A fine, deeply allusive collection of original poetry, Pantheon delivers a library's worth of literary wisdom in a few slim pages.
It should come as no surprise that the poetry by Asrelsky--a literature professor with more than three decades' experience--is literate. One early poem meditates on Beckett's Waiting for Godot: "Fabricators of dreams, / inconsolable wraiths, / we shall keep our hour, / and will await Godot." Another evokes the "Cold Mountain" poetry of the ninth-century Chinese bard Han Shan, "who walks the peaks / and drinks the clear, cold streams." A third, "Footnote to Paradise Lost," imagines the exiles from John Milton's Eden marveling at the birth of their first child, a "red thing struggling / between her thighs."
The author digs deeply into biblical myth and Greek lore, and Pantheon is nothing less than an exploration of the canon. But interspersed with such high speculation are more mundane reflections on aging ("Baldness"), work colleagues ("Secretary") and astrology ("Horoscope"). In bringing together the ordinary and the timeless, Asrelsky hopes to point out "connections between quotidian events and larger themes." This, of course, is the job of the English teacher--to show why Ovid, Dante and Frost are not only brilliant, but relevant. As a continuation of the author's pedagogy, then, Pantheon is a great success.
Asrelsky's accessible verse makes the old new again, brushing the dust off the old masters and compelling his readers to experience them anew, and with clearer eyes. In doing so, the poet brings past and present together, or, in his words, "The finished poem / redeems time." But even these are not his words, as he surely knows; they are Eliot's, and the apostle Paul's before him. His writing is a prism that delivers not only "Asrelsky," but the giants who precede him.
Erudite verse from a man of letters. --Kirkus Discoveries