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This review is taken from PN Review 140, Volume 27 Number 6, July - August 2001.

DINKUM LINGO ROBERT HAHN, No Messages (University of Notre Dame)
PETER SIRR, Bring Everything (Gallery) £7.95
DENNIS HASKELL, Samuel Johnson in Marrickville (Arc) £8.95
MENNA ELFYN, Cusan Dyn Dall / BlindMan's Kiss (Bloodaxe) £7.95

The most ambitious of these four collections is Robert Hahn's No Messages, a volume obsessed with atonement. For Hahn, it is genocide and torture which have marked the twentieth-century; the best of these poems are personal acts of eulogy and lament which seek to redress past horrors. Yet Hahn is deeply sceptical about poetry's redemptive power, and questions Auden's certainty that the old masters were never wrong. 'As if one could be right/About suffering', he writes in 'The Flayed Man at the Fin de Siècle'. Later, in a series of poems dedicated to James Merrill, he shows how art itself has become the agent of cruelty. In 'Epilogue and Unraveling', he writes:

Art evades life
And life marches on mocking art:

A late '90s item, this just in,
A film German soldiers made of themselves, some 'pretending'
To be Nazis while others 'play Jews,' who pretend to be beaten,
And one wears a Hitler mustache, in case you don't get it ...

And in case we don't get it, there are less subtle statements to come: 'As if one believed that shimmering words/Could save a life. That art could change a world.' Though Hahn pardons Merrill for his interest in eugenics, he does it regretfully, and the final verdict - 'No one is saved' - attests to art's futility in the face of atrocity. In 'The Eugenics Lab', Merrill, Pound, Yeats, and even Wallace Stevens are all ...


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