Breslin’s (English/Northwestern; The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry Since the Fifties, not reviewed) first volume draws heavily from the postwar years, with uneven but generally stirring results. Several of the poems are dated from the 1960s and chronicle personal interactions with political movements, as in “White Wound / Black Scar,” about an ill-fated play depicting race relations. The poem ends in a kind of ars poetica, in which the play’s charged script becomes “bitter words that unsaid themselves / because we agreed to say them, and closed, / with its visible scar, an open wound.” The “visible scar” that language creates in its very ability to heal governs these poems, which can venture into painful territory without stripping away complexities or covering up paradoxes. The core is a series about the troubled life and eventual disappearance of the speaker’s father. These pieces have some of the vigor of late Robert Lowell, their confessional stance in dialogue with a wryly musical poetic line (“months of lassitude / punctured by fitful tennis”). Breslin also shares Lowell’s shortcoming that the more ambitious poems don’t always seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts, leaving images and ideas half-formed. Ultimately, the most satisfying works here are about other kinds of art. The short lyric on Webern and the prose poem about Corot offer the shock of recognition, of the interpenetration of one kind of art into another. Even the poems about personal experience give the sense of artistic compositions both beautiful and fleeting; “First Kiss,” for example, laments the loss of “the orange and red glow / of the Japanese lanterns, / broken in liquid arcs / on the nightlit pool.”
Overall, a satisfying debut.