The perennially boyish Richard Wilbur may be the first American poet to write decent verse at ninety—most poets have trouble at seventy, or fifty, or thirty. Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus at ninety, but poems of grace and depth are more likely to be written when the poet is still young and foolish. Wilbur was never the darkest of American poets—a kind of moral sunniness was always breaking in. He was sunny the way Frost can be sunny, though Frost is sunny only by cutting out three-quarters of his poems. Wilbur was the Frost left over, the Frost of most high-school anthologies.
Anterooms is a thin book, fattened with more blank pages than is healthy. In these not quite two-dozen new poems (with a handful of translations and a fresh flurry of riddles by the Latin poet Symphosius added as makeweights), Wilbur has made a belated virtue of brevity and simplicity. Some oddity of syntax or the quirky way one word leans against another opens the lines to a world more hesitant, more despairing, full of those anxieties Wilbur poems were once good at fending off.
The poems are at times so simple they could be mistaken for the linsey-woolsey of light verse, but at best they have the severity of memories long abided. In his twilight work, Wilbur has embraced Frost’s narrow, homespun diction, with a consequent gain in the register of emotion.
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.
Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.
This is more haunting the more one reads it: the dedicated pauses, with the delayed rhyme on sighs (taking full advantage of the abba quatrain), the dream house slowly revealed, the yearning for the death that is life again. Wilbur’s beloved wife of sixty-five years died four years ago—the gentleness of his longing is almost unbearable.
Wilbur’s first poems were published when Roosevelt was president—the verse manner was so staid, that could have been Teddy, not Franklin. The poet’s mastery was recognized from the start—in the decade after the war, he was a kind of cavalier’s cavalier—but that appreciation came with the reservations of a critic like Jarrell, who called him “delicate, charming, and skillful” (it’s not clear whether that was in ascending or descending order of sin). Hilarious though Jarrell’s review was, he seemed to be criticizing Wilbur for everything Wilbur was not—and what he chiefly was not was Lowell. The younger poet’s despair tended to be puckish, however tangled in the moral order of Grand Guignol. It tends that way still:
In this great form, as Dante proved in Hell,
There is no dreadful thing that can’t be said
In passing. Here, for instance, one could tell
How our jeep skidded sideways toward the dead
Enemy soldier with the staring eyes,
Bumping a little as it struck his head,
And then flew on, as if toward Paradise.
As I suggested in last spring’s chronicle, the poetry of the Second World War now looks more durable and ravaging than that of the First, though sometimes written by soldiers a lifetime later. I wish Wilbur had more often used the shock so naked here, and the black humor that is somehow beyond shock—it’s the cynicism of soldiers themselves, when they try to forget death.
Most of Wilbur’s work since about 1960 has been undernourished—after he devoted himself to translation, the Baroque manner degraded into mere fussiness and plasterwork. He lost the metaphysical unease that cut through the complicated rhyme schemes and prissy, overworked diction. Pound recognized that poetry is distinguished in part by melopoeia, the music of language, but language too sweetly musical can be
The poems in Anterooms are often well-worn homilies, without Frost’s rough charm. Though the riddles once more display Wilbur’s wearisome elegance, riddles are a form with both feet in the grave. Mallarmé and Brodsky, however, have rarely had finer translators—reading such pieces, I’m not wholly resentful that Wilbur spent much of his maturity translating the plays of Racine, Corneille, and Molière. To a crowd of middle-aged formal poets, Wilbur can do no wrong (every new book calls for a Fourth of July celebration); but his publicity machine is working a little hard to call this minor volume a “major event in poetic history.” Perhaps such praise should be reserved for The Waste Land, or Lyrical Ballads, or, hell, Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
There’s a lot of gushing in Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book, as if his emotions came at a discount from Costco. His best work has been taut, bristling with constraint, the saying urgent with meaning and the having said an achievement, not an indulgence. The populist strain in Komunyakaa, the wish to play to the rafters, has long fought with his love of classical literature and classical reserve. In The Chameleon Couch, the populist gets the upper hand.
Komunyakaa knows how to construct a complex poem, having learned more than a little from Derek Walcott. One piece starts with the poet making love; but something haunts him, following him along beaches, onto an airplane, until he realizes it’s the image of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a notorious center of the slave trade. He recalls his visit to that benighted place; yet, just where the poem gathers its resources for revelation, the only justice poetry offers, he lets an imaginary governor hector an imaginary woman captive:
There’s a tyranny of language in my fluted bones.
