Book Review

Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets
By David R. Slavitt.
Louisiana State University Press, 2005. $24.95.
Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt, M.D. (Laurie_rosenblatt@dfci.harvard.edu).

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The author of more than eighty books, David Slavitt publishes translations, poetry, novels, and memoir.  His prose book, Re Verse, is a powerful collection of essays about poets and poetry.  It treats familiar work in a fresh way that illuminates new aspects of each poet’s life and work and opens up poems and poets that may be a bit more difficult.

For those who avoid poetry because they feel ill equipped to take on the technical aspects, Re Verse is a wonderful guide.  It contains deeply personal essays about poets and their poetry spanning a lifetime of reading and practice.  Slavitt discusses technical issues in an organic and completely comprehensible way that helps the uninitiated understand why meter, elegance of line, and form matter, without ever making the reader feel like an anxious, naked dreamer.  He describes the mystery at the heart of poetry in this way, “…that a poet can write something quite private and readers can respond to it, supplying from their own lives those energizing details that the literary work invites and exploits.”

Slavitt also engages us in a multi-layered dialogue about grief.  At the end of the book, in his essay on “The Poetry of Grief,” we find one outcome of suffering,

What one discovers in agony may not be the only truth, but is nonetheless a truth.  What physicians and therapists may be finding in the afflicted people they are trying to treat is that this is not merely an alteration in the limbic system but a new, intimate, and unintellectual relationship to the tragedy of the human condition.  And wisdom so expensively acquired is not something one is willing to relinquish. (p.196)

He goes on to discuss grief using two of his own poems, “Solstice” and “Equinox'” to illustrate the difference between grief after an expected death (his father’s) and that from a traumatic death (his mother’s murder).

“Solstice” shows us the relationship between father and son as we follow the speaker’s motivations and actions in performing a rite of rememberance.  He observes, “…To think, to grieve,/to remember isn’t enough.  One must go to the bother/ of doing something.”  And, after a few lines, continues the poem’s uninterrupted column (p.200-201):

They put it to me:  will I refuse to do
what I know he would have wanted?  I give in,
go out, come back again, still wanting to
earn praise as the good boy I’ve never been.
And when the sun has given up, I give
lip service, mumble the prayer, and light the wick.
It’s guaranteed that the little flame will live
the whole twenty-four hours, which seems a trick
for two and three-quarter ounces of paraffin.
All night shadows will dance on the ceiling and play
on the walls.  And as I pass, I will glance in
to see how it’s doing during the next day.

The poem ends, “….Say/ rather that I’ve bargained once more with him/and done what he wanted, only to keep him at bay.”  Slavitt’s tone is rational, purposeful, and he comes to an accommodation (strikes a familiar “bargain”) with his loss.

By contrast, in “Equinox” (p.201), Slavitt explores a different Yahrzeit, in broken stanzas (in contrast to Solstice’s single column).  He writes of the grief he and his sister share after their mother’s murder.  The second part of that poem reads:

In Yiddish, Yahrzeit.  There is no English word
that serves correctly.  Anniversary
is gay, wears party hats, has dinner out,
but Yahrzeit tells the time by throbs of pain,
mourns the turning of each season’s screws,
and can predict by inner aches the outer
weather,
                            as the wounded learn to do
from predictable cycles of agony and numbness.
Pain and its diminution are the two
companions we trust, stars in our firmament.
We also have the telephone and each other.

Read the stanza aloud to appreciate Slavitt’s mastery of sound and structure.  By saying the poem, you can hear Slavitt use sound to reinforce and color the portrait of a soul in pain approaching and veering away from an experience of terrible change in the world.

The essay in which these poems appear artfully directs our thoughts back to one of the first essays in the book.  There, in a meditation on Donne’s  “An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary,” Slavitt reviews what he was taught in school about the poem, what he’s been taught by life, then treats us to his accurate, subtle, but plain spoken reading of the poem.  Slavitt moves, a page or so later, to a personal experience:

Just after the disasters of September 11, I spoke with my sister and we were talking about the change in the public mood and discourse, the hurt and anger and grief that the media were trying without much success to find some way to express.  I told her that the country now feels the way we felt when our mother was killed.  There was a pause while she thought about that.  And then a simple, terrible, “Yes.” (p.57)

He then returns to a technical aspect of Donne’s poem to explicate the its echoing grief:

That refrain line,..(“She” is repeated three times), comes back with the dull thud of a funeral drum, not with any predictable periodicity, but often enough so that one learns to expect it, or fear it.  It is not mere punctuation, but what the grief counselors call a STUG—a Sudden Temporary Upsurge of Grief that can, at any moment, sneak up to clutch one and produce a fresh sensation of pain and a gush of tears. (p. 57-58)

In each essay, Slavitt interweaves complex but accessible thematic readings with clarifying biographical and autobiographical examples.  At the same time, he notes technical aspects that govern the poem’s levels of meaning. All of which makes Re Verse an accessible and compelling read.

Published: February 4, 2008