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Tucson Weekly Indistinct Kingdoms

Cully's First Book Offers New Intimacies To Old Estrangements

By David Penn

The New Intimacy, by Barbara Cully (Penguin Books). Paper, $14.95.

AUGUST 25, 1997:  ALMOST 20 YEARS ago, poet Robert Pinsky took his generation to task for what he believed was their excessive, abstract lyricism. He was speaking of the then-current orthodoxy, a poetry Pinsky considered little more than warmed-over, Beat-era lyrics--touched up with a little lysergic acid-inspired surrealism. Pinsky encouraged what he called the "prose virtues"--a rather puritanical set of benchmarks that placed clarity and exposition over randomness and music, the "hip static" of Beat and post-Beat writing.

Unfortunately, too many poets seem to have taken Pinsky's suggestions to heart. Peek into your average poetry journal and, more often than not, the poems you see may lack for many things, but "prose virtues" are not one of them. Too frequently, these journals are filled with narrative "poems" about trips to the sea, losing a parent to Alzheimer's, a nervous breakdown leading to an underwhelming sex act, whatever...all broken up into a variety of lines of varying lengths. Add cool, breezy--or alternately, doleful, whiny--reading voice and you have instant poema.

For a while, particularly during the '80s, this style was heralded by editors and publishers as "the new narrative"--a poetry that, for their bottom line, looked so much like prose that, well, maybe it would sell like prose. And if you think I'm just being cynical, recall that this new narrative--embryonic in the '70s and bursting into life in the '80s--came of age during a time when young writers like Tama Janowitz, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jay MacInery were plotting a bold new course for contemporary American fiction. It's no surprise that publishers of poetry, continuing to suffer from "prose envy," were quick to champion a version of poetry cast in the image of their obsession.

What makes Barbara Cully's The New Intimacy such a joy, then, is that from the first page on it's poetry that looks, feels, and sounds like poetry. These are not diary entries broken up into bits, nor a re-associated list of the banality of her purse. Here is language itself at work, simultaneously layering image onto meaning onto image in a fashion beyond fiction or even the best cinema. It's a flight unique to poetry: Several versions/(doves caught in the frescoed reeds)/vie for ascendance/Adam's tent as tentative negotiation between the sea and the sky/as opulent casino/as the machete of his nomadic heart embossed on the [blank]-teenth century grandeur of the city (from "Museum Frieze").

Be forewarned: This is the poetry your mother warned you about. You won't find the performance-oriented wailings of Maggie Estep or Lydia Lunch; but Cully's is a poetry no less subversive at every level. The New Intimacy, selected by Carolyn Forche for the 1996 National Poetry Series, shares many of Forche's fin de millenaire ("end of the millennium") concerns. But by far, The New Intimacy spends most of its time in the psychological (and physiological) states of longing and remembrance.

In this, The New Intimacy spins with the sort of millennial vertigo we might expect at the end of one thousand years and the beginning of another. And while many of the poems soar across the page with a liberty unique to poetry, the apprehension Cully prepares us for is a difficult one: one in which divisions between nations, cultures, genders, the self, become malleable, more capable of giving way to more accurate--though no less beautiful or bizarre--renderings of ourselves. To know what it is to make love as a man and as a woman is special knowledge, he said/In the open trees, there is no one o'clock, there is no two o'clock/Soon the body itself disappears as a distinct kingdom, (from "Nureyev").

This is not to say The New Intimacy is without complication. The collection runs into difficulty when its rhapsodic, lyrical mode doesn't quite reach the level of crescendo. Occasionally we're left with a voice that, while seeming Orphic and revelatory, disappears into its own randomness. This is especially the case in the title poem (the curse of the title poem!), "The New Intimacy," which begins rhetorically with a theme of Asian politics, then trips off "for deserted planets," "video stores," and the passion-word for the nineties, "hunger."

While randomness itself is not necessarily a problem, what the poet does to pull the randomness together can be. Often, for American poets, the evocation of Europe seems to suffice. And true enough, the following stanza introduces--straight off the Lufthansa--"Rembrandt," "Raphael," "Mediterranean water," and "Roman tonic."

But these are minor gripes. In a literary climate in which the boundaries of sense are rarely pushed and the limits of language hardly ever tested, Cully's first book is at once a stark and refreshing collection; one that's less devoted to telling us what we see now, and more committed to the challenges of what we'll see next.

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