Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review

David R. Slavitt
Louisiana State University Press: 1998
Citations are from PS3569.L3  by David R. Slavitt and
may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission of the author
review by Arthur Mortensen

Each time I receive or purchase a David R. Slavitt title I ask the same question:  who has the time to write 59 (or 60, or 62) books?   How could such quantity yield good?   Yet, before the only French critics given consideration here were Derrida and his even more incoherent disciples,  a common critical dismissal used to be  il n'a pas l'oeuvre, literally he hasn't the work -- better,  he hasn't done the work to merit consideration as a major writer.  If you said that about David R. Slavitt, you'd either be engaging in irony or in that slander so popular among poets today (a "pull the survivor back into the pot to drown" practice known in the Caribbean as "crab antics," according to Frederick Pollack).   Slavitt has done the work;  in books of poetry alone, he lists twelve titles with more to come.  This critic has enjoyed previous poetry titles by Slavitt; what about this one?

PS3569.L3, according to Slavitt, is his Library of Congress number.  (Just look inside at the back of the title page; it is just so).  There's nothing wrong with with a road sign that suggests "BEWARE: humor ahead."   Slavitt's wit and humor have been a hallmark of his work for decades.  Not that Slavitt can't or won't write serious poems -- he can and does do so with affecting power.  (See review of Crossroads from December of 1997.)  There are good examples of such in the current book.  But, when I think of Slavitt, I think of his seemingly impossible conflations, as of war, diplomacy and dessert in  Just Desserts: A Life of Nesselrode,  here quoted from part 6 and 7:

                         7 Come to think of it, war, diplomacy and dessert do go together.  Imagine how tiresome the end or beginning of a war would be if the catering service weren't good.  And there is a conjunction of food and violence that is as old as life, something not missed on Australian A.D. Hope (see  Hunger), a poet whose outlook much resembles Slavitt's.  Such risk the accusation of being in bad taste or rotten, but the sauce of irony over the meat of a content that is informed as much by good research as by imagination conveys the impression -- possibly Slavitt intended this, if you can imagine -- that in war, the dessert of peace is more interesting, rewarding and inventive than the main course.  But I won't guess intentions; such is clear in the poem itself.

Sometimes, Slavitt heads into zaniness.  I enjoy zaniness, whether the slapstick of Steve Martin or a poem like Tryma.  Zaniness in Slavitt, though, is often a mask over another message:

    ...the trauma of the tryma
    is with us always, as are the poor
    in spirit, who will stare at you blankly
    or in resentment ask,
    "Wha'?  Who?"
    Answer them smartly and tell them
    the wahoo is a kind of Eunonymous
    (which is a good name)
    with arillate seeds.
    Tell them your grandfather said so.

    If that doesn't work, and it won't, you can take some comfort
    from knowing the the false aril originates
    from the orifice instead of the stalk of an ovule,
    as in the mace of the nutmeg, which is an arillode...

When Frederick Turner has advocated that poets use scientific language, perhaps he didn't consider the complications of what for most readers and writers is a bilingual requirement.  In a confrontation with ignorance, sadly, the loser is usually the one who knows.  On such observations in poetry and prose, Voltaire built an entire career.

There are many treasures in this volume, beautifully executed by Louisiana State, with pleasant typefaces and in proper papers so that it won't disintegrate in five years; one of my favorite is more serious, the sequence  Desk Set.   A desk in a study is a history of sorts, history in the raw, history in artifacts (most still in use), history in the making.   As a good painter can illuminate a way of life by painting a still life of a woman knitting a shawl, a poet can illuminate a life by looking at a desk -- his own, in this case:

How you write about other people and objects outside yourself, as well as associations with them, reveals more than any sincerely confessional screed.  Why do we have to be reminded of this?

Maybe the reminders need only be posted outside the classrooms whose owners and controllers have never seen fit to offer David R. Slavitt a tenured position to teach in one of them.  He may not want such a thing.  62 books is a fairly awesome career in and of itself.  But for a student, to have as teacher someone who can run metrical verse with the skill of an A.D. Hope and free verse with that of a Wallace Stevens would be akin to a minor leaguer having Sammy Sosa or Ted Williams as a batting coach.  Universities, if they have refused to consider Slavitt, have done themselves and their students a disservice in this.  I gather though that this is not a new problem.  But enough of such asides and more on the book, which would hardly be a Slavitt book if it didn't have a few "translations, imitations and caprices," as the section is called.  Perhaps the most flagrant of these is "Bette Davis: The Tragic Muse."

I'm not sure what this says about the authors of tragedy, nor am I sure that Slavitt is the first to make a study of comparative purgation,  but, now it's in the open, who could resist?

One should not ignore the poems of more serious tone, however.  "Cezanne Drawing" is one.  Another on painting is "Northern Renaissance:"

If you've ever wondered why most of your or your friends' photographs of India or Europe have little more than the patina of a fixative about them, this poem suggests why.  It takes time to learn nuances, an obvious lesson, but one of the objectives of writers has always been, even if they didn't like it, to re-state what we ought to know. "Whore," a poem about a woman who counted among her clients Gustav Flaubert and several cigar-smoking witnesses, is startling, though the last line might leave many readers cold.  "Paying the Piper" is a personal favorite of these poems:
  Don Murray, featured in the current issue of Pivot, has noted that one of the worst things combat veterans do is fail to tell their children what happened.   Slavitt, writing about a story whose basis was a ghastly series of murders, suggests not only that but the barriers against doing so, and the refusal of even the children's wish to know.   This, as many others in this collection, is a masterly work.

There are dozens more treasures in PS3569.L3; I urge that you go buy this book and enjoy them yourselves.  If you wish to enjoy your own variety of purgation while laughing at the humorous ones, read them in the bathroom!  For the rest, I recommend a quiet spot, perhaps under a maple still bearing its red leaves of Fall.

PS3569.L3 is highly recommended.

                                Arthur Mortensen

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