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2005 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize | The Nation

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2005 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize

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The language of scale, speed and variety Winters invents can display an amazing nerve as it undertakes to reflect those qualities in its material. She twists or revolves things to make them catch the light many ways, and she uses many kinds of word, clashing levels of speech. The last stanza of this book's opening poem, "The Mill-Race," reconsiders and amends the poem's central metaphor--rejects it, and then restores it! Here is the passage:

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In the rabbi's parable a lame one climbs
Onto a blind one's shoulders and together
They take the fruit of the garden of the Lord.

It's not a water-mill really, labor. It's like the nocturnal
paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag into atoms,
or the workhouse tread-mill, smooth-lipped, that wore down a London of doxies and sharps,
or the flour-mill, faërique, that raised the cathedrals and wore out hosts of dust-demons,
but it's mostly the miller's curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-
mill, that makes the sea, salt.

The big historical perspective, the range, the lists and the oddball vocabulary ("faërique" and "doxies" and "dust-demons"), like the long lines, will for many readers recall Walt Whitman. And the passage does openly and even vigorously contradict itself. But Winters, like most significant American poets, is in a dual tradition, of which Whitman represents only one half.

The Whitmanian vision radiates outward to include everything, but Winters also reflects the fiercely concentrated vision of Emily Dickinson, the immensities compacted into fiery pinpoints. If the New World seems too savage or too brazen for the courtly art of poetry, those two parental figures seem to imply, then fine--unburdened of expectation the art will go further. Sometimes Dickinson seems to imply that never having seen a Moor or the Sea she will find a stranger, more extreme inner landscape. That acceptance of excess as a starting point, embarking on outrageous extremes of inclusion or concentration, has characterized a wide range of American poetries: an element in T.S. Eliot's audacious conglomerations, it could be argued, as well as the jazzy alertness of William Carlos Williams.

Excess, the idea of going further, for Winters has everything to do with the glamorous monster of New York, and often that means, as with Minetta Creek under the walks of Greenwich Village, going quite literally farther down: into not only the subterranean but even the prehistoric realities under Manhattan. Her sequence "A Sonnet Map of Manhattan" proceeds uptown from a poem set at Wall and Pine to Houston, through the Village and past First Avenue, continuing in a dozen unrhymed sonnets that speed through Midtown and past Winters's native Riverside Drive border of Harlem and the 168th Street Armory to end with the "elliptic, archaic smile" of a 10-year-old drug scout on 175th Street. In "Sixty-Seventh Street: Tosca With Man in Bedrock," it is the evening of the Met's first winter broadcast. The audience in the "cantilevered mezzanine, underlit,/stipple-eyed in its stoles and fur tippets, hangs/breathless." The daring play on "hangs"--the audience hangs in both the architectural and psychological senses, with the very word hanging at the end of the line--is a tribute to Puccini's "Vissi d'arte" aria, with its sense of great issues trembling at a verge. "I lived for art," sings Tosca, pleading for justice, for life to make sense, and the sonnet plunges past the roots of life itself:

...Straight down, past sallow platforms, sewer
outfalls and steam lines, the man in the bedrock
side-steps in his worklamp's flattened yellow,

spools out more wire, lowers his radio probe
to the back of a sunken centenary main
(fed by watersheds in the still half-glacial Catskills)

and hears, through bell curves of pings, each note
vibrate off his shaft of Precambrian schist. Gray, void...
our Manhattan Schist, laid down too early for fossils.

The brio of this passage is pleasing in itself--the informed, careful poetic medium of Winters showing itself more than adequate to the pace and the bizarre coherences of a technological world. Her intelligence penetrates and incorporates the material like a camera, but faster than computer-generated special effects, with more social nuance and more kinds of information. Tosca's question--why have I been repaid with pain for a life in art, perche me ne rimuneri cosi?--has the commercial, worldly implications of pay or remuneration. Winters's poem brings her own roving, inclusive, postindustrial awe to the mystery, looking downward for roots as Tosca looks heavenward.

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