Eighteen Stars
We list here all books --- including recorded books --- that our reviewers and editors have starred as being "Of Especial Merit" over the last twelve months.
The Gods Drink Whiskey:
Stumbling Towards Enlightenment in the
Land of the Tattered Buddhas

Stephen T. Asma
(Harper San Francisco)
Asma's affection for the Theravada culture is infectious. He seems to regard all the Khmers with deep love and respect; as a Buddhist, he accepts many, condemns few, living in now --- in his case, the day-to-day of Phnom Penh.

He's a merry soul, perhaps a young Buddha. (Buddha said that we are all Buddhas.) "You actually get what you most want by not wanting it anymore. In other words Buddhism taught me the oblique pursuit of happiness. The basic assumption is that when we get that one last thing --- the tank-sized SUV, the customized guitar, the trophy wife, the Gucchi bag --- we will finally be satisfied and fulfilled."

    But we are doomed, like a modern-day King Midas, to ruin every true happiness we have by touching it with our insatiable obsession. The life of hedonism cannot find its own termination --- it's a fire burning inexorably across an infinite tinder field.

The structure of The Gods Drink Whiskey is part of its virtue. We start off with the adventures of living in Cambodia, the street life, the sometimes scary Khmers, the violence of Pol Pot. Then, as we progress, we find more lessons on Buddhism, nicely phrased, nicely placed. Asma is a good egg. Makes you proud of Chicago wise-ass Buddhists, this one in particular.

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Don't Look Back
Karin Fossum
A good detective story is like good pornography. For one thing, it won't leave you alone. This death business spreads out, takes over the world. In the same way in Deep Throat or Tales from the Crack or Bad Wives everyone, no matter how ancillary, gets involved: the milkman, the UPS guy, the maid, the real-estate agent, the chimney-sweep. Sooner or later, they all have their clothes off and are humping away. It's a noisy concert (or consort) of ill-restrained, usually ill-shot, passion.

In Don't Look Back --- which, I hasten to add, is smut-free --- Annie Holland is left buck-naked after she gets bumped off out in the lovely Norwegian countryside at the side of a lake near Kollen mountain. Soon after a mysterious figure appears looking at us through windows. Then Annie's step-father commits suicide, an old case (death of an infant) is resuscitated, along with a ten-year-old rape conviction. Then someone beats Annie's boyfriend Halvor to within an inch of his life, and it is revealed that Halvor murdered his drunken, abusive father when he was fourteen. This death business spreads all over the place, like bodily fluids in Debbie Does Dallas and some of us find ourselves caught up in it, becoming a part of it, getting a bit fluid ourselves.

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Look at the Dark
Nicholas Mosley
(Dalkey Archive)
He appears on English and American television, mostly, apparently, to shock or irritate. At one point, he offers viewers the quasi-Zen view that "Americans needed terrorists for the sake of their sense of identity just as terrorists needed America for the sake of theirs." He is by trade an anthropologist.

The writer --- whose father, by the way, was the notorious Oswald Mosley --- is so sly that I would on occasion set Look at the Dark aside so I wouldn't finish it off in the dark. Towards the end, however, I noticed that he was piling up insights with such fervor that I was getting overloaded, the car heating up, the pistons getting noisy, steam pouring out of the bonnet (as we say in England).

Mosley is still worth it, largely because of the comic ideas that pop up, those Barthian stories within stories, thoughts within thoughts. Here we have a semi-retired chain-pulling professor who is writing a novel in which an Israeli and a Muslim are traveling together across North Africa. Why? Who knows?

When they reach the Dead Sea they want to cross it, but they are not exactly sure how it is to be done. They think of floating across but they are afraid of "turning turtle." Then Mosley, or his professor, or the reader, or perhaps all three, asks, quite sensibly, what does "turning turtle" mean. Will we --- you and I and the narrator and the narrator of the novel within this novel --- be facing up or facing down in the water?

