Three poets in midlife, each of whom began writing in New England and was honored and established here, have been honorably discharged to universities in other regions: It's not an uncommon career story. The poetry of each of these poets, however, might be described as difficult, or at least edgy. They push the envelope of understanding. No one of these poets sounds like any other poet; each of them has gotten entangled in a particularly knotty puzzle, or has, perhaps, been confronted with a particularly perplexing life. But each one has maintained a powerful individuality in the sound, the feeling, and the quality of his or her work.
T. S. Eliot once wrote, "Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin." Lucie Brock-Broido's third book, "Trouble in Mind," displays, with near-Jacobean relish, 50 poems about death and dissolution that clothe themselves in garments of gorgeous language, dressed splendidly and bearing titles like "Girl at the Border of Her Own Allegory." Brock-Broido is director of Poetry at the School of the Arts at Columbia University. Dread is her single subject: lyric excitement and outrage that everything that now lives will someday, perhaps tomorrow, lie still. Her poems don't display pride in those emotions: One of a number of self-portraits is entitled "Self-Portrait With Self-Pity." But fear seems to rally her to get out her robe, put on her crown -- she has immortal longings in her. When facing the ultimate she even confesses to borrowing a number of titles from Wallace Stevens's discard pile as though costuming gloom with bright silks. Her poems show an extraordinary command of language and metaphor, stretching both elements to their outermost limits, even to the edge of sense. "I was there, at Ever, and it was mostly poignant and it was cruel./It was a subjunctive place where touch was so particular it hurt/Like a veterinarian's deep kiss." Life has turned out not to be a fairy tale after all, but language moves in as the catafalque of feeling. Brock-Broido's poems, with their richly caparisoned death wish, seem to discover a more vivid presence in language than in life.
Carl Phillips now teaches English at Washington University, in St. Louis. His seventh poetry collection, "The Rest of Love," is even more enigmatic in its reach than Brock-Broido's work. These laconic poems, bearing titles like "Fervor" and "All It Takes," are austere, spasmodic, plain to a fault, but seem intensely dedicated to a quest for divinity, or at least high hope, in the body of the beloved, as encountered in male carnality. The trappings of sensuality, however, are played down. "Here -- /your shirt, he said,/after. Lifting it. Bringing it//to me as if it were/not a shirt/but a thing immaculate,//or in flames, or --/with a single sword/positioned through it -- /a sacred heart." The love Phillips's poems speak of seems to take place outside society, stripped of the senses but still powered by desire, thrust, aspiration upward, ascension into a different order of reality. Only in the inner rhythms of his lines does the keenness of the poet's feelings make itself felt. No metaphors here, no fine trappings, no decoration whatever. "Words/to a childhood song/I thought I'd forgotten, but//parts come back. I lie down./I wear nothing at all."
Thomas Lux, born in 1946, is a little older than Brock-Broido and Phillips. His diaspora from his native New England has carried him to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he holds a named poetry chair and directs the Visiting Writers Program. "The Cradle Place" is his ninth full-length collection of poems, and they often take the shape of charms or fables, with titles like "Debate Regarding the Possibility of Eating Mermaids." Rueful and vexed, they give evidence that the poet has not only read a lot, but that his reading serves for more than university display or footnoting. He has mused upon his reading and taken nourishment from it. Even more unusually, Lux's poems are often blessedly funny. "Don't hurt your brain on this: if the arrow points left,/it's left you should go. Then/take your first right,/then the next right,/then another/right. If you head-on a cement-truck,/it is as it should be."
Lux's poems convey a sense of having been written not for self-expression or for the "overflow of powerful feelings," as Wordsworth posited, but rather in order to clear the air, to arrive at what Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion." In contemporary poetry such poems are the exception rather than the rule. The mixed feelings that clearly roil around in Lux's poems lose nothing for having been expressed in cantankerous everyday language and gain a good deal from steering clear of the literary. They even sound as though some human being might have uttered them as a way of guiding himself out of perplexity, of helping himself to the shore rather than thrashing out into deeper water.
Peter Davison's latest book of poems is "Breathing Room." He is poetry editor of the Atlantic.