A poetry collection examines the emotion from multiple angles.
By David Ulin
ON LOVE: POEMS
By Edward Hirsch, Gr’79
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. 86 pp., $22.00.
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Poetry is perhaps the most personal of literary disciplines, a form of writing that requires a certain intimacy to work. That’s true for both writers and readers, since the best poetry is revelatory not only in what it says about the poet, but also in what it tells us of ourselves. A good poem, after all, functions like a mind bomb, setting off small, interior bursts of recognition that explode like firecrackers in your brain.
There’s something so visceral about this process that I’ve always doubted the degree to which poetry could be analyzed; how are we to explain the way a particular poem affects us when so much of the experience arises out of an emotional response? It’s an essential question, one that has to do with our insatiable urge to intellectualize our feelings, as well as the manner in which poem and reader interact. If poetry is so inherently personal, what we like or dislike — what we make of it — may be the most individual statement of all.
Edward Hirsch’s fifth collection of poetry, On Love, is a book that has such issues at its very core. Divided into two sections, it seeks to balance a confessional, first-person poetics with an equally exterior vision of the world. Hirsch, who teaches at the University of Houston and is the editorial adviser in poetry for DoubleTake magazine, is a 1998 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”; his writing is accessible and refreshingly non-academic, although essentially traditional in scope. That’s an interesting dichotomy, between accessibility and tradition, because, at least when it comes to poetry, those ideas don’t always coincide. Yet if, on one level, this seems somehow inconsistent, Hirsch frames his aesthetic in far more integrated terms. As he writes here, in an echo of Whitman, “I, too, must make diverse pilgrimages, / but every now and then I need to pause / and take a moment to sound my barbaric / yawp over the rooftops of the world.”
Nowhere is this more clear than in On Love‘s untitled opening section, which comprises 15 unconnected poems that, in many ways, serve a kind of introductory purpose for the collection as a whole. What’s interesting about this material is the way it merges a precise formalism with the looser textures of everyday experience.
In “American Summer,” for instance, Hirsch uses a series of three-line stanzas to evoke the peculiar tensions of his first working summer, when “I was a sixteen- year-old in the suburbs / and each day was another lesson in working, a class in becoming invisible to others,” while “The Burning of the Midnight Lamp” harkens back to “the dreamy, acoustic waves of 1969,” recalling a girl for whom LSD and STP were nothing short of “ten-milligram doses of the sublime.”
Occasionally, the work lacks necessary focus, as in “Days of 1968,” another sixties reminiscence that cannot transcend its stereotypes, describing tear gas in Grant Park and “a vision of the Trail of Tears” as if no one had ever invoked these iconic images before. Still, such infrequent lapses are redeemed by poems like “Idea of the Holy,” which, with its notion that “a God comprehended is no God,” may be the wildest, most vivid piece of writing here. And with efforts like “Two (Scholarly) Love Poems” or “A Fundamentalist,” Hirsch subtly explicates the vagaries of love, establishing the territory he will explore throughout the eponymous second section of the book.
Unfortunately, it is in this second section that On Love begins to have difficulties, as Hirsch forgoes the immediacy of direct experience for a sequence of 24 invented monologues, by an array of writers and others ranging from Margaret Fuller to Bertolt Brecht, on the subject of love. The problem is not a lack of connection; “I woke up to voices speaking of love,” Hirsch explains in an eight-line verse prologue, “always leading me forward, leading me on, / … emanations that seemed to come from night / itself, from leaves opening in the study / where many lives flow together as one / life, my own, these ventures in love.”
While that’s a beautiful account of how the writers we admire become part of our psyches, too often Hirsch fails to bring his imaginary mindscapes to life. Interestingly, the best poems are the most formally restricted: a sestina written from the perspective of Heinrich Heine uses its own stylistic constraints to mirror Heine’s status as “a cripple talking about physical love,” and pieces evoking H. D. and Gertrude Stein, respectively, adapt the quirks of their subjects to create portraits where structure and meaning evolve together as parts of an intricate whole. Yet with the exception of a fine effort representing Milena Jesenska (Kafka’s final lover), these monologues suffer from the unyielding reflexivity of their voices, the way nearly every speaker seems entirely locked within his or her own head. That, in turn, bestows an uncomfortable sameness on much of this writing, as if, despite several figures’ protestations to the contrary, it was the stuff of lectures, instead of poems.
