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Poets' Corner

October 26, 2003|Carol Muske-Dukes


Heather McHugh

Wesleyan University Press: 80 pp., $20

The poems in Heather McHugh's "Eyeshot," her seventh collection, travel (as usual) faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings. McHugh, with her comic-book moxie and her linguistic virtuosity, is a kind of Superwoman of poetry. The poems focus on what is within "eyeshot," or visible, but their true subject is the author's mortal acuity.

The trouble was the truck

Took broadside dispositions

from the wind; the eye

(which drove the mind's

attention to the road)

was now forever being teased

from its intents and constancies.

By some mysterious osmotic process (that seems nearly impossible, given the resistance of her surfaces), she manages to draw lyric music out of all the verbal acrobatics:

There's love

and then there's love. (The cross is cross;

the bloodletters have razorblades.)

When nursery curtains billow, is it

spirit, or a virus? Tell us true. (It

ought to be a breeze.) The mirror sets its trap for two

This music is confident and immediately identifiable as McHugh's. Vatic sass and rat-a-tat-tat. Her perspective has grown darker over the years -- there is less larking around for its own sake but there is new constancy and power, even as the "real" world around her grows more lunatic.


Lives of the Animals

Robert Wrigley

Penguin: 112 pp., $17

Robert WRIGLEY'S voice is deceptive: In "Lives of the Animals," it is quiet, civil, yet before you know it you're in another world -- of split nature, animal instinct and human desire, with nothing mollifying what occurs before your eyes:

The bat's opened thorax blips

-- that's its heart

beating, says the boy -- and its mouth bites

at the air, and the cat

that brought it down sits two steps below

and preens, while the pale cone

shed by the porch light makes and remakes itself

with the shadows of miller, moth and midge.

This is not idealized pastoral poetry but dark farm-talk and fundamental, unfussed drama. It hasn't the vertiginous blood-thunder of D.H. Lawrence. Rather, the domestic/wild conflicts hint at the Frost of "Home Burial" or "Directive" -- a world of threat and longing beneath the quotidian surface. Some poems swerve toward the sentimental (a child asks her dog to say "I love you," the gratuitous bruit of "my brothers") but most are starkly drawn and compelling.


Ostinato Vamps

Wanda Coleman

University of Pittsburgh Press: 116 pp., $12.95

"Arch of eyebrow, crook of pinkie / pimp clothes dripping glitter gold / he's as sincere as salmon -- dream suction / that reefer-lipped guerrilla ... " So enters Wanda Coleman, striding through the pages of her new book, "Ostinato Vamps." The heady humor of "dream suction / that reefer-lipped guerrilla" lifts the standard of flashing irony but drops it, hammer-like, in the nonstop rhythms of performance poetry. This book, her first since the demise of her longtime publisher, Black Sparrow, relies more on her "warrior voice" than consistent meditative construction. Yet the poems circle back on thought-talk:

i write on my body, messages for seers....

i strive because i must. i love out of spite. i pledge

my allegiance to a standard of ashes, embers, and soot.

this is my anthem, a strident jig in the night

to that music beyond jazz

"Music beyond jazz" is what she has always aspired to, that extremity of emphatic, Orphic sound. Coleman has always been her own circus, her own church, her own shrine and stable. "Ostinato Vamps," dark and light in its obsessions, takes the reader on a tour of that mad latitude.

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