On The Shelf

The new Identity, fattened a bit by age and apparent prosperity, consists of a set of poems by Lyon Phelps, Harvard Class Poet of some time back, who recently gave a reading at the Poet's Theatre sitting on a stool in the middle of a brass bedstead.

The poems on the whole make interesting reading, and are probably more competent than the usual Identity fare. The two most polished are among the simplest in design, An Old Song and Correspondances. In these Mr. Phelps evokes a sort of nostalgic atmosphere which appears to a greater or lesser degree in most of the other pieces, but which is most effective in these two. There are a few more of these simple poems which for some reason don't quite come off; one which vaguely tries to describe the creative process, somewhat like MacLeish's Ars Poetica, and is similarly feeble, and another which uses love and the sand and the sea to point out a slightly commonplace bitter-sweet moral.

Mr. Phelps' greatest asset, and it is a formidable one, is his ability to come up with striking images, and create effective moods. In his best poems this ability is exploited, and so the simple lyrics are the most effective, and those of a more didactic, or purely symbolic nature tend to fall flat. Mr. Phelps also has a tendency to use slight inaccuracies in syntax, under the impression that they are eminently subtle and thus convey a nuance which could not be obtained any other way. Needless to say, the subtlety remains in the poet's mind, somewhat beyond the reach of the reader, and so phrases such as "the chairs obliquely ignore each other" annoy rather than enlighten.

Two of the most amusing pieces in the chapbook (Chaucerian jargon for this sort of collection) are not really supposed to be taken seriously. Cast From a Coffee House Comedy and Verbatim II have some funny lines, and some neat images, but lack coherence. Also in Cast From a Coffee House Comedy, the poet rhymes quartz with schmaltz, which is enough to stop any reader right there. The prose poem Battery Manhattan again has its brief moments, but is cluttered with incomplete sentences which have no function, and forced quaintness of expression. Mr. Phelps does however call the cry of a sea gull "Crake," which is amazingly accurate.

Along with the poetry, Identity features illustrations by Kaffe Fassett (who, says the accompanying blurb, loathes milk that boils over.) Mr. Fassett's drawings, while sometimes competent, look somewhat like a cross between Aubrey Beardsley and Basil Wolverton, and add little to the total effort.