The Magazine

Five Poets

On the landscape of time, place, history, and romance.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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Selected Poems

by James Applewhite

Duke, 171 pp., $18.95

Midwest Eclogue

by David Baker

Norton, 96 pp., $23.95

As Long As It's Big

by John Bricuth

Johns Hopkins, 232 pp., $25

The Infinity Sessions

by T.R. Hummer

LSU, 94 pp., $19.95

Little Boats, Unsalvaged: Poems, 1992-2004

by Dave Smith

LSU, 74 pp., $17.95

THE NEOCLASSICIST T.E. HULME described romanticism as "spilt religion," while Harold Bloom says religion is "spilt romanticism." Who is right? Both, to judge by the poets considered here. The religious and romantic poles of agape and Eros define these five writers, as their worlds emerge from the amplitudes of place and people.

James Applewhite's Selected Poems traces a world ranging from the rural landscape of his South with its crossroads and tobacco to England's churches to the more universal subjects of time and children. "The Water-Machine" describes a river "infinitely divisible / Whose plastic mass knifed by snags rejoins / And rejoins, a divided whole always going." And this makes a good summary of Applewhite's own continuum as a writer, balanced by what in "Prayer for My Son" is put this way: "the psyche has its own / Fame, whether known or not, that / Soul can flame like feathers of a bird."

Perhaps the most compelling poems in this vein are two late ones in the collection, "A Distant Father" and "Interstate Highway." In the second of these, a poem dedicated to Applewhite's daughter, traffic, here a collective figure for us all, moves over a landscape much as a river might, "exiting and rejoining . . . so closely linked that, / if seen from above" it makes a "stasis of lights," and "the pattern we bead is constant." Constancy, no small matter, characterizes James Applewhite's poetry.

David Baker's Midwest Eclogue is theft quality. Read it, you will buy it. Poets will want to have written it. The book's first poem, "Monarchs Landing and Flying," opens: "If they have come for the butterflies then / bless their breaking hearts, but the young pair is / looking nowhere except each other's eyes." An elegant and celebratory catalogue of butterflies follows before the poem returns to the young couple taking a taxi from sight. Turn the page, and the collection's second poem, "Hyper-," maintains the same stride: "Blue night descended our neighbor's blown hills. / And the calm that comes with seeing something / beautiful but far from perfect descended--." Later we are asked, "How many ways do we measure things by / what they're not."

This book is about what things are. Its poems open quietly, then torsion one's perspective in some surprising yet compelling way. The book's final poem, "White Heron Pond," ends asking us to see "the sure, slow / orbit of things / becoming / the next thing." Along the way to such a vision, readers encounter lines such as "O lunatic world. / O lunatic, swelling, flowering world" ("Bedlam"), "the irony of every cell: that it divides to multiply" ("The Spring Ephemerals"), "I have the horror of my neglect" ("White Violets and Coal Mine"). These are poems by a mature poet with a keen eye for limit and our struggles for renewal.

Baker's Eclogue explores a mostly pastoral setting, what he calls the "exurbs," the irony here being our tendency to crowd out life even as we desire to preserve it. But while vulnerable, Baker's world is resurgent too, by season, by generation, and by human choice. A daughter diagnosed with AD/HD grows beyond that frustration, as a husband and wife grow through the entanglements of plants in the yard, algae in the pond, illness, deer and developers, and the vicissitudes of neighbors.

Baker summarizes the passage of these and other events this way: "like the blossom / waste of the apples all over the ground, / it was less about plenty than goodness." In style and subject, there is some permanent goodness in this book.

As Long As It's Big by John Bricuth is a sequel to Just Let Me Say This About That. The earlier book is based on a presidential news conference with three reporters, Bird, Fox, and Fish, trying to wheedle the truth from a figure, referred to as Sir, who combines elements of God, the president, and everybody's father. Sir is not about to give the truth, admits he doesn't know it, so gives maxims instead: "better / To live in a house painted an ugly color / Than live in one that's right across the street." The book proceeds from slapstick to horror to Nietzschean laughter and is a tour de force.