Sonata Mulattica: Poems
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
240 pp., $24.95
Struggling Times (American Poets Continuum)
BOA Editions Ltd., 2009
88 pp., $16.00
Two Kinds of Poems
These two poets are well-established. Both have won Pulitzer Prizes, both are included in those big Norton Anthologies college students dread. Lists of their accomplishments appear on the interiors and exteriors of their new books.
So when we open these books we expect to find great poetry. Perhaps, too, the poets themselves are conscious of our expectation and feel a need to satisfy it. Only the poets know for sure, but Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica seems evidence that they do.
With its baroque cover, it looks like it must be a good book. After 25 pages of prefatory matter, including an author's preface ("my tale is woven from historical events"), two verse "prologues," and the first section title ("The Prodigy") followed by an epigraph in French, the first poem, "(Re)Naissance," begins: "Snow's a gentle pillager: It sucks / where we have no more rags to bind, / seeks out our furthest tips to freeze / in reprimand."
Four other sections— "movements," Dove calls them—ensue. Each contains poems that are flights of historical fact and fancy, designed to be intellectually satisfying. The book concludes with 20 pages of notes, a chronology, etc. At last a "Biographical Note" begins, "Rita Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate, is the recipient of many honors …."
The gilded trappings of Sonata Mulattica are, no doubt, intentionally ironic, the poems' archaic diction an arch commentary on the stuffy whiteness of official Western culture. Dove's subject matter includes Beethoven, Haydn, and Friedrich Augustus Bridgetower, "the great lunatic mulatto composer."
By contrast, Louis Simpson's Struggling Times is stark, its poetry immediate and accessible. There is no dedication page, no preface, and the first poem begins, "We have lost our investments. / The pillars of the kingdom are broken." Even the "About the Author" sounds relatively humble, his Pulitzer mentioned near the end, after lesser awards.
Simpson's poems rely on the easy phrasing, gentle meter, and accidental music of normal speech. "Sentimental Education" begins with the couplet, "He first fell in love / when he was sixteen," and continues, "To hear him tell it, she / was the Aphrodite surfing …." The near-rhyme of "sixteen" and "surfing," pinioned by uneven rhythm, is deeply pleasing to the ear. Later in the poem, "Someone has given his heart / a jump start."
So sweet, so simple. Good poets make writing poetry seem easy, just as good hitters make driving the ball to left-center look easy. Of course we know it takes years of practice, but the effort doesn't show. It's always a treat to watch a veteran who's mastered the game.
It so happens that Louis Simpson is also an Army veteran: during World War II he served in the 101st Airborne and parachuted into Normandy. This might be one reason why there is little self-seriousness or showmanship in his poetry. That he has been publishing poetry for almost 70 years might be another. The last poem in the collection ends with the devastating lines, "There are one or two men. / They bury themselves in the news, / and say goodbye. That is all."
Aaron Belz teaches English at Providence Christian College in Los Angeles, California. His second collection of poetry, Lovely, Raspberry, is due at the end of May from Persea Books.
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