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This review is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

STEVENSITES CHRISTOPHER MIDDLETON, Of the Mortal Fire: Poems 1999-2002 (The Sheep Meadow Press)
JESPER SVENBRO, three-toed gull: Selected Poems, translated from the Swedish by John Matthias and Lars-Hakan Svensson (Northwestern University Press)

`I do not and cannot write about whelks and tennis,' wrote Christopher Middleton in one of the 1970s essays in which he tried to define his poetic art as anti-realist, anti-romantic, modernist of course, yet ultimately social in its aim to `reveal the life project of a whole culture'. Of various figures he suggests for the poem-object that might fulfil such difficult, even contradictory criteria, perhaps the most striking is not a well-wrought urn but the prow of a well-carved long ship, made of the dragon wood that knows how to ride the waves - an image that combines the martial, the magical and the crafted, social function and aesthetic pleasure. But so firmly does Middleton's (borrowed from Marx) formulation that `the social promise of art is that pleasure should one day supercede work as the main activity of our species' return us to a moment of aesthetic contemplation, that we feel `the social' is something of a necessary angel to him. Wallace Stevens is depositing us back in the arms of a religion of art and a version of `the imagination' that contains many of the same kinds of bric-à-brac, even turns of phrase, as the world of Harmonium and `Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction'. If the action is social, the world it takes place in is always fictional, `poetic', of art and literature.

His beautiful late poems are still freely littered with Stevensisms - the figurine of a Chinese drummer makes his village hum to ...


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