One Above & One Below
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This second collection speaks in many voices: the edgy sophisticate of the first poem, whose muse is "like the gorgeous dykes/ who rule my health-club locker room"; the singer of the Western plains who begins "Plainsong," "He lived in a sod house,/ a formal nest of grass"; a different kind of all-American poet who plunges into italicized memory: "I smell the sugary,/ acid stink rising/ from the wood-slatted truck bed,/ and hear the glass-rattle bell/ the green bottles will make when my father loads them." Belieu, whose first book, Infanta, was published as part of the National Poetry Series, moves comfortably from regular rhymed stanzas to free verse. The poet plays with contemporary ordeals ("On Being Fired Again," "Dinner, After the Aquarium," "News of the War"), explores historical material ("Chest for Arrows," about Anne Boleyn) literary-historical tradition ("Francesca's Complaint" after Dante's Francesca da Rimini) or the film noir style (in response to Double Indemnity) and the romance of travel ("There You Are": "inspired," the note says, by George Packer's The Village of Waiting)--and fits a form to every theme. The results are perfectly modulated but low on surprise. Issues--"I Can't Write a Poem about Class Rage," "Against Writing about Children"--get flat treatment, and probings of the self most often end up in familiar territory, "the clean, planetary light glowing/ off its mirrored walls." But in the middle of "High Lonesome," the young aunt watching the kids mess around, "not paying us any mind,/ wearing her discontented face, diamond-/ chip earrings, and a shiny summer dress/ with quarter-sized spots of perspiration/daubed like perfume under each arm" is real, necessary, valuable.