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  A FATAL DULLNESS

RIFF ON SIX, New and Selected Poems
by James Reiss, 165pp, £9.95, $13.95, Salt Publishing, PO Box 397, Great Wilbraham, Cambridge CB1 5JX, UK.

There is a not particularly indignant (for an American) poem on the destruction of the World Trade Centre, and several poems highly critical of the American toppling of the regime in Iraq. Nothing in this gives us any really memorable lines, though there is strong wit in the last line of the sarcastic, anti Donald Runsfeld poem, ‘Gin Rummy’: ‘You’re everybody’s image of the nice / Guy who’s no chump, no wimp like Jimmy Carter. / If God is smart, by golly, Don, you’re smarter!’ And the equally sarcastic-to-satirical poem on the U.S. president’s spokesman Ari Flischer is good; but elsewhere in several places the poet’s anger leads to indelicacy, viz, ‘While stirring up his bloody mush / He shits but knows just how to flush’, or ‘This means we shit on them before they shit / On us. It doesn’t take a lot of wit...’ No, it doesn’t to write like that. However, the parodies (again all concerned with the current state of affairs concerning Iraq) of famous carols, hymns and songs are first rate.

Apart from the political saeva indignatio of the recent political poems (he’s clearly a Democrat not a Republican) Reiss is a poet of the happy life. But the trouble with Happiness is its bedfellow Complacency; and this leads sometimes to slackness:

              Now the fan’s eye glues me to its dream
              of ice cubes, and I think
              of rice paper hand fans unfolding

              in formal gardens between evergreen hills
              that could be called mountains.

‘That could be called mountains.’? Really! Another associate of Happiness is Sentimentality: ‘My bliss leaps up like a honey-coloured Bengal tiger.’ Again, a touch of slackness here, save for snow tigers, aren’t all tigers ­ not just Bengal ones ­ ‘honey-coloured’?

The ‘straight’ poems I best liked were, for examples, ‘Castrati in Caesar’s Court’, ‘Game’, ‘Woodland Sketches’. Maybe it is that the poet has to go either back in time or back to nature to effect the requisite distance from his subject matter to give us his best work. Other poems I liked were ‘Sueños’, the beautifully painterly ‘People in Sunlight’, and, despite my criticism of the line about tigers, I liked ‘Passage’. But there is a fatal dullness at work in this book at times that harms the interest.


              © William Oxley 2003