Robert Bly's new collection of poetry is made of forty-eight poems written in the intricate form called the ghazal, which is the central poetic form in Islam. The influence of Hafez and Rumi is clear, and yet the poems descend into the wealth of Western history, referring at times to Monet, Giordano Bruno,Emerson, St. Francis, Newton, and Chekhov, as well as to events in Bly's own life. The leaping between joy and "ruin" produces a poetry which makes him, as Kenneth Rexroth noted, "one of the leaders in a poetic revival which has returned American literature to the world community."
When Iron John: A Book About Men took off in the early '90s, Bly's poetic reputation was instantly eclipsed, though he had long embraced mythic precedents and close examination of masculine feelings in his work. Bly has also worked in collaboration with linguists to translate Islamic religious poetry, and this eighth collection reflects these and other varied and sustained interests. The book's 48 lyrics are written in a single (here terceted) form, the ghazal, used by such great Islamic poets as Ghalib, and harness high points of Western art and literature to draw general, biblically backed conclusions about the human condition out of the mire. The three poems inspired by Rembrandt are probably the best here, simple in diction and understated in effect: "Titus receives a scattering of darkness./ He's baptized by water soaking in onions;/ The father protects his son by washing him in the night." But too many lines veer from the prosaic into the clunky in their quest for universal imagery: "My heart is a calm potato by day, and a weeping,/ Abandoned woman by night," notes the speaker of the title poem. After a series of mentions of animals in "The Wildebeest," a reference to "The Moses of the beaver" is unconsciously comic at best. The cultural references follow one another at a fast and furious pace, and while the initial surprise of finding Chekhov and Blake or Kierkegaard and Cezanne in the same poem can be pleasant, there is little holding them there beyond Bly's will-to-form. No one will doubt Bly's sincerity, but the poems fall short of the heady figures they invoke. (May)Forecast: Despite their flaws, these poems surpass the new work of last year's Eating the Honey of Words: New & Selected Poems. Bly's multitude of fans will recognize their hero's concerns and preoccupations, here more elegiacally than ever, and relish some of the real achievements.
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April 01, 2002
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