By Paul Muldoon
179 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
“Howdie-skelp”: the slap a midwife gives a newborn. Poem-sequences dominate Muldoon’s storm of slaps against piety, prudery, cruelty and greed. “American Standard,” named after a toilet brand, riffs for pages on lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” while churning through contemporary concerns like gerrymandering, immigration, and grotesque politicians and their media platforms. Like Eliot, Muldoon’s after big, apocalyptic vision; unlike Eliot, Muldoon is willing — no, compelled — to clown.
In one long sequence Muldoon dives into the human ook that underlies great paintings. His bawdiness is political. Muldoon’s version of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” pictures the tablecloth as Mary Magdalene’s bedsheet, the crease in it “A gutter filled with candle grease. / The semen stain where Judas spilled his salt.” Like many important poets before him, from John Milton to Tim Rice, Muldoon knows that sinners and villains are more interesting, maybe more human, than self-appointed good guys. Poems, for Muldoon, are occasions to plumb the language for a truth that’s abysmal: as in appalling, and as in deep. It’s clear that underneath the play Muldoon is furious, maybe even terrified, about the state of things.
PLAYLIST FOR THE APOCALYPSE
By Rita Dove
114 pp. Norton. $26.95.
Plenty of poems here address disability, history and quotidian human behavior, but racism and economic oppression are the former poet laureate’s primary concerns in this book, her first in 12 years. In “Aubade West,” set in Ferguson, Mo., the speaker might be Michael Brown or anyone subject to poverty and racism in a small town. “A day just like all the others, / me out here on the streets / skittery as a bug crossing a skillet.” In less fraught poems, Dove’s affable voice occupies a tonal middle distance. “I love the hour before takeoff, / that stretch of no time, no home,” she writes in “Vacation,” observing a “bachelorette trying / to ignore a baby’s wail,” and an athlete waiting to board “like a seal trained for the plunge.” The poem doesn’t lift off, and doesn’t want to — after all, the passengers are still at the gate. But “Bellringer,” the book’s first poem, certainly does. Here Dove assumes the voice of Henry Martin, born to slavery at Monticello the day Thomas Jefferson died, who worked as a bellringer at the University of Virginia. Voiced by Dove, Martin imagines that, hearing his bells ring, “down in that/ shining, blistered republic, /someone will pause to whisper / Henry!—and for a moment / my name flies free.” A fitting way to start a book trying to understand saving graces and the things they save us from.
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By Jim Moore
102 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $16.
“I am still so very thirsty,” ends one poem in “Prognosis.” Moore is preoccupied with old age, loneliness, mortality, and also with the American body politic’s own failure. These are poems of arresting lyric reportage; whimsical, tragic, a touch fantastical. Watching from a window in “The Pandemic Halo” the poet notices a glow appearing around “the nurse who wears a pink cape and parks / in the lot across from me, almost always empty now.”