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Caliban's Shore:
The Wreck of the Grosvenor
And the Strange Fate
Of Her Survivors

Stephen Taylor
It would be just another survivor story, but Caliban's Shore is classic, hard to lay down, harder to forget. Taylor knows how to keep us going. He did his homework, and he's a natural-born story-teller. And this one is a whopper.

And it isn't all shipboard. There is the follow-up on those who ended up in the "kraals:" the sailors who moved in with the "Caffirs," learned their customs, even, in one case, a sailor who ended up with a spouse:

    Not long after that Sipho's father accepted lobola of ten cattle for her. She was bathed in the contents of a cow's gall bladder, so that her family should be blessed with cattle, and after a feast on the rest of the animal --- to which Umbethi was not admitted --- she was delivered by a delegation to the umzi of her new husband.

Everything you want to know about the Grosvenor is here. Life in India and life on the "Indianmen" --- the ships that went between England and Madras or Calcutta in the late 18th century. All is told in high and sometimes funny, detail. For example, what sailors and passengers ate (chickens and cows and pigs were usually brought along on the afterdeck), what there was to drink --- plenty of hooch --- where the sailors came from, how they got to where they were, how the classes mixed (or didn't mix), what it's like to be six or seven months en route (typical for a journey to and from the colony and England), what it is like to be shipwrecked, what it's like for those accustomed to living aboard boat to be involved in a great (and endlessly painful) land journey.

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Santo Cilauro, et. al.
(Overlook Press)

    Vlatfvj [a Molvanian scientist] a has been widely acknowledged as the first scientists to hypothesize that, rather than the sun revolving around the earth, the earth in fact revolved around Neptune. ... [Later] he was called before a Papal inquiry in Rome where charges of heresy were dropped. He was, however, condemned to death as an idiot.

The drawings and photos are suitable to the text. Blurred out shots of rocky flatlands of stubble are, it is noted, "The Great Plains, recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status as a site of significant monotony."

Under a similar photograph (with goats): "Geographically, Molvanîa is a land of contrasts --- from its rocky, semi-barren hills to its rocky, semi-barren plains."

All in all, Molvanîa may soon be the place to visit for Americans seeking adventure, unusual vistas, and terminal diseases. The guide book offers maps, sidebars of comments from frequent visitors, and this unusual advice about the national currency:

    In time of war or economic crises garlic is often accepted as legal tender.

The guide notes that Molvanîa is far from backwards. There is a singular shot of a woman gesturing to what could be mistaken for an oven for bread-baking: "A worker at the Sjereso nuclear power plant proudly demonstrates the central reactor core, safely protected by her lead-lined shawl."

Finally, for fun-seeking oral practitioners, the town of Vajana offers continuing lectures at the Museum of Medieval Dentistry. "One visitor reported it was..."

    very informative but, at just over 150 minutes, perhaps a little too detailed, especially in the area of inflammatory gum disease.

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A Portrait of the Artist
As a Young Man

James Joyce
Jim Norton, Reader
Like a song, this version of Portrait can possess one. At times, we found ourselves listening to some of the disks over and over again, partially because of Norton's superb rendering. He's a man who can switch instantly between the proper English of the text, to the Gaelic-inflicted dialogue of Dublin, to the heavy voice of the old priests, to the high, light voices of the occasional woman.

In Portrait we find a man filled with profound certainties on questions of art, god, family. At the same time, Dedalus shows a heavy ambivalence over love and passion. Early on in Joyce's next novel, Ulysses, Buck Mulligan, Dedalus's friend, sings of the god he is trying to become. He does this by descending into slapstick: "his mouth open happily, his eyes, from which he had suddenly withdrawn all shrewd sense, blinking with mad gaiety. He moved a doll's head to and fro, the brims of his Panama hat quivering, and began to chant in a quiet happy foolish voice:"

    I'm the queerest young fellow that ever you heard.
    My mother's a Jew, my father's a bird.
    With Joseph the joiner I cannot agree,
    So here's to disciples and Calvary.

"He held up a forefinger of warning.