Such a situation is more than a little ironic, for one of the bad raps often given to poetry — especially to contemporary poetry — is that it is nothing if not a self-indulgent art. This is the flip side to the form’s abiding personal quality, that in the hands of a boor or a blowhard, even the most intimate revelation can take on the quality of a soporific, or, worse, begin to feel like a sledgehammer blow to the brain. The paradox of On Love, of course, is that it is not the poet who is self-indulgent, but rather so many of the figures for whom he presumes to speak. Still, whether this has to do with the limitations of these individuals or some more fundamental failure of the imagination, it is Hirsch himself who, throughout On Love, comes across as the most interesting voice of all.
David L. Ulin, C’84, is the author of Cape Cod Blues, a book of poems, and a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and Salon.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.
WOOD BECOMES WATER: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life
By Gail Reichstein, C’87. New York: Kodansha America Inc., 1998. 215 pp., $20.00.
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When Gail Reichstein, a writer, teacher and licensed acupuncturist, first tried acupuncture, she didn’t know what to expect. Chronic joint pain had bothered her since childhood, and when a friend told her about acupuncture, she decided to try it. It felt good. But not only that — she was surprised by the questions her doctor asked her: What season did she like the best? What foods did she eat? Did she prefer mornings or evenings? The acupuncturist gave advice based on the answers, and Reichstein began to realize that her health was strongly influenced by what she saw, ate, and felt on a daily basis. She began practicing acupuncture herself and wrote this book to explain the practical applications of Chinese medicine to a Western audience. The book addresses the practices of acupuncture, QiGong, dietary therapy, and Feng Shui, using the five elements of Chinese philosophy: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.
SLEEPING WITH THE MAYOR: A True Story
By John Jiler, C’68. St. Paul, Minn.: Hungry Mind Press, 1997. 361 pp., $25.00.
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It was the summer of 1988. Not the best of times. New York was still reeling from the crash of ’87, Ed Koch, the city’s flamboyant mayor, was running for an ill-advised, unprecedented fourth term, racial tension was as high as Manhattan rents, and every street corner was inhabited by the city’s lowest caste: the unwashed and unwanted homeless. In Sleeping with the Mayor, Jiler captures the electric insanity of the decade’s last hurrah, chronicling the unlikely story of a small band of vagrants who were rounded up for a candlelight vigil in the park outside City Hall one rainy night and stayed for six months. Encouraged by do-gooders, the media, a handful of high-profile politicos, and their own naivete the ragtag group became, for an instant, famous, and at the same time, a fat albatross around the mayor’s neck. Jiler, a playwright and journalist, was there, watching it all happen. Initially covering the event for The Village Voice, he became so obsessed with “Kochville,” as the press dubbed it, that he gave up his apartment for the summer and moved into City Hall Park, sharing the hard benches and cardboard shelters and dodging the ubiquitous rats. What intrigued him was not the group’s celebrity but the formation of democracy at its most rudimentary level. Here were 30 people living in chaos and starvation on a lawn. How were they to govern themselves? By day the homeless Kochvilleans observed the City Council meetings, by night they emerged and applied the rules to their little government on the lawn. For a season, the city was in love with them, but the dream that was Kochville would die an inevitable death. Jiler, the invisible observer, watched it succumb to the vicissitudes of the changing seasons and a fickle public.
NEW LOW-FAT FAVORITES
By Ruth Spear, CW’54. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1998. 306 pp., $13.95.
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Health and nutrition writer Ruth Abramson Spear presents 200 new recipes for dishes she feels are so delicious, you won’t believe they’re low-fat. New Low-Fat Favorites stresses what we should be eating — instead of avoiding — with recipes that bring out the health-giving, disease-fighting potential of everyday foods. Spear also explains the crucial role of phytochemicals and other nutrients, and demonstrates how the way we cook is just as important as what we cook. Spear is the author of numerous books on food and cooking, including Low Fat & Loving It, What Can I Do with My Microwave?, The Classic Vegetable Cookbook, and Cooking Fish and Shellfish. She has written articles on health and nutrition for various publications and is a cofounder of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations.
