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Book Recommendations

Happy birthday, David: Jeannine Hall Galley's review of "When a Woman Loves a Man"

When a Woman Loves a Man
by David Lehman
Scribner, 2005
When a Woman Loves a Man, Lehman’s best book of the last ten years, will shock few regular followers of his work. After all, we don’t read Lehman for his grand poetic ambitions, or his electrifying experiments in style, although this collection showcases Lehman’s deft hand with a sestina and an abecedarian. We read David Lehman for a particular kind of poem: humorous, at once upbeat and wistful, with a certain in-the-know, New York School-reminiscent cheekiness. This book manages to say something meaningful about love, pain, and prejudice, all in Lehman’s inimitable, whispering-something-amusing-into-your-ear voice.

The title of this book, taken from a song originally written and recorded by Billie Holliday (beloved of New York School poet Frank O’Hara and immortalized in “The Day Lady Died,”) tips us off that Lehman is referencing the New York School poets, about whom he wrote The Last Avant Garde. These poets, in an act of rebellion against poetry about statues, ancient mythology and history, and other “classical” objects, included references to real people, pop culture artifacts, and a world outside of the poet and his poem.

The book is organized into four sections: the first and second wittily examine relationships and philosophies, the third concentrates on poetry, and the last section consists of the somewhat expected, but nonetheless rather touching, post-9-11 New York-oriented pieces, as well as thoughtful pieces on other political topics. Individual poems from this collection were written and published as far back as 1998, so it is not, as were his previous two books, a snapshot of “a year in the life of Lehman.” In some ways this collection is more attentively organized, less random in feeling than either The Daily Mirror or The Evening Sun. In those two books, there was sometimes a feeling of too many “incidental” poems; in the worst cases, you could feel the effort of the poet going through his “daily poem” exercise. Some “poems of the date” are included in the fourth section, but they seemed related to the rest of the section. The writing throughout When a Woman Loves a Man is clever and charming; Lehman devotes much of the energy of the book to writing in received forms. There are multiple sestinas, a difficult form for a poet to master and not be mastered by; some are more successful than others. In an interview with the online journal Drunken Boat, back in 2001, Lehman talked a little about the formation of the poems that would end up in this book: "While I continue to write poems in the manner of The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun, I am also working on poems that are very different. I've been writing in various forms: sestinas, sonnets, a prose poem in the form of a corrections column in a newspaper, a prose poem in the form of a story shorter than fifty words, a series of twenty-six-word poems that recapitulate the alphabet. There's also a series of biographical poems. So far I've completed three: on Napoleon, Wittgenstein, and Freud."
For the rest of this review from Smartish Pace, click here.

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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