Five Poets Who Find Music in the Personal, the Political or in Music Itself

By Daisy Fried

By Paul Muldoon
179 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.

“Howdie-skelp”: the slap a midwife gives a newborn. Poem-sequences dominate Muldoon’s storm of slaps against piety, prudery, cruelty and greed. “American Standard,” named after a toilet brand, riffs for pages on lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” while churning through contemporary concerns like gerrymandering, immigration, and grotesque politicians and their media platforms. Like Eliot, Muldoon’s after big, apocalyptic vision; unlike Eliot, Muldoon is willing — no, compelled — to clown.

In one long sequence Muldoon dives into the human ook that underlies great paintings. His bawdiness is political. Muldoon’s version of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” pictures the tablecloth as Mary Magdalene’s bedsheet, the crease in it “A gutter filled with candle grease. / The semen stain where Judas spilled his salt.” Like many important poets before him, from John Milton to Tim Rice, Muldoon knows that sinners and villains are more interesting, maybe more human, than self-appointed good guys. Poems, for Muldoon, are occasions to plumb the language for a truth that’s abysmal: as in appalling, and as in deep. It’s clear that underneath the play Muldoon is furious, maybe even terrified, about the state of things.

By Rita Dove
114 pp. Norton. $26.95.

Plenty of poems here address disability, history and quotidian human behavior, but racism and economic oppression are the former poet laureate’s primary concerns in this book, her first in 12 years. In “Aubade West,” set in Ferguson, Mo., the speaker might be Michael Brown or anyone subject to poverty and racism in a small town. “A day just like all the others, / me out here on the streets / skittery as a bug crossing a skillet.” In less fraught poems, Dove’s affable voice occupies a tonal middle distance. “I love the hour before takeoff, / that stretch of no time, no home,” she writes in “Vacation,” observing a “bachelorette trying / to ignore a baby’s wail,” and an athlete waiting to board “like a seal trained for the plunge.” The poem doesn’t lift off, and doesn’t want to — after all, the passengers are still at the gate. But “Bellringer,” the book’s first poem, certainly does. Here Dove assumes the voice of Henry Martin, born to slavery at Monticello the day Thomas Jefferson died, who worked as a bellringer at the University of Virginia. Voiced by Dove, Martin imagines that, hearing his bells ring, “down in that/ shining, blistered republic, /someone will pause to whisper / Henry!—and for a moment / my name flies free.” A fitting way to start a book trying to understand saving graces and the things they save us from.

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    By Jim Moore
    102 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $16.

    “I am still so very thirsty,” ends one poem in “Prognosis.” Moore is preoccupied with old age, loneliness, mortality, and also with the American body politic’s own failure. These are poems of arresting lyric reportage; whimsical, tragic, a touch fantastical. Watching from a window in “The Pandemic Halo” the poet notices a glow appearing around “the nurse who wears a pink cape and parks / in the lot across from me, almost always empty now.”

    Sometimes Moore meditates on human destruction (“I know about the disappearance / of the river dolphins, the sea turtles with tumors. / I know about the way the dead/ don’t return no matter how long they take to die / in the back of a police car”) in ways that risk allowing a reader to nod in agreement and turn aside. By contrast, flush-right poems that begin each section are jaggedly, hurriedly urgent. “AND /I / realize my mistake only now: / all I needed to do / that day twenty years ago / was be with my friend / who called out, / ‘But I don’t want to die.’ / To stand even closer by his side.” Instead of simply watching, these lines get at what’s broken, and attempt repair.

    By Marianne Worthington
    90 pp. Fireside. Cloth, $29.95; paper, $19.95.

    As the title suggests, musical performance supplies narrative material in Worthington’s debut; so does Worthington’s female-specific, Appalachian experience. The political sphere is present in flickers, in, say, a grandfather’s xenophobic World War II racism or (in the title poem) violence against women, where the “girl singer” mourns “the women killed in all the murder / ballads I knew.”

    Shorter lyrics animated by metaphor startle. Spying a nest in a hospital “breezeway,” Worthington describes displaced barn swallows in a flurry of figuration as “little fighter-pilot parents” whose babies in “a chalice of gob and mud, / atop the sprinkler-head cups” are “tiny ostomies of endless hungers.” “Ostomies” slides the poem from metaphor into narrative — we’re now in the land of medical procedure and digestive damage. Worthington concludes: “What are the questions / I should be asking here as droppings / mound up on the concrete steps / around my feet like splotched offerings?” Rhetorical questions can often be edited out of poems, but this one provides passage, in celebration and disgust, to contemplating the waste that unites all creatures.

    By Frank Bidart
    63 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

    Bidart is exciting to read and hard to explain. Quoting his sprawling, austere poems doesn’t much help. In “Against Silence,” he seems interested in individual and collective ethics, and sees a threat in silence — both the kind that opposes speech in life and the kind found in death, which we’re all up against. His poems float and swerve, at once cinematic and oddly intimate. He distrusts sweeping statements of truth. He titles one poem “The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Towards Justice” (a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. much shared on social media), then moves directly into a puncturing first line: “is an illusion.” Later in the same poem, with its voluminous discursions, Bidart writes of America’s ugly history: “Civil War,— / …followed by a century of Jim Crow. / If you do not become a master / you are a slave.” Bidart is concerned with injustice, but he doesn’t display his feelings so much as seek to understand the internal and external landscapes from which they arise. The poet recalls a “rich farmer” father whom the government “refused to enlist,” and who “night after night in bars / … fought soldiers who had called him a coward.” Bidart is dispassionate but never detached; at his most thinky he often seems most tender. His poems recognize, and help us recognize, the inherent harm in what we hold dear, defend and even worship.

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