It's rare that I have a mixed opinion of a book, and it's even rarer that the mixed feelings have any power either way. But after reading the 2004 Walt Whitman Award of the
The sky fell open to the map of the constellations.
Earlier the snowmelt reconfigured the field.
I tried to describe it, but the field transformed
into the plains of the soul pressed flat.
Here we have an image, nicely constructed, though perhaps a bit cliché to open one's first collection of poem with, but nonetheless. Then a mirroring: the sky with the field, making the image of the sky a bit more interesting. Then the poets annoying intrusion, the speaker's statement of, "hey, here I am, trying to describe everything to you just as it is, but life is just too complicated to do it." If the speaker fails in the telling, that's fine. Represent it through contradicting images, competing sources of light, a sound of a machine from faraway entering the landscape. I don't want to hear how hard the poet is working to provide me with the art. Just give me the art, complicated or sincere.
Meanwhile, poems like "Self Portrait as Miranda" are complex in construction, vivid and unstable in a very tasty and scrumptious way. Opening up with a beautiful account of place, "My story begins at sea, in the bitter liquid./ If not, it would begin in
As the crew, in desperate but unspoken straits,
wishes belatedly for a drag on the anchor.
Frequently, we are thus carried along.
Frequently, de profundis, we struggle ashore
to find ourselves, if not stranded, then beached.
We are inclined to be grateful for land.
Are we? Really? She has pushed too hard, breaking the carnal rule in poetry of telling instead of showing. The "we" here is ambiguous, though not in a tantalizing way- in a way that removes the reader from the poem more than it locates him/her in the poem. Are "we" on the ship? In the lime-green motel? Swimming in a sea of profundity? It's hard to tell. And in the case of this poem, which comes so close to succeeding, it's tragic.
The poem of most interest to me is buried at the end of this relatively short, 51 page collection. "The Bitter Season" is written in four sections which are labeled as a sequence of letters, 1-4. Again, Doran places us in a landscape, sparse but populated with ghosts and faceless men and women who exist in isolation, in darkness. Letter III and IV are the most innovative and interesting of the poems in this collection, representing a disjointed and confused voice that seems to be constantly suppressed by some sense of order of "God" evoked throughout (which I just don't buy). In letter III, the images are allowed to explode without interruption, and we are left with a soggy pile of poem by the end, but this time in a good way-- in a way that poet intended, I would guess. The momentum moves into the next section, which is my favorite part of the collection. Letter IV is the closest Doran comes to music; the springs of this little pearl are tightened and it's ready to burst:
Our plumb line found vertical. Gravity's
fantasy. Now I live hardscrabble on this hill.
As if on the sheer, with pebbles rolling down.
Where it is level, I am offered large stones
that resemble sarcophagi. (. . .)
While we are again placed in a landscape, it is one of abstract and impossible location. Like the speaker, we are dislocated, but delighted by it. . .the pressure is released just slightly by the language. There is also tension, however, created by the inevitable hang of gravity.
It's hard to bite my tongue about the religious overtones of this book- they are insidious and overwhelming in a grotesque, George W. Bush rhetoric-of-Democracy kind of way that caused me to throw up in my mouth more than once when I read it. It is my zero-tolerance-for-god-poems-meter pushed way into the red. Thank godd there is some ambiguity to the speaker's relationship with GOD or this book would be completely ruined, run amuck in the cornfields and