RES PUBLICA by Alan Williamson


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Williamson, a professor at Univ. of Calif. (Davis), models his work—this is his fourth collection—on Robert Lowell, whose blend of personal history and political engagement Williamson studied in his scholarly book, Pity the Monsters (1974). Like the latter Lowell, Williamson opens his long lines to matters of the world at large, and even throws in the mix some Lowell-like translations (of Dante and Montale). The title section announces Williamson’s heady intent, but the result is disappointing. His glib sense of history and politics seems filtered largely through TV: “A Childhood Around 1950” mocks that quiescent period as one in which “the electric chair troubled no one—; the Sixties flash by in poems about Chicago in “68, the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, and Altamont, which he sees—without the slightest originality—as the end of the countercultural promise. The Eighties dissolve into a collage of desperation: “Silkwood” (the movie, not the historical figure!), Reagan’s second victory, mass murderers, vigilantes, a kidnaped child. An elegy for Kurt Cobain (—Limit of Volume—) completely misses the point, and Williamson’s cynicism emerges in “La Pastorela,” which suggests that nothing ever changes. Many of the non-public poems search out the “Buddha-nature” in things ( cats, dinosaurs, asteroids), and Williamson’s tribute to Lowell and Peter Taylor (—giants in the earth—) builds to an anecdote taken wholesale from Lowell’s biography. It’s hard to decide what’s more annoying: Williamson’s strange sense of the “us” in history, or his fanlike idolatries.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-226-89934-9
Page count: 80pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1998