Dead Men's Praise: Poems

Jacqueline Osherow, Author Grove Press $13 (96p) ISBN 978-0-8021-3654-1

Showing an easy mastery of the terza rima--Dante's form of choice in the Commedia--Osherow's fourth collection also displays significant familiarity with the sonnet, villanelle and other forms. But unlike many other explicitly formalist poets, Osherow has sacrificed aristocratic pace to accommodate the present day's taste for kitsch, democratic accessibility and the dropped domestic fourth wall. With an ear attuned to the best qualities of Jewish humor--the mating of metaphysical concerns with those of daily living, the ability to spin off on seemingly endless tangents (""But did I tell you? I spoke Yiddish at the Acropolis--""), the direct addresses to a mensch-like God--Osherow juxtaposes strict meters and odd facts and observations, at times suggesting Auden's ""Letter to Lord Byron"": ""Besides, I'm not sure God much cares for piety;/ my guess is--since David was his favorite--/ That He's partial to passion, spontaneity,// And likes a little genuine regret./ True, David lost his ill-begotten child--/ But what did the pious ever get?"" The central themes of the book may not, at first glance, seem unusual: looking at Renaissance art and desiring an equal verbal language, asking where is God in the world, and how He could have let the Holocaust happen, etc. But Osherow's direct grapplings with the tradition, however funny and chatty, have grave underpinnings: she's concerned with the history, marginality and the threatened existence of the Jewish people. Such cares, combined with her formal versatility, make this a drama of the negotiation of cultures on a grand scale. (Sept.)