It's a fact serious readers of poetry accept and I've complained about before - among the hundreds of young, competent poets who turn out dull and workshop-perfect books every year, it's alarmingly hard to find more than a couple who care enough about their art to quibble with what they've been taught or attempt to go beyond it.
The least vividness of language or risk in paraphrasing will likely set readers a-stir - some happily, others more uncomfortably. And young poets who consider taking risks accept apparent facts - the first books that get published are those, too often, that play it safe, that show off the clean, unmuddled workshop poem in all its boring, carefully cut facets.But not always.
In defense of the publishers, it can be difficult to find a first book of poems in which the poet has not only quibbled but quibbled well and won; a book in which individuality emerges not just in the use of a few unusual words or a twist of phrasing, but in the actual engagement of the poet with the issues that her art raises. In this kind of writing, the reader finds a maturity that few poets ever reach, a complexity that the writers of first books, in their struggle just to get through without making any huge blunders, rarely achieve.
Occasionally, though, these first books get written; sometimes they even get published. And here, in Penelope Austin's new book of poems, "Waiting for a Hero," we find such maturity and complexity lighting nearly every page.
In some ways, Austin, who has just received her doctorate in creative writing from the University of Utah and accepted a teaching job at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, appears a highly academic poet. Her work connects in intimate and knowing ways with the bodies of literature and myth that make up both our cultural and literary canon and the canons of other cultures.
The poems are laced through with characters from Greek myth - especially Penelope, of course - as well as from such diverse sources as "Daisy Miller" and "The 1001 Nights."
But if Austin often draws upon literature and culture for subjects, she grounds this material in the physical, sensory world, and it is here, in joining the cultural and the sensual, art and life, that she becomes an original, canon-breaking poet, whose language carries the double weight and fire of literary and immediate passion.
Much of the life in this book flares out of the urgency of the language, which in the most arresting poems surges headlong, breathless, down the page, as if there could never be enough time or words to say what must be said. Often, a poem will tumble from one striking metaphor to another, as in "The Lover," where the poet moves from
o "voluptuous" fruit and finally coastal hills that spread "great and lovely thighs to the sea" - all within a few lines.
In its urgency, the voice here also, surprisingly often, takes on charm. Not the charm of coyness or prettiness or glibness, but the charm of honesty, of complete engagement and genuine wonder at a world that can harm or slay as beautifully as it does this lovestruck speaker.
In joining so ingenuously the worlds of art and life kept separate by the modernists and the worlds of art and truth divided by the reigning post-structuralists, Austin could not responsibly escape issues of art and politics, and she doesn't try.
The critics of this century may have followed programs of segregation that tend to absolve the writer from responsibility for the content of her work, but this poet takes responsibility for her words by throwing herself wholeheartedly into integration.
Not only does she join art, both as it is made and as it is received, with life; her work also attempts to integrate cultures, communities, the sexes and even the individual. The poet shows us both how we invest our landscape and culture with the art we create, and how we internalize the old tales and myths of our culture and make them part of our emotional and ethical terrains.
In the face of division - from daughter, family, lover, her body, the past - Austin asserts wholeness: for example, in "When is a --," a poem about a woman who, after a mastectomy, suffers the additional defeminizing effects of cortisone and sexual rejection and finds herself claiming a masculine identity, the subject finally retrieves her feminine identity when her daughter calls her by "her woman's name."
In fact, though artistic and political issues are not addressed only indirectly - the book opens with a poem called "Modernism," which begins, "That is not my country" - some of the most interesting moments in the book come when the poet links her artistic sensibility, the drive for wholeness and truth in art and life with femininity.
"The Silent Woman," a villanelle about Scheherazade, the "1001 Nights' " "tale-spinning wife," and Penelope, who undid her daily weaving by night, brings the issues into direct confrontation:
In this poem, the act of producing art is, to the poet, necessary "to save her life." The urgency tells the reader that the poet means this literally. And in "What's Wrong With This Picture," Austin addresses the art she associates explicitly with men - an art that, because separate from life, is woven of lies, which "they call . . . art" in order to justify the division.
It is this level of commitment and the intensity of the best poems that make the weaker poems in the book appear, at times, flat by comparison. Next to the poems in which Austin dazzles with her command of forms - "The Silent Woman;" the formally innovative "What She Weaves;" the brilliant sestina, "Mrs. Walker's Injunction Becomes a Desire;" and the stunning syllabic poem "Before the Station" - Austin's pantoum, "The Sleeping Beauty Ballet," though accomplished, seems wooden, burdened by its form and lacking both the energy and the charm of other poems.
As well, some readers might find the occasions of some of the poems - "Eternal Love," "Diana's Leg" - slight, or slightly handled, especially when compared to other poems in the book. While these may be less arresting than the best pieces here, however, I don't ask even the most accomplished poet to invest every poem with life-and-death importance. I've read whole books, some by well known poets, that never approach head-on the kinds of issues that haunt this volume.
And many of the poems that threaten to be slight at their openings often take on, gradually, these larger concerns: "I wore orchid shoes," for example, becomes a moving poem about mortality and the unity of life, nature and art. Indeed, for a first book, this volume takes on more than enough, and even the few poems that seem a bit thin on their own tend to elaborate the overall concerns of the poet.
It is both the high level of commitment to these concerns and the overall high level of skill operating in these poems that make this book so unusual. In their sometimes reckless but nearly always just controlled plunge into the whole hearts of what matters, the poems find words and combinations that startle. In these combinations, the poet gives us a sense of her world's largeness and wholeness, of the connectedness of life to death, one land to another, action to consequence.
Austin also leaves us with a sense of her great wonder at and love for it all. The beauty of art is not enough - the best of these poems bear mortal weight they won't sacrifice to mere aesthetic. In their weight, they risk sentimentality, yet in their particulars, and in the urgency of the language, they become wrenchingly, memorably lovely.
In the end, by quibbling with the critical and poetic establishment, Austin's poems leave it behind, and lead us instead to truths of the heart and body that any reader will respond to.