    If anyone thinks that I amn't divine
    He'll get no free drinks when I'm making the wine
    But have to drink water and wish it were plain
    That I make when the wine becomes water again.

"He tugged swiftly at Stephen's ashplant in farewell and, running forward to a brow of the cliff, fluttered his hands at his sides like fins or wings of one about to rise in the air, and chanted:"

    Goodbye, now, goodbye. Write down all I said
    And tell Tom, Dick and Harry I rose from the dead.
    What's bred in the bone cannot fail me to fly
    And Olivet's breezy . . .
    Goodbye, now, goodbye.

Portrait is not only a picture of a young man going to war with his country and his religion, it is, more cunningly, the story of a man at war with himself. It is a contrary war that can fill Stephen with self-rebuke. Throughout it all, there are hints of young Dedalus's true love: the "queer" sound he hears in the word kiss; his father calling him a "bitch;" his mother saying that he always did have a "queer mind..." In Joyce's immersion in the theory and practice of being a powerfully committed artist --- one who must famously endure "silence, exile, cunning" --- there is too the portrait of a man who has been torn apart by ambivalence over his own soul, if not his own passion.

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Being Right Here
A Dzogchen Treasure Text
Of Nuden Dorje Entitled
The Mirror of Clear Meaning

James Low
(Snow Lion)
Low's commentary on the Buddhist master is highly accessible, sensible, and fun. At times, he comes across as the Holden Caufield of Tibetan lore. He speaks of the aspiration many of us have to "be good and help other beings." But

    If we put others first after awhile we will start to hate them. It is one thing to think about saving all sentient beings, which is a very beautiful abstract concept. But if you are sitting in the puja [group meditation] and you are trying to meditate and the person next to you is bumping your knee or singing out of tune or banging the bell in the wrong rhythm you might feel some irritation.

"The dharma," he tells us, "is just so many nice fairy tales when we pretend that we are all going to be good people and help others but actually we spend our time taking care of ourselves, and our fantasies."

This is worthy commentary for those of us with more than a little interest in the reality of Buddhism, especially the "five poisons:" stupidity, anger, desire, jealousy, and pride. All five of which manage to fuddle up our lives, sometimes competing with each other to make our day-to-day even more miserable.

Our lives, Low tells us, are made up mostly of story-telling. "We are good at being seduced by narrative and seducing other people with narrative," he says. But the reality is that we don't even know ourselves. We don't know where our thoughts come from. We don't know where they are going. Hell, we haven't even seen our own faces. In a lifetime of being with it, we may catch a reflection of face, even a photograph, but it ain't the real thing. Our own faces will always be hidden from us. When they say, "it is as plain as the nose on your face," perhaps they are telling us it is neither plain nor simple.

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The Lives of the
Kings and Queens
Of England

Antonia Fraser
Wanda McCaddon,

(Audio Editions)
Elizabeth I sat on the throne but, alas, the "Virgin Queen" grew rather bald in her old age, and died without leaving a hair. The English brought in a rent-a-king from the House of Stuart of Scotland. James I was bad enough, always hiving off to his Scottish estates to shoot grouse. This brings up a question which has long vexed the English: what are grouse, exactly?

In any case, James II was even worse, refusing to invite Parliament along on the shoot, or even to tell it whether grouse are plural or singular, which has remained a puzzle to this day. Parliament responded by cutting the king short, about 4'9", and trying to run the country itself.

Government without any king at all provided too little news for the tabloids, so they appointed a military man, General Oliver Crumpet, to be Lord Protector. After a few years of Protecting, Oliver retired and spent his golden years developing the pastry which bears his name to this day.

In the meantime the English redeemed the Stuarts for a couple of kings, proving that they are very slow learners. Finally, they kicked out the last Stuart and brought in a Dutchman named William N. Mary who thought he was an orange.

The Dutch king proved to be the first success since Alfred the Great. This was because William spoke so little English that he couldn't boss anyone around. In fact, this was no doubt what made Alfred so great: he too, speaking only Sassenach, could not even order out for steak and kidney pie in English.

