What is Fair

James Harmon Clinton, Author
James Harmon Clinton, Author Louisiana State University Press $16.95 (64p) ISBN 978-0-8071-2196-2
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Hardcover - 64 pages - 978-0-8071-2195-5
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One astonishing poem, ""My Romantic Legerdemain,"" dominates Clinton's book-length memoir-in-verse, lingering like the train whistles that haunt its hardscrabble Southern landscapes. That short, previously unpublished poem--which laments a suburban Don Juan's ""desire/ to live out each plot, inhabit each house and life,/ but lightly""--justifies the clumsier efforts of this heartfelt first collection. Other poems have their moments, and Clinton consistently gives a clean swing to his easy colloquial verses. But he tends to rely on the melodrama of the poem's occasion, on revelations toward the last line--in other words, on merely anecdotal interest--to compensate for a lack of formal mastery. Occasionally, his sense of plotting saves him, as in the ironic ""Ray's Farm, Late December,"" in which a practical farmer unwittingly critiques the poet's urge to rehash and romanticize his father's life. More often, Clinton's method brings his poetic flights of fancy--full of promising beginnings, real sincerity and skill--thudding back to earth with a banal last line and a nugget of biographical information, e.g., that a neighbor sexually abused the speaker when he was a boy. These startling facts are fair material for contemporary poems, but Clinton often leaves them to speak for themselves without making them peculiarly his own. In the successful poems and parts of poems, however, Clinton gives us ample reason to be grateful for this mature debut. (Sept.)
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