BOOKS: POETRY IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
2 Dionisio Martinez, exiled from Cuba in 1965 and now living in Florida, lives up to his rather wonderful name in the excellent poems that make up Bad Alchemy (Norton pounds 8.95). The voice is contemporary, level- headed, confiding, but it quite often deals in marvels and apocalypse - being struck by lightning, for instance; the imperfect combustion of the internal combustion engine, spitting out carbon monoxide; the Chinese government's forbidding of laughter in Tiananmen Square, with that sort of verve diligent souls seem able to spark off from the infinite resources of language. "History leaves less and less to the imagination," says "Simplicity", an apparently simple poem about his mother's dressmaking, his father's death, and "the new country's euphemisms for no and why". He writes sympathetically about other artists too, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Satie, Jackson Pollock, "the various false endings" of Beethoven's Fifth, and Roy Orbison, "growing out of Elvis like a new / limb or that extra syllable every other / word acquires in the south." He's a touch eager to moralise now and then, bringing up corncobs rather than pearls. The best new American poet I've read in some time, none the less.

Frank O'Hara's distinctive voice, not unlike that of Don Marquis's Mehitabel ("toujours gai, archie"), is there a little in Martinez, and also in Kenneth Koch's One Train (Carcanet, pounds 7.95). Koch is the most prolific, inventive and long-lasting member of the New York School, liable to surprise by suddenly breaking into fourteeners for a version of Ovid (see his account of "Io") or finding some fresh way of converting "Romantic hooey" into a serious and dewy-eyed love poem ("Energy in Sweden"). The publisher has done him no favours by choosing a too-small typeface, and the daffy innocence sometimes teeters on the Disneyesque. But more often than not Koch puts a smile on your face ("Autumn a crisp Republicanism is in the air") and a zing in your mental step.

Weather "has a prior claim to everywhere," suggests "A Nocturnal" in Matthew Francis's Blizzard (Faber pounds 6.99). He's good on its vagaries, though sometimes prone to descend from elementals to "a Laura Ashley peasant radiance". The narrative poem "Occupied City", about a German officer exploring a captured French town, is more rewarding than the title poem, a long sequence of sonnets about an apocalyptic snowstorm. So is "After the Bee", an excellent meditation on that "thin papery feeling", as Plath called it, which follows pain. The poem is faithful both to body and mind in an extended image of the forest that is precise, poetic and unsentimental. "A Blind Man in the Forest" picks up a similar theme ("Without walls it's an enormous place, / oneself") but rather underlines the obvious sym- bolism. Francis has impressive formal skills and a nicely understated manner; his quiet accuracies grow on you at successive readings. I'd trade some of the tastefulness, however, for a little less obliquity and more risk- taking.

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