Sing Bodies Eclectic

Murmur BY Laura Mullen. Futurepoem. Paperback, 151 pages. $15.

The cover of Murmur

Poets find themselves unnerved every April during National Poetry Month when the noise of consumerism fades a decibel and the media spotlight falls on them. “Too bad for you, beautiful singer,” Peter Gizzi laments in his new book, The Outernationale (Wesleyan University Press, $23). How do poets write in a culture enamored of both media spectacle (the Super Bowl, American Idol, a televised war) and unmediated individual expression—YouTube, MySpace, and blogs?

Four of the five poets considered here propose that poetry’s role is to critique culture by way of language and form and, in so doing, to reverberate, as more traditional lyric poetry does, in the minds of readers. But this is a tricky role for poetry. When this mix of evaluation and artistry succeeds, it illuminates our social relations. When it doesn’t, it’s as if American Idol starred only its judges, who proffer analyses of singing and the fascination with stardom.

Gizzi’s The Outernationale resonates most in its antilyric lyrics, which resist closure and trick out language and rhetoric with the best of postmodern poetry while also welcoming readers through their emotional pitch. The poems do not shy from intimacy: “If today and today I am calling aloud / If I break into pieces of glitter on asphalt / bits of sun, the din.” The lines are conditional and incomplete, a call asking a response. Though an anguished urgency distinguishes Gizzi from other abstract postmodern poets, his overuse of this register and its reliance on plain speech sounds a well-worn groove: “Sit down, breathe deeply and / welcome yourselves. If you listen / you can faintly recall the song.”

However, the book’s masterpiece, “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures,” asserts Gizzi as a poet every bit as socially necessary and aesthetically significant as Adrienne Rich and Jack Spicer. “Vincent,” a sequence comprising fourteen sonnets, is line for line a palindrome. Here is how the poem begins and ends:

Is this what you intended, Vincent
that we take our rest at the end of the grove
nestled into our portion beneath the

bird’s migration
saying, who and how am I made better
through struggle.

Or why am I I inside this empty arboretum
Or why am I I inside this empty arboretum
saying, who and how am I made better

through struggle

nestled into our portion beneath the

bird’s migration

that we take our rest at the end of the grove
is this what you intended, Vincent.

One can only admire how Gizzi has created poems that are of “use, to the actual seen thing / to be in some way related by one’s actions in the world.”

Turning from Gizzi’s blacktop to Maurice Manning’s pastoral is like traveling from a mosh pit to a hootenanny. In Bucolics (Harcourt, $23), Manning describes a farmer poet’s praise of rural life and of a Boss-God. Has Manning discovered a poet’s philosopher’s stone—an inexhaustible subject (the I-Thou relationship within the pastoral tradition) and an idiosyncratic style (plain Southern speech fluted across a three- or four-beat iambic line)? One can’t help humming along to this paean:

you toss the stars like clover seed
you sling them through the sky you must
be glad to be a sower Boss
you sow so many things besides
the sky you sow the seed of dew
the seed of night you let it grow

The unceasing beat, combined with variations on the same unadorned vocabulary (trees, light, horse, lamb, seeds, birds, Boss), creates an echolalia. But repeated over seventy poems, this technique flattens an otherwise nuanced relationship between speaker and Boss. The latter is sometimes punishing, always silent and lurking on the margins: “will i smell smoke before you shake / the light from me before you pinch / my little flame into a hiss.” But the sing?song douses the terror. If this leveling happened once or twice, one could consider it an off moment for a poet who peopled his first two books with similar rural Southern characters and locales. Yet its recurrence makes Bucolics a diorama of earlier times, especially in its failure to acknowledge the complexity of living with a faith that posits dominion of God and man over nature. Can one still believe, as Manning asserts in this poem, that happiness rests on God keeping “the sun on its string”?

“Someone is always watching—don’t you think?” Meghan O’Rourke asks in her debut collection, Halflife (Norton, $24). And it’s definitely not God. O’Rourke surveils the cultural landscape as the poetry editor at the Paris Review and culture editor at Slate, but when she focuses her eye on the coming-of-age story that is this book, it is with mixed results. The magnifying power of her intellect either fuses image and insight into a cinematic shine or singes the lyric impulse.

