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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Candle to the Sun
Page 2

What it means is that the lines are disposable and don’t really mean anything, because the preceding poem is a bricolage made out of Lehman’s lines from various poems, quoted whole. That put together, these lines sound exactly like Lehman, is more an indictment of his poetry than a celebration of his style. There is in any case little about his style to celebrate. If Lehman’s poetry were wine, it would be frequently made in the Parkerised style: too much jammy fruit, over-ripe, over-extracted and over-the-top. The blatancy of ‘May 13’, in which he says “I watch TV for the plots / for example a corporate nun / accused of lesbianism is / convicted of killing the priest / who dumped her for a choir boy / while the CEO...”, may be referring to TV, and in fact the double meaning of ‘plots’ is a nice touch, but one has already got the sense that it’s not out of kilter with Lehman’s own inclinations. Lots of namedropping is going on – “you can go / to Carol Muske’s party” – and everyone and anything with any kind of emotional value for a general American public may be trotted out: Henry Kissinger, Michael Douglas, Andy Warhol, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, Ray Charles (twice), Jimmy Cagney (twice), Microsoft, Thelonious Monk (twice), Soviet Russia, Bobby Kennedy, The Blair Witch Project. All these things fit into that style of poetry that insists on the specific, that imagines filling a poem with details and names make it somehow more poetic, that occasionally wins competitions but gets forgotten very soon after. Even some of his potentially better moments are ruined by a lack of restraint. “I’m here I’m hearing / everything twice everything twice” in the first poem is excellent aural trickery until the repetition of “everything twice”. In ‘January 8’, small comments such as “language makes it possible” and “in both senses” are over-explanatory.

The surfeit of reference is also notably nostalgic. Surprisingly for a book that places so much emphasis on when its poems were written, there is not very much current reference in them. ‘October 4’ is one of few concessions to current events, “the debate / between Bore and Gush” being followed by a reference to the election a few pages on. Perhaps this becomes less surprising when one considers how circumstances have conspired against him. In ‘October 5’, he writes: “Capitalism rules / you can own 100 shares / of MCI-Worldcom & happily / make money though you’d never / let MCI handle your phone”. Whatever happened to the Peter Lynch philosophy of equity investment? I’m not sure I hope he sold his WCOM shares before June. On the other hand, “capitalism is / the mother who forgives all her sons”, in which we see how Lehman has a vested interest, not only in monetary terms. In ‘December 7’ he writes, “almost any minute I expect / the brokers to fall from the sky”, and while at the point of writing it could be considered prescient, at the point of publishing it has to be considered in bad taste. So one better call that Lehman may have made is to decide that it’s mostly too risky to use current reference.

There are good things in Lehman’s poetry as well – at his best, Lehman has some of the verve of the New York School, which he admires – even if these good things occur with less frequency than one might hope for. The silver lining is just that when they occur they occur with brightness and clarity, although this could be simply because of contrast with the surrounding dross. Some lines stand out for playful ingenuity (“hours go by before the remorse code / is deciphered, revealed”) or for revisioning originality in the phrasing (“the branches of exotic trees have / intercourse in the open”). Lehman stretches these touches out into a successful poem, literally playing with fire, in ‘April 15’:

I asked Joe if you could save
one thing from a house on fire
what would it be? “The fire”
he said, which was the right
answer, not that I want to set
the world on fire I just want
to enter the nave of your heart
and leave a little flame in
the chapel as a parting gesture

Moreover, one can yet hope that he might learn from the success of ‘Portrait D’une Femme’, where the rich detail builds up so sparingly it becomes plangently convincing, or the qualified success of the poem in which his crowdpleasing tendencies sits hand in hand with quiet simplicity, which, despite what some may feel to be clever-dickery, is worth quoting here in full:

Poetry is
posing a
question to
the universe
and getting
no for
an answer
or getting
no answer
I’m not
sure which

(‘November 22’)

Perhaps Irony, the addressee of ‘February 29’ is the trouble. It’s one thing to be apperceptive (“he didn't say I’m hungry / he said I feel the hungriness”, as Lehman writes in his opening poem), it’s another to be conscious that perhaps what you do isn’t what you feel is worth doing. Occasionally this peeks out. When Lehman lets slip that “this is rapidly / turning into my poem for the day”, it’s a very jobbish attitude that’s exposed. Yet, going back to where we started, this is a matter of choice. Lehman could be himself “the universally / despised victim in / the chamber locked / from within”. And that could be why ‘A Quick One Before I Go’ may be the most honest:

There comes a time in every man’s life
when he thinks: I have never had a single
original thought in my life
including this one & therefore I shall
eliminate all ideas from my poems
which shall consist of cats, rice, rain
baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants

and a large number of other things besides. It’s the cry of someone, perhaps someone quintessentially modern, realising the emptiness of his vocation – his life – and reacting therefore by filling it with all manner of things. So for this manner of algebraic courage, one could be tempted to turn to Lehman and say, thank you.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Maiden Voyage Flounders on Lack of Distinction
Leonard Ng reviews kensai's Maiden.

Overworked Symbols Conceal Gems
Afiza reviews The Merlion and the Hibiscus.

Tales of the City
Jeremy Samuel reviews Postmodern Singapore.

Marrying Death to Beauty
Cyril Wong reviews Linda Pastan's The Last Uncle.

Related Links

David Lehman biography
External link to Poets.org.

Interview with David Lehman
External link to The Cortland Review.

Other reviews of The Evening Sun
External link to Writers' Reps.

David Lehman on the New York School
External link to Jacket.


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