Book review: Brain candy to go with whisky

Eccentric, dark, playful: William Scammell on a strong trio of American poets who can 'bite good'

When the Collected Poems of A R Ammons hit the streets in the next century they're likely to outweigh, in sheer bulk, such heavyweight Victorians as Tennyson, Browning and Whitman. In his latest 300-pager, Glare (Norton pounds 18.95), it's not always apparent whether we're in the middle of a new Ring Cycle or in the back of a busted old Ford exploring the blacktops and dirt roads of the American Way. He'll meditate and moralise on anything from bugs to the size of men's peckers ("there really is a / pecking order of peckers" in the mens' shower) to the latest in astrophysics.

There are just two long poems here, once called "Strip" and the other "Scat Scan". Age brings intimacy about his plumbing and plenty of high- flown "dithery dawdling" about art and love and God. In his last book, Brink Road (Norton pounds 8.95), now issued in paperback, he says "The point of a poem is to become wordless." Ammons is about as likely to become wordless, one feels, as Salinger is to appear an the Oprah Winfrey show.

Alice Fulton's Sensual Math (Norton pounds 8.95) puts a more playful spin on the world, loading her sassy and much- indented lines with a dense patter of meaning. "A job so sweet you'd do it / for free. Career candy", she remarks delightedly of her role. The candy she likes best is that of Emily Dickinson, and her "brilliant riffs and cascades", as Mark Doty has called them, have something in common with those of the Amherst recluse, but in a more glassy and skittish way, from the ads on TV to the things a girl needs to know about orchids and "nuptial lace" and "this promiscuous spring / wind".

Short lines, startling images, masses of dashes - typographical and intellectual - go to make up her dizzy shapes on the pages. Everything's bright and hard-edged, in a Plathish sort of a way, but without the doom: "Skeins of Bach / crossbreeding in the air", "To carpe diem all night long", "I'll sink / into a book that swimless way". She crams so much science and simile into her lines that sometimes you feel you're in a cerebral traffic jam. A final sequence deconstructs, at length, the Daphne and Apollo story in modern feminist, Hollywood and pop-culture terms, but the blues she quotes is rather more eloquent than the baroque playfulness of these variations ("See the hairs on a nymph's ass, / up close and personal"), which collapse into a chaos of jarring registers. I like her range and ambition, though. When she bites, she bites good.

Charles Simic is a Serb who grew up under the Nazis and moved to America in his teens. Looking for Trouble (Faber pounds 8.99), a selection of "early and more recent poems", complements his last book Frightening Toys (1995) and shows us how and why he became famous. Short, airy, imaginative, his poems carry a larger wallop than their seeming diffidence seems to promise. As Heaney has said, they "avoid the surreal penalty of weightlessness ... The magic dance is being kept up to keep calamity at bay".

"My Shoes" reminded me of Yehuda Amichai's poem on sandals. An excursion on brooms, those sinister props of folk and fairytales, tells us that the first one was made from arrows plucked from "the bent back of Saint Sebastian" and tied together by the rope that Judas hanged himself with. "The dust welcomed it - / That great pornographer / Immediately wanted to / Look under its skirt."

There's a "table that supplies itself with bread", a chicken that cuts its own throat, a clock that ticks louder after midnight, a "bedbug who suffers, who has doubts / About his existence", and plenty of humans ready to "kiss the balls" of whatever tyranny happens to be in fashion. Allegorical menace and black humour, those East European staples, are handled with a kindly, understated skill.

In verse as in morals, less is more, and Simic is scrupulous not to try and say more than he knows, "Crowding for warmth / With other unknown divinities / In an underpass at night". "Listen to her begin to fall" he says of the rain, "As if with eyes closed, / Muting each drop in her wild-beating heart" ("This Morning"). Good to have him on the shelf, along with that unusual bottle of malt.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution