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October 29, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

OTHER TRADITIONS

By John Ashbery

Harvard University Press:

192 pp., $22.95

Sometimes we read, eagle-eyed, to pick out the important, useful bytes, as though we were shopping for information. This predator-prey relationship is good for newspapers and magazines and billboards but not books. There are writers who refuse to be read this way, and the poet John Ashbery is one of them. He structures sentences to bury information in their belly clauses; his poetry is far more accessible than his prose. Early in this collection of essays on six little-known poets, Ashbery comes clean: "As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled." He's on the run clutching his secret. If you happen to catch him, you'll learn something about John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Rousell, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding and David Schubert. The first three are 19th century poets, the last three early 20th century. Ashbery does not try, as one of the critics he quotes puts it, to "jimmy" these poets "into the Great Tradition." He has chosen them for the inconsistency in the quality of their work, often due to turbulent lives, and often the cause of their obscurity. But he unearths their shining moments, examples of their best, most lasting poems. He untangles their lives from their work, their obscurity from their talent and their importance to us from their obscurity.

*

SLAVES ON SCREEN

Film and Historical Vision

By Natalie Zemon Davis

Harvard University Press:

176 pp., $22.95

When Natalie Zemon Davis, professor of history at Princeton University, author of "The Return of Martin Guerre" and several other books on political-social-historical-cultural moments says, "Come over here and look at this," you know you're going to get a very specific, anatomically correct description. She is sometimes heavy-handed in her insistence on ways of seeing, and sometimes you wish she'd just say what she wants to say instead of dragging you there, but her subject is always worth considering. Here, Zemon-Davis looks at five films on slavery: "Spartacus" (1960), "Burn!" (1969), "The Last Supper" (1976), "Amistad" (1998) and "Beloved" (1999) and considers how slavery is portrayed and how its history is treated. She compares the writing of history (which has been around for 2,500 years) with feature filmmaking about history (which has been around for 100 years) and concludes: "Historical films should let the past be the past." There are parts of each of these films that Zemon-Davis admires. But each one falls into the habit of "[w]ishing away the harsh and strange spots in the past, softening or remodeling them like the familiar present." This will, she writes, only "make it harder for us to conceive good wishes for the future."

*

THE THRONE OF LABDACUS

By Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

102 pp., $23

SUPERNATURAL LOVE

Poems 1976-1992

By Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

278 pp., $19

Jump right in. Let the language wash over you. "The Throne of Labdacus" is a book-length poem about Oedipus, the guy who killed his father and slept with his mother. You'll hear "pegs squeaking in the holes / Of the lyre as if the god were setting a text / To the music of wooden wheels / on a stridulous cart passing out of Thebes." You'll figure out the cosmography. Gods were not God but imperfect and sometimes powerless like humans. Forces bigger than the gods sweep through this poem, and all of Schnackenberg's poetry has this consequential layering: We live in this moment; we think about this moment; we get lost in this moment; this moment is part of a river of moments. Perhaps something is watching the river. "Eyeless necessity" is a phrase that darts through the water of the poem like a silvery fish, like the sound of the pegs on the lyre or the wheels on the cart leaving Thebes. Schnackenberg sews herself to history and myth. You cannot disentangle her story from the story of language.

*

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO

SURVIVAL HANDBOOK

By Joshua Piven

and David Borgenicht

Chronicle Books: 176 pp., $14.95

Quick. Life is passing. While you've been sitting around reading poetry and history, planes are crashing, folks are being eaten by alligators and innocent hikers are being sucked into quicksand. Here's a book, really a guide, that you can prey on for information. "The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook" tells you how to jump from a bridge into a river, how to cushion a blow to the head, how to maneuver on top of a moving train and get inside and, yes, how to land a plane. There's so much more. No language, no hidden clauses, just simple red and white type. A really entertaining little emergency book.

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