Review: Three 1991 Poetry Collections: Roger Weingarten, Maurya Simon, Lowell Jaeger Print

kjugv(High Plains Literary Review. Vol. VI, No. 2, Fall 1991)

Poetry With and Without Feeling

After reading three poets of highly dissimilar focus I am again amazed at the truthfulness of a simple rule, one that may seem obvious to any reader. Poetry which forges with its subject a depth of feeling that is honest and personal and grave cannot be ignored.

But woe to that poetry which forges without feeling.

Of the three before us, Roger Weingarten's verse (Infant Bonds of Joy) has little in it to recommend. His emphasis on mercurial objects stirred with ponderous discourse succeeds too often in trivializing emotion. The result as Leonard Kriegel wrote of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is "something missing . . . something essential, an absence not merely of the deeper self but of the very possibility of a deeper self."

Weingarten's verbal calisthenics, his resistance to sentiment, his pictorial dazzle--all combine to make his poetry distant and pristine, where like those Currier-and-Ives ships the figure in the poem is lifeless, loved for how it looks, not what it feels.

There was this fat

midnight bee: its succotash-yellow hindquarters doing a samba

over the rose fluff

of joe-pye weed across from the bed

of moss in the woods where you

were scrutinizing the blue forking veins

of my right hand this morning,

the birthmark surprise between knuckles

flecked with bone-white mementos of burning

black polyethylene that stuck when I tried

to smother it in the crawl space

that grew into the spire of smoke

reaching for a sky that said,

so what, so there, and so long.

In these lines I perceive a distance from, and a distrust of, the poet's emotional self. His poems feel Ethan-Fromed in their Calvanized bodies.

Weingarten's subjects--his childhood, his father, his Jewishness--are often sculpted into beautiful cages which entrap, instead of release, the anger. In "From the Temple of Longing," a poem about his kids and his ex-wife, Weingarten seems to knock the very idea of emotional depth:

. . . Maybe

you think this is all about a dime-

a-dozen emotional flotsam who left a furious

marriage only to miss his children from one

school holiday to the next, who exaggerates

the tangled heartworms that pressed

his rib cage

when his parents divorced.

Yes I do think that! I seem to think and feel it more than Weingarten will in his verse. His emotion-provoking poems all end with feelings displaced in someone else: ". . . I wondered / what it felt like to have a family / so sharp in your gut that it could pin you // in the air like a butterfly, pale green / and fragile under glass." Others have an ability with their emotions which he does not. Why? To say he cannot get there disallows the communicative purpose of poetry.

Poems about his father cloy with language while the lines press further into untouched bitterness. In "Father Hunger and Son," the son sits in an emergency waiting room where the father has taken ill. Avoiding intimacy, the son brushes on the stereotypes: Jewish banker, legal grifter, uncaring husband, a man few could love. The only one who does, apparently, is his father's business partner, of whom the son is "jealous / of his thirty years side-by-side with my father / working the phones for sales . . . ." The man breaks down and cries; his love is no deeper than loyalty. But the son can't get close at all; he can only write beautiful sentences. The poem leaves unexamined the real question about father hunger in sons: How does one grieve for having lost the father? A mirror to inadequacy, couched in stylistic intricacies, still sounds like whining.

His better poems--"The Forever Bird," "Second Story," "Surprise Party," poems of a child's innocence--connect language and feeling so that as a supportive reader, (to echo Stephen Dobyns), I can more easily become the subject of his poems. But generally I have little regard for his discursive technique: both theme and line ramble without much prosodic shaping. Weingarten's poems do not command my attention; they exhaust it with having to unravel his tedious syntactical romps.


Maurya Simon's Speaking in Tongues in some ways gets tied up too with the complexities of her subject--language and silence, from a woman's perspective. But Simon is a poet who engages me with the passionate fearlessness of her questions. The book features two long adventuresome poems: "Origins" and "Spellbound: An Alphabet." The second is twice as long as the first but both are lengthy meditations on the nature of language, the word, the sound of the word and the silence that prefigures the word's existence. Simon attempts to essay in verse about an abstraction which by its nature any poet, even one with Simon's gift for creating stress-verse lines, will have trouble taming.

Particularly in "Spellbound." The poem purports to be an alphabet; it begins with a "Proem" that announces the fact at hand: "All language is a masquerade. / But how we crave its bright feathers." The contrast is set--language controls us, its willing victims, because it is capable of divination. Language is the tool with which we can hear silence.

