SEPARATE OBJECTS
by Dennis Barone
(Left Hand Books, Barrytown, NY) $10

WAG, BOUND (chapbook)
by Dennis Barone
(Jensen/Daniels Publishers, Jersey City) $4

In his 13th and 14th collections, poet Dennis Barone begins his compositions at plain, clear, and sometimes homely junctures--possibly to downplay the image and illuminate his chief concern: the schism between meaning and meaninglessness.

The quiet village where Barone lives (he teaches at tiny St. Joseph's College in West Hartford, Connecticut), with its tight-lipped locals and New England decorum, seems a suitable palette from which to draw ruminations about half-meanings, truncated logic, and the deception of language. In any case, it's clear that Barone's methodical and economical work, employing strikingly simple language, is interested in the various ruses of language itself.

Sometimes launching a poem with a comic/quietly bizarre language conundrum, Barone is an ardent pursuer of ciphers and situational puzzles that resist meaning. Occasionally his scaffolding is lightly Steinian:

Shoe
"Black shoe that has no path/and the no path that has no color/lead back to the start of school."

Red
"This is the sweater that cheers us on/to the game and after the game we return/with our gloves...."

Firs
"Why is it that they point upwards while if you/lean back in the chair you'll fall down?"

At times, the poet will break down to ask straightforward questions: "Beads of water cling to the window pane. From where I sit looking in all directions could there be any other window, water, beads? Is there more to a line than the time it takes to say it?" Barone's concern revolves around the acts of knowing, and the struggle and responsibilities therein. How do we know what we know, and what should we do with knowledge, even basic perceptual knowledge, once we possess it?

Barone's persona in many of these poems is a confused user of language who likes to break life into elemental, blocky pieces. The existence of language has put him into a stalemate with the movements of life. So, loathe even to move a muscle, he can only accrete images and details, making feints toward discovering some static place where he might rest, and where his valuable worries and questions might be addressed. STACEY LEVINE


THE AGONY OF MAMMON
by Lewis Lapham
( Verso) $15

Personally, I admire Lewis Lapham, the class traitor who, despite being heir to the Texaco fortune, uses his position as editor of Harper's magazine to slander the ruling elite. I also like Verso Books, peddlers of soft-core leftism since 1970 and publishers of Lapham's latest, The Agony of Mammon. I not only like the players involved in this book, I find its premise highly inviting: Lapham takes a trip to the annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland and reports back to us commoners.

The World Economic Forum coordinates a week of meetings, panels, and bar chats between the 2,000 or so CEOs, politicos, and bureaucrats who commandeer the world's economy. Founded in the early '70s by European businessmen who wanted to earnestly discuss the morality of capitalism, the Forum has devolved into an Alpine feel-good session, where for $20,000 the world's behind-the-scenes leaders can gather and congratulate themselves on how well things are going.

With a front-row seat at this venue, and an insider's knowledge of world economics, Lapham had a great opportunity to expose the dirty innards of the global market. To do this, though, he would have had to take a journalistic approach--showing, not just telling, what the Forum and its members are really up to. Unfortunately, Lapham sacrifices specific details and demonstrative writing in favor of mixed metaphors and sardonic adjectives. The result is that while Lapham's disdain comes through clearly, the nuts and bolts that would persuade the reader to share that disdain are lacking. Without compelling information or consistent arguments, the densely academic language and syntax of the book prove almost too tough to wade through.

The Agony of Mammon's shortcomings are a shame, because Lapham, the insider who distrusts the system, has always had a talent for whistle-blowing and finger-pointing. In this latest effort, he's just going through the motions. NATHAN THORNBURGH


SHOCKED, APPALLED, AND DISMAYED! HOW TO WRITE LETTERS OF COMPLAINT THAT GET RESULTS
by Ellen Phillips
(Vintage) $12

As a fan of both letter-writing and complaining, I came to Ellen Phillips' book with high hopes. In an age in which letter-writing has been replaced by chilly "e-mail" (whose style-free lingo makes Morse code read like poetry), and complaining finds but two modes of expression (whining and drive-by shooting), Phillips has devoted herself to the revival of these two great lost arts.

In Shocked, Appalled, and Dismayed!, Southern grandma Phillips puts forth a simple, meticulous plan for translating primal rage into forceful prose, in letters that will set your corporate and service-industry foes to groveling at your feet. Dispensing both common sense instruction (temper your fury, save receipts, avoid libel) and privileged information only experience can acquire (the Federal Trade Commission's "Cooling Off Rule," under which any telephone order can be cancelled within three days), Phillips fights the good fight for wronged consumers and maps an eloquent new world of epistolary bitchiness.

Sadly, Phillips' writing style is its own cause for complaint. Half Judge Judy, half Scarlett O'Hara, Phillips veers too frequently from hard-nosed businesswoman to cutesy, down-home dame, indulging in that drawling, flowery "Southern humor" that makes some readers shoot grits out of their noses, but makes this reviewer want to exhume Sherman for a second march. But one doesn't read consumer reference books to encounter jaw-dropping prose styles, any more than one reads Flaubert to learn how to gripe your way into a free carpet cleaning, and to rant about Phillips' composition skills is to miss the point. A cloying tone shouldn't deny Shocked, Appalled, and Dismayed! its status as the Madame Bovary of grievance literature. DAVID SCHMADER

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