Realizing that simple unintelligibility is the secret of enlightened monarchy, the English then turned to the House of Hanover, a small German company that specialized in slow kings and gourmet pretzels. The first Hanoverian king, George I, brought along his own court composer, George Fredrick Handel, who lost his umlaut on the trip over and later wrote the famous animal-lovers' anthem "For We Like Sheep."

George I and his son George II never learned the English language, or indeed any language at all, and their subjects could never tell one of them from the other. George III attempted to learn the language, with the result that he went a little funny in the head and ended his days dressed as a pixie and living under a toadstool. In the course of losing his grip, he mislaid the American colonies, and they ended up elevating to power the likes of Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and several other Georges (not related to Georges I, II or III, but making just as much sense).

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Three Men in a Boat
(To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Jerome K. Jerome
Martin Jarvis, Reader
(Naxos AudioBooks)
Three Men in a Boat has survived these many years, I believe, because of its eloquent diction, dry wit, and a commonalty of frustration that you and I are bound to have with the simple accoutrements of everyday life. It also carries an underlying sweetness.

It was not Jerome K. Jerome's first book, nor was it his last --- but it was and is and presumably will always continue to be one of the most wonderful of writings in the English language.

The story is a simple one. The author and two friends determine to take a leisurely trip in a boat up the Thames from London to Oxford. There's Harris and George, the fox-terrier Montmorency, and the author, called here J.

As they are preparing their bags, the dog makes his presence known: "Montmorency was in it all, of course. Montmorency's ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted."

    He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

"Harris said I encouraged him. I didn't encourage him. A dog like that don't want any encouragement. It's the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that."

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Selected Poems
Pattiann Rogers
Many saw them taken away, crowded
in the wagons, chained together,
their oblong white faces peering
through the slats, eyebrows arched high
with bewilderment. All those joeys,
some were wearing cup-sized black
bowlers on their bald heads,
others topless top hats
resting on their ears, orange neckties
down to their knees. A few
blew on bubble pipes and pondered
the sky as the wagons bumped along.
One in baggy blue coat, a tin foil
star pinned to his chest, beat
the others repeatedly with his billy club balloon.

Their painted tears looked real.

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Lost Christianities
The Battles for Scriptures and
The Faiths We Never Knew

Bart D. Ehrman
Lost Christianities is astonishing, hard to put down. Like the bishops that created the "proto-orthodox" reading of Christ's life and works, Ehrman is a master of dialectic reasoning. You and I have been persuaded all these years that "The Scripture" is just that, a divine message from on high. Ehrman presents us with the myriad facts of other Christianities, those that fought the good fight and lost out --- often through propaganda, subterfuge, and outright lies propagated by those who held the vast power of the church in the first two or three centuries.

Especially grievous for Christians might be the loss of spiritual bonding taken from early believers, a unity of "charismatic communities, directed by the Spirit of God, who gave each member a special gift ... to assist them to live and function together as a communal body, gifts of teaching, prophesying, giving, leading..." In the early days of the monolithic religion, one that came to brook no dissent, the community was destroyed, as were gospels that did not meet the agenda of the mainstream Christians: Magnus, Theudas, Valentinus, Phibionites, Simon Magus and Thomas.

Orthodoxy triumphed. Those who opposed the party line were denounced as "heretics;" those who looked around and saw a world awash with sickness, greed, jealousy, poverty and woe --- who saw humanity alone in a "cesspool of misery" --- found their characters assassinated for not buying into the strange concept of a divine who, it was written, made the world, and --- despite the obvious poverty, disease, injustice, rapine and pillage --- "it was good."

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Out of Your Mind
Essential Listening from the
Alan Watts Audio Workshop

(Sounds True)
With the Hindus, Watts tells the audience, you are not born into the world, you are born out of it. You are thus, never a part of the universe, certainly not apart from it, unless you choose. There are the contraries --- Yin and Yang, the black and the white, two fishes, or the two lovers, tied together, the white with a black eye, the black with a white. Forever tied together, all part of the unity, the head and the tail. Look at a pair of scissors. On one side the cutting edge. On the other side, almost inviting, a pair of women's legs.

