The Magician Contemplates Certain Mysteries

…………………………………..But in the end
Any protection would have to come
From Providence, him-her-or-it-self, working
By whatever hidden means usually employed,
Which we know to be so secret and so various.
…………………………………………………..—John Hollander

Children love magic: dollars ripped in half
And pyrotechnic pigeons make them laugh.
Why wouldn’t they? The birds return to sender,
The bucks get stitched back into legal tender,
And every quantum quarter reappears
From somewhere just behind jug-handle ears.

These mysteries, though latent, must be learned,
As masters of the craft have long discerned.
Charming a stick into a harmless snake,
Repairing pairs of spectacles you break,
Conjuring silk scarves in concatenation—
You start with simple prestidigitation,

Handsome Devils

….. But aren’t they all? They never
Announce themselves: no cysts that suppurate,
No jaundiced sclerae, no mephitic breath.
….. Their lines are always clever
And their teeth straight; on that first supper date,
….. They flatter you to death.

….. Yet handsome devils call
Attention to themselves with their disguises,
The smoldering good looks and awful charm;
….. They shine at parties, all
Loud jokes and toasts till someone realizes
….. The room has grown too warm.

….. Angels, by contrast, stroll
Unnoticed through the streets. Arrayed with faces
Anonymous as rain, they always stand
….. Behind some post or pole,
Sport rags or ash-gray suits, and leave no traces,
….. Exactly as they’d planned.

The Ordinary and the Ornate: Carl Dennis and Richard Kenney

Night School
by Carl Dennis
(Penguin, 2018, 112 pp., $20)

Terminator: Poems 2008-2018
by Richard Kenney
(Knopf, 2019, 224pp., $28.95)

For years now, I have carried with me, like a commemorative coin, the memory of a grad school colleague’s assessment of Carl Dennis: “It’s beautiful writing,” he said, “but I don’t understand how it’s poetry.” He intended no disrespect; he was expressing genuine puzzlement. I think I understand what he meant.

Upon Perusing a Volume of Systematic Theology

……….If I feel
critics with their wintry Wissenschaft
…..have plundered better texts
…..…..than they’ve written,
studding their articles with jargon
…..and writing sentences as
…..…..inert as argon,

…..…..what must God
feel browsing centuries of theology,
… say almost nothing
…..…..of televised sermons,
illiterate tracts, or streetcorner cardboard
…..signs in deranged Sharpie,
…..…..all of them

……….impervious to facts?
The equanimous rain keeps falling,
…..patting the ravers’ backs,
…..…..sogging the just
and unjust, drenching the theologasters
…..who dryly keep slogging
…..…..through their cacography

…..… they must,
quaint delvers into thorny Quellenforschung
…..who, although they shed
…..… light on
the Godhead, dodge falling wholly
…..penured and sometimes even
…..…..wind up tenured.

Craft and Clarity and Range: Foy, Bell, Pinsky, Groom

One might profitably read Night Vision, the latest collection of poems by John Foy, as a protracted argument about the plain style. The language is so bare of ornament or ostentation that when, in “Englewood,” Foy writes, “The white-throated sparrow / gives up its seven-note song,” the two compound adjectives feel almost decadent. Foy signals from the outset the deliberateness and import of these stylistic choices. The second poem of the collection, “Killing Things,” presents in the first three stanzas a series of man-made manglings: Robert Frost runs a tractor across a bird’s nest, Philip Larkin runs a mower over a hedgehog, and Richard Wilbur runs a mower over a toad. Frost’s birds perhaps make it, Larkin’s hedgehog dies without suffering, and Wilbur uses the high style to glorify the toad, as Foy points out: “He used / the words ‘ebullient’ and ‘emperies’ / to talk about the life he’d compromised.” Foy’s fourth stanza is dedicated to his own enterprise and reads in full,

You Just Have to Follow It

High summer. Afternoon. A vodka tonic
Patters with effervescent platitudes,
The lime slice shining like a small green sun.

You smell aged wood, old grass. A drop of sweat
Careens into the corner of your mouth;
You tongue it off, pricked by its salty tang.

Your backyard deck’s just high enough to look
Over your neighbor’s fence and into his yard.
His daughter sometimes noodles down her straps.

It’s hot these days: the air in certain places
Wriggles as though an invisible worm were pinned
To nothing. Sip. You’re proud of this conceit.

Another Way of Breaking the Pentameter

Let’s examine a poem by Joshua Mehigan, one published in Accepting the Disaster, his most recent collection.


Aluminum tank
indifferent in its place

behind a glass door
in the passageway,

like a tea urn
in a museum case;

that dumbly spend each day

waiting for gas or smoke
or hands or heat,

positioned like beige land mines

sanguine on walls,
or posted on the street

like dwarf grandfather clocks
spray-painted red;

little gray hydrant
in its warlike stance;

old fire escape,
all-weather paint job peeling,