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"The Yellow Shoe Poets" from LSU Press is no ordinary anthology.

By Ashley Fantz

DECEMBER 7, 1999: 

The Yellow Shoe Poets: Selected Poems 1964-1999 edited by George Garrett (Louisiana State University Press), 214 pp., $39.95, $19.95 paper

In The Yellow Shoe Poets, there are no sweeping Scarlett-esque lines, no lazy-day ponderings about tree leaves, no quirky odes to rednecks or pantsuits that are usually contained in Southern poetry anthologies. The only common trait among the Yellow Shoe poets is a relentless preservation of their individual voices despite being published under an academic banner.

A clever play on Louisiana State University's initials LSU -- which said quickly sounds like "yellow shoe" -- the Yellow Shoe poets published by the school's press have received considerable praise for their individual works. Instructor Lisel Mueller, whose Alive Together won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1996, arguably gave the state school its reputation for turning out capable poets. Mueller contributed to this 1964-1999 anthology, as did Joyce Carol Oates. From years ago and recent booms in popularity, new Yellow Shoe writers have extra pressure to keep up with their alma mater's standards.

It's impossible to review poetry anthologies with any kind of consideration for public culture. The art form has become, unfortunately, a confined occupation. No doubt, there are more anthologies and independent verse on bookshelves today, yet poetry isn't appreciated in the intellectual or artistic mainstream like it was 30 years ago when poets such as Ogden Nash and Anne Sexton were celebrities. Poets are only famous among other poets. It's an insular world to be a poet in 1999 and, as if this were possible, it's even tougher to make a living as a poet now than decades earlier. Inevitably, poets need a world in which they can cultivate their art. It's no wonder then that the proliferation of graduate poetry students is second only to maybe trendy coffee shops. In that context, the latest collection from the Yellow Shoe poets might be a celebration within poetry circles, while review magazines -- and the Flyer for that matter -- rarely consider criticizing verse. The attitude is, Who reads poetry anymore?

Hopefully, the answer to that question is readers who pick up The Yellow Shoe Poets. Although a few of the 171 poems seem like long-winded musings for the obvious sake of depth, poets T.R. Hummer, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Wayne Dodd, and John Stone will make you want to copy down and memorize their lines. Hummer's "Scrutiny" is about a girl who has just come from a clinic, possibly with bad news. The narrator begins to hear aspects of living at a higher volume. "She could hear traffic beginning to swarm under a bloodless bi-sected moon watching everything with singular attention/Men in wrinkled suits and skin eclipsed by sweat/The iridescence black of grackles in the gutter The ambiguous look on the face of God, the shape of her own hands."

Byer's work stands out for its deceptively simple lyricism. In "Weep-Willow" -- an inane title for such a moving poem -- the poet writes to the cadence of an old-fashioned waltz. The first eight-line stanza never breaks its musicality. "At night she watched the road/and sang. I'd sigh and settle on the floor/beside her. One song led/to one more song. Some unquiet grave/A bed of stone. The ship that spun round/three time 'ere it sank/near ninety verses full of grief/ She sang sad all night long."

Dodd and Stone's poems concentrate on isolation and fleeting life. In Dodd's "Looking, Late at Night," the poem's voice finds a bleached photograph at the bottom of an old box labeled "Woman's Underwear: Pink Step-ins." The photograph becomes a way for him to understand the memories in an old house where he is staying as a guest. There are no people in the photograph. Dodd writes, "Dust, glare, heat -- nothing else/anywhere: no other houses, no trees, no/one dying of cancer in some airless room/out of sight. But this is the picture, this is the one scene that keeps rising/at night like a summons, call me out into the white spaces beyond/this narrow focus." Similarly, Stone's "He Makes a Housecall" is a sorrowful recollection of the beginning of a friend's illness. "Sex, seven years ago/when you began to begin to faint/I painted your leg with iodine." After his friend has endured a hundred surgeries to repair a weak heart valve, he thinks of himself lucky "seven years without a faint." Health is whatever works, he writes, and for as long. Stone's verse is some of the most profound and unpretentious in The Yellow Shoe Poets. That alone might not be enough for a master's degree; it is definitely, among academicians and a society that shrugs off poetry, a masterful achievement.


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