BOOK REVIEW / Menace on main street: The strange Kees to success: William Scammell on some new and revisited reputations

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LIKE Delmore Schwartz, Weldon Kees is one of those charmingly-named minor American poets we are more likely to have heard of than to have read. He was born in Nebraska in 1914, wrote essays and fiction as well as poetry, painted, worked briefly as art critic of The Nation, experimented with film and photography, took part in the jazz revival and then vanished in 1954, leaving his car parked by the Golden Gate Bridge: 'Goodnight, goodnight. To strangers, to an empty street.' If his other skills came anywhere near those on show in his Collected Poems (Faber pounds 7.99) he was indeed, as the blurb claims, 'the most diversely talented poet of his generation'.

In his best-known poem, 'Aspects of Robinson', the protagonist has a full social diary which rails him off, but only just, from the abyss. This death-haunted alter ego is an updated Prufrock whose 'sad and usual heart' is 'dry as a winter leaf', and he stalks through several more poems, crucified by traffic and fluorescent lights, pitting childhood memories hopelessly against city streets and terror. One critic has called his poems 'apocalyptic' but that's too affirmative by half. What's distinctive is the sprightliness of his pessimism, the way it wags its tail and begs to be thrown another confirmatory piece of heartlessness. There is a swoony side to him, crying out for easeful death, but it is countered by scholarly annotation of the nightmare, and by the craftsmanship of his seemingly casual verse.

'Subtitle', published when he was 22, announces his long love-affair with 'the movie of death'. Poem after poem goes in search of substance and finds only that Eliotic commodity, vacancy: 'Why don't they all give up and give it to you straight / And say they can't heal anything?' He turns himself into a dog, a ghost, a cat, a flower, a 'girl at midnight', but such empathies only exacerbate the itch beneath his already thin skin. The best he can manage is, in the words of one title, 'A Good Chord on a Bad Piano'.

His knack of imbuing ordinary middle-American scenes with a doomy allegorical underside out-Hoppers the menace of the celebrated painter. The 'sense of wrong / And emptiness and loss' is that of Baudelaire and Eliot, Fitzgerald and Plath, yet neither the voice nor the tropes feels derived. This is a disaster-merchant you are glad to buy from, one who has no need of leather trim and Auschwitz number-plates to bolster his ego with vicarious suffering. 'Wild for my shadow in this vacantness', he knows all too well that evil lies closer to home.

Czeslaw Milosz's Provinces (trs Robert Hass, Carcanet pounds 6.95) takes a more eagle-eyed view of things, and one occasionally yearns for him to get inside some feeling or event rather than pronounce on it from a great height. 'You would like to know how it is in old age?' asks the title poem, and returns a Yeatsian answer: 'Eros has never before seemed to me so mighty.' As for men and women themselves, 'How oddly they are divided, those two tribes: / Women learning about the comic shames of men, / Men learning about the comic shames of women.' This flat note, rather reminiscent of C H Sisson, permeates the book, even when the poet wishes 'To glorify things just because they are'. We read it in translation, of course. Maybe the Polish sings a little more, and arrives at the 82-year-old poet's desideratum: 'A word awakened by lips that perish.'

Most of the wide-eyed words in John Gohorry's enjoyable Talk Into the Late Evening (Peterloo pounds 6.95) occur in the first half of the book, where extra-terrestrial, then Japanese, then German mores are subjected to a nice line in precise description and deadpan humour. Gohorry deftly corrects the excesses and absurdities of human pretension, while properly delighting in those 'small comforts' which 'keep darkness from having the last word'. Acker Bilk gets a celebratory poem that's probably better than anything he has done to deserve it, and we also meet some al fresco violinists who 'savage the notes off the staves, like mad dogs'. Gohorry's ear for nuance and parody is finely-tuned but some of the longer pieces, such as 'Hobbes's Whale', could do with a little less historical baggage and rather more narrative buoyancy.

Vicki Raymond is an Australian poet now living in London. Her Selected Poems (Carcanet pounds 6.95) moves entertainingly between quietness and exuberance. She likes plants and animals and the solitary delights of swimming but also the larger-than-life gestures of Beryl Cook, whom she invokes to preside over 'Holiday Girls', the book's most outstanding single success. A brief ars poetica tells us firmly 'It isn't an accident / that most poets are either / teachers or bureaucrats' since it is all a matter of 'setting things in order'. She then proceeds to turn Horace into Wendy Cope, which is certainly orderly, after a fashion, but maybe a touch damaging to the original. I preferred the generous dirge for 'those who climbed mountains / in tennis shoes and shorts; / for those who floated out of / the world, on rubber rafts', resolutely untidy to the last.