Charles Wyrick

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In his introduction to Three Centuries of American Poetry: 1623-1923, editor Robert D. Richardson, Jr., cuts straight to the chase in order to defray any criticism that this new anthology of poets is just another lump in the already overstuffed shirt of the Western canon. To quote Richardson, "There ain't no canon. There ain't going to be any canon. There never has been a canon. That's the canon." Though Richardson's collection doesn't totally debunk literary tradition, it does attempt to widen perceptions about poetry and literature in general. Rather than posing as a who's who of American poetry, Richardson and co-editor Allen Mandlebaum explore poetry's various forms. Their refreshing approach emphasizes diversity and invention. The collection places anonymous hymns and spirituals side by side with the big names in American literature. In the end, what Three Centuries of American Poetry reminds us is that poetry is a fluid form. A canon is a standard, a fixed point by which measurements are drawn; in short, canons are static. Poetry is ever-changing. Richardson and Mandlebaum's vision treats poetry as part of a grand continuum. In the spirit of this celebration of verse, here's a brief look at four poets writing today who excite us with their unique creations.

Those who known Michael Ondaatje as author of the bestselling novel The English Patient might be surprised to find out that Ondaatje is an also an accomplished poet. His new book entitled Handwriting deals with the imprints or impressions humans make on the natural world. Writing beautifully about his native country of Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's poems take us in and out of the teeming jungles that form such an important part of his country's character. But Ondaatje is not what one would call a nature poet. His interest lies more in watching humans struggling against greater forces. In Buried Ondaatje follows a bronze buddha as it is taken from a temple into the jungle to be hidden from thieves during war. Through minimal line construction he builds a remarkably lyrical description that intertwines religion and myth into his characters' encounters with the lush yet unforgiving landscape. Here individuals struggle under religious law and natural law as the poem reveals its complex and haunting portrayal of the immutable spirit of humanity and the indomitable power of nature.

Like Ondaatje, Philip Levine builds grandiloquent portraits out of regional materials. Instead of bejeweled buddhas, Levine deals in slag heaps, sliding garage doors, poolhalls, and parking lots. Writing about the industry-worn landscape of Michigan in The Mercy, Levine finds inspiration in industrial images. In the poem Drum, oil barrels and trash mounds transform into the sleeping forms of "A Carthaginian outpost sent/ to guard the waters of the west." Here and elsewhere Levine makes imaginative discoveries out of his surroundings. In forgotten refuse, Levine sees an ancient army. Throughout his new collection discoveries such as these are made. Yet Levine's great gift as a poet lies not only in his keen eye for catching surprising associations, but in his compassion. Levine's poems will dovetail from imaginative daydreams into powerful meditations that explore suffering, time, and transcendence. Through a hard-won alchemy that sets life against industry, humans versus machines, Levine addresses hopes, aspirations, and desires. More than a poet of things, he is a poets of beings, a chronicler of individuals and families whose lives are tied to a land of machines. All of the poems that comprise The Mercy involve us in Levine's understanding of not only the details of labor but the lives hidden deep within industry's shadows.

Unlike Ondaatje and Levine's somewhat geocentric work, Louise Gluck's new book Vita Nova focuses on less easily identifiable terrain. In the collection's title poem, Gluck coolly relays the particulars of a dream. Gluck often uses abstract concepts for launching the themes in her work, choosing dreams, memories, myths, or philosophical conundrums as keys to her poetic explorations. Vita Nova's recurring theme is grief. The poems in her book repeatedly express the sorrow of losing a loved one. Through her artistry Gluck seeks to position her grief in relation to herself and to the other forces that shape her life. Yet balancing sorrow with life doesn't make poetry. What carries the book is Gluck's voice. Using a verse form of her own invention, she manages to sound both elegant and informal in her maneuvers with and around her sorrow. Her writing style invokes a grave tone that sounds graceful and profound even when syntax belays informality. Gluck is a true master of her language in the manner by which she draws her life-learned themes out of the carefully staged, elegant yet powerful lines of her art.

Like Gluck, Rita Dove, the greatly heralded former Poet Laureate of the United States, is less a poet of place and more an archaeologist of the self. Yet unlike Gluck, Dove's sense of self is closely interwoven with her deeply felt pride in race. Several poems in her new collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks find her telling tales of women who fought for racial equality through peaceful action in their everyday lives. In Rosa a short, quiet, and beautiful homage Dove honors the power of Rosa Parks's political action by matching the simplicity and dignity of Parks's protest with a simple, memorable poem. Doing nothing was the doing Dove says of Parks, and this beautiful line both encapsulates and honors Parks's courageous action. The subtle lyrical strength of this powerful poem testifies not only to Rosa Parks but to Rita Dove and the power her words will have over generations to come.