ESTATE PLANNING AFTER THE 1997 TAX ACT: How to Take Advantage of the
Increased Unified Credit (Exclusion)
By Martin M. Shenkman, W’77. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. 192 pp., $14.95.
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Among the myriad changes in the 1997 Tax Relief Act are a significant number that affect estate planning. This book examines and evaluates all these revisions, providing in-depth explanations of exactly what they are, how they’ll impact your planning goals, and — perhaps most important — how to capitalize on them. Shenkman, an attorney specializing in estate planning and personal finance, is the author of 25 books, including The Complete Book of Trusts, published last year.
A YEAR OF REVOLUTIONS: Fanny Lewald’s Recollections of 1848
Translated, edited, and annotated by Hanna Ballin Lewis, CW’52. Oxford, U.K.: Berghahn Books, 1998. 176 pp., $29.95.
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Fanny Lewald, the best-selling German woman writer in the 19th century, proved a keen and perceptive observer of the social, artistic, and political life of her times, of which these Recollections offer an example. Written from a woman’s perspective, this first-hand account of the revolutions in Germany and France must be considered a unique document. It is further enhanced by her detailed description of the Frankfurt Parliament and her relationships with many of the prominent politicians and thinkers of that eventful period. Lewis has written extensively on Lewald and is a professor in the foreign-languages department at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
THE NAVY IN NEWPORT
By Lionel D. Wyld, G’50, Gr’59. Dover, N.H.: Arcadia Publishers, 1997. 127 pp., $16.99.
This book covers the U.S. Navy presence in Rhode Island from the establishment of the first naval research facility, the Navy Torpedo Station, in 1869, followed by the Naval Training Station in 1873 and the Naval War College in 1874. Also included are area naval activities in Colonial times to the Civil War, when the U.S. Naval Academy was temporarily relocated to Newport from Annapolis, Md. Chapters treat the Navy’s first torpedo boats and their use in the Spanish American War, training of recruits in World Wars I and II with the expansion of the Newport Naval Base to include activities on both sides of Narragansett Bay. The book concludes with the postwar reorganization into the Naval Education and Training Center and other Navy schools and research commands. Wyld is a writer and former professor who taught literature, American studies, and communication at Notre Dame, Buffalo, and Syracuse universities, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Cazenovia College.
DEAD MAN’S FLOAT
By Beth Sherman, C’81. New York: Avon, 1998. 280 pp., $5.99.
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Anne Hardaway is a reluctant expert on house cleaning, horticulture, and pet care, who specializes in making some of the country’s most famous how-to writers look good in print. But when her long-ago high-school crush is found dead in their New Jersey shore hometown, Anne has no idea “how to” find out the truth. When Tigger Mills returned home to archly conservative Oceanside Heights, no one was happy to see him. Tigger left 20 years ago after being accused of setting fire to an old hotel that killed the owner’s little girl. Though he always maintained his innocence, no one believed him — except Anne. After Tigger’s lifeless body is pulled from the surf, everyone but Anne assumes it was suicide. Now this woman with a relentless knack for research makes it her mission to tackle the town’s closed minds, curious suspicions, and ancient lies, to dredge the past and uncover a 20-year-old motive for present-day murder. Sherman is a writer and editor in New York City. Dead Man’s Float is her first mystery.
READING ZOOS: Representations of Animals and Captivity
By Randy Malamud, C’83. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 320 pp., $18.50 (paper); $55.00 (cloth).
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Zoos offer a convenient way to indulge a cultural appetite for novelty and diversion, and to teach us, albeit superficially, about animals. Yet what, conversely, do they tell us about the people who create, maintain, and patronize them, and about animal captivity in general? Rather than foster an appreciation for the lives and attributes of animals, zoos, in Malamud’s view, reinforce the idea that we are, by nature, an imperial species: that our power and ingenuity entitle us to violate the natural order by tearing animals from the fabric of their ecosystems and displaying them in an “order” of our own making. Invoking an array of literary depictions of animals, from Albee’s Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf’s diaries to the films of Harold Pinter and the poetry of Marianne Moore, Reading Zoos links culture, literature, and nature in an introduction to environmental ethics, animal rights, cultural critique, and literary representation. Malamud is associate professor of English at Georgia State University.
