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The Reading Life: The United States of Poetry

April 27, 2011 | 11:03 am


This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

"Crossing State Lines: An American Renga" is my kind of book. It's a long poem, with 54 poets from all across the country contributing one after the next -- a kinder, gentler exquisite corpse. It's a contemporary adaptation of an ancient form, like the homegrown haiku co-editor Bob Holman cites in his introduction: "Allen Ginsberg felt that equating a Chinese character and an English syllable was foolish at best, so prosaically adapted haiku to 'American sentences': a single line of seventeen syllables: 'Put on my tie in a taxi, short of breath, rushing to meditate.' " I'm a sucker for the ambition, for the belief that poetry can tell us something, not just about who we are but about how we live. Poetry, "Crossing State Lines" insists, is a heartbeat, is a pulse.

And what a heartbeat, a heartbeat in 54 installments, working its way through Marie Howe and Mark Doty, C.K. Williams, Susan Wheeler, Edward Hirsch, all talking, thinking, writing together as poets rarely do. This is the point of the renga, the 900-year-old Japanese collaborative form that, co-editor Carol Muske-Dukes explains, "was/is a conversation, and it seemed the right time for America to hear its poets converse." Yes, the right time, fall 2008 to spring 2009, from just before the election to just after the inauguration of Obama, a period that asserts itself in these pages in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Here, for instance, is Ed Sanders' entry in its entirety:

If there is a God
Please may He or She
Assist our new President

Guide him to Peace and Service
Help calm the Military

Grant Prosperity to every
Last human on
Broad-breasted Earth

The semi-bliss of Nat'l Health
And a Sharing of the Wealth

 And a chunk of Jorie Graham's:

But actually nothing's -- nothing's -- gone, and nothing's new
About this new slip chip of time we've just now crossed the border of,
Adding one atomic second to the flowering

Open-handed clock -- feel it? -- we've not been here
Before we think but the price of gas is down again and the sale

Of guzzler's up -- oh brother -- land
Is not our land ...

I love it, poetry as engagement, as a physical and emotional journey, beginning with former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who starts things off with a question -- "Beginning of October, maples / kindle in the East, linked / to fire season in the West by what?" -- and ending, 53 poets later, in California, with the response of another former laureate Robert Hass.

Here we are, moving back and forth, from one coast to the other, and nothing left to look at but ourselves. Or, as Muske-Dukes puts it, in her own sharp and epigrammatic contribution:

Time to make something
From nothing -- garden, star chart,
Beehive, birdhouse, abacus

To add up what remains when
What we thought was wealth was gone.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: West Point Lake, on the border of Georgia and Alabama. Credit: Lee Cathey / MCT