OBSERVATIONS FROM THE IVORY TOWER-BLOCK


The Clearing
by David Keplinger
Somebody Stand Up and Sing
by Hugh Seidman
[$14 each, Green Rose Books]


These are two American academics - creative writing teachers - and you might have guessed it from their poetry which is polished and, I think, rather detached.

David Keplinger is an elegant, intellectual poet. The Clearing
is his second collection - the first won the TS Eliot prize in 1999. Perhaps detachment is the wrong word for the pensive coolness of Keplinger's poetry. There is an understated compassion in such poems as 'Death Mask of John Keats', 'Clocks Kept Upside Down...', 'Sleep', and a gentle regret for loneliness and for the failure of relationships in 'Basic Training', 'North' and 'Late Realism':

     Love wants to be sadness. Therefore,
     The land cannot be saved. The farmers    
     Must resort to ardent prayer. In their cornfields,
     A Bronze Age armor hardens
     On the stalks. The tassels will not fight.

     Consider the woman who sparked
     A forest fire that spread a hundred miles:
     She was a ranger burning letters from a former love.
     That she burned them out of love
     Did not save the land. The land cannot
     Be saved by us. It does not need the past.

Keplinger is obviously a cultured man who has read widely and travelled. There are references to Keats, Blake, Cortez, Matisse, Frost, Donne, Darwin, Chekhov, Lorca; various locations in Europe and America; Egyptian funerary exhibits - he's certainly a poet who thinks. Quotations from Blake, Eliot, Meister Eckhart form the starting points for poems. God, angels, death-camps, the slaughter of pig, fish, chicken are all grist for his questioning mind. Myth is important too, both existing myth as something to be explored, as in 'Icarus After Matisse', and myth-making as a way of organising ideas, as in 'Correspondences' and 'Attractions'.

He is good at the neat, exact descriptive phrase: 'the small mouse just born into this world, / Total as a thumb.' ('Elegy for the Precious Time Before Dinner'); 'Pay attention to the crow. / The windpipe / With its tiny rungs.' ('Instructions for the Lost'); 'The corn, like frail miraculous cilia, wheezes / Whenever wind spears through those narrow alleys.' ('Breast Exam'); 'The small TV atop the mantle // Blabbed like in a basket in the clouds;' ('The Birth of Tragedy')

Keplinger's poems need to be read more than once, and preferably slowly, at the rate of three or four a day. I found them dry at first but they grew on me.


I thought I might prefer Hugh Seidman, who is clearly older. Somebody Stand Up and Sing is the latest of several collections. But I didn't. Again, I was looking for some sort of emotional communication and I didn't get it. The poems tend to be sophisticated, urban, cerebral. I found the collection over-long and the poems often seemed 'bitty'.

However, Seidman has many strengths. He is a master of conciseness, which I like. Quite often his lines contain only two or three words. A number of very short poems such as haikus are included in the collection. I admired some of them: 
    
     Clerk: "A year's pay in
     Brazil." Leather-coat-tag brag:
     Scars make skins unique.
          ('Sale' from 'Filthy Lucre')

     Film-star daughter. Same
     face bones; black hair not white-blonde.
     How dark a sun chars.
          ('For C.' from '5 Poems')

Others passed me by:

     The Ironclads! Backed!
     Full faith/credit of
     Parnassus!
          ('Capital' from 'Composition: 7 Poems')

Very terse lines can be puzzling as in these first three stanzas of 'Ally, Enemy':

     On Nardil, thought:
     what, unthought,
     bled thoughts?

     On Nardil, dozed:
     images flared, went.
     How hold event?

     Sipped coffee to keep up.
     One came in dark.
     Ally, enemy.

And sometimes the poem feels like jottings - notes towards a poem rather than the thing itself. 'Burial Garden Memorial: Father-in-law' starts:

     Son-in-law's Wordsworth's "Ode."
     Granddaughter's clarinet "Rock of Ages."
     Brethren brother's Armageddon eulogy.

     Cabinet carpenter.
     Newspaper deliverer.
     Green bean sower.
     Bendix brake assembler.
     World War sailor.

The poems cover or at least mention a wide range of topics - serious ones, important ones - father, mother, wife, previous girlfriends; homeless, mutilated or dying people; Biafra, Sudan, Freetown, Hiroshima; but rarely do the poems move me. As I read them I tend to feel baffled. Am I missing something? But some poems do work for me. The spareness of 'Thinking of Warsaw' and 'Thinking of Baghdad' can't disguise the poet's outrage and horror.

          Chris Considine 2005