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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.