In her most successful poems, O’Rourke is an unblinking, sleepless eye of New York City that sees by the light of its own invention: “Across the river / the sugar sign burns.” Combine the high relief of such imagery with the cadence of city streets, and her representations smoke: “Pawnbroker, scavenger, cheapskate, / come creeping from your pigeon-filled backrooms.”

Yet when she shifts to apprehend her own identity, her focal point can blur. This is partly intentional, in that the more intensely the speaker in these poems relies on a double (a lover, a lost twin, a young doppelg¦nger also named Meghan O’Rourke) to see herself, the more inseparable from the double she becomes. Vivid dreams and childhood memories to which she turns, both to differentiate herself from the doubles and to integrate them into her psyche, instead become disintegrating forces, or “a tendency of light / traveling through the great, cremated distances of autumn.” These poems suggest that growing up in a mass culture that sexualizes childhood and inundates us with tragic news is to suffer violence. While such ideas are intellectually interesting, O’Rourke has a propensity to overexplain. On learning about the other Meghan O’Rourke’s sad history, the reader doesn’t need to know that it is “a story that could not be forgotten or owned, / like looking in a mirror and discovering someone else’s face.”

How does one invent a poetic form to represent the emptying of meaning that occurs from the infinite replication of images and information, especially when those images are of people jumping from burning towers? In Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon, $15), Ben Lerner turns to the critiques of such theorists as Benjamin, Saussure, Habermas, Derrida, and Lacan in order to reveal the gaps and contradictions, the ideologically shaky foundations, of our post–September 11 media culture.

His weakest poems in this second collection amount to applied theory, lessons in ideas such as the impossibility of assigning value and the trap of subjectivity. His prose poems, however, can dazzle; they achieve reciprocity between theory and poetry, enlisting and rewarding a reader who wants a crack at critiquing our cultural codes. In two long sequences, block paragraphs create bounded fields in which the sentence, not the line, is the unit of meaning. The play within each field—busting up syllogisms, repetition, compression, and just good old descriptive detail—is his ver?sion of a spectator sport, in which the reader gawks at the void and the fanaticism that is possible when public becomes private:

The man observes the action on the field with the tiny television he brought to the stadium. He is topless, painted gold, bewigged. His exaggerated foam index finger indicates the giant screen upon which his own image is now displayed, a model of fanaticism. He watches the image of his watching the image on his portable TV on his portable TV. He suddenly stands with arms upraised and initiates the wave that will consume him.

Whereas Lerner composes his bafflement, Laura Mullen abandons all such effort in her fifth genre-swapping collection, Murmur (Futurepoem, $15). “Approach in the admission that you have no idea where or how to start,” she offers. This advice could be from author to reader, author to self, detective to corpse, corpse to detective, and so on. Get it? Murmur is a crime story with no beginning and no end. But is it readable?

You only needed the right equipment, you said, though mostly, once you had it—the husband you often seemed to despise bought what he could of what you said you absolutely had to have—you stopped.

One reads murder mysteries both as an escape and to discover who perpetrated the crime—the satisfaction of closure. Murmur thwarts each of these desires. It’s easy to dismiss Mullen’s walls of words—the flip-flop between poetry and prose, the wordplay, the asides and lists—as one more inscrutable postmodern interrogation, but the way in which the murder, discovery of the body, evidence, and ongoing investigation recur and continually alter the narrative creates a psychosocial monster story: “She looked up from the book she was reading: corpses littered every page.”

This one sentence unlocked the book for me. I stopped reading from cover to cover and started reading it as poetry: Begin wherever, obsess, overhear, worry, swoon. In revising the detective formula, Mullen invents a hybrid form that releases the gothic horrors of the present, exposing how they intrude into and mangle our private wars. Dip into it and revel; read it and unravel.

Emily Warn‘s third collection of poems, Shadow Architect, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon.