Deborah Garrison's The Second Child is a typical Manhattan collection. A book that
consists within a localizable domestic world where a poetry is expressed to
an audience of the author's father, husband and children; and even where more
broadly addressed to an outside world never beyond the protective enclave of
Garrison's coterie of New York intelligentsia. The impetus or stimulus to the
work is the birth of the author's son and the related changes and challenges
of living and giving birth to a child in Manhattan and its surroundings
post-9/11. The insularity of the collection is startling.
The first poem, 'On New Terms', published in The New Yorker where she worked for fifteen years, establishes
the typical emotional posture of the collection:
I'd like to
begin again. Not touch my
own face, not
tremble in the dark before
who never arrives. Not
Not scurry, not pace. Not
keep notes of what meant the most.
There is a pleasing spareness to Garrison's writing. In 'Not Pleasant but
True' we see her making the brave and noble attempt at a confession of her
passing contemplation of suicide, but she never gives the event the
significance or signification it requires, so resolutely stuck she seems
within the furious racing of her own thoughts. She concludes the poem
pathetically with these lines: 'Someone take from me / this crazed love, //
such battering care / I lost my mind Š // I was going to leave you / without
Most of the time we find Garrison admitting to a kind of stubborn interiority
in poems like 'A Human Calculation'--where she goes through the hypothetical
scenario of deciding who to let the terrorists take first--and in 'To the Man
in a Loden Coat' where she forthrightly declares 'I'm self-absorbed'. There
is something decidedly regressive and strange about the paranoid conspiracy
theories she spins in these poems.
At her best, her meditative moments are memorable passing fancies, as in
poems like 'Play Your Hand': 'Like sound packed / in a trumpet's bell, its
glossy / exit retains that shape, printing // its curve in reverse on the
ear.' There are also harrowing moments of strange and beautiful poetry. For
example, 'Cascade', a hearkening back to first, precious moments of conjugal
love, is a poem which contains some lovely metaphors:
laughed because it was so odd
to be us (of all the gin joints...),
ocean from ourselves.
At the other end of the scale, there is much baby-talk and baby-logic. In
'The Necklace' the trivialities of a child's reaching for his mother's
jewellery is given voice in the form of the 'tiny man's' having 'wah-wahed'
(49). And in 'How Many' where she falls victim to the play of baby logic
without ever considering what Erik Erikson or Piaget might have to say: 'How
tall is this house? / How many stories, / how many can I stack / and how
high?' These are oversimplified rather than the expression of an innate
intelligence. In 'Either Way, No Way' the rhymes veer into Dr. Seuss
you're scanning the crowd
you're buying the ice cream
with the man
Who sells the
Who came here
When he was
To make a new
Again, we don't know here who needs the education: the child or the poet,
such is the phlegmatic ingˇnue reality of these poems. In 'Birth Day Pun'
Garrison, for once, questions her role as a mother--surprising for the author
of A Working Girl Can't Win,
her first collection in which she chartered the challenges of a working
But there are several exceptional and standouts to the collection that
demonstrate a genuine metaphorical talent. These are 'A Joke' and 'A Poem
About an Owl'--and in terms of rhythm, sound and originality, the kind of
vaudeville reworking--'Goodbye, New York'. 'A Joke' is, ironically, the most
serious and tightly controlled and thoroughgoing poem in the collection.
There is a real irony and bite to this kind of mental exercise that is quite
satisfying and fulfilling:
containing as it must
a stab at
language Š I suckee,
suckee, we suckee! Š
branded you a
babyhood. There came
a shudder at
the teasing, near-
premise, not felt with girls.
tears, pressing up
at the punch
to give you
I'll have to
Here there is a real depth and originality that take the poet out of herself.
In Stephen Romer's Yellow Studio there is ample evidence of patience craftsmanship,
knowledge, vision and ambition. This is one of the best collections of the
year and a near gem. The only thing perhaps that takes the poems down a level
is the concessions Romer makes to an assumed popular audience and the
occasional nature of some of the earlier poems where he seems in search of
inspiration or a means of anchoring his verse. 'Recidivist' is a good example
of the conflicting strains of his poetry. It begins:
So this how
at a corner
in a stale
boulevard of abulia.
With a small
jug of tepid water
eternal Lipton's teabag
genteelly on the saucer.
Romer has served his time at Oxbridge or Cambridge and on the OED and I
appreciate his scholarly investment in words, but the line about 'on the
boulevard of abulia' seems rather trite. The second part of the poem is much
better and possesses real imaginative capability:
To slake our
You will not
And I as
have a train
for the provinces.
Even the turn
of your calf
is enough to
make me ache.
The way your
blue dress rises.
At its best, Romer's poetry can certainly obtain a prized evanescent quality.
Sometimes, when he is more spontaneous and more colloquial, he has a tendency
towards the witty turn-of-phrase, as in 'Figment': 'Stopped at source. Not desire
/ but the knowledge of desiring. // I send the sutras to all and sundry and
preach / what I cannot practise'.
The real gift of Romer's poetry is its myth-making, the mixing of the myths
of scholars and of love and the incidences of introjection are distinctly his
own. There are numerous marvellous examples of this ability. Romer tells his
story through books and their traits. The poem 'Threading it all...' is one of
my favourites in the collection; it speaks to a need for mentorship and
praise from a father-figure:
all, and shadowing
more deeply unsure:
self-esteem, the struggle,
despairing, against failure
self-exclusion, the need
that another's vitality
of a soul
One could spend all day praising this collection for its wordplay and the
knowledge it has to offer, but I keep coming back to its moments of quiet
sophistication and revelation, especially those about the speaker's father in
the last section. Consider just three lines from 'Straws' which demonstrate
Romer's almost preternatural awareness. He is speaking of his dying father:
'I kiss him briefly on the forehead / --as he would do, and leave my door
ajar, / and go downstairs for supper'. I will return frequently to this
collection if only for the remembrance of such moments from a poet of strange
and wonderful synergies.
David Pollard's Patricides is his first excursion into poetry despite his being a senior member
of the academic/literary community and it follows a well-attested tradition.
Pollard is interested in the connections between philosophy and poetry and
how these two might meet as well as the harmonies and discordances such a
meeting might produce. Pollard is concerned with the common cause of God,
religion, the role of poetry after the Holocaust, the frailty and abuse of
language. All things that most good poets are concerned with, if not so
apparently in the texture of their work. In many ways, Patricides is a very good first attempt that examines our
duty to our forefathers and literary predecessors. His writing is most
distinct and valuable in its navigation of the pacing and pausing in poetry.
into the air
echoes against the dawns
There are some strong images here, but I find it a bit too pared down. Where
Pollard widens his voice in poems like 'Wer wischt dies Blut von uns ab?' or
'Who will wipe the blood off us?' the effect is more successful: even
reminiscent of Rimbaud in its distillations. At all times, this work
functions on the poet's handling of puns and double entendres, his
demonstration of the slipperiness of language and the concentration of
thought, as in 'between gasp':
ward when not even
you leave me
say no more
Pollard is an interesting thinker rather than an innovator, someone who
problematizes our idea of poetic events and the different landscapes and
contexts in which they take place.
Ranon Uri Rotstein 2009
Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein is a Visiting
Scholar at Massey College
University of Toronto. He is Poetry Editor of the Jewish
Quarterly in London, England.