Poetry is the most intimate of all the arts. This may explain why it makes some of us so anxious. I'm sure, though, our expectation of that intimacy (whether we acknowledge it or not) is why we're hard on our poets. And we should be. We expect to experience, when we enter that sacred space between poet and reader, nothing less than a complete human being. "Comrades," Walt Whitman reminds us. "This is no book. Who touches this touches a man."
And a man, in all his totality, is exactly what you'll get in Jim Harrison's new collection, "In Search of Small Gods" (Copper Canyon Press, 87 pages, $16). The great American writer is at it again, his voice as clear, bighearted and caustic as ever. In this fine collection of poems and prose poems, Harrison establishes the urgency for connection immediately: "Death," he reminds us, "steals everything except our stories."
His voice (wise, a bit tempered, but mostly still wild) serves as the engine that drives this collection. He's worried about himself and us: "We move from fear to fear" he says, "our madness a split second behind us." "We can't get / off the screen back into the world where we could live." He knows we're out here, day after day, among each other, yet we numb ourselves with Facebook and "Dancing With the Stars." Again and again he reminds us that we don't have much time.
So we follow him in his urgent need to "go backwards [him]self," "on sad mornings when [his] simple minded heart aches for another life," through long walks in the rugged terrains of Montana and Arizona, where we become witness to and a part of his searching for gods both old and new. We discover that "nothing in nature is exactly suited to us." If we're going to be pulled from our fear and isolation, it seems we must look to each other.
Howard Altmann, in his new collection, "In This House" (Turtle Point Press, 81 pages, $15.95), is equally successful at closing the gap that exists between us. Like our most memorable poets, he wants to but finds it difficult: "I want to tell the truth, but I don't know how." We feel we're in the presence of a wonderful mind at work. We witness Altmann molding the complicated truth into something we can all know.
His poems are simple the way our best poems are: It's a simplicity that belies the difficulty of getting there. It's the kind of simplicity that accompanies and informs our most fundamental beliefs: "Even at this old age / I want someone to tell me who I am." "What we miss," he says, "we miss."
Without his precise and striking imagery, it would be easy to get lost in here. He reminds us "language, good heavens, / inside the house is another house / still." But Altmann leads us through and out into a world where walls are porous, fluid, where the most wonderful things can happen: "A candle lights a room / and dims the stars." "Now my mother's arms are reaching / through water and time / and space." Although we are way over here, on the other side of the page, we're charged by the presence of Altman holding "whatever was human / up to the world."
A voice distinctly human, frighteningly so, is what we encounter in Julia Story's "Post Moxie" (Sarabande Books, 77 pages, $14.95), winner of the 2009 Kathryn A. Morten Prize in Poetry. Her poems read like missives from the front line of existence, and they've arrived to tell us it's wicked out there. Yet, these poems, striking and strange in both content and form, remind us of the many ways a thing can be beautiful.
What's most beautiful about them is their sound, her attention to the subtle textures of our language. Story's ear is first-rate. The lines, most of them haunting, beg to be read aloud: "I said a marsh of words a swamp which brings me back to the pants arranging knick knacks on a sideboard while I defended my rebound relationship with a sex addict from Tucson do you know there are caverns in here tunnels trap doors labyrinths."
"What is between us: two windows and a column of air." Although this line finds itself in the middle of the collection, she begins in the first poem trying to cross this chasm. She knows the only way to be pulled from the isolation of ourselves is by the language of another human being. Our poets must constantly work at reclaiming our language from those old butchers, the copy writers and ad executives of the world. If for some reason our poets were silenced, we'd soon all sound like billboards.
Ryan Vine's new manuscript, "Shiv," was a finalist for the 2009 May Swenson Poetry Award. He teaches at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.