BRIDGING DIVERSITY: Confessions of a Yankee Catholic
By Martha Pickman Baltzell, CGS’75. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1997. 261 pp., $14.95.
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After raising three children in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, Martha Pickman Baltzell found her marriage at an end. She decided to look around for a volunteer job in Philadelphia’s inner city. She discovered the Community Enrichment Center, directed by Sister Anne Boniface Doyle. Bridging Diversity describes the author’s 25 years at the center, where she confronted poverty as she had never seen it. More than a case study of poverty, however, it is the personal journey of one woman raised in an elite in Boston, who attempts to learn to understand people of a profoundly different background. With humor, honesty, and self-deprecation — but not apology — she tells how she came to feel she could be comfortable in the center’s community, that she had a place there.
PHARMACOLOGY IS MURDER
By Dirk Wyle (Duncan Haynes, Gr’70). Highland City, Fla.: Rainbow Books, Inc., 1998. 386 pp., $16.95.
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Ben Candidi, a 28-year-old, professionally dead-ended techie, is asked to do a little unauthorized undercover sleuthing for his ex-boss, Dr. Geoffrey Westley, Dade County’s chief medical examiner. Westley believes that one of the pharmacology professors at nearby Bryan Medical School murdered his department chairman, using a poison that left no trace. Ben’s assignment: Just enter the Ph.D. program at Bryan, gather information on 12 pharmacology professors, figure out which professor used which poison, and secretly pass the information on to Westley, who will take it from there. Ben can then go back to working on his Ph.D. But it’s not that easy. Wyle (the pen name for Duncan Haynes) is a longtime Miami resident and a 30-year veteran of biomedical science.
CONFRONTING INJUSTICE AND OPPRESSION: Concepts and Strategies for
By David G. Gil, SW’58, GrS’63. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 192 pp., $22.50.
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How can injustice and oppression be overcome and prevented, regardless of who the victims are? What are the meanings, sources, and dynamics of these dehumanizing conditions? Gil, professor of social policy and director of the Center for Social Change at Brandeis University, brings to these questions a lifetime of experience in social action and in the practice and education of social work. He presents perspectives and strategies to transform unjust and oppressive institutions into alternatives conducive to human development, empowerment, and liberation. Such transformations would begin with policies involving guarantees for full employment and adequate rather than minimum income; child care as a shared responsibility for parents and society; allowances for children, students, unemployed and retired workers, and people with disabilities; publicly maintained health services; and progressive taxation.
By Ira Genberg, L’72. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. 296 pp. $23.95 (cloth); $6.99 (paper, available in December).
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Michael Ashmore’s brother, Charlie, comes to him for help after failing a routine drug screen from the airline that employs him. Charlie begs for a second chance and Michael, the airline’s legal counsel, gets it for him by suppressing the positive test. But on a flight two months later, Charlie’s plane crashes, killing all on board. An autopsy reveals Charlie had taken a lethal dose of barbiturates. Suddenly, Michael’s role in clearing Charlie to fly is discovered, and he finds himself indicted for reckless homicide. Certain that Charlie would never knowingly endanger his passengers, Michael must uncover the real reason for the crash, and in the meantime fight a court battle for his life, reputation, and family against a zealous district attorney and a powerful aviation industry with everything to lose. Genberg is a trial attorney in Atlanta. This is his first novel.
JUDGMENT MISGUIDED: Intuition and Error in Public Decision Making
By Jonathan Baron, Faculty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 225 pp., $29.95.
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People often follow intuitive principles of decision making, ranging from group loyalty to the belief that nature is benign. But instead of using these principles as rules of thumb, we often treat them as absolutes and ignore the consequences of following them blindly. In Judgment, Baron, professor of psychology, explores our well-meant and deeply felt personal intuitions about what is right and wrong, and how they affect the public domain. Baron argues that when these intuitions are valued in their own right, rather than as a means to another end, they often prevent us from achieving the results we want. Focusing on cases where our intuitive principles take over public decision making, the book examines some of our most common intuitions and the ways they can be misused. According to Baron, we can avoid these problems by paying more attention to the effects of our decisions. The book is filled with case studies, such as abortion, nuclear power, immigration, and the decline of the Atlantic fishery, which illustrate the range of intuitions and how they impede the public’s best interests.