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Poetry Roundup March 08

Poet in New York
Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Medina and Mark Statman, trans.
(Grove Press, 2008)

When Federico Garcia Lorca came to New York in 1929 he turned his impressions into radical beauty in a series of anti-elegiac poems. Like Whitman before and Ginsberg later, Lorca caught the grind and grace of urban life in exhilarating lines. With breakneck pacing he packed all of life and death into scintillating, transcendent incantations.

Key phrases recur, making Lorca’s architecture sonorous. In “Death,” the Spanish word que is repeated in five sentences and then echoed in five that begin with y. In the last poem, “I’ll go to Santiago,” the title forms a response, repeated throughout. These are just some things you notice in re-reading these poems. And this new, inspired translation is so alive it’s jumping to be read!

In “The King of Harlem” Lorca paints a neighborhood where people “swallow bits of heart on the frozen mountain of heat.” Heartbreak and euphoria are melded in a broiling glow.

Like an alchemist, Lorca blends blood and bread and the “imperfect anguish of New York” to give us bouquets of startling verse. He twines together liturgical language and poetic bravura with the gritty brass and bass notes of the city. After a string of O’s, he ends Hudson River with “O edge of my love. O wounding edge!” Ouch. It hurts so good.

Heart Stoner Bingo
Stephanie Gray
(Straw Gate Books, 2007)

A “natural master or mistress” is how Eileen Myles describes Stephanie Gray. An award-winning experimental filmmaker, her poems pause at the edge of prose. Like a black cat walking in and out of a line of fog, Gray lets herself wander (while maintaining a perimeter).

Edgy, forlorn and forthright, Gray’s hammer is insistent; rhythms build. In “This is the Bike Ride…” she raises the pitch to a fever level held in check by a firm command of language. “This is the fire that will drown you… These are the lips that can’t be read… This is the bar that knows your name… This is the line that will never end.” A directorial overlay holds things together as she captures the “empty windshield wiper factory opera that doesn’t make no sense,” in “I Luved This City.”

Gray hits the right notes in conjuring a working class hero, queer Johnny Wier who skated like “Care Bears on acid.” This poet admires daredevils, drifters and “punx.” A lonesome diner dons the cover. She flirts with the lost but doesn’t give in. She argues with the advice some give to “Turn your heart to stone” in the title poem, “Heart Stoner Bingo.” If Gray’s heart ever turns to stone it will be pumice—and float.

The Greener Meadow
Luciano Erba
(Princeton University Press, 2007)

Where old world charm meets Po Mo—Luciano Erba builds bridges to islands of personal moments charged with electric syntheses. For a half century, this Italian poet has observed the world and reflected tellingly on it. His poems are centered but expansive. With authority but not self-importance, he speaks directly to us. In fact, he addresses the “dear reader” in an opening salvo, comparing himself to a figurehead on a ship, out in front but firmly attached to the vessel.

Using just the right mix of daily details and understated epiphanies, Erba transports us: “Half empty trams/moving to quench their thirst for wind.” A “friendly dog,” a “straw hat,” and “a cyclist’s bell,” give the poems solidity and volume so the poetic pronouncements can soar. “I remain high above here” contrasts perfectly in the following line, “with the Albanian spy.”

It is a landscape of plain amazement. An intimate and curious narrative is embroidered into “wash lines” and “violets,” leading to powerful sentiments. A poem to Erba’s mother concludes: “How much time remains to me still/ for learning how to smile and love like you?”

In a billet deux to December, Erba puts his finger on the absence ever present within us: “she’s always at my back, the one I seek.”


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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