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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As Long As It's Big resumes Sir's life, this time in the role of a divorce court judge, with Bird, Fox, and Fish present once again, two as lawyers and one a plaintiff. This time maxims are not enough. "Consolation" and "compensation" denied, "failure or success" matters less than that whatever happens is "big." One's "failure is ordinary" and comes on one "daily--through some dream of love." But then, following an encounter with a contemporary version of Wagner's Brünnhilde who leaves him nearly crushed to death by a murderous hug, the judge concludes, "I, uh . . . think that I'm in love." The gavel's given up, as with the collaboration of all good jokes, the audience is left to laugh incongruity to order.

T.R. Hummer's new collection, The Infinity Sessions, is a series of responses to jazz and the lives of the artists who made that music. The book opens with a quotation from Kierkegaard's account of Phalaris, who imprisoned people in a brazen bull placed over a fire: "[T]heir cries could not reach the tyrant's ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music." This is the underlying principle of The Infinity Sessions, what in a poem entitled "Vapor," Hummer describes this way:

Far down inside the nucleus, just to the left of the quark--

A little smaller and denser than color or charm, just possible

For God to see if he wears his x-ray glasses--the particle called pain

Chains its cold mutation in the structure of the double helix.

Wallace Stevens tells us that "Death is the mother of beauty." Hummer says it is not death but suffering, and is found in the most ordinary places, in "days without attributes," or in "Junk Mail," which happens to be the title to one poem, or in the painful noise of squealing brakes heard as an "A-flat" by a woman with "perfect pitch" who also hears the "concert G, of the ambulance siren." Such is the nature of beauty, Hummer tells us, with diction and syntax meant to approximate the spontaneity of jazz melodies--a language running from whimsical to bluesy, fusing a poverty of setting with a stoical read of the future. Life continues, we are told, in a poem entitled "Random," when "The new soul starts to flicker. But we must not say it this way. / We avert our gaze."

The improvisations of a jazz musician are a way of averting one's gaze, an abridgment that renames and renews what otherwise is lost. This book lives by the angularity of jazz improvisation, but ends with the conviction of melody, what Schopenhauer would call "will-less knowing."

Dave Smith's latest volume, Little Boats, Unsalvaged, begins with the histories of family life and one's growing up. The rhythm of these accounts is pounded out of their texture, the insistence of catalogue pitted against the resistance of particulars. Smith catalogues in the tradition of Whitman, only does so more economically, and thus more powerfully, compressing details so they concentrate experience.

The historical importance of Whitman's articulation of American amplitude should not be confused with the aesthetic potential of what he began, perhaps especially where geographical focus is concerned; otherwise, we are xenophobic. Dave Smith, for example, writes about northern Italy, today and during World War II, especially Milan and the Lake Como area, where Mussolini was captured and killed.

Smith recollects history through small things--an antique German motorcycle left over from the war, for example. Or he listens to a group of scholars arguing over the division of Jerusalem, then tours the complex offerings of Milan Cathedral. Each instance is rich in harmonics, and in each case place condenses history. Texture turns into time. And human choice, tragic to beautiful, sticks out in landmarks like a movie set: "It's like the movies here, / old. Close, shocking, the way we find, astonished, a perfectly / preserved Nazi cycle and sidecar."

Then there are addresses to fellow writers--Bernard Malamud, Edwin Muir, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Matthews--articulated in poems by which Smith confronts the bookends of agape and Eros, here the shared love of writing versus the deaths of these five writers. As Smith puts it, "the penalty of place / applies anywhere we play with lines." Later, the book turns to other places, quail hunting, beagles crossing a busy highway disastrously, or a game played in Louisiana's state prison, Angola, called "Rodeo Poker," the title of the poem, a contest in which four men play cards with a bull let loose. The last one to run wins.