Whether addressing a place or a feeling, private or political action, poetry lives through individuals and their voices. So forget the Western canon and try out some new poetry this spring. Maybe April will turn out better than predicted.

In his introduction to Three Centuries of American Poetry: 1623-1923, editor Robert D. Richardson, Jr., cuts straight to the chase in order to defray any criticism that this new anthology of poets is just another lump in the already overstuffed shirt of the Western canon. To quote Richardson, "There ain't no canon. There ain't going […]
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Thinking about certain writers often brings certain places to mind. Mention James Joyce, for instance, and one cannot help but think of Ireland. William Faulkner's name evokes images of the South, especially Mississippi. So from now on, when anyone says Jonathan Lethem, I will think Brooklyn.

In Lethem's novel, Brooklyn is a microcosm of surprising proportions. Here, nothing is as it seems. Almost every storefront hides some clandestine operation. The corner barbershop hosts high-stakes poker, and the local arcade runs numbers. Needless to say, crime is omnipresent.

Struggling to navigate this world of crime and illusion is Lionel Essrog, a third-rate private investigator suffering from Tourette's syndrome. Lionel is called The Human Freakshow by the other members in his detective agency. Yet his outbursts and uncontrollable tics endear him to his fellow P.I.s and their boss, the cranky, bull-headed Frank Minna.

For all his stubbornness, no one knows Brooklyn's underworld like Frank Minna. Lionel and the rest of the crew are dependent on Minna for their livelihood and well-being; so when Minna gets murdered, the Minna Men assume they are next. Figuring out who killed the boss is not only a matter of justice but an exercise in self-preservation for Lionel and the remaining members of this motley bunch.

Though intrigue and suspense are powerful ingredients in this fascinating novel, the real pull is its locale. Lethem's ear for street-level vernacular and his eye for gritty urban detail lend color to this imaginative portrait of Brooklyn, its history and its people. As Lionel slowly works his way through this challenging case, this inventive novel offers up a complicated vision of a place alive with mystery and crime.

Charles Wyrick is a musician and writer in Nashville.

Thinking about certain writers often brings certain places to mind. Mention James Joyce, for instance, and one cannot help but think of Ireland. William Faulkner's name evokes images of the South, especially Mississippi. So from now on, when anyone says Jonathan Lethem, I will think Brooklyn. In Lethem's novel, Brooklyn is a microcosm of surprising […]
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For those who can't get enough crime reporting from their local newspaper, God created James Ellroy. Whether it be fiction or prose, no one writes better about violence and deviant behavior. In his new book,  Crime Wave, the author writes about his usual suspects . . . I mean subjects (i.e. sex, violence, and Los Angeles) as well as revisiting his own past. Part reporting, part noir fiction, and part personal history, Crime Wave shows the many sides to the writing of this fascinating man.

Luckily not many authors can claim James Ellroy's background. In 1957, a police detective informed the then 10-year-old that his mother had been killed. To this day the murder stands unsolved. Thus Crime Wave begins with three essays on unsolved murders, each involving women (one being Ellroy's mother) and all occurring in L.A.

In these pieces Ellroy plays historical detective. He immerses himself in homicide files to reconstruct the lives of the victims. In his writing, Ellroy faces the cruel facts of violent crime and displays his untiring knowledge of L.A. police work procedure. At times he sounds like the most hardened detective on the beat, which is not too much of a stretch for this gifted literary chameleon. In addition to nonfiction, Crime Wave includes three new stories that display the kind of hard-boiled fiction for which Ellroy is best known. Fans of L.A. Confidential will be happy to catch up with Danny Getchell, owner and operator of Hush Hush, Hollywood's most salacious and vicious insider gossip rag. Elsewhere Ellroy digs up some serious West Coast foul play through one of his favorite tinsel town scenesters, the tough, accordion-squeezing loverboy, Dick Contino. These tales deliver the goods on the city of angels. So if crime's your bag, lose your local paper and check out James Ellroy.

Charles Wyrick plays guitar in the band Stella.