There’s poetry on every page of the Good Book.
There’s God’s work to be done in a forsaken land.
There’s a whole tribe in this one, but I’ll break them
before they’re in the womb, before they’re conceived,
before they’re even thought of.
Fluted bones! On and on the deadly bombast runs, from “I own your past,/ present, & future” to “I’ll thoroughly break you, head to feet,/ but, sister, I’ll break you most dearly/ with sweet words”—the descent of bathos becomes a headlong plunge. The problem is not Komunyakaa’s easygoing prose, studded with the ampersands all the hepcats use (he’s more comfortable in a register less rhetorical than the governor’s soap-boxing), but his failure to realize that the poem’s virtue comes from underplaying the monstrousness, rather than inventing a sneering villain no more believable than Snidely Whiplash.
Komunyakaa presents himself as a divided soul, a Vietnam vet torn between Donne and boogie-woogie, a man who has never forgotten his Louisiana roots but is unashamed of throwing Kant, or Hegel, or Kierkegaard into a poem. Yet beneath that surface lies the complacent pride that forces him to say, “Led Zeppelin is still in my nogginbox.” (Actually, a character says that, but the reader understands.) He’s a Sixties survivor who feels obliged to mention that he survived tear gas and billy clubs. Then he mentions it again.
Komunyakaa recognizes the power of his broken heritage, presented without the primping self-regard that has long marred the work of Walcott. Alas, Komunyakaa can’t resist the lure of political poems that say nothing beyond the drearily predictable, whether he visits Auschwitz in the guise of Orpheus, or conjures revolution in Iran, or sees up close the poverty of India. The reader might be forgiven for feeling that wherever evil lurks, there goes Komunyakaa—like Green Lantern or the Shadow.
Now in his mid-sixties, Komunyakaa is drawn to moral bullying, complete with gouts of mushiness (“I remembered the scent of loneliness/ in my coat left draped over the chair”), needy longing (“Anything for a hug or kiss,/ anything to be healed”), and histrionic pleas (“Why can’t they stop/ trying to find lost selves/ & outlaw galaxies?”), with William Carlos Williams plumminess (“Just bite into this one, & your tongue will remember/ foreverness”) added to taste. Not every poet can get teary-eyed over the silk worm:
A flounce of light is the only praise
it ever receives. I need to trust
this old way of teaching a man
to cry, & I want to believe in
what’s left of the mulberry leaves.
Humans crave immortality, but oh,
yes, to think worms wove this
as a way to stay alive in our world.
If a poet like this works very hard, and is very lucky, he might one day become a flabby sentimentalist like Gerald Stern.
Komunyakaa knows what a different poet he might be. He hears some sort of commotion outside his room in Shanghai but is reluctant to interfere. The next morning, he’s told that the baby of the couple down the hall had choked to death after swallowing a lead bird. (The poem’s ending is mawkish, but until then he channels C. K. Williams, that bard of guilty conscience, to stirring effect.) A prose poem reveals that the poet keeps the voice of a former lover, long dead, on his answering machine—the lines are far more telling in their mournful restraint than the poem on Auschwitz. The elegy gains in force from its discretion, for he never mentions that the woman, the poet Reetika Vazirani, murdered their baby before committing suicide.
Carl Phillips writes in a woozy, disembodied shorthand, his voice hovering over the page in lyrical meditation that seems to start before the poem begins and continue into Neverland after it ends. Double Shadow is the latest installment of this talking cure, the poems imitating the shortcuts and half-comprehensions of speech, or the drifts of memory:
Like any other kingdom built of wickedness and
joy—cracked, anchorless, bit of ghost in the making,
only here for now. Blue for once not just as in
forgive, but blue as blue . . . As affection was never
twilight, but a light of its own, blindness not at all
a gift to be held close to the chest, stubborn horse
meanwhile beating wild beneath it, stubborn heart,
a dark, where was a brightness, a bright where dark.
The slippage of syntax, the frequent negations and diminutions, the pushy abstractions, the showy antithesis—the intelligence is partly in the style, but also partly buried by style.
The poems offer experience both half-lit and melodramatic, like lost paintings by de la Tour. Phillips’s world, the world that syntax creates, is impoverished in connection and action—the poems can gasp out awe or chew on a gobbet of disappointment (most end on a note of affirmation or resignation—it’s either Yes! Yes! or Rats!), but they never argue or develop a thing. Phillips is an avatar to college students who write in fragments because they don’t know how to compose a complete sentence.
