Bruce Whiteman-a Montrealer and a quintessential connoisseur of art, music, sex, and literature-began his publishing career with The Sun at Your Thighs, The Moon at Your Lips (1978), a modest volume of exquisitely crafted monodic lyrics reminiscent of Alcaeus, Anacreon, and Sappho. He is one of the finest practitioners of the poetic art and craft on the planet.
A liberal selection here from his early period shows his stringent attention to musical notation and metrical arrangement, particularly in "Love Song", which conjures up ghosts of chords on Aeolian lyres (with cummingesque flair), even as it sings the body ecstatic:
I love you beyond
all sense and ordinary
pleasure. The lazy
ones, who doodle circles
upon an orange skin to
make a world-forget
them. Outside at night,
as close as trees or
a cat's cry, the stars
pull us on.
Part I of Visible Stars also contains a good sampling of poems from such books as Recesses in the Heart (1984), Inventions (1979), and Ten Lessons in Autobiography (1981)-a series that prompted Theodore Enslin to write, in his preface to it, that "Whiteman has reached the form of the poem which is unmistakably his."
Ten Lessons serves as harbinger for 1984's prose-poem-in-progress, The Invisible World is in Decline, a distinguished and accomplished pièce de résistance along formal lines. Appearing here as Part II of Visible Stars, Books I to IV of Invisible World present intricately constructed blocks of text underscoring the poet's measured strokes of language, cadence, and natural musicality. They make a compelling counterpoint to the clamorous cacophony of the so-called postmodern mêlée, with eerily accurate effect:
"The heart's Aristotelian certainties count for something. Everything begins with such unscientific assuredness. Love founders when the heart can no longer measure itself. Like a lizard on a wall, drowsy with sun and frozen by the smell of a predator, it is unsure which way to turn. The shadow grows larger and assumes an instinctually recognizable shape. Under the walls of flesh and muscle the heart pumps hard and makes crazy. It was sure of the sun and the sun has disappeared. The photosynthetic world of leaf and flower is gone like a dream. It dreams everything but blood and its dark coming and going, its alchemical change of colour. Love and uncertainty count on the heart's unselfishness. The visible world is out there like a star."
"New Work", the final section of Visible Stars, offers readers the fifth instalment of The Invisible World is in Decline. It contains "Zukofsky Impromptus", "Interrealm", and "Polyphonic Windows", a ten-part sequence that will open ears, eyes, and hearts to the elegant felicity of Mr. Whiteman's meticulously crafted utterances (made all the more resonant by his keen command of synaesthetic effect):
"The beautiful counterpoint of what is out the window. A landscape of desire where people and the geography in which they move make a perfect scene of adoration. The window, thrown up to give air, makes possible a body fugue. Everything in sight depends on it."
Of course, the splendour of Visible Stars does not derive only from its now unusual attention to formal considerations and questions of shape and meaning, but also from a fine intelligence. Mr. Whiteman's command of tone ranges from the devastatingly accurate denunciation (particularly in a postmodern context), to heartbreakingly luscious erotica, to the utterly gorgeous precision of the poet's concept of vision, sight, windows, frames, and mirrors, evidenced again in "Polyphonic Windows": "The window: a mirror that has mercifully lost its predictable / imagery."
Although most contemporary poets make mawkish and amateur raids on the work of T. S. Eliot, few practise what he preached in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."
To its great credit, the work of Mr. Whiteman these past two decades is a rare exception to the prevailing onanistic rule.
Judith Fitzgerald's most recent book is an epyllion, River (ECW).