cover image Earthling


James Longenbach. Norton, , $16.95 ISBN 978-0-393-35343-3

With great clarity, critic and poet Longenbach (The Virtues of Poetry) asks readers of his latest collection to “Imagine you’ve been in love forever, since before you were born.” The speaker in this text inhabits dual planes of metaphor and reality, and travels across great spans of time; he may take the shape of a crocodile one moment, then become a small child hiding underneath a table in the next. Shape-shifting and the mutability of the natural world are among Longenbach’s central themes—“it’s hard remaining human in the forest.” Objects and elements disappear, only to return again, startling as a cardinal landing on a branch “without dislodging a single flake” of snow. Longenbach’s poems are replete with symbolism; lutes and suitcases recur, standing in for time and distance, at once classical and contemporary. Throughout, the heart remains a mysterious teacher: ask it something and, “like a good physician,” it will elect “to keep silent, leaving me to answer for myself.” By the end of the book, Longenbach has made a moving case for love’s power to sustain us: “when you love one thing deeply, a person, a place/ Ultimately you love them all.” Longenbach’s language remains sparse, calm, and graceful even as his poems confront the finiteness of individual human lives. (Nov.)