YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Laws of Ice by Reynolds Price (Atheneum: $20; 116 pp.)

May 17, 1987|Helen Buck Bartlett | Bartlett is a contributing editor for The Paris Review. and

W.H. Auden once wrote, "Through art, we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible." In June of 1982, Reynolds Price discovered he had cancer. Many of the poems in this collection explore the territory of dying. As a poet, he treads the line between the living and the dead. He writes to the dead, and the dead speak back through his poems.

Price is best known as a novelist. His sixth and most recent novel, "Kate Vaiden," was a best seller and won The National Book Critics' Circle award. He has written short stories, essays, plays; "The Laws of Ice" is his second book of poetry.

The collection is divided into three sections, but by far the most impressive is "Part II: Days and Nights," which consists of prose poems from a journal Price kept during the year he discovered his illness. He records daily occurrences, thoughts and dreams with exquisite clarity and feeling.

In "Late Visit," the late arrival of the migrating heron portends his own measurable fate: "Endurance or death. What news today?" In "Mother," he speaks to his dead mother on what would have been her 80th birthday, "Will your own starved lips/ Move once to save me?" as if she could breathe life back into him. While in "Pears," he celebrates the memory of his father bringing home pears for him. The taste of "cool flesh" and his father's voice come back to him when he returns home from surgery "(tumor still in me)."

The first and third sections pale in comparison to the second. Price has a tendency to be pedantic and uninvolving. The lines are overwritten, burdened with awkward phrasing.

In these sections, the most successful poems are narrative and personal. Price is a fine storyteller, and poems like "The Last Conversation," "A Heaven for Elizabeth Rodwell, My Mother," "Before The Flood," "House Snake" and "Three Secrets" reflect this talent. The images are clear and startling; the language, direct and lyrical.

This work explores mythological and biblical themes and has strong religious overtones. Sometimes he treats these themes with a formal distance; but when he humanizes these mythic characters, the poems are convincing.

In "Three Secrets," a three-part poem, Joseph, Mary and Jesus tell their secrets about the misfortune and pain of being the chosen. Price conveys the complicity of human regret with stunning force. Joseph admits that he never once made love to Mary and died still haunted by her beauty. Mary tells how she wished she said no to the angels who gave her the news that she would be the mother of Christ--"Who was I, fifteen/ To say flat No?" Jesus' secret is that he never felt fully human--never touched out of love, only for healing or the raising of corpses from the dead.

Although the collection is uneven, be patient, for there are poems that quietly build. His autobiographical poems are the voice of a human who has been close to death and is now re-experiencing life.

Los Angeles Times Articles