There are endless ways to describe what language does. From nature, we adopt metaphors that hint at what words can make us feel: they are luminous (from the gift of sight); or electric (when they course through the nerves); or melodious (striking a chord with our inner musicality). To escape the cold, logical requirements of workaday lives, we owe it to ourselves, from time to time, to engage the mind with a poem.
This season, LSU Press is publishing a number of captivating volumes of contemporary verse. Jay Rogoff’s The Art of Gravity is immersed in the character of dance. His poetry takes a visible art of movement and translates the feelings it evokes and the history it records into delicate words. Introducing his dancer to the audience, he writes, enraptured, in “The House”:
to watch a ballerina in a hush
This is Suzanne Farrell of New York City Ballet fame:
rippling up through the dark while ushers blush
at the elongate angle of her ankle
The Gothic architecture of her body
obliterates all sense of ours
But Rogoff also has an amazing knack for the humor in humanity, as a slew of death-defying poems demonstrates. Here, in a homage to poet Wallace Stevens’ great line,
“Death is the mother of Beauty,” he carries the story forward:
... Beauty endlessly would bitch
about each bruise, about the jealous watch
her mother kept.
Rogoff’s “Death the Mother” just “couldn’t act her age.” She, “clad in Beauty’s lace bra, cocktail frock, black stockings,/lay in wait all night to jump my bones.” Perfect.
Catharine Savage Brosman is professor emerita of French at Tulane. Much of her poetry is Louisiana-themed. In “Under the Pergola,” she takes as her subjects the lazy bayous, “mournful swamps that look half-alien,” inhabitants of the lower Mississippi in Choctaw days, white pelicans (“the pouch, distensible,/hangs goiter-ugly from the mandible”), and calamitous Katrina.
In “Hats: A Portrait,” she writes movingly of “Crazy D,” an aged New Orleans woman living alone in her house on Esplanade, and living in the past: She talks of her honeymoon with Jacques, “the days when people crossed/by ship, with boxes, trunks, and portmanteaux.” She goes for a gray fedora, “stylish as a forties film,” and drifts over to the memory:
Time’s a room where dust motes swirl and sparkle
in the sun, then disappear.
A pergola is a trelliswork walkway festooned with climbing plants. Brosman’s title poem takes us to a steamy western scene, a retreat from the world where the poet resolves to “let time flower tardily.”
Her poetry is about experiential journeys: in the external world, in savory worlds (try “Radishes”), and in some other worlds we know.
In The Swing Girl, the provocative Katherine Soniat, Iowa Poetry Prize winner, fixes us in ancient Greece and in less obvious, equally solemn places fit for the imagination. Her opening poem, “Thoughts at Paliani,” is a haunting rumination from a convent on the island of Crete; “Hummingbird of Ur” traces a frail creature along its path: “Any which garden should be fine for a bird with less than/an ounce of meaning....”
The poet’s combinations are striking and evocative. In “Self-Portrait with Amnesia,” she has a Zen-like encounter with a woman who is depicted on an unfinished canvas:
Call her tabula tacit, say she’s the primary silence.
Those who stare long enough find darkness expansive.
Soniat goes for the stark as well as the shadowy. “An Aerial Meander” swoops down from a snowy sky and looks in on an Old World townscape:
Enough softness here for a small village to bury its old in.
Body-wrap of quilts and sheets,
years of flesh packed up like the good bone china.
Yet the same poet is capable of the most sportive wordplay. In the staccato “Day Spool,” a “windchime” yields “windtime,” and “wood deck wood peck hood red ruby head” gives way to “noon-high sunsquash” and-oh, read it for yourself.
To Jay Rogoff, dance is mystery; mystery is dance. To Catharine Brosman, the alighting egret’s wings are “spread wide for braking, graceful fans.” To Katherine Soniat, a spider’s web is “angled gray glitter” on a farm fence. The poets deploy our language to make the mysteries of life more expressive. You see, in the pen of the poet, language shows us what is elemental. It composes us. It makes us more subtle thinkers.
Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American political culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.