David Slavitt

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This review appeared in Bloomsbury Review last year.

Review of David R. Slavitt, The Seven Deadly Sins and Other Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 69pp., ISBN 978-0-8071-3403-0, $17.95.

Reviewing David Slavitt’s 20th book of poetry is enough to give any critic pause.  The author of more than 80 books, including fiction, translation, and nonfiction, Slavitt has written everything from an account of running for political office to literary novels to dozens of translations from classical authors to (under the pseudonym Henry Sutton) sex-and-drug-drenched potboilers such as The Exhibitionist.  The man is amazing.  Add to that the fact that Slavitt can be a distinctly prickly character.  A lifetime of being the smartest guy in the room has left him with a low tolerance for fools and critics, two terms he no doubt finds roughly equivalent. In  “The Critic,” a poem in this collection, Slavitt imagines a cat, an alter-ego of the poet, who finds her skills critiqued.  It’s the last thing the rodent-critic will ever do, for “she’ll rip him apart / and leave his head on the rug like a ghastly rosebud.” [p.10]
Yet all is not fierce in this collection.  These are the poems of a man in his seventies with a clear vision of his approaching end,
                                    . . . the waking truth of aging,
            common to everyone, the depressing secret
            nobody tells us, not even our parents –
            out of kindness, perhaps, for they know that sooner or later
            we each come to this place and learn for ourselves.
                                                            (“Fog) [p. 15]
In this book, Slavitt visits a dying friend in the hospital, celebrates the life of an Holocaust survivor recently dead, and sees a metaphor in piles of plowed snow “that do what we do, lose our good looks with age, / diminish, turn brindle, almost black, and ugly” (“Snowbanks”) [p. 49]  He is sometimes frightened by the prospect of death.
            I know I shall have to go in a little while.
            Like a child making bargains about bedtime,
            I want a few minutes more.  Just a few minutes.
                                                            (“Getting Late”) [p.50]
The acknowledgment of mortality, however, can give a precious sweetness to life, and Slavitt includes in this collection two of the loveliest poems of married love I’ve read in a long time: one, “Touch,” about lying in bed with his arm resting on his wife’s flank; the other, “Ave Verum Corpus,” about the steam-blurred vision of his wife luxuriating in a hot shower.
Slavitt can also be laugh-out-loud funny.  In “Nu, A Sestina,” he crafts a poem with the following six end words: schmooze, maven, bagel, mensch, tush, and chutzpah.
The use of rhyme, frequent in the poems of Slavitt’s earlier years, has largely disappeared in these late works.  He still writes sonnets, but as a rhymeless form.  His iambic pentameter, the meter common to most of his poems, sometimes loosens to the mere hint of itself, almost prosy, as the caesura floats freely from line to line.  These are the poems of a man who has written so much that he thinks in blank verse without worrying about keeping the beat.
Slavitt has won a few awards and has taught at quite a few institutions, but he’s had a peripatetic career.  I suspect he’s pissed off several people too many, and his facility and fecundity doubtless make him suspect in academia.  Yet if he’s not eventually accounted one of the finest poets of his generation, something’s wrong.
Slavitt ends his hospital poem lamenting his inadequacy as a comforter, but consoles himself.
             . . . that’s what life is, and you fumble through it.
            You do what you can, accepting the limitations:
            clumsy, brief, almost dumb, but you were there.
                                                            (“Visiting Hours”) [p. 26]
Slavitt is neither clumsy nor dumb, but he was indubitably there, and his poems will endure to prove it.