cover image The Iron Key

The Iron Key

James Longenbach, Norton, $24.95 (96p) ISBN 978-0-393-07895-4

James Longenbach (The Art of the Poetic Line) is an incontestably brilliant critic. This fourth book of poetry shares some of the virtues of Longenbach's criticism—the poems are unfalteringly wise and knowledgeable about the poetic tradition. At their best moments, these often narrative poems borrow the haunting logic of distant memories ("I wouldn't say this to everyone, but when I wrote / In heaven, if you say the word death, nobody understands, / I was thinking about paperclips"), but there are also moments when this book reads like a short story. Still, Longenbach is an expert storyteller and never fails to alight upon dazzling and often ominous visions: "The snow is in retrospect an image of/ Plenitude, not of desolation." His stories also tend to be scholarly: "Though my father painted like Sargent/ He raised me on modernism./ ... Space was color, shadow was color." Throughout the book, Longenbach seeks words for the few fundamental truths: "You're angry because everyone you love is dying./ You've known this since you were a child." (Oct.)