The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $25,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered jointly by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been Anne Winters (2005), Donald Revell (2004), Eamon Grennan (2003), Madeline DeFrees (2002), Fanny Howe (2001), David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997) and Charles Wright (1996). This year the award goes to Eleanor Lerman for Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. Jurors were Carl Dennis, Carol Muske-Dukes and Tony Hoagland, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were The Singers I Prefer, by Christian Barter (CavanKerry); Refusing Heaven, by Jack Gilbert (Knopf); Facts About the Moon, by Dorianne Laux (Norton); and The Incentive of the Maggot, by Ron Slate (Mariner).
Of late, American poetry has yielded some interesting species of “social” poetry–by which I mean poetry that engages the realities of the collective, as well as the emotional concerns of an individual speaker. There was Anne Winters’s arresting collection The Displaced of Capital (the 2005 Lenore Marshall winner), which contains meticulous meditations on ATM machines and immigration. And Ron Slate’s The Incentive of the Maggot, which opens with a jump-cutting, cinematic meditation-narrative about how the collapse of the Argentine peso conveniently coincides with the speaker’s ability to buy a fine leather jacket. Both of those books, encountered by the casual reader of poetry, might transmit a shock, attending as they do not just to seismographic vibrations of inner being but to the riptides of the world at large and in particular. Winters and Slate possess a savvy regarding the wide world, and an appetite to understand it not commonly associated with the poet. Poet-MBAs, poet-economists: Are they our future?
Of course, a rich tradition exists for social analysis in American poetry. The lineage includes Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Simpson, Adrienne Rich, C.K. Williams–these and many others have diagnosed the complicities of empire, the erosions of modern selfhood, the all-you-can-eat lotus blossom of consumer culture. Some of these poets are editorial, some are detached observers, some ironic rhapsodists. But new times require new tones, and some of the most recent work in poetry shows the possibility for innovative penetrations.
To the above list we now can add Eleanor Lerman, whose intriguing contribution is tonal. In the very title of her book, Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, Lerman designates a context for the American self. It is a psychic twilight zone that exists in the wake of burst expectations, both historical and personal. Lerman’s poems are set among shadows of events that didn’t happen: the cold war that didn’t become hot; the ’60s awakening that went back to sleep; the reckoning that may be on its way. There’s an eerie science-fiction atmosphere inside these monologues, as if set in a dystopian near future where we “private/citizens,” with our lost faiths, are still functioning among the skyscrapers of late-stage capitalism, in stairwells and sublets, in lounges and office cubicles. But there is a furtive, anxious quality to our lives, and our expectations are more indefinite than ever.
Lerman is distinctly a baby boomer–born in 1952, raised in the milieu that mixed LSD and SDS, excess with idealistic overconfidence. Her first book, published in 1973, was titled Armed Love, and her new work retains some of the swagger of the postrevolutionary. “What else did you expect from the/braniacs of my generation?” she asks in her opening poem, “The survivors, the nonbelievers,/the oddball-outs with the Cuban Missile Crisis still/sizzling in our blood?” Her work also betrays plenty of post-Aquarian irony, like the testimonial in “About Patti Boyd and Me”: “I’m not complaining, Patti:/I survived it. I ate it when I had to, liked it when they said to./I killed it when there was nothing else to do.”
Behind the tough stylish talk of the survivor can be heard a steady background hum of Absence–the absence of vision, the absence of large hopes. In “Starfish,” the speaker takes the measure of such reduced expectations:
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?
Here, tone is all: a voice whose flat reserve is not exactly scornful of the offerings of daily life but hardly giddy, a tone against which that word “finally,” with its wary hopefulness, sounds especially poignant. But Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds is not a book of nostalgia for the bygone–often what one feels in the poems is dark presentiment, the approach of something large and impending. Lerman isn’t joking. One poem is titled “Why We Took the Coastal Evacuation Route.” Another, “Sunset Hammers,” anticipates and predicts the nameless emergency:
When the phone rings in your office, receive the news
as calmly as you would another memo. Another inventory.
Sheet detailing cost and value. The price of the goods
we have in stock is fluctuating. The physical integrity
of the materials is of concern. And as calmly as you
would write an answer (then stabilize the prices: restate
our faith in the process and manufacture) get your
coat and get out the door. Your
colleagues will remain
at their stations: behind their business of blue eyes the
phone will go on ringing and must be answered. Even
with faith, with planning, there is just no other way.
And so. Go into the city of tunnels. Of bridges, of
Lerman’s poems move most often by litany; their style is the flat declarative, emotionally muted but telegrammatic with knowingness. Pushiness is one of the delights of this poetry. There is a dash, too, of New York School brio, urban verbosity, the self-celebration of the streetwise. It is a mode not above trashing its own pieties, as in the poem “The Anthropic Principle”:
Africa, the prevention of nuclear war. If I were free, I would
suggest that this is how we do it: more sports, more food.
Certainly, more television. Ducks in funny costumes, wielding
hammers, quacking out a song. That’s how we conquered
Communism: the ducks alone brought down the Berlin wall.
In the wake of deflowered ideals, after the downsizing of heroic individualism, intimacy is the only remaining salvation. “Come near,” she says in “The Causeway.” “The day is closing down. Dinner is/burning, the eternal is proving to be temporary, the/divine is showing signs of being cruel. So come near.” Finally, Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds is not a manifesto, nor a history, but a tight-lipped spunky report from the indefinite front. It says the situation has degraded, comrade, but we persist.
Yet good poetry will contradict itself, and another kind of moment, too, pops up in Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. Such moments erupt in “Starfish,” “The Mayans” and “Tales of the Mohawk Valley,” another of Lerman’s “Escape From Manhattan” genre, a poem in which political realism is trumped by a more cosmic perspective. In “Tales of the Mohawk Valley” the speaker claims that liberty is still out there (or in there):
At the end of the valley there is a lake with a monster who lives in a deep, cold pool.
That can be our destination…./We will blend in with the
tourists, be indistinguishable from people with money and plans and things to do.
We will ride a boat that glides above the monster’s house and
speculate with strangers: How do you think he makes his living?
How has he survived so long, unknown, unseen, and free?
One doesn’t have to be a Jungian to feel the promise imaged here that alternative truths exist, that there are realms of permission outside history. Eleanor Lerman’s poems have sociological savvy, philosophical rue, historical recognition and vernacular resilience. They sing a song that is bravely gloomy, but they sing it with a fierce and earned dignity. If a strong voice is a blueprint for living, these poems could be said to harbor and defend the old sanctum of poetry, private life–our not-so-secret right to think what we want, and feel for ourselves.