Shroud of the Gnome

By Albert Mobilio

Published March 4, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Reader's Digest has long featured a section titled "Life in These United States," which features amusing paragraph-long anecdotes about, say, a misunderstanding with a cashier at the supermarket or how grandma made everyone laugh at someone's graduation. The tales end on mock-wise notes that say, more or less, "Ain't life funny?" Through a transmogrification scholars have yet to trace, these nutshell narratives have come to be the chief influence on mainstream American poetry for the last 20 years: The puzzling incident tied up neatly with a worldly shrug or wistful smile.

James Tate's new collection, "The Shroud of the Gnome" (a title that could have graced a Moody Blues or King Crimson album), is his 12th since winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1967. The book continues his sly subversion of the anecdotal poem. For instance, in "Restless Leg Syndrome," the familiar anecdotal tone of Tate's first lines is quickly punctured by their spiky abstraction: "After the burial/we returned to our units/and assumed our poses./Our posture was the new posture/and not the sick old posture." The speaker then reports on all the items -- an ocelot, a scrimshaw collection, a snuff box -- he uncontrollably kicks, and the poem wraps up with a blow delivered to "the White House we keep on hand/just for situations such as this." This is high-grade nonsense, undiluted by whimsy, and as such affords more head-scratching than knowing nods.

Another smart bit of funambulistic clowning opens the poem "Twenty-Five":

Twenty-five is such a big number
if you're talking about how many times I make love every
But if that's all the years she lived,
although she was a full-time nudist
and necromancer, it seems so insignificant
and one might even say "Why bother?"

Tate bends and bounces the trite conventions of a birthday wish in a poem that outlines his overall insurgent strategy: "Twenty-five minutes later, he was sleeping like a baby,/which I realize is a cliché and I only say it to punish him, to torment him so that he might in fact/stop 'sleeping like a baby' if he so hates clichés." For readers whose digestion can handle this double-talking, Tate serves his anecdotes well scrambled.

Madonna Anno Domini

Joshua Clover's first book, "Madonna anno domini," was chosen by Iowa Writing Program doyenne Jorie Graham for the 1996 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets and has since garnered a full wreath of attention. But, in the poetry world, where prizes and praise circulate freely in lieu of hard currency, this is no guarantee of anything other than one's entry into the ledger book of favors done and favors owed. For once, though, the ballyhoo proves accurate: Clover's poems are smart and jangle with the sound of the broadcast world. "The Nevada Glassworks," the book's lead-off hitter, makes personal noise out of history:

Ka-Boom! They're making glass in Nevada! Figure August, 1953,
mom's 13, it's hot as a simile.
Ker-Pow! Transmutations in Nevada!
Imagine mom: pre-postModern new teen,
innocent for Elvis, ditto "Korean
conflict," John Paul George Ringo Viet Nam.

Clover imagines his mother, a Californian teen, looking east as she "cups an ear to the beloved humming,/the hazy gold dust kicked wildly west," and, in doing so, he gives vigorous life to tired thoughts about a generation raised under a nuclear cloud.

Like Ashberry, Clover loots the archives for allusions and settings -- these poems feel very much blended from texts rather than cobbled together from observing daily life. If you like your verse nitty with verifiable gritty, Clover's not for you. He invents voices, leaps about in history and presumes much. His "museum poetry" still weighs in more thoughtfully than the mighty coffee-cup epiphanies of more realistic poets. A skillful re-imagining like "Totenbuch," in which a woman's head is shaved in a concentration camp, brings to bear an unflinching yet ever aestheticizing eye:

At the edge of her
was barely scarred in rosy runnels where the razor did the only trick it knew. Snow
dropped along its papery slope as I slept & the lice made entry upon entry into
the skin.

There is, at times, an attenuated quality to Clover's ruminations -- a kind of preciousness that wilts on the vine: "I listened to Cortez, the atonal opera mécanique,/you could spend a siècle waiting for it to begin,/cancel every date, another siècle before the fin." Yet Clover remains ever alert to the indecipherability of our century's buzz. Along with his wiry intelligence and nimble vocabulary, he offers the promise of mastery.

Il Cuore: The Heart
Selected Poems 1970-1995

"The letter A is a plow," writes Kathleen Fraser. "Was A/where/you made and/unmade your mind .../first hesitation/when you doubted/what you/thought you/were/looking for?" Language is a tool, the poet observes, to uncover the world and our own doubts. Abiding, as it has through the 25 years of work on display in "il cuore: the heart," this notion has shaped both the imagistic precision of Fraser's poems as well as their disjunctive, fragmentary structure. Borrowing the shapes and shadings of letters, lyric odes and mathematical diagrams, she fashions poems where text plays out across the page, collects into dense pockets and energizes the blank spaces with its powerful flaring. Consider "Tree":

One did hear
the flow of nearby branches
shear occasional and limp
yet this rawness
moves, is
even sudden atrophy
of limb

Lavishing a peculiarly angled attention on Italian landscape and art, Fraser, who lives there part of each year, works her way into the fissures between what's seen, what's felt and what's said. In one of Giotto's Arena chapel frescoes, she notes a "salmon length of brick the same/as Virgin's gown, angel feathers/salmon flesh and roe/lifting one swift arc." Her inventively refractory eye divides the scene into shifting visual panels: "motion (less leaves) blue sky/inlaid their branching/lightness/pale rose breadth/of shade/through intervals." This is perception perceived: Fraser's poems interrogate themselves about their own making; her plow slices into the world even as she pulls back to inspect the blade. "The New," she tells us, "comes forward in its edges in order to be itself."

The Journals of Susanna Moodie

The autobiographies of a famous Canadian pioneer woman served as the inspiration for Margaret Atwood's newly reissued 1970 book of poems, "The Journals of Susanna Moodie." As an English immigrant to the backwoods north of Toronto in the 1830s, Moodie struggled to accept the bleak and often deadly landscape of her new country. Her resistance and eventual acceptance embodies, according to Atwood, a distinctly Canadian "violent duality." In exploring the contradictory heart of her national identity, Atwood also came to see an inchoate feminism in Moodie's "thin refusal" to rejoice in the "long hills, the swamps, the barren sand."

In "The Wereman," Atwood's Moodie watches her husband stride off into the forest and she wonders "unheld by my sight/what does he change into." When he returns, "he may change me also/with the fox eye, the owl/eye, the eightfold eye of the spider/I can't think/what he will see/when he opens the door." The metaphor of marriage as a wilderness in which shapes shift and uncertainty reigns is both inspired and apt to Moodie's historical circumstance -- a time when near strangers often married.

By ventriloquizing the reluctant frontierswoman -- "I am a word/in a foreign language" -- Atwood fuses the interior and exterior landscapes (the personal and political) with a low-key yet vibratory elegance. This slip-cased reprint, with deliciously spooky illustrations by Charles Pachter, is a model of printed art -- the high-energy jostling of text and imagery creates a lush detonation that obliterates the slightly over-earnest scent that can cling to these poems in starker circumstance.

Albert Mobilio

Albert Mobilio writes for Harper's and the Village Voice. His last piece for Salon was "To Spank or Not to Spank."

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