cover image POEMS 4 A.M.


Susan Minot, . . Knopf, $18 (112pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41258-5

When an acclaimed novelist suddenly switch-hits with a book of verse and publishes it as part of a high-profile poetry list, some regular readers of poetry fear the worst: that the book will be bad, and that it will get a lot of attention. Minot, author of Rapture, Evening and Monkeys, negotiates this thorny territory reasonably well, turning in a somber, carefully wrought performance that neither fully embarrasses nor especially impresses, and that will please fans looking for some of the emotional bases of her characters. Split among nine short, locale-named sections ("Massachusetts," "Long Island," "Rome," "New York City," "Tuscany," etc.), these nearly 50 poems seem, more than anything else, to be an attempt at New Yorker–style rhymed commentary on upper-class life, as in the opening Eliotic riff: "I hear them behind me/ crossing Persian rugs on heel-less shoes,/ drinking Dubonnet, eating nuts/ (from the pantry the smell of stew),/ talking about naval battles/ and varsity crew,/ their voices raspy with cigars/ in underheated rooms." From there, it's on to a "Sonnet on Being Touched" ("It changed my blood entire"), "Defending Despair While Balancing on Cobblestones," "Ducking the Paparazzi" and watching, from a Martha's Vineyard perch, "Dawn in a Chilmark Barn": "In the thin morning air I saw/ clearly/ what thickens through the day/ —otherwise it's too much to bear—/ that it only ends this way." Whether reporting on lost or distressed love, taking refuge in "roast chicken for lunch" or absorbing the incomprehension of others, the flat effect of Minot's narrator, deployed in her fiction to foreground the foibles of her characters, will be instantly recognizable to readers of the novels. Stripped of that function here, the poems are simply flat. (May 15)