The concept of the psychological shadow, he would tell us (what some might call the "black" side of us) was Jung's "greatest creation," for it explained so much of human fears: prejudice, the fear of the dark from within, our own unknown.

Watts often speaks of visiting Jung, watching the swans on Lake Geneva: When a male and female go to make love, he tells us, neither knows which is male, which is female. So they fight, until they can figure out which is which.

"Are you in charge of your body?" Watt asks. What would happen if, when you got up in the morning, you had to turn on your liver and heart and digestive system? "Who is it that beats your heart?" he asks. "Is it not the same as the one who shines the sun?"

To be "holy" is to be whole. But why is there never a laughing Jesus? Kali, yes. In the Hindu play, Kali, the chaotic part of Shiva, finally destroys the world; he turns to leave, and on the back of his head lies the mask, the face of Brahama, the creator. It can be high comedy, those Hindi religious epics.

The stories the stories. If we were to transcribe them, I am quite sure we would never be able to make them jell. Watts was not linear, his thoughts ran together: "slippery" was one of his favorite words. There always seemed to be a perfect wholeness in what he said, but one could never find a center --- that Judeo-Christian point of supposed Truth that we western religionists had learned too early to grasp onto, holding on for dear life.

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Master of the Sea
José Sarney
Gregory Rabassa,

This is no simple doughty tale of a fisherman surviving in the cays and rocks and islands and loves and fantasies of Northern Brazil. And author José Sarney is no simple doughty writer who suddenly makes the world of dreams, fish, and madness live. For he is somewhat of a fantasy himself. O Dono do Mar was published in 1978; seven years later, Sarney was elected President of Brazil.

Eh? A great writer ending up as head of the sixth largest country in the world? (His was the transition government from a military dictatorship.)

Can you imagine the President of the United States being revealed to have written a lusty funny tale of fishermen and monsters and passion, the story of a man with a wife who at the end of the forty years with him can say, "Let's forget about time Cristório. It doesn't exist here and still we count it. Let's get rid of days and nights, months and years and leave everything as though it was only Sun and Moon. Time's something people get into their heads. They invent it."

Could you and I dream of having a president who could write like that, tell us that time is something people have just made up? Or that "He'd never thought that a woman would be able to have that taste and sweet smell, something that wasn't just possession but a feeling of vastness?"

Wouldn't having the leader of our ship-of-state write like that make us deliriously happy?

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Night Soldiers
Alan Furst
Read by George Guidall
(Recorded Books
Furst has made a specialty of the bitterly contested wars that have raged over time between Russia and Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia and Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Macedonia, into the obscure corners of that world: Syrmia, Bessarabia, Carpathia.

His novels are heavily peopled with wise, all-too-wise, all-too-brutal secret police, along with brutal Communists, Marlowe-like heroes, fiendish Turks, astute peasants, vile Fascists, wise aristocrats, powerful women ... always with a dollop of the American presence: the Americans usually fresh and optimistic, usually foolish.

Earlier, in the pages of RALPH, we have reviewed other Furst novels --- Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Red Gold. We have recommended them all. Night Soldiers is somewhat different, being not only longer, but the earliest of this series, having been published in 1988. It may be longer than most, but we found ourselves, as we listened to this tape, not wanting it to ever stop.

Thus Furst and I have been together now, going to and from work, for ten days, 18-½ hours, 13 cassettes. He tells a dandy story. I mean dandy, but not the walking stick, fancy-dress dandy.

No, this dandy grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won't let go until you, and it, done with each other, are exhausted. I arrive at my job, don't want to leave the car until they blow up the hotel, or until the beat-up old truck of the French partisans can make it down the mountain road, out of the hands of the SS, or until the very unlikely, very American girl meets up with Khristo, wonders about sending a letter home: "Hi, Mom. I'm in Madrid, participating in the Spanish Civil War. Yesterday I machine-gunned a German Messerschmidt and wounded the fighter pilot. Wish you were here."

