cover image Jersey Rain

Jersey Rain

Robert Pinsky. Farrar Straus Giroux, $21 (80pp) ISBN 978-0-374-17887-1

Despite the Springsteen-esque title, the same phrasal gifts that drive 1996's new and collected volume, The Figured Wheel, and Pinsky's acclaimed translation of the Inferno, are well-displayed in this slim, sixth collection. Unfortunately, most of the poems' occasions and insights don't quite measure up to the rhetorical firepower turned upon them. The hortatory mode dominates the collection: ""To the Phoenix"" begins, ""Dark herald, self-conceived in the desert waste,/ What yang or yin enfolds your enigma best?"" Invoking Prufrock, the body as ""Vessel"" is implored ""O veteran immersed from toe to crown,// Buoy the population of the soul/ Toward their destination before they drown."" ""A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen-forties"" features ""Fire zigzag in his grasp, labeled `Spirit/ Of Communication'--unhistorical,/ Pure, the merciless messenger."" There is pleasure in the sheer muscle of these constructions, and it's clear that the poet's archaisms are within his control. Yet the name-checks--of Oprah, Ecco press editor Daniel Halpern and others--grow tiresome, and the stabs at intimacy are tinged with a neo-Lowellian obsession with guilt and grandeur. One can't help reading pretentious references to Pinsky's duties as U.S. poet laurate into an ""Autumn Quartet"" (written ""On my birthday""), which calls on ""the heros of antiquity /To pass their lonely double knowledge on/ To such as Odysseus, who learned to tell the story/ Of his life, couched in as many lies as needed./ Among the epic bravos, a civic man."" The prose centerpiece, ""An Alphabet of My Dead,"" brings in family, a student suicide, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse and ""Plural dead in categories like counting sheep, the exterminated Jews of Europe, the obliviated Kallikaks of New Jersey "" among others. ""To Television,"" ""The Green Piano"" and other lighter pieces will delight fans, but the poems with more profound aspirations lack a penetrating introspection. (Apr.)