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Poet's Corner

November 24, 2002|Carol Muske-Dukes

Hazmat, J.D. McClatchy, Alfred A. Knopf: 96 pp., $23

"HAZMAT" is one of those contemporary neologisms born of abbreviating and combining two other words -- "hazardous" and "material" are amputated and wed here in the title of J.D. McClatchy's new collection of poems. The poems turn on this pivot and return again and again to this notion of dangerous substance -- most dramatically and unforgettably in isolating the perilous encounter of each human consciousness with individual human corporeality: The "hazmat" for each one of us is the body itself.

Across the room, facedown on his own cot,

Stripped to the waist,

Felix wants Jesus Christ

Crucified on his shoulder blade ...

He wants light streaming from the wounds, a face

Staring right back at those who've betrayed him.

McClatchy's unflinching, bold, sure-voiced style and his ferocious alertness give these poems intimidating power, as if Auden and Baudelaire were partnered here. It's hard to imagine another poet capable of being wry and tender, unpredictable and measured, original and traditional -- within the body of a single poem. McClatchy has a bracing impatience that I have always loved. His thoroughly civilized voice has a black edge, a restrained fury to it. He seems at first to shrug off social consciousness -- till we recognize an underlying moral implacability. If he despairs, he also hungers for justice, for balance -- and uncovers for the reader a pathway back to the time bomb, to that ticking sense of our own flesh, that sense of how we die daily, and how we deny it daily, refusing to see how, breath by breath, we are toxic to ourselves.

*

Mechanical Cluster, Patty Seyburn, Ohio State: 106 pp., $21.95 paper

"Mechanical Cluster" is Patty Seyburn's second book and, like her first, it is brainy and provocative and engemmed with sparkling insights. This young poet is fearlessly speculative, willing to take on the big questions in a hosanna of detail:

like the stone struck by Moses' staff,

giving forth more water than the Hebrews could imbibe.

Too much or not enough:

water, manna, quail. Love, money, time.

Six days of work, one of rest;

six of toil, one of singing --

to keep the excess dammed? At bay?

To separate, on our minor scale, light from dark.

The collection's title, taken from a Ford Motor Co. manual's attempt to describe an automobile's instrument panel ("Your vehicle has a mechanical cluster") points up her sense of the movement of consciousness, associative in all its artifices, through time and space. If the book is just a little crammed, overstuffed with exclamatory diversion, it also manages to be absolutely sure of itself: a customized vehicle of thought and fancy, running smooth, gleaming and road-worthy, with a "natural" in the driver's seat.

*

Dumb Luck, Sam Hamill, Boa Editions: 102 pp., $13.95

The same clear and stubborn lucidity that chimes through earlier poems and translations by Sam Hamill resound here in "Dumb Luck." This book has the gravity and substance of his characteristic Zen meditations but also the longing of the meditative for absolute transparency and weightlessness. The "dumb" here seems less a reference to intelligence and more a nod to silence, the dumbness of awe. And "luck" connects to chance, as always -- since all luck defies knowledge or control. From a poem reflecting on the tragedy of Sept. 11:

We walk on the faces of the dead.

The dark fall sky grows blue.

Alone among ash and bones and ruins,

Tu Fu and Basho write the poem.

"I keep things simple in my hands and heart," Hamill says, and he honors a Buddhist "retreat" as an entry into the real world. These are jagged, elegiac, dumb and lucky poems that bow to the earth and sky -- and to the poet's own devout and compassionate heart.

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