cover image Draft of a Letter

Draft of a Letter

James Longenbach, . . Univ. of Chicago, $16 (69pp) ISBN 978-0-226-49268-1

This third book by noted critic and poet Longenbach is a collection of lyrics presenting conversations between an eternal soul and that soul's embodied, temporal self. When this idiosyncratic fragmentation of "the mind thinking" works, the results are lovely, intimate and distilled, as in the title poem, when the soul informs us, "If you say the word death/ In heaven,/ Nobody understands"; or in "Second Draft," when the embodied self explains, "...I said// Being mortal,/ I aspire to/ Mortal things.// I need you,/ Said my soul,/ If you're telling the truth." Throughout, Longenbach is drawn, romantically, to nature, though his natural descriptions and settings can feel dislocated or mythical, as if equal parts Wordsworth and Beckett; for example, "The flower didn't speak to me but/ I spoke back, I heard// My name." Sometimes Longenbach's romanticism gets overblown, however: "To that hidden place,/ ... No shepherds came, no goatherds./ Only nymphs and muses/ Joining together in song." Other times, the language feels merely flat, rather than distilled, compressed or charged. Nonetheless, at his best, Longenbach offers a moving directness and koanlike simplicity (or complexity): "First rule: no one/ Is speaking. The second is/ Follow the sound." (Apr.)