David St. John, who teaches at the University of Southern California and whose new book was nominated for the National Book Award, is a gorgeous writer. This has been true of his work from the beginning, but I think even those who have followed him closely will be taken by surprise when they read "Study for the World's Body." It is a selection of poems, and gathers work from St. John's four previous collections, beginning with the stylish and much-praised "Hush" of 1976, adds to it the best of "The Shore" (1980), "No Heaven" (1985), "Terraces of Rain" (1991) and concludes with a final section of newer poems. This last section is called "Merlin," and it is what is likely to surprise St. John's readers, new and old.
Because it is not just gorgeous, it is go-for-broke gorgeous. It is made out of sentences, sweeping through and across his meticulous verse stanzas, that could have been written, for their velvet and intricate suavity, by Henry James. But that doesn't quite describe them, since they are also full, almost past ripeness, of a floating, sometimes painful, sometimes wistful, intense, dark and silvery eroticism that feels like it comes out of some cross between late 19th-Century symbolist lushness--vague and specific at once--and the kind of '60s and '70s European film that talked about eroticism with a wistfulness so intense that it seemed experience and the melancholy recollection of experience were the same thing. Mallarme and Eric Rohmer, perhaps. Or Rilke and Michaelangelo Antonioni.
Here is one such sentence from "A Fan Sketched With Silver Egrets," a poem which bears the subtitle, "Hommage a Mallarme":
\o7 As this flights of egrets
Across the silk mask, this fan
Held so softly to your lips,
Seems to break apart as slowly
As blown ash, feathers rippling in the heavy
Weather of evening, you need not speak\f7 . . . \o7 even here,
Concealed by this soft wing (like a mirror
Trembling, like Narcissus' own breath),
As I lean closer to you, ready to step
Into a future so pure, we will both lose
Our separate ways. . . .\f7
This is of course, mimicry, homage. And as you can give yourself over to it for the pleasure of it, a question is likely to occur to you: What is a well-known American poet, a Southern California poet in the 1990s, doing replicating, even exaggerating--but lovingly, without parody, as if it were a hypnotic tracing of the older hand--the style of the 1880s?
There's not much mistaking this intent. The first of the new poems St. John collects begins with an epigraph from Paul Valery's essay on Mallarme, and reads like--perhaps it is--a translation, not quite a parody, of one of Mallarme's sonnets. Listen to the beginning of it:
\o7 I know the moon is troubling.
Its pale eloquence is always such a meddling,
Intrusive lie. I know the pearl sheel of the sheets
Remains the screen I'll draw back against the night.\f7
This moonstruck tone is not only the very atmosphere of that late 19th-Century style known as "the decadence," the "troubling/meddling" rhyme is the very sound of Mallarme. Listen to this, a bit further on in the poem:
\o7 I know the orchid smell of your skin
The way I know the blackened path to the marina,
When gathering clouds obscure the summer moon,
Just as I know the chambered heart where I begin.
I know too the lacquered jewel box, its obsidian patina. . . .\f7
Readers who don't know St. John and start this book at the beginning will come to these poems last, of course. And I think the experience will be surprising because of these last poems. It's as if you were watching a movie of the history of modern poetry being run backward. The book begins with the up-to-date, uncannily deft voice of "Hush" with its mid-70s ironies. Almost 20 years ago, the early post-modern phase, when young poets were fascinated with John Ashbery's immaculately impure way of going nowhere in a poem on the plausible theory that there was nowhere to go. In "Hush," St. John found his own version of the non-sequitur narrative.
His second, "The Shore," is all eros and elegy. The poems have let go the shifty, playful postmodern manner and turned to meditative first-person lyrics, something like those of Kenneth Rexroth's of the 1940s and '50s. They are full of coastal imagery, radiant with romantic desolation and with loss.
There is one line that sums up this intense melancholy: "Even the sea sings one octave in the past."
What most marks "No Heaven" and "Terraces of Rain" is the experience of Europe, St. John's love affair with the landscapes of Italy and with Italian modernism. "No Heaven" modulates between the styles of the first two books, and if "The Shore" is obsessed by a woman, "No Heaven" is obsessed by women.