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Poets' Corner

September 01, 2002|CAROL MUSKE-DUKES

SWAN ELECTRIC

Poems

By April Bernard

W.W. Norton: 88 pp., $22

April Bernard's new book, "Swan Electric," is juiced up but runs ultimately on a current of sweet melancholy. The swan is a time-honored literary symbol, plugged in and re-powered here like an electric company's neon sign.

The first section of the book offers an impressive array of sonnets that the author calls disheveled, but they are rather finely groomed: lyrical, colloquial, original. The sonnets set the tone for the entire book. We are in the hands of a poet-sophisticate but also (as Dickinson had it) an inebriate of air. From her sonnet "See It Does Rise":

Straight from my sun the light shoots up,

through my hair, ecstatic, and on to the place

of iced light and sharp cider, the taste of apples

pressed free, done with the bark and the bees

and the barrels: the clear golden blood you can pour

on your tongue or on the ground, it has risen past care

This Donne-ish aria to apple juice is but one voice in a startlingly versatile chorus. Tone shifts demonstrate her range:

So I was sitting in the bathtub

reading 'Eichmann in Jerusalem.'

The water was cold compared

with the day ...

or:

I don't know about you, but I've been looking

for a narrative in which suffering makes sense.

to:

I rustled about in the copse of fools:

Why does the Wampeer, glamour aside, yet reign?

If occasionally glib, the poems balance themselves on a beam of unflinching insight. Take them seriously and lightly. "Swan Electric" is a combination of Las Vegas, the Lower East Side and Lorca.

*

THE LATE WORLD

Poems

By Arthur Smith

Carnegie-Mellon Press:

72 pp., $12.95 paper

Arthur Smith is one of the best poets around and also one of the most neglected. In this age of poet self-promotion, he has not primped up or pandered his wares--his voice has always been quiet, steady, sure of itself. Grief runs through nearly every Smith line:

It's like

Going to bed at night--you can't

Help it--when someone you love dies,

You go there too.

But his spirit in these poems is so vigorous and graceful (and gently witty) that the particular and universal presence of death cannot overshadow the work.

Until the sharp heart gives way to whatever's

Harder than the human head

And its unrelenting grain.

Irony (not the facile variety) informs this poet's self-deprecating moments. It is a fine irony, born of seeing the heart through every hard experience yet somehow staying in love with the world. Read "The Late World" and see how the elegy can be turned into a song of praise and gratitude.

*

SPRINGING

New and Selected Poems

By Marie Ponsot

Alfred A. Knopf: 238 pp., $25

Like Carolyn Kizer, Ruth Stone and Mona Van Duyn, we are looking at, in Marie Ponsot, a powerful elder stateswoman of verse.

Ponsot has been around for a long time, cultivating a vineyard all her own. These grapes are grown dry and tart, no light effervescence here, rather a tawny, backlighted munificence is distilled in poem after poem. From "St.-Germain-des-Pres: Summer 1948":

Crooked like all our ideas of ancient ascension

The abbey tower topples a little toward us in the haze,

Looking lightning-struck atop the quiet afternoon

Her use of form is elegant and sure-footed, but there is something slow-ripening, something unhurried about her style. This kind of leisurely, faintly imperious manner can grow occasionally flat--and there are perhaps too many poems in this book--it might have been edited a bit more judiciously. But for the reader willing to spend time living within the slow-aging perfecting process of the Ponsot years, there are enormous rewards. Her words seem to rise on a swell of natural buoyancy and tonal pleasure:

In a skiff on a sunrisen lake we are watchers.

Swimming aimlessly is luxury, just as walking

Loudly up a shallow stream is.

As we lean over the deep well, we whisper.

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