Three new collections highlight the zany, the decadent, the natural — all in powerful, original language.
“Dance,” by Lightsey Darst. (Coffee House Press, 97 pages, $17.95.)
‘I incline to the opposite of / solipsism,” Lightsey Darst declares in her second book of poetry, “Dance.” She draws inspiration from a range of sources: kabbalah, the Zodiac, the Guinness World Records book and People magazine.
She cites her sources in notes, allowing the reader to witness her rapacious intellect. The section called “Treasure” was inspired by a priceless vase she calls “absolutely hideous” and a “concrete representation of the cruelty of unequally distributed resources.”
In “Shield,” she describes dancers depicted on the vase: “The beryl they stand on is sharp & brittle, so / when they step too hard, it shards & so you see these drops of garnet.” Wounded in the act of entertaining the viewer, their bleeding makes more beauty in the jewels of blood. Like W.H. Auden in “The Shield of Achilles,” Darst uses the description of an art object to raise moral questions.
Her interest in decadence is apparent in her long lines packed with adjectives. She cites Vogue magazine captions as a source text, and suffuses their language with violence: “Ropes of ermine, smotherings of bone silk, queen in red corsets beautiful / without her head.”
Darst uses orphaned quotes and seemingly random punctuation. These contribute little beyond a veneer of experimentalism. The sense utterance is accomplished by accompanying instructions on how to read the poems (“Pant between lines. Gesture with ghost hands.”).
When her experimental techniques work, they invite readers to participate. In the “Zodiac” section, readers choose from an ordinary deck of cards. The card tells them which poem to read to receive their “horoscope.” Like a horoscope, the book is something a reader can return to daily, finding new meaning each time.
“If You’re Lucky Is a Theory of Mine,” by Matt Mauch. (Trio House Press, 99 pages, $16.)
In the prologue to his second book of poetry, “If You’re Lucky Is a Theory of Mine,” Matt Mauch describes a 1950s-era experiment in which “normal” people took LSD. One subject struggled to describe her trip to a doctor and concluded: “I wish I could talk in Technicolor.”
This prologue is a key for readers disoriented by Mauch’s poems, which leap associatively from image to image, shift registers of diction, and describe speakers talking to egg yolks or glaciers lounging in lawn chairs “turned backwards, / the lumbar support like armor.”
Mauch takes the normal — mowing the lawn, finding a hair in your coffee — and renders it in Technicolor with amped-up language and acrobatic sentences.
At times, he can come across as smugly zany, particularly in his extremely long titles that often feel like misdirections.
But overall the effect is breathtaking. For example, he zooms in, describing a cottonwood seed balanced on a blade of grass with a force that “might exist only here, only now, and might owe / as much to astrology as it owes to the weather, / a force that imitates what we’re trying to get at / when we try to get at love.”
Indeed, Mauch’s language, when working, isn’t a gimmick but his attempt at reaching through the Technicolor chaos to get at something deeper and as ineffable as an acid trip or as love.
“After Words,” by Joyce Sutphen. (Red Dragonfly Press, 82 pages, $15.)
In “After Words,” Minnesota State Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen takes the role of preservationist. She writes, “When you lost / that ground, how it was covered with cement / and brick and steel, I say I know how that / feels.”
In precise language, she describes chores such as hanging wash, whitewashing and cutting hay, and girls in a parish grade school. Like a landscape painter smoothing her brush stroke, Sutphen crafts poems to display content, not show off poetic techniques. Her sonnets are so natural that readers could easily miss the form.
Sutphen’s limpid descriptions make these scenes of rural Minnesota accessible to even the most urban reader. She uses resonant images to carry the emotional weight of her poems, leaving them uncluttered by commentary. She writes, “I know that too, and / what to say, watching the rain slide / in silver chains over the machine / shed’s roof.”
At times, this insistence on local knowledge can seem myopic. In “The Small Towns,” after the waitresses head off to college to “read Henry James / and James Joyce,” “they won’t be happy anywhere.”
However, these poems argue that profundity exists in the everyday and that these lives — simple though they seem from the outside — are valuable and rich. Even if they never leave the farm.
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.