"Spellbound" is a meditation, in twenty-six sections named A to Z, that tries to make silence speak. But one slight problem: silence is very uncooperative. The alphabet's aboriginal sounds have left us only with a this. "This is the silence of the word we've forgotten." "What word, you say"? ". . . no one knows."

though we are numb to it, though we say yes to it, yes

we say, and the word closes itself around our bodies in an aura of light,

as the sound of the word deafens us.

Little terra firma here: the silence of the word has a sound that deafens us? ("Hello darkness my old friend . . . .") Were words once closer to silence? Were words different before language was spoken or written? An idea intrudes in "C": "The child knows the silence of the word and the word itself, / though she never learns how to resurrect it from memory." Simon grounds the loss in her childhood but that doesn't answer the riddle of language. The irony of utterance and silence marches on.

At "D" we are delayed with "Divorce, disease, despair, disillusionment: these things / dismantle our days, these destinations, these distractions." At "F" we find "What folly, what folly in the world and in our words." "H" is about "an inky darkness or discourse / [that] returns her to each word's cramped address upon / the stark page." "I" is about her "I," but "J" is about Lazarus. Some sections have clear alphabetical reference; others do not. Again was this intentional, accidental? Does a reader wrongly look for some correspondence? As we travel we cannot help but note that the abstractions yearn to embody themselves: "I want to forsake / hope's handbag, wisdom's glove, and, yes, even the sound / which surely must be oblivion wagging its foreign tongue . . . ." The poet tantalizes us with images, half real, half discourse.

Occasionally there are self-conscious passages:

I have meddled too much with these runes and symbols.

Like a word-queen, I've hoarded my golden tokens,

turned each shapely piece over and over in my blind hand,

tasted each letter's tang upon my wetted tongue,

piously laid out in rows the peaceable vowels,

impetuous consonants: I'm a rare scribbler indeed . . .

To Simon's credit she personalizes that force in language which holds us spellbound. Her care presses her deeper inward, closer to the truth. Section "R" comes closest to a meaning: "silence is the most a word can hope / to express?" But why is silence the most a word can express? For poets this may be true. But what of others? Why is it only the poets who "sentence ourselves to the page." Silence may be the "most terrible of voices," the voice behind the voiceless page on which we write. Writing may in fact be an act of silence or silencing, like a political assassination. But why is it only the poet who hears this hollowness?

I'm not sure; neither is Simon. But I like that quality in her metaphysic. She waltzes context and feeling mostly in step, forcing me to keep up with her questioning stride. That her moves are not all flawless may not be important. What is important is the fact that Simon's absorbing sound and sense leaves me satiated even though I sit with a lap full of contradiction: "All that we are remains vestigial, half-embodied: / dusk and dawn, silence and song, / here and nowhere, there and everywhere,/ the zenith and the zero."

The silence of the word was actually once sounded onto the page, Simon imagines, by an awl-whacking woman, in "Origins." Here we watch the first scribe, with suckling child, find the time and energy to begin discourse. "She knocks and bangs out the first word: / a stick-figure man, his penis shafted downward, / a thick finger pointing to earth." Later she pulls the inscription out of her "belly-cloth" and shows it to the men returning from a hunt. "Here is a picture, / a word for us. Here is the spirit-of-man."

The WORD has issued from the female, yet it is given to the male, i.e. to another, not herself. The woman scribe eventually sees her mistake, (although Simon's frequent interruptions waylay this realization). The moon, the child, her shyness, her lack of name, her men--each take her focus away from herself. In a moment of doubt (and after more digressions on the idea of the page, of writing, and what the discovery of an origin will eventually mean), the first scribe awakens and draws another sign, the sign for herself.

She bangs a convenient stone against the rock-page,

nicking out minute chunks of grain: first the long,

vertical line of torso, then the horizontal arms,

the spread legs follow, and between them, the vulva,

her second mouth that calls to the earth like a lover.

Woman made his image, then her own image, and from these inscriptions comes the letter: "issued by God or god, that / breath that speaks us, that we speak: Oh, animus."

The four- and five-stress lines, like the drum of the Anglo-Saxons, speaks well in this poem. Simon's commentary, however, tends to clog a poem that is narrative at heart. The first scribe's actions pose the question much better than her intrusive ruminations do. Simon is a brave poet; the passion she has is abundant and fertile. But I don't understand why her poems theorize so much. Except to say that even good poets are victims of an age when writing poems about writing poems has become de rigueur.


