enough." But rather than leaving the woman and riding new, more unpredictable emotional currents, Bly's narrator loses resolve and becomes isolated not only from his lover but from himself: "We stay in the room, door closed, lights out. / I weep with you without shame and without honor." Most of these poems, nevertheless, celebrate love as a part of nature, a way of living with ever-changing moods: "I see when I walk how well all things / lean on each other . . . / I love you with what in me is unfinished."

Battles of Life and Death, David Hellerstein MD (Warner: $6.95). These moving stories of people fighting for life from the fringe are as much about the doctors as the patients. Forced to deal with death each day, many of the physicians whose stories are told grippingly in these pages become desensitized or, as their patients see it, insensitive. David Hellerstein, a psychiatrist, finds it especially hard to keep this professional distance, for he realizes that in his field, empathy and understanding are often more important than the latest objective methods of diagnosing bipolar disorders. A few of the more seasoned doctors profiled here successfully manage their emotions: One particularly cool and removed pediatrician who "never plays with children" surprises Hellerstein when she takes on a reassuring, motherly tone while trying to convince parents to allow tests on their child. Most of Hellerstein's colleagues are more like Izzy, however, a pediatrician who sits on a wooden rocking horse after losing a child in surgery, disconsolately resting his chin on its head and asking, "Why did he have to die on my hands?" This chapter on the author's work in the pediatrics ward of a hospital for the poor is the most jarring. "It's unsettling to hear them cry," writes Hellerstein of the intensive care unit. "They are always screaming and crying, but hoarsely, automatically, without much hope. You cannot save them all."

Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism, Franklin L. Ford (Harvard: $9.95). While this topic is, unfortunately, always timely, the author argues that the frequency of political murders is more erratic than we might think. Largely free of political assassinations, the author convincingly argues, were the first 400 years of the Roman republic, feudal Europe from the mid-11th to the early 14th centuries and Europe from the middle of the 17th Century until almost the end of the 18th. Surprisi1852271737at Harvard, concludes that "high assassination rates have not generally accompanied extremes of repression any more than they have tended to coincide with major wars." Instead, most political murders occur "in times characterized by nervous concessions and partial reforms from above, of growing political excitement, high expectations and impatient demands for still more rapid change."

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