cover image Res Publica

Res Publica

James Longenbach, Alan Williamson. University of Chicago Press, $15 (82pp) ISBN 978-0-226-89935-0

A poet-critic driven to fuse oppositional notions--pop and literary, East and West coast, urbane and rural--Williamson (Love and the Soul) seems intent on showing how ""this life/ we hold in common, and possess no more/ than breath, finds its old channel."" Collective memories permeate this fourth collection's first section, which lingers around familiar images of the '60s--air-raid drills, fear of a Soviet invasion, campus unrest and urban violence--in order to register difficult paradoxes: ""after Altamont, after Manson, we were afraid/ of our own side, no less than of their opposites/ who looked just like them."" Like those of his contemporary David Wojahn, Williamson's chronicles of historical events and personalities are at their best when the poet grafts snatches of other modes like pop song, Blakean ontology and biography onto otherwise spare tales (""Listening to Leonard Cohen,"" ""Puccini Dying"" and ""Red Cloud""). There are also explorations of lonely Great Plains towns and of ""[t]he strength of Eastern winter...hoarding veins/ of snow like silver veins in half-thawed fields."" Free-verse versions from Eugenio Montale retain the tight control of the master's restrictive forms, while a subtle, brief translation of Dante, dedicated to Robert Pinsky, shows Williamson's skill at terza rima. While there are a handful of poems that seem confusing in their engagement with Buddhist themes, Williamson consistently displays a keen interest in bringing together multiple aspects of late 20th-century America, where ""The soul has to learn about cruelty."" (Nov.)