The freaks of syntax might work better if Phillips seemed in control, but the lines are frequently haunting and hapless at once: “Guttering in its stone urn from a century, by now,/ too far away, the candle made of the room/ a cavernousness.” Why were those errant commas after “century” and “now” allowed to stand? Was there no way to avoid a mouthful of Styrofoam like “cavernousness”? Such a style is intriguing, then frustrating, and at last irritating—or at worst insulting.
How the birches sway, for example. How they
tilt, on occasion, their made-to-tilt-by-the-wind
crowns. How by then he had turned his head
away, as if a little in fear; or shy, maybe . . . Also
the leaves having stopped their falling. Or there
were no leaves left—left to fall. Which to call
more true? Love
Many of Philips’s poems float along in the sublime and return to earth with a bump. If bathos is always a sinking, there must be a word for the updraft of pretension or profundity here, the sudden hot-air rise to blather. Love or mercy? Call that blathos.
Phillips is hardly the only contemporary addicted to blathos—there are poets much worse, blathos specialists like Li Young Lee and Mary Oliver. This seems a flaw more crippling, however, in a poet with a keen mind and quirky poetic gifts—despite his bundle of rhetorical tricks and knife-thin range, Phillips has an enviable interest in language, in the internal dialogues of hesitation and regret that fuel our self-deception (as Jorie Graham possesses, less fruitfully). The sentiment he lapses into is just sugarcoating, but in poetry sugarcoating is worse than arsenic. Phillips has published seven books of verse in the past eleven years (as well as a selected poems), books so similar they might be clones. Perhaps it’s time for him to take such serious gifts more seriously.
Rae Armantrout’s poems are micro-dreams of sly vanity, their brute coyness typical of much late-generation avant-garde poetry. Money Shot lives in stark juxtapositions—sometimes there’s a snippet of science (“each// stinging jelly/ is a colony”), sometimes a scrap of old-fashioned suburban imagism (“Stillness of gauzy curtains// and the sound/ of distant vacuums”), sometimes a touch of cut-rate surrealism (“Give a meme/ a hair-do”).
The “money shot” is a porn-factory term for filmed ejaculation, the eruptus of coitus interruptus. The dust jacket demurely shows the Duchess of Alba’s hand from Goya’s famous portrait—the connection is scarcely less mystifying than a few of the poems, though it could allude to her alleged affair with the painter, her supposed appearance as “The Naked Maja,” the price of Goya’s commissions, or any number of things. It’s a tease, as much of Armantrout’s work is a tease.
Most of her poems offer little resistance to the conscientious reader (the book could be read on a lunch break), but now and then they revel in the iffiness to which experimental poetry is dedicated:
Able to exploit pre-
Per. In. Con.
IndyMac was one of the big failed banks, the Independent National Mortgage Corporation. Armantrout commented on this passage in an interview with Chicago Weekly Online: “‘Mac’
. . . suggests McDonald’s, but also now ‘Mac’ing down’ on something, or ‘pac-man’—suggests a greedy franchise. And it’s paired with the word Indy, which suggests independent boutiques.
. . . Then ‘Able to exploit pre-/ existing’—that’s a phrase that I got from a newspaper article about banking. . . . You know, the banking system was able to exploit the pre-existing blah-blah-blah. And then the poem breaks into single syllables: ‘Tain.// Per. In. Con./ Cyst.’ All those syllables . . . occur in words like maintain, retain, persist, insist, consist, and then there’s just the word—cyst. I guess the words that are just syllables are a kind of cyst, free floating references to acquisition and attainment.”
This is not nearly as helpful as it is hilarious—I don’t know which is better, the loopy free-association or the blah-blah-blah. Yet how private these associations are, and how hopeless the road map to them. (There are free-floating cysts in the iris; but how you get from IndyMac to Pac-Man is a mystery—as criticism this is the Higher Ditziness of the Humpty Dumpty School.) If the Mac in IndyMac can mean McDonald’s, then Indy can mean Indiana Jones, independent film, Indianapolis, or any number of irrelevant things. As for that jumbled wordplay, sure—persist, insist, consist, as well as pertain and contain (though not intain). As for maintain and retain, it’s as if she hasn’t read her own poem.
