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Book Review

Poems of vitality and mortality

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Campion
January 28, 2008

Gulf Music
By Robert Pinsky
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 96 pp., $22

Many of us recognize Robert Pinsky as an "ambassador of poetry," a one-man conduit between that intimate art and the whole sweep of American public life. During his three terms as poet laureate, Pinsky worked to bring the already thriving energies of poetry to greater attention. In the last few years he's appeared not only on PBS's "NewsHour" but also on "The Simpsons" and "The Colbert Report." Yet anyone who knows Pinsky simply as a public figure is missing the real deal. I mean the sheer vitality of his own poems.

In this seventh collection, "Gulf Music," Pinsky takes the exchange between public and private life as his very subject. His title suggests two current crises, Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. It also alludes to an inner drama, a sense of a gap or disconnection. In "Poem With Lines in Any Order," for example, each of the 14 lines relates some shard of family gossip, but while these mosaic tiles tessellate into a larger shape, they also leave an enduring absence, as if to convey how the truth of family narratives often remains unknowable.

In "The Forgetting," Pinsky begins with the acknowledgment that "The forgetting I notice most as I get older is really a form of memory:/ The undergrowth of things unknown to you young, that I have forgotten." To read this and the other poems in the book is to see how individual memory flows into cultural memory. The "undergrowth of things" in the book turns out to bristle and bloom with the felt history of everything from family dramas to cartoon characters, from the horrors of war to the names of baseball players. And even as he makes such connections, Pinsky also shows how the fabric of memory frays, as again and again he leads his reader to that gulf, where the self confronts mortality.

But the feeling is not one of despair, although melancholy runs beneath much of the book. Instead, a sense of wonder strikes a counterpoint with those darker notes. Pinsky has an almost Hindu vision of cyclical birth and decay, of memory and forgetting. If he writes of the terrors of 9/11 and Guantanamo, he also celebrates a pantheon of musicians, athletes, poetic forebears, even the Statue of Liberty. If he points to the disconnections in experience, he also builds a field of reference so panoramic that most novels and movies look rinky-dink by comparison.

In the gorgeous love lyric "Antique," he shows his talents both for intimate address and for scope. Here's the first half of the poem:

I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned

In the river of not having you, we lived

Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms

And we were parted for a thousand years.

Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover

The earth and have forgotten that we existed.

It was not maya, it was not a ladder to perfection,

It was this cold sunlight falling on this warm earth.

The vertiginous wonder of the beginning morphs into the starkness at the end of that second sentence, as Pinsky portrays the bare fact of existence, and the experience of sharing it. This turn gives pleasure itself, but it also seems to me an emblem for Pinsky's range as a poet, his ability to inhabit wildly various tones and structures. No living poet has greater reach of imagination.

Peter Campion is the author of a collection of poems, "Other People," published by the University of Chicago Press.

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