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Songs for Two Voices
mith is a rarity in the world of poetics: He’s a self-professed jock who not only went out for sports in high school, but served as an All-American tailback at Bucknell University. After receiving his master’s degree in English, he played pro baseball brieﬂy with the Philadelphia Phillies—a short stint characterized by a weak glove—before packing it in for poetry professorship. Songs for Two Voices is a weak follow-up to the National Book Award ﬁnalist The Other Lover, Smith’s 2000 collection that was also nominated for a Pulitzer. The 25 pieces here are
By Bruce Smith. University of Chicago Press, $22.50.
described as “duets: poems of call and response, song and countersong” with “jazz-like” rhythms. Smith’s subjects include carnality, family, music, pop culture, academia and (surprise!) poetry, sometimes mixed together all in one. Composed in two-lined stanzas, an effect that cumulatively renders them ﬂat on the page, Smith’s “songs” suffer from the same malady as much contemporary poetry: overintellectualization. The two exceptions, “Song of the Suffering of the Pencil” and “Song with Trucks in the Distance,” employ single-line call-and-response, a welcome respite for the eyes. However, they still suffer from hodgepodges of images, emotions and cultural touchstones, making the reader feel Smith’s brain working through every line. But the heart gets lost or, at the very least, trampled along the way. Smith handles language masterfully, but it’s what he fails to do with it that leaves the reader wanting. At any moment, Smith’s verses seem on the verge of ticking or tanking, and mostly they just tank. Take these lines from “Song of Loss in the Form of a Cock Ring”: “jet fuel smell, smuggled fruit, the curtain / of I am and am I? blown open.” Perhaps phrases like these are “part ancient Greek chorus, part Southern Baptist revival” as they have been billed, but they lack both the weight and the religious fervor that admiration suggests.—Larry O. Dean
Nellcott Is My Darling
lice claims to love rock & roll, even falls in love with a boy because he approximates a musician, but her life is really more of a slow, mournful pop song. The protagonist of Fried’s elegant debut novel is a quiet girl just beginning her freshman year at Montreal’s McGill University. Unlike a lot of kids free of their parents’ oppression, who cut loose in school and craft new identities out of thin air, Alice is stalled by never knowing what to think—about anything. Along comes Nellcott, a skinny nonstudent who works in an underground
By Golda Fried. Coach House Books, $14.95.
record shop, plays guitar and has an almost paranormal infatuation with Alice. The two form a bond typical of ﬁrst ﬂings in college: intense, loving and prone to both shocking honesty and curious secrecy. Alice’s virginity becomes the one wedge separating them, mostly because she’s unsure why she is protecting it. Though it’s a relatively simple story of a girl and a boy feeling something but not knowing what that something is, there’s an hypnotic air to the novel. Each chapter is composed of jagged moments, paragraphs separated from each other by impulsive punch lines. At the end of one scene, Alice ﬁnishes watching the Cassavetes flick Husbands and steps “out of that movie like stepping out of a really warm shower.” After talking about how a girl he once knew had cigarette-burn scars on her arm, Nellcott lightly singes Alice’s forearm with the tip of his smoke. Rather than becoming enraged or hurt, Fried writes simply, “She could not believe him.” There’s something captivating about Fried’s prose that makes Alice and Nellcott’s relationship feel like a slow-motion whirlpool. Writing in such short sentences and with such a ﬁne eye for the minutiae of relationships, she circles around emotional pivot points until the reader feels dragged into the depths of her characters, unaware of how he got there. —Jonathan Messinger
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MAY 5–12, 2005 l TIME OUT CHICAGO
4/28/05 12:01:10 PM