Armantrout relies on a cloud of knowing to organize this unknowing, but you have to be Armantrout to live in the cloud. The temptation to make meaning by juxtaposition can be overwhelming, but it’s a temptation that should sometimes be resisted:
in my lower back
rising to be recognized
The blue triangles
on the rug
on the uses
This is funny, then not funny at all. The self-absorption of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet should not come at the expense of those who have suffered real torture.
The defense of a poetry of splinter and shard, of tessera and ostrakon, has long been that our fragmentary, disconnected modern lives are best reflected in fragmentary, disconnected forms (no wonder that after a little post-post-modernism a reader would kill for a little story). But why should art always imitate life—and why should its form somehow be imitative, too? (I doubt that life seems more fragmentary and disconnected now than during the Wars of the Roses.)
But they’re lying,
which degrades them.
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite Aid.
I look away before.
You can say various things about this poem, which seems perfectly easy to interpret. Ah, but I confess I just opened the book at random and picked out a stanza here or a line there—we have long needed a postmodern sors Vergiliana, and Armantrout is just the woman to provide it.
Armantrout is a museum exhibit of how unexperimental experimental poems have become. She relies on a very small bag of tricks, many of them old when free verse was young: the short, breathless lines; the smirking ars poetica (“‘Why don’t you just say/ what you mean?’// Why don’t I?”), the bodice-heaving antithesis (“The fear/ that all this/ will end.// The fear/ that it won’t”), with enjambments like stop signs—or, worse, bottomless abysses. Does she end a poem on “the”? Of course she ends a poem on “the”! Wallace Stevens once ended a poem on “the,” but he used it as a noun—and the poem was a much better poem. It wasn’t trying to imitate some fall into the emptiness of unmeaning.
I love Armantrout’s idea for a film genre called “diversity noir” (“a shape-shifter/ and a vampire// run rival/ drinking establishments”). She has a gift for the sneaky phrase (“Money is talking / to itself again”), but like a lot of experimental poets she can’t resist bossing the reader about. Poems that tease are appealing, but not ones that are teasing and bullying at once, that have a come-hither look and a go-thither command. The best poems here don’t try so hard to force the reader to go where the poet wants. Far too much experimental verse comes out of two phrases William Carlos Williams wrote in haste and perhaps regretted at leisure, phrases for which anthologists have been grateful ever since: “So much depends upon” and “This is just to say.” You could staple one or the other to the beginning of most avant-garde poems, and the poems would be no worse. They might even be better.
When Odysseus told his tales, he was compared to a singer; but Homer did not make him sing. Still, perhaps he should be considered the oldest poet-traveler known to us. Like Byron and Shelley, he saw the world, a world much smaller to the Greeks. The “poet-traveler” (a term we owe to Alphonse de Lamartine) became the model for the poet-jet-setter who has lunch in Abu Dhabi before a reading in SoHo, who picks up the check in one place and is handed a check in another.
Les Murray is our latest passport poet—like Walcott, Brodsky, and Heaney before him, his poems bear the stray anecdotes of life in exotic places, places that would have been beyond the means or stamina of a poor gypsy poet.
In a precinct of liver stone, high
on its dais, the Taj seems bloc hail.
We came to Agra over honking roads
being built under us, past baby wheat
and undoomed beasts and walking people.
Lorries shouldered white marble loads.
Murray’s muddled, lumpen imagery, half dry-wit and half misdirected-energy, is an acquired taste—the whitish Taj like a bloc of hail (is that block or bloc, like the Eastern bloc?), the roads of honking cars, the “undoomed beasts” that must be sacred cattle. However indelible, in their galumphing wording such images seem like outsider art, paintings scrawled with an elbow dipped in motor oil.
For a poet-traveler, however, Murray is an awful stay-at-home. Most of the poems in Taller When Prone are outback poems—apart from giving readings abroad, from which he earns half his income, he hardly stirs from the family farm in New South Wales. Murray is a willful poet, as full of fussy and peculiar phrases as a marsupial is stuffed with fussy and peculiar dna. I appreciate the baroque conviction of his eye, but frequently the junk puns and contrived metaphors stop the poems cold—“these laws in Isaac Neurone,” “heir-splitting,” “horse-penis helicopters,” “ute-dancing dope-eye dogs,” “black cockatoos . . ./ unflapping as Blériot monoplanes.”