For those who can't get enough crime reporting from their local newspaper, God created James Ellroy. Whether it be fiction or prose, no one writes better about violence and deviant behavior. In his new book,  Crime Wave, the author writes about his usual suspects . . . I mean subjects (i.e. sex, violence, and Los […]
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Ian McEwan writes like no one else. As his newest novel Amsterdam shows, McEwan holds few peers. Amsterdam, winner of the 1998 Booker Prize, deconstructs civility in a story where fate and the dark side of human nature seep through the cracks of an already fragile friendship. Out of the tangle of two men's lives, McEwan weaves a tantalizing story about hatred and revenge. Amazingly lucid prose aside, the power of Amsterdam lies in McEwan's devilishly clever narrative plan. He somehow manages to draw suspense out of two men's professional and personnel breakdowns, revealing a twisted horror story lurking underneath a tale seemingly meant to address undying friendship and love.

As the novel begins, two old friends, Vernon Halliday and Clive Linley, meet at the funeral of Molly Lane, a woman whom each has know as a lover at different stages of life. McEwan takes Molly's funeral as a chance to introduce us to the somewhat strained web of civilities that tie Vernon, a newspaper editor, and Clive, a composer, to each other. The weight of Molly's death now adds a new burden to a friendship that already sags from the vicissitudes of many years. Not everything is going well between the two.

By utilizing alternating chapters and dueling points of view, McEwan develops his study in friendship into a dark psychological portrait of descent. There is true genius not only in McEwan's plan for Clive's and Vernon's stories but also in their relationship to each other and to the plot. A wonderful kind of tension slowly builds between the chapters devoted to Clive and Vernon as each of their successive narratives comes to reflect on the life of their counterpart. McEwan's adroitness at characterization and his deftness at dialogue show through these astounding chapter-length psychological studies. As author, he handles the transitions between his two characters' view points with astounding stylistic assurance.

All in all, this relatively short novel supports great writing with a masterful narrative design. Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that Amsterdam bends toward the sinister in a world where friendships breed turmoil. With the death of a former lover casting shadows deep into each of their hearts, McEwan's protagonists discover sides to themselves that civility and personal honor cannot hide or serve.

Ian McEwan writes like no one else. As his newest novel Amsterdam shows, McEwan holds few peers. Amsterdam, winner of the 1998 Booker Prize, deconstructs civility in a story where fate and the dark side of human nature seep through the cracks of an already fragile friendship.
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In Rupert Thomson's new novel, Soft!, an advertising executive's half-cocked, late-night inspiration becomes an ad-campaign with a singular, sinister design in this surreal thriller about soft drinks, stress-fried ad-men, down-on-their-luck thugs, sleep study clinics and subliminal conditioning.

Imagine waking up everyday with the same thought in your mind. As you become more conscious, this idea grows into an irresistible urge that infuses your entire being. Such is the fate of Glade Spencer. Glade's undeniable compulsion is for Soft! the new, all-natural soft drink that's holding everyone in London spellbound. Perhaps it's because of the exposure. Ads for Soft! are everywhere, but Glade is on autopilot for Soft! because Soft! controls her mind.

For those who think Thomson sounds a bit half-cocked, wait. Soft! is masterfully written. Thomson exhibits his incredible talent for funky characterization throughout this surreal novel. From the homely waitress-turned-soft-drink-drone to corporate marketing heavy weights, Soft! casts an amazingly wide mouthed net into society, catching a colorful cast of characters. Only a writer as inventive as Thomson can pull together such a wide and wild bunch and not let the characters outweigh the narrative. In the end, the characters in Soft! serve an edgy thriller with political and philosophical pretenses. Thomson takes on the big issues of freedom and personal volition in a tale where accountability and morality get lost in complicated corporate power structures.

As much a dissection of power as it is a celebration of individuality, Soft! takes its cues from Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 in order to examine humanity struggling against forces bent on controlling freedom. Though Thomson's soft drink might go down smoother than Brave New World's happy pill, soma, the song remains the same. Thomson shares Orwell and Huxley's interest in showing off disutopia's underdogs struggling this time against commercial, rather than political, foes. So think twice about drinking your next soft drink—but not about reading Rupert Thomson's latest. Thomson, undoubtedly, is in better taste.

Charles Wyrick plays in the band Stella.

In Rupert Thomson's new novel, Soft!, an advertising executive's half-cocked, late-night inspiration becomes an ad-campaign with a singular, sinister design in this surreal thriller about soft drinks, stress-fried ad-men, down-on-their-luck thugs, sleep study clinics and subliminal conditioning.

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