"We play by ear but learn the words by heart": so explains the first of the many playfully intellectual poems in this strong 18th collection from the much-honored, Yale-based poet and critic. Hollander's considerable reputation rests in part on his wide, often whimsical array of forms, and this volume (more than its recent predecessors) excels in formal agility: blank verse, Sapphics, serial haiku and faithful adaptations from Horace's Latin wheel and spin from comic exclamations (like "pow!" and "blort!") through learned puns, philosophical disquisitions and even "grave accentuations cut in the rind of the earth." Some of the most ambitious poems here describe paintings, while others meditate more abstractly on the relations between seeing and listening, or between writing and visual art. More casual poems address, or remember, particular literary friends (some of them famous): "On a Stanza of H. Leyvick" moves "from the midcentury Village back to the New/ York of the Yiddish poets," while "From a Palace Diary" brings to new heights the poet's longstanding devotion to cats. Recalling both Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden, Hollander (Tesserae, etc.) combines a reader-friendly alertness with intellectual sophistication; his poems try "to make words be themselves," "to/ Make pictures puzzles of what they're about," and in doing so develop an instantly recognizable take on "the mind's/ Complicating, fragile reflectiveness."
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In his eighteenth collection--in one cleverly constructed and philosophically agile poem after another, some classical in their tropes, others biblical, others echoing Milton, Coleridge, and Stevens--Hollander ponders our habits of perception and our perpetual self-infatuation. In the finely wrought title poem, for instance, one man watches another stand before a plateglass window framing a glorious mountain vista and realizes that the window-gazer is looking not at the landscape but at his own reflection. The poet himself is utterly enthralled by humankind's most alluring invention, language, distracted from contemplating life itself by the complex vibrations of even the humblest of words. Just as our thoughts are inextricably wed to language, he suggests, our vision is cued to the order of art rather than the chanciness of nature. In intricate, mosaiclike poems, Hollander addresses an Edward Hopper painting, the evocations of columns and timepieces, and the piquant nuances of common figures of speech, all the while parsing our impulse to try to make some kind of sense out of everything that comes our way. Donna Seaman
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