At worst, the poems are compiled in a bizarre telegraphic shorthand:
Stone statues of ancient waves
tongue like dingoes on shore
in time with wave-glitter on the harbour
but the shake-a-leg chants of the Eora
are rarely heard there any more.
It’s not that you can’t disentangle this (the Eora aboriginals lived near Sydney), it’s that it’s hardly worth the effort. Elsewhere the crack-jawed puns diminish the delicate and moving language of which Murray is capable. When he describes the “muscles and torsoes of cloud” or writes that “bees summarise the garden,” when he compares the galaxy to “sugarbag/ in a char branch/ fronted by chinning bees” (sugarbag is honey) or sees “ocean cliffs/ stacked high as a British address” (presumably an address like: The Rev’d Goodspeed ffolkes/ Poodlescarp/ Fondthorp/ nr. Six Mile Bottom/ Cambs), you think, “Good old Murray, he’s hit it for six.”
English poetry hasn’t had a poet as blundering since Hardy, nor one as lovable since Larkin—but he’s like a man trapped in an elevator, raging against the universe and throwing his fists about. In his ramshackle way, using phrases cobbled from unlikely parts, Murray can make his elegy for Isaac Nathan, which begins so unpromisingly with the stone statues above, into something both comic and disconcerting, not denying the absurdity of death, but not neglecting its sorrows. Nathan, who wrote the music that inspired Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, was the first man in Australia killed by a tram.
Killing the Black Dog, published in Australia in 1997 and reprinted here with an afterword, is a memoir of the paralyzing depressions Murray suffered after moving back to the farm in 1985. With a fair amount of pharmaceuticals, sharp doses of kindness, some steely will, and of course that universal elixir and cure-all, poetry, Murray eventually recovered from his phobias and panic attacks, though as the afterword relates he found that no recovery could be permanent. The workmanlike prose, despite touches of grandiosity (“shredded mental kelp marinaded in pure pain”), is often dull; but the misery of these memories is heartrending. Murray’s wretched childhood has left him with a persecution complex all too apparent as he recounts the slights and disappointments of sixty years ago—but perhaps after such a childhood, as Dickens
knew, there is never a way past the past.
The poems appended to the memoir, which Murray calls the Black Dog Poems, are more agonized and emotionally befuddled than his recent work, sometimes depending far too much on knowledge of Murray’s adolescence: “Higher Studies were critique/ but my mind was a groover/ and a fiver a week/ postponed me as a lover.” There’s a revised version in Taller When Prone, but the poem is just as indecipherable if you haven’t read the memoir.Murray’s poems are often meditations on almost nothing (if you forget to read the title you sometimes have no idea what the poem is about). He’s a poet of sensibility who trusts far too much in sensibility—the poems are whimsically organized, almost always out at elbows and knees, bizarre where they might be plainspoken, full of odd angles, and at times about as close to the doggerel of William McGonagall as a good poet has ever dared:
Where humans can’t leave and mustn’t complain
there some will emerge who enjoy giving pain.
Snide universal testing leads them to each one
who will shrivel reliably, whom the rest will then shun.
If you can merely snigger quietly and turn the page, Murray remains one of the oddest and truest poets we have.
Geoffrey Hill’s austere, crabbed, confounding new book wrestles with a shadow, the shadow of identity. The oral tradition, as Lord Raglan pointed out most of a century ago, rarely lasts with any accuracy beyond two generations. Hill has lately discovered that one of his great-grandfathers was Welsh—family rumor mentioned a Roma ancestor, but Hill has had to settle for a Welsh iron-puddler who worked in the Black Country. The poems in Oraclau/Oracles are Hill’s border ballads for the misty marchlands beyond Offa’s dike, partly the invocation of brute pastoral, partly self-inquisition over certainties long unquestioned. These 144 stanzas, cast into the crippling rhyme scheme of Donne’s “The Canonization” and “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day,” are devoted to the “world much fabled to be what it is—/ Radiant mica’d creatures drawn through stress.”
Hill’s abiding status as an outsider has been shored up by this lately discovered identity, but the nature of his engagement with his newfound land remains oblique and elusive. The recalcitrant stanzas stretch out, hammered into place like so many lengths of iron rail—the poems make obeisance to some of the knotty personalities of Welsh politics and art, but the bond stands unfulfilled. Hill is no more than his arguments, not least his arguments with himself (he’s a man who lives “in theme-/ Possessed Britannia/ Stuck with her tacky amalgam of blame./ I yield to none in confessional mania”). There is some intimation that this gain of identity is also a loss, that a man who learns he is not what he believed suffers, not just a crisis of faith, but an erasure. Perhaps that is the secret argument of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—if beauty is truth, and truth beauty, there’s not much left to say, at least by those untrue or unbeautiful.
