ZEALAND

by Rebecca Byrkit

(SUN/gemini Press) $14.95

There may only be one way left to shock a poetry-going audience: Invite suburban grade-school children to participate in the performance, in front of their parents. Then read poems about sex and lust and God and this country while the children, onstage behind you, wait to sing or clap or dance. Read poems with titles like "In Acquiescence to Kinky Sex," and "Hungover on My Thirteenth Birthday," or "This Dog Comes in from the Rain While I'm Screwing This Guy in the ROTC."

When Rebecca Byrkit invited a middle-school choir to underscore her reading with popular country tunes, most likely she had larger aims in mind than shock value alone -- aims having to do with art, theory, juxtaposition, communication, and reaching a broader audience. The result, however, was chaos.

Byrkit read poems from her collection, Zealand, and the children were filed offstage part way through by their parents and teachers. Some of the children were crying. They may have been crying out of fear or shame, or over the disappointment of not being able to sing songs they'd practiced for a month or more. The next day, Byrkit's poetry reading -- unlike most readings by Nobel laureates and other highly acclaimed poets to come through the area -- made the front page of the newspaper.

I wonder exactly what those parents heard in the strong images of Byrkit's disjointed, wrangled-language sentences. What were they thinking as Byrkit read, "You were once a white/Nailbitten cheerleader, caught/Drunk in this posse of bewildertude -- " or "Devotion to renegade Xanaxes/And nondescript letter carriers/Completed scores/Of crotchless arrangements..."? I'd like to have been in on a day of debriefing among this group of shocked parents and traumatized children, if only to hear the discussion, to witness a possible "posse of bewildertude" in action.

Zealand is filled with language that's powerful on a first read, and grows in strength each time the images are revisited. Hopefully Byrkit, through language, has inadvertently reminded at least one school child, one reader, that poetry is still a powerful communicative and exploratory art, one that dares to look at the most dangerous aspects of the human psyche. MONICA DRAKE

ACTUAL AIR

by David Berman (Open City Books) $12.95

As is the case whenever a new Silver Jews album is released, the first response to reading this radiant, redolent volume of poems by lead Jew David Berman is to call your friends and quote the choicest lines. Berman's best concrete images—ice that looks like a photograph of water, hair that shines like videotape, tall grass that bends in the wind like tachometer needles, cigarette smoke as "a tangle of nicotine swans"—stun you into self-recrimination for not having seen things that way before.

In among the visual cues, however, comes the real meat of Berman's perspicacity: a barrage of internal reasoning. "Souvenirs only reminded you of buying them"; "If Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways or wear little hallways around our necks"; "Can I safely say that Greece was mainly water, rock, and ideas?"

And so on, unstoppably. These eminently quotable frags draw on a logic simultaneously commonsensical and esoteric, so sharp they'd be clichés if only the right people were in charge. Far from being a collage of great lines, however, Actual Air is a compendium of architectural wonders; gorgeous poems fiercely girded by airtight detail. The poems graft the author's skill for unforgettable aphorisms onto a poet's wider-reaching concerns—hearing the secret language passing unspoken between people divided by their attachments ("Classic Water," "How I Met Your Mother"); seeing the signposts of the fallen world poking up through obscuring landscapes ("Cantos for James Michener, Part II," "Self-Portrait at 28"); and smelling fragrances blanketed by the polluted air of progress ("Cassette County," "The Charm of 5:30"). If the thematic terrain is familiar, the vistas of bitterness, bemusement, and wonder are bracingly new—epigrammatically charged and unshakable. Berman writes like a caretaker in a long forgotten graveyard, where all the tombstones bear amazing secrets, if only the right poet would come along to dust them off. SEAN NELSON


LOST AND FOUND

ASK THE DUST by John Fante

(Black Sparrow, 1980 reprint) $12

Charles Bukowski -- when he wasn't drunk -- spent long hours at the L.A. public library, searching for books which related "to me or to the streets or to the people about me." He considered most modern literature to be gutless, anemic stuff, "a comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture." Then one fateful day Bukowski happened upon a John Fante novel.

That book, whose discovery Bukowski likened to finding "gold in the city dump," was Ask the Dust, published in 1939. It narrates the hilariously pathetic exploits of Arturo Bandini, a feckless writer whose bad luck at the typewriter rivals his bad luck with women. Bandini -- desperately broke, slumming in a fleabag hotel on L.A.'s Bunker Hill -- falls in lust with a Mexican waitress named Camilla. They play endless mind games with each other; their interactions are informed by a startling bigotry dredged from a bottomless reservoir of libidinous contempt. It's on a par with anything Hamsun wrote in the realm of love/hate/sex.

Between bouts of self-levitating grandeur, Bandini is riddled by intense Catholic guilt, and this provides the novel's comedic bang-and-whimper rhythm. Fante's lowbrow prose is whittled, spare, and quick -- an irresistible verbal patter which is honed, as Bukowski says, by a "superb simplicity." Ask the Dust isn't for everyone. It's about as un-politically-correct as you can get. But it constantly comes clean about its bad attitude, and an odd, brutalized goodness seeps from its impolite pages. RICK LEVIN

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