By Donald Justice
(Knopf, 289 pages, $25)
By Carl Phillips
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 80 pages, $20)
Thanks to the influence of Plath, Sexton and Lowell, modern poets often approach the writing desk as if it were a confession vestibule. For Donald Justice, it was more like a garage where he went to tinker. The Miami-born Pulitzer Prize winner was the gearhead of contemporary poetry. He'd take an idea, hoist it up on jacks, head off to the scrap heap of poems past and return with just the right form to use.
Villanelles, sestinas, odes, dialogues--Justice used just about every form he could during his long career, which sadly ended in August when he died of pneumonia. Readers can appreciate the full range of Justice's antic curiosity, though, with the release of his Collected Poems, a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, the winner of which will be announced today.
Justice was the master of the whippet-fast quip, the wry innuendo, the surprise rhyming couplet. In another life, Justice could have been a stand-up who parlayed wordplay into laughs. Here is "The Thin Man": "I indulge myself/ In rich refusals./ Nothing suffices./ I hone myself to/ This edge. Asleep, I/ Am a horizon."
These are poems that inspire not a guffaw, but an inward mental giggle. Like Paul Muldoon, Justice had a way of seeing every dimension of a word. His mind was a funhouse mirror that could stretch and expand the funnier ones, turning everyday items into monstrosities.
If there was anything Justice seemed preoccupied with it was the passage of time. There was nothing ominous in this appreciation, merely a childlike fascination. "Certain moments will never change nor stop being," Justice wrote in "Thinking about the Past," as if he couldn't believe his luck for waking each day with his memory intact. For more than 50 years, Justice dedicated himself to making sure that these snapshots lived beyond himself through art.
In just 12 years of publishing poetry, Carl Phillips has been short-listed for nearly every major poetry award, and now he's been shortlisted a second time for the National Book Award for his new volume of poems, The Rest of Love. Not bad for a man who took up writing after age 30.
Phillips has evolved into one of America's most distinctive voices. His halting, self-doubting lines depict a mind in dialogue with itself. His poems do not telegraph a narrative but rather evoke one through associative placement of words, and by splicing in references to Greek mythology. Though this style hardly lends itself to brisk reading, it rewards re-reading.
The Rest of Love asks this question: How do we believe? And can desire help us in this endeavor? Broken down into three sections, the book conducts its metaphysical inquiry with subtlety, drawing upon classical verse and the poet's own experience. Though Phillips retreads territory he has mapped in previous volumes, the poems here feel knottier, riskier and even more supportive of multiple meanings.
In the title piece, he invokes Orpheus, the mythological figure who journeyed to the underworld to retrieve his wife. The only condition was that he not glance back upon leaving, but of course he did. Phillips writes: "He looks back./ He's lost everything./ And his own story begins in earnest."
This sense of loss pervades the book. It's not so much that we live in a fallen world, but that we live in separation from a higher state. Desire, however, brings us nearly there. "[I]t ends always/ at desire," writes Phillips, "without which/ would there have been/ imagination, would there be folly?"
The other nominated poets are William Heven, Cole Swensen and Jean Valentine.
18th Annual Oregon Book Awards hosted by Rick Bass Literary Arts at the Scottish Rite Center, 1512 SW Morrison St., 227-2583. 7:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 18. $18 (students)-$25.