Though Hill allows himself some variation in rhyme scheme or shift in line length, the stanza normally ends with a triplet rhyme spliced to a couplet, an exaction difficult even over the short length of Donne’s poems. At length, the triplets seem noisy and frantic, Hill’s usual contortions of syntax and thought rendered that much more exhibitionistic:
Salute the bards—the prized effoliate
Atavisms—who yet recite
Pieties through contentious sleep:
Choosing not to despise
Your graft that sullenly revivifies
Expired encomia to exequies:
Standing your call, re-opening your vein;
Wanting some better grace to entertain.
Hill’s late oracular mood, his bardic yawp, has sometimes required a syntax that would give Milton the d.t.’s.
If you have to discover your Welshness with the help of a genealogist (Hill discussed the revelation at length in Poetry Wales last summer), there can’t be much left in you, unless you believe in the one-drop rule. Hill’s romantic gesture to lost blood must fulfill some unmet yearning, the outsider’s wish to continue outside, long after he has been gathered into the fold; yet even a shallow gesture may be profound, given longings deep enough. Hill’s flaunting of the foreign in him is not limited to the smattering of Welsh words (foel, cwm, hebog, hiraeth, llyn—or hill, valley, hawk, longing, and lake) and Welsh worthies (Nye Bevan, Dylan Thomas, Lloyd George, Aneurin Fardd), but the exemplary monsters and ludic figures who appear in this fever dream seem merely a passing slide-show.
Hill is our greatest religious poet since Eliot (as well as the most mortally funny), however suspect his faith, however uncertain his fidelity—he has a “wishful thinking towards grace.” Indeed, his born-again Welshness is often cast in terms of the Passion—in signs and symbols of alchemical transfiguration (“Hermeneutics dark with alchemic soot”), of suffering (“Christ descended into our suffering/ But not into crippling sad age”), of the miracle of the Resurrection (“The great stone threatens./ Has it moved?”). These are not beyond the poet’s mockery (“The Day of Judgement will do its flame-thing”), yet all point toward a man conscious of mortality. If what has been lacking has been a sense of belonging, it is not without a keen sense of absurdity that Hill seizes a tradition and a language that can never be his own.
The poem lives, then, in self-discovery that may be self-annihilation; and some of the bristling energies with which the poet carves out lines upon that benighted country suggests some darker estrangement of the soul. Hill has long been a difficult and rewarding poet, but the rewards are often those of hard labor. The most radiant, painterly, and untrustworthy moments of Oraclau/Oracles come in Hill’s rendering of landscape, untrustworthy because one of his gifts is to catch the land in half-light, to make permanent the momentary glow:
Again dusk-fallen snow ghosts its own twilight
Where the red dragon spat fire to the chapels,
From the dark forge-heart wrought apostles,
While in oak woods worlds fell too quiet.
He has performed such metamorphoses so often for England that Wales (whose flag bears the red dragon passant) seems the recipient of a gift without a scrap of Wales to it—the genius might be reflex only. Yet in some paroxysm of desire and disgust, Hill has been possessed by, not merely this alien country (a country within a country), but the Welsh notion of hwyl, a word wrapped in both ecstatic passion and the deep intuition of belonging that might be called Welshness.
Oraclau/Oracles is one of five short books Hill has recently completed, a few to be issued separately until all are included in his Collected Poems, 1952–2012. If the bardic strain in late Hill has been amplified and made grotesque here, grotesqueness can be a thing embraced, and even finally loved.
Anterooms, by Richard Wilbur; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 63 pages, $20.
The Chameleon Couch, by Yusef Komunyakaa; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 115 pages, $24.
Double Shadow, by Carl Phillips; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 58 pages, $23.
Money Shot, by Rae Armantrout; Wesleyan, 80 pages, $22.95.
Taller When Prone, by Les Murray; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 84 pages, $24.
Killing the Black Dog, by Les Murray; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 86 pages, $13 [paper].
Oraclau/Oracles, by Geoffrey Hill; Clutag Press, 48 pages, $20.