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The Memory
Of Running

Ron McLarty
The Memory of Running turns into a beguiling, classic American on-the-road tale. It is never without a certain wiry tension with this semi-incoherent forty-two-year-old running from his past, running to his own conversion from a fat ne'er-do-well to one who learns of himself through others he meets on the road. The reader is always on edge --- we have affection for this galoot; we don't want him hurt and we are always wondering if he will make it without being overwhelmed by his sweet, sweaty innocence.

It's a tricky tale. It would be hard for most writers to make it jell. It works because McLarty knows pacing and a sense of fun and awe of what it's like to try to survive in a country like Smithy's. His phrasing is seldom sentimental; his writing is precise ... sometimes edges into poetry. This is our hero on the phone to Norma back East,

    Somewhere between the middle of Missouri and East Providence, Rhode Island, were our words. And the words hung on the line like soft pajamas. And we hung, too, even in the rain.

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in question

The Manor and
The Estate

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Joseph Singer,
Elaine Gottlieb, and
Herman Eichenthal,

(Terrace Books/
University of Wisconsin)
The fear I have is not that I won't be able to finish The Manor and the Estate, but that I will finish it too soon. It is an epic tale, told not in mock-epic style, but in proletarian-epic style. It concerns itself with the Calman family of Jampol, Poland, starting in the 1860s.

Maybe we should call it 'Yiddish Magical Realism.' The pages are overflowing with characters, weird, funny, sassy, greedy, hungry, pompous characters. As with most of Singer's writings, it spares no one: the rich, the fallen gentry, the poor, nor even some of the all-too-pious rabbis.

Singer has the magician's ability to capture --- a word snapshot --- inhabitants of that fantastic land in just a few words: a man named Zawacki arrives at the count's manor, and, during supper, tells of his fascination with autopsy. The count's daughter has to be excused from the table:

    "After awhile you get used to such things," he said. "Why, I sometimes had to boil human heads on my own stove."

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Sex the Measure
Of All Things

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
(Indiana University Press)
Part of the wonder of the book is Gathorne-Hardy's writing style. Here he is on Kinsey's agonized view of the Anglo-Saxon view of homosexuality:

    It is here, above all, sharpened obviously by autobiography, that there is passion in the Report. Kinsey had seen how these men had been harmed by society for their sexuality --- he had seen them in prison, blackmailed, made to feel guilt and anxiety, even made outcasts, and it had made him very angry. This never led him to falsify his figures; it did dictate his presentation.

It is not, ultimately, a happy story. Kinsey's investigation into and publication of a second study --- of female sexuality --- was far more controversial than the first report on males. This, plus the workings of the usual American Morality Police, and financial agonies --- his foundation support melted away in the early to mid-1950s --- made Kinsey somewhat paranoid, and more and more haunted in the months before he died in August of 1957.

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Our Post-Soviet
History Unfolds

Eleanor Lerman
(Sarabande Books)
Pity the poor poet who has to survive in this country. God knows how Ms. Lerman does it. What she finds in this world is a ruthless sense of wonder, whether it is shopping at the Food Lion, Oswald and the assassination theory, a view of "the large Magellanic Clouds," and a friend who is a member of the local bondage club ("Little thing that you are, I / understand the need to slap someone around.")

Would we ever run into such language, thoughts and sensibility with the American Poet Laureates, the ilk of Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, Robert Pinsky?

To an anonymous woman "standing on a terrace," Lerman says we should bring her a drink that "tastes of melon,"

    And as the sky hangs out its starry animals --- a fish, a bear
    a canny dog, tell her how long it took to form
    these constellations.

And always, there is a merry sense of anarchy, time in a beach town, where "Breakfast is thinking about making itself. And for the rest / of the night, the radio continues to say hello."

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