cover image Common Carnage

Common Carnage

Stephen Dobyns. Penguin Books, $15.95 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-14-058748-7

Questions, often informed with irony and always with wit, dominate Dobyns's ninth book, which matches in forcefulness the best of his earlier collections, including Cemetery Nights and Body Traffic. Accessibly cerebral poems, such as ""Then What Is the Question"" (about the Sphinx's legendary query) set a stage and suggest conclusions: ""Who knows what strains of stupidity/ were deleted from the Theban gene pool when some/ cheerful dummy rubbed his jaw and said, Beats me."" Other interrogatives run on: ""Do I/ live by letting the clock push me forward? Are one's fellow creatures only merchandise?/ Do I let myself be used up, then cast away?"" He invents cryptic scenarios: a panhandling dog smokes a cigarette and tells fortunes (every answer is ""Yes""); an attempt to explain physically, even by dissection, good (the Pope) versus evil (the terrorist Arkan) discovers differences (""Arkan is a vegetarian, the Pope likes meat""), but no explanations, until a nurse conjures the putative seat of evil, a spider in Arkan's skull. There are poems on Homeric themes, jazz musicians, on love and sex; in some, objects, e.g., padlocks, are seen as souls. What distinguishes Dobyns is the peculiar, edgy way he cuts his own darkness with a humor that is rooted in curiosity. (Apr.)