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Utopic

Claudia Keelan / Author Alice James Books $11.95 (80p) ISBN 97

Picking up questions that dominated her last collection, The Secularist, Keelan's third and most ambitious book puts the propulsively fragmentary lyricism that marked her previous work in the service of a grand political program. Proceeding from ""My Twentieth Century"" through sequences inspired by the life and words of Martin Luther King, the book moves on to a concluding series of short poems, each named after a tool--""Knife,"" ""Oar""--and (Keelan writes) inspired by Gandhi. Keelan seems to hope, as her brief afterword notes, to use her torqued, cut-up, evasive phrases as tropes for political solidarity: just as the phrases themselves don't make sense without one another, people can't make social change without standing together: ""The language I knows/ commits errors knowingly.... The remedy lies in readers."" If the method seems an overly synthetic adaptation of Language poetry, the execution, with stops at the '90s workshop, doesn't quite come off. Scraps and half-built structures whirl in the winds of change, seeking historical moments in which to make their mark: ""time's on your side but nothing else,"" she declares, writing of ""Jiffy Lube, poetry,/ calligraphy of present and past."" The sequence ""Bluff City"" borrows its authority, its cadences and some of its sentences from King's writings, but filters them through a stylized sensibility that wants ""To extend lyric// to exclude the gaps""--even if ""There is no safety in saying."" While different in method and level of critique from poets like Peter Dale Scott, Keelan's earnest engagements are energetic and admirable. (Nov.)