Of the Johns Hopkins
John T. Irwin,
Usually we are not too enamored of American poets who make it into the university presses. They tend to be formalistic, hoary, unable to show much heart. Words Brushed by Music surprised us. To paraphrase what they used to say at our local Target, we were prepared to "expect little, get less," mostly because of its silly title.
The book does have its share of hoary poets --- X. J. Kennedy and John Hollander, to name two --- but even they benefit from what we believe to be the keen eye (and ear) of the editor. We were especially impressed by some who are relative strangers: John Bricuth, Josephine Jacobsen, Robert Pack, and Robert Phillips ... who writes, with regret, about losing a mulberry tree during a storm: "My chainsaw ate fruitwood for weeks," turning it into firewood, but "it's easier/to burn a cement block than a mulberry."
Editor Irwin explains that he wanted to pick poems that are "humanely moving," and some, such as Pack's loving "Departing Words to a Son," reach the reader by the measured, repeating lines, "Here --- wear this watch my father gave to me" and "Your mother sometimes cries out in the night" and "She dreams the windy snow has covered her."
There are twenty poets represented here, all from the poetry series that Johns Hopkins Press has published since 1979. If nothing else, one should read X. J. Kennedy's curse on thief who stole Paul Dempster's tackle box, or Wyatt Prunty's "Child's Christmas in Georgia, 1953," who mistook Handel's Oratorio to read "While shepherds washed their socks by night." There were photographs on the wall of
His infant older brother who never
Came home, two cousins lost in war, an uncle
Who captained his ship over the flat world's edge,
And one fleece-lined pilot lost years now inside
The stilled weather of a relative's box camera.