cover image Threshold


James Longenbach, Alan Williamson. University of Chicago Press, $15 (80pp) ISBN 978-0-226-49247-6

An esteemed critic of modern verse, Longenbach makes his poetic debut with this contemplative collection. Akin to Heaney both in form--gentle iambics distribute themselves over tercets, couplets and quatrains--and in his inclination toward the liminal in nature, Longenbach wanders to the edge of the wood and watches as the ""trees shift uneasily."" But purity's a lapsed ideal: litter and debris soil this terrain. A cast-off shoe, a condom and a fire's remains ""guarantee there never were natural worlds/ The soul kept alone."" The innocence of childhood, too, is lost by strange discovery. In ""The Grace of the Witch"" a gypsy-like girl dispensing sexual favors by the swings is marked by her transgression: ""Block letters cut into her wrist spelled Paul."" Such even-keeled revelations, however, can feel too smooth and wearied, too rehersed. The consistency of tone--intelligent, darkly ruminative, unequivocal--may be the only sort of solace one can hope for here, stripped of lust and lustre. Like the great Modernists on whom he has written so capably (Modern Poetry After Moderism; Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism), Longenbach places his mind against every external thing and creates artifacts of language at the borders and boundaries: ""We've learned/ These stories told about the natural world/ And now, dissatisfied, we pass them on."" (Nov.)