The Common Good
July 2005

In the Age of Glare

by Rose Marie Berger | July 2005

In Lewis Hyde'

In Lewis Hyde’s masterpiece The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, he writes, "A market exchange has an equilibrium or stasis: you pay to balance the scale. But when you give a gift there is momentum, and the weight shifts from body to body."

Poetry - and art in general - is not a "product" generated for the market exchange. Even if a poet wins a few cash prizes or gets a few nickels in royalties, the creation of the poem and the releasing of the poem into the body of those who have ears to hear is gift, pure and simple. Three new collections of poems present such an offering.

The first is Rod Jellema’s A Slender Grace. For a number of years the poetry editor for The Other Side magazine, Jellema also founded the creative writing program at the University of Maryland. A Slender Grace is his fourth collection in 30 years and was named book of the year (2004) by the Conference on Christianity and Literature. "This was the book that I carried with me to work, on the bus," said an awards committee member. "This was the book from which I quoted to family and friends."

Jellema writes like Vermeer paints. The poems are technically brilliant, yet limpid, translucent. His Dutch Calvinist background means he’s never far from the fallen world ("This is not an age of dark, but of glare"), but, as the title conveys, we live, move, and love by a slender grace. Here is Jellema on green beans: "No need to slit the tight skin/down to its pearls. Just snap/the stem and bite."

BURNT ISLAND is from D. Nurkse, Brooklyn’s former poet laureate. Nurkse, who worked on Amnesty International’s rights of the child campaign and teaches poetry in the prison on Rikers Island, is a worker-poet. His poems integrate a vast and fluid ken of history, religion, geology, and Eastern and Western classical literature, with a worker’s intimate knowledge of shovels, longlines, and pawnshops. Burnt Island contains some of the most delicate poems yet created on New York after 9/11. In "October Rendezvous," Nurkse recalls, "We saw it/and can’t stop watching:/as if the plane entered the eye/and it was the mind/that began burning/with such a stubborn flame." My favorite line is in "Hymenoptera: The Ants": "This is the whole problem of victory:/the severed parts go on thinking."

Finally, Maine’s poet laureate Baron Wormser’s new chapbook Carthage is a must-have for anyone trying to survive in the Bush Empire. Wormser creates a character ("Carthage") who is immediately recognizable, says Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn, "a president befuddled by events he’s helped to create." Writes Wormser in "Carthage and the Evil," "Carthage is sorting out the bad/From the evil,/A task that could give God a headache./...The righteous murder the evil/So the bad can live in murderous peace./The good…/Do not appear in any strategic equations." By the final poem, I was in tears. Wormser’s Carthage - both the collection and the persona - force us to face the catastrophic banality of evil in our days.

Rose Marie Berger is associate editor and poetry editor of Sojourners. To order Carthage, e-mail baronw@gwi.net.

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