In Lowell Jaeger's Hope Against Hope depth of feeling is paramount, a life-saver, largely because of his focus: the poet's divorce and estrangement from his daughter. Jaeger rigorously organizes the flood of sorrow he feels with a thematic arch that helps a reader navigate the deluge. Part one focuses on the break-up, the divorce and his leaving; part two covers the precious time he has spent with his daughter in the summers; part three attempts to understand the past by letting it go. Within each part a similar arch recurs: a few lyric poems surround a centrally placed, long soliloquy from one of the three protagonists of the volume. First is the poet, the father who left; second is the daughter speaking; third is "The Ex Has Her Say." Like a lunar cycle, this volume has planet-sized tension and release.

The long soliloquies are no doubt placed to relieve the self-consciousness that fills this painful book. Perhaps in assembling the book, Jaeger felt he needed to de-compress the tone of the poems, his intensely examined unhappiness. Like a string of rubbed pearls, self-doubt and loss coats every stone.

Jaeger, separated from his daughter, a "three-days' drive between us," knew only a few intimate years with her. And any recollection triggers his shame for having left. The coins that they once placed on a railroad track were the "lucky coins" that survived pressures which he imagines he and she cannot. It is survivor's guilt; perhaps he should have stuck it out, lived closer to her. He has difficulty balancing his need to go with her need to have a full-time Daddy. These lines that end "A Letter from My Daughter" are designed to break our hearts. They have already broken his:

The word sorry

would tremble as I lifted the letter knife,

the word love

could drop me to my knees.

In the musical "Old Glad Mare," Jaeger contrasts his horse with a horse his daughter owns. Holding one hand open with sugar and the other closed, the poet makes the horse his confidant, imagining his daughter at her corral to be as lonely as he is. "She bangs home to no one / home. After school perched / on the paddock rails, she sings / like a finch to her old glad mare." But the hurt comes home to rest:

Nicker-nicker-neigh, I swear.

I'm glad too for an old glad mare.

Take your lumps.

I know what it is with no one there.

The danger in Jaeger's condition is the same danger that can inhabit the poems--self-pity. As mentioned the architectonic form works like acupressure, particularly in the middle section, "The Daughter Speaks," to relieve the pain. Here the daughter, older and wiser, recalls how "Poof! One day my father vanished." "I sat up in bed. Between the covers / of my father's storybook / happily-afters had all been torn away." At first there were visits every other weekend; then the distance was set by his move. She was given the task of "Raising Mom and Dad," mediating their squabbles over money, time, privacy, responsibility. "Once I prayed / each would rip the other's gizzard, / or they might finally grow up / so I could do the same." This poem works well, balancing his self-reprising voice with her retribution.

What does not work well is the poet's portrayal of the Ex, through the Ex's voice. She comes off in the third part as a materialistic shrew. The poetry of divorce-pain need not needle the Ex with pins of malice.

Indeed, it is with some forgiveness for his ex-wife and a preciousness for the daughter that Jaeger does his finest work. He is a gifted lyricist, a marvelous sculptor of line, and a poet who is not afraid to go directly to the wound, continually opening it up until he feels again all the hurt left to feel. Here, to the Ex and himself, he is even-handed:

How many cold steel words we spit

like fire? Your version and mine

smoldered, toppled

in ash and quarreled ruin

of the household we hammered

together and together

burned it to the ground.

The best poems here--"Learning to be Brave," "Splash," "A Letter From My Daughter," "Flying You Back"--speak poignantly to the feelings fathers have as victims of their roles (to always be there) and to be free, which their cultural prerogative as males at times insists they be.

I find the resolution in the third section necessary and mostly convincing. "Miracles" is a brilliant piece that argues for why marriages fail: so we can survive them and learn. "But I wish I could convince my ex / it's a miracle she and I ever crawled / out from beneath the wreck of all those years." "Miracles can be trouble / touched by the divine," Jaeger says and although I believe him, I take little solace from such knowledge.

In one way that's a testament to this hard, beautiful volume: No resolution exists for such pain. Time and growth are the only anodynes, and the poet's job is to feel deeply enough so he does grow. But the line between sentiment and sentimentality must be convincingly drawn. What puzzles me is why Jaeger did not remain geographically close to his daughter. The poems show that his love for her was greater than his need to be three days away. I cannot judge his choice; but I do wonder why he is so ashamed of that choice. There may be more to it than he tells us, more left to feel. That volume of poems I anxiously await because Jaeger is a poet of extraordinary personal depth and honesty.