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February 19, 2008

Booksmart: Reviews

I Speak of the City: Poems of New YorkEdited by Stephen Wolf. Columbia University Press; 352 pgs., $24.95.    Thomas Merton writes aphoristically that New York is Rich as a cake, common as a doughnut/Expensive as a fur and crazy as cocaine in his poem “Hymn of Not Much Praise for New York City,” included in the new anthology “I Speak of the City.”    The collection is far and away the valedictorian of its sparse desert of city-associated anthologies. Timeless poetry compendiums are dangerous to amass. A susceptibility to boredom and relegation to the better-over-decent category usually ruins them. Many poetry omnibuses fall prey to their editor’s subjective choices. The objective vigor with the selection here is as good as it gets.    Stephen Wolf, the book’s editor, was born in Chicago, holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois, and, as a young adult, moved to the Lower East Side to teach at various colleges in the city. His story is similar to 19th century Louisville poet Charles Hanson Towne. Towne sings New York as the jealous city that lures him with its homely seduction in the poem “Manhattan.”     The poems that drive the anthology out beyond its regular breadth are Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Brooklyn Bridge” and Federico Garcia Lorca’s “New York.” Other shining moments are Miguel Piñero’s “A Lower East Side Poem,” Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Cloisters” and May Swenson’s “Riding the A,” as well as Langston Hughes’ “Good Morning.”     Every American city has a space in the immense waters of artistic stimulation. In those waters, New York is the whale shark, which is made clear by the pieces in this book. —Ken WalkerThe Book of Other PeopleEdited by Zadie Smith. Penguin; 304 pgs., $15.    If character is destiny, then this paperback would seem destined for greatness. Renowned young novelist Smith asked a couple dozen of her peers to each submit one short story that serves as a character profile. The contributors should collectively be capable of a powerhouse: Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, A.M. Homes, Edwidge Dandicat and the literary pedigrees don’t slack off much from there. And the proceeds are going to a literacy foundation, so why isn’t this book practically pre-sold for a full-blown recommendation? Because, whereas there’s almost inevitably some variation in quality to an anthology, here the range is staggering.     Simple prose sketchwork is deposited next to, say, the twisty study in contrast and commonality that George Saunders delivers. His “Puppy” actually breaks the rules of the anthology (the puppy isn’t the protagonist — it just happens to be the fulcrum of the plot), but it’s probably the best here. Mind, others who stretched the rules didn’t do so well. Toby Litt’s “The Monster” is a study in “otherness” that resembles a class exercise in an MFA program. It should be noted, though, that Dave Eggers is poignant and precise is his bit of the fantastic.     Three stories include some graphic content, and this book would probably have been much better each time a fully realized clever piece was put in place of some New Yorker-ready portrait of quiet desperation. But here’s a qualified recommendation: Those who are just starting to write may find a wealth of lessons in a collection that displays character development amid such a full continuum. —T.E. Lyons