From Publishers Weekly
In stylized tellings of family (especially an ailing, elderly mother), "Proverbs from Purgatory," "Nostalgia (The Lake at Night)" and other looks back, the poems of Schwartz's third collection adopt a variety of poses that can't quite defamiliarize their familiar subjects. Descriptive third-person accounts, dramatic monologues and dialogues are colloquial and direct, conveying heartfelt moments of memory and loss: "He saved the horses.// I haven't thought about this in a thousand years.// It's like a dream: you get up it's forgotten.// Then it all comes back.// Didn't I ever tell you?// Look at me, I'm starting to cry.// What's there to cry about?// Such an old, old memory, why should it make me cry?" Nearly all of Cairo TrafficAwhether coming in terse single lines or couplets, blocks of prose, or sentence-length-determined stanzasAlabors under such nostalgic melodrama, though Schwartz sometimes (as in the lines above) tries to distance himself from it through reportage. Especially disappointing pieces include a slim, contemporary redaction of the Orpheus myth, a superficially Kafka-esque dream in which a mysterious "fat, ugly, dirty" man toys sexually with the speaker in a cathedral, and "Pornography," which offers sentimental insights and leaden double entrendres while describing jazz-age pornographic photographs: "Not quite supine, she strains forward to eye, and/ hold, his bold erection: bat and hardballsA/ major league (his Fenway Frank; his juicy/ all-day-sucker)." The book takes its title from the final poem, a long, meandering, mostly prose account of the poet's travels through Israel and Egypt; it also includes translations of two poems about families by Brazilian poets Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Rogerio Zola Santiago. Fans of Schwartz's Goodnight, Gracie, of his Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music commentary for the Boston Phoenix and on NPR's Fresh Air, and of his critical work on Elizabeth Bishop may find interest in these life stories; others will find little on the page to compel them. (Sept.)
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In the acknowledgments for this book, Schwartz thanks Frank Bidart. This seems appropriate, for many of Schwartz's poems resemble many of Bidart's, with their long lines, prose sections, and other practices that make one question whether this is poetry. Schwartz is prosier and less narrative than Bidart. Several poems concerned with Schwartz's 89-year-old mother's last days and one called "Nostalgia (The Lake at Night)" are composed of single sentences spaced one line apart from each other; only the accumulation of lines turns them into emotional and sensual wholes powerful, concrete, and economical enough to be accounted poems. Similarly, several dreams, a mulling-over of two ancient pornographic postcards, and a 20-page journal in prose and free verse of a trip to Egypt all become poems as they are read. A set of "Proverbs from Purgatory" recalls Blake's proverbs of Hell, though they are wise only accidentally, given their flat-footed folly. At the end, Schwartz has convinced us. This is witty, canny, and vivid poetry. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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