cover image SPIRIT CABINET


David Wojahn, Author . Univ. of Pittsburgh $12.95 (120p) ISBN

"Of the dead what shall persist?" asks the leadoff poem in Wojahn's weighty yet fluid sixth collection; in its ambitious poems, freighted with salvaged historical data, the dead persist in monuments, songs and memories, while the living try hard to go on without them. A Yale Younger Poet and now a professor at Indiana University, Wojahn (Late Empire, etc.) has always depended on sources, stories and anecdotes, here including Émile Zola's hypnosis, "Stalin's library card" and Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, to drive relatively impersonal poems. The middle third of the book, however, becomes far more anguished and immediate; most of its fact-filled, yet raw-sounding verse imagines survival, entrapment and grief, from a smart adaptation of Propertius to a prison where "the women/ on the sidewalk lift their baby daughters up, allowing the men/ to view them from their cells." (Some readers may link some of these to the 1994 death of Wojahn's partner, the poet Lynda Hull.) The long "Crayola" recalls Wojahn's end-of-the-Baby-Boom Minnesota childhood, marked by comic-book heroes and mentally ill relatives. Elsewhere Wojahn recaps his 1990 volume Mystery Train, remembering rock and soul music and musicians like "Townes Van Zandt 1946–1996": "Death was his subject & music & drink his form." A final group of poems concerns Wojahn's recent life, which includes vividly rendered erotic experience; solemn poems to children never born; and strenuous anxiety about his male, Midwestern middle age—yet their pace and energy often belie their subjects: "June sun// cool to the touch in edge light/ of twenty watt bulbs,/ strung along the switchbacking galleries,/ room after catacomb room./ & still inside ourselves." Fans of Heather McHugh or Paul Muldoon who haven't discovered Wojahn will find this book the best place to start. (Mar.)