Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Brian Blanchfield, _A Several World_

THE JAMES LAUGHLIN winner of 2014--so his second book, obviously. I have not read his first, but there is a lot to like about this one: ambitious, audacious, confident. Sometimes reminiscent of Ashbery in the way the diction will veer suddenly from the erudite to the colloquial, or of Mark Levine in the way the train of thought will suddenly teleport to far removed topic, but my main impression was of someone with a very large and distinctive gift that he is not at all embarrassed about drawing upon as fully as he can. I like that.

The real high-wire act of the book is the third of its four sections, "A History of Ideas, 1973-2012," a sequence that takes as epigraph the lines from Robert Herrick that provide the volume's title. The twelve poems have an elusive current of autobiography in them, seem to be reflecting the the world of private, untranslatable experience that Herrick's phrase neatly names, but have a public dimension as well in the individual poems' epigraphs, drawn from the reference work that gives the sequence its title, and their coda-graphs (I just made that up, but I mean quotations resembling epigraphs, only placed at the end of the poem) from sources as various as Antonin Scalia and Alcoholics Anonymous. The poems combine precision with mystery in a kind of Sir Thomas Browne where-are-we-now syntax:

               Where prior elders
may have swabbed with resin and covered properly as he lay
the birthday boy with falcon down
we borrow from the annals only the prior elder prayer.

I think my favorite section of the four, though, is the last, not as bravura a bit as "History of Ideas" (though "Sonnets in Diaghilev's Beard" is bravura enough), more lyrical, more tender, but still lean and muscled. This is how "Littlest Illeity"ends:

     Little unpainted people
forms, fixities in a stroll, remains
already, instrumental once in a
while of water, weird, for the tink
on glass the plastic go-round pisses.
He doesn't have to explain it.

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