Black Series: Poems
Laurie Sheck
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Buy *Black Series: Poems* online

Black Series: Poems

Laurie Sheck
112 pages
November 2001
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Most poetry these days offers us not music but vision, an invitation to look at the world from the poet's eyes, to experience his or her essential subjectivity. Poetry as personal experience, the idea of art as flame instead of mirror, came into vogue about two hundred years ago with Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the drift away from music began with a crucial misunderstanding of Whitman's rolling, sonorous periods. Second-rate poets, relieved, were able to say, “Let's just lineate our prose.”

Curled Up With a Good BookLaurie Sheck's Black Series, her fourth volume of poetry, is encouraging, then, because, although the verse is technically free, there is plenty of rhythm and sound to give us pleasure in the hearing.

The range of sound properties is remarkable but always tightly controlled. Some long lines have the almost liturgical effect of Whitman:

In the distance the red blinking light is the radio tower in Randolph
      and below it on the hills are sparse patches of old farms
      (“Dark Lullaby”)
while others verge toward the classical deliberation of blank verse:
They catch and glitter in her tangled hair.
Besides rhythm there is a careful use of repetition, even pauses, to delight the reader with an appreciative ear.

Still, more than the sounds, what arrests us about this poetry is the author's special perceptions of familiar landscapes, presented with a verbal intensity that challenges us to participate. Her poems are completely personal, presenting us with a complex, highly integrated, idiosyncratic way of looking. Sheck writes about ordinary things – subway grafitti, mannequins in store windows, horses, insects – in ways that we have not seen them before:

On the crest of the far hill, the lone tree
with bare black branches is Medusa's head,
her snake-hair spitting stars into the sky.
I would hack her at the neck,
watch color flood back into the world.
      ("Bridal Veil")
And then the gray concrete of the subway platform, that shore
      stripped of all premise of softness
or repose. I stood there, beneath the city's sequential grids
      and frameworks, its wrappings and unwrappings
like a robe sewn with birds that flew into seasons of light,
      a robe of gold
and then a robe of ash.
      ("The Subway Platform")
Here we have a tree and a subway station strikingly, almost surrealistically, transformed.

The best of her work in this volume is just like that, vigorous and arresting, revealing a sensibility that we somehow recognize in spite of its strangeness. Her imagery inevitably recalls Samuel Johnson's criticism of the metaphysical poets, whose metaphors, he said, were "yoked together by violence." A generous part of her vision comes from Greek mythology, with allusions to Io, Perseus, Odysseus, and Eurydice, among others, but right alongside these are references to the newest high-tech objects such as Xeroxing, websites and pixels, and e-mail. "Wind," she says in one poem, "You do not click from channel to channel." Yet she seems equally comfortable with both classical and contemporary frames.

Occasionally Sheck's usually reliable muse nods when she reaches too hard for the unusual, lasping into sentimentality and almost preciousness. These lapses happen most often when she has objects become sentient: "the anxious dark," "the envious, silver, imprisoned glass," "the night was medicinal. Doctorly, it leaned" "the dark begins to meddle with the buildings," and most notably, "The walls are so tired of their mission to protect." Such tropes may pass for personification or something like it in an English class, but here they mar the credibility of what the author is trying to make us see.

What is bafflingly absent in these poems is a sense of human connectedness. They are not addressed to anyone, not even a generic reader (though one is addressed to the wind), and most of them don't include other people, or relationships with them. The poet's feelings seem mainly directed at scenes and objects, which she covers with veils of private meaning but which remain a mostly unpeopled landscape. Even in her most plainly reminiscent poem, "In the South Bronx," the author makes reference to "my father's store," but no father appears as a character. The only person in the poem besides the narrator is a nameless customer on whom she waits. Nevertheless, "In the South Bronx" succeeds remarkably in revealing a strong, recognizable personality:

I'd sit among the empty cardboard boxes, each stack of them
like a mild endangered city slightly swaying,
while I thought of the children's hands, small as my own,
made livid in the store's flourescent lighting,

and the way they'd hold out their palms so I could count for them
the few coins they'd carried so carefully from him:
Is this enough? Is this?
Another place where the author reveals her sense of the human relation in in the longest poem in the collection and possibly the best, "Walls," which contains an affecting sketch of a child:
One night I heard her crying in her bed, found her with her knees
      pressed hard against the wall
as if it were a wing that would beat into her
      and which she had, inside her sleep, to push backward
from her heart. Was she awake? It seemed her child-sleep
      was still half-there, half-holding her, half-scattered-off by fright.
Her eyes still closed, she moved her lips, her forehead
      hot and sweaty to my touch, "A beggar kissed me on the head. I was afraid."
But before I could answer, she was once again asleep.

© 2002 by Conrad Geller for Curled Up With a Good Book

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