The Cheer

Knopf, $7.95

What readers miss in most contemporary poetry is the sense of an ending, a conclusion to thought, a culminating cadence that leaves them higher than they began. Meredith is one of the few poets writing today who can exalt, and he does so through wit.
“The cheer,/reader my friend, is in the words here, somewhere./Frankly, I’d like to make you smile,” he announces in an envoi to a collection that contains all his short poetry of the last ten years: “Words addressing evil won’t turn evil back / but they can give heart.” Meredith believes in civilization, in society with all its corruptions. “Some normal excellence, of long accomplishment,/ is all that can justify our sly survivals.” So he celebrates the random orderings of society by speaking, paradoxically, of land, stone, trees, and, very often, rivers. He enters the paddock of society, the family, the state, without ever losing a sense of the feral realities outside it.
Poems in The Cheer, unlike those in many books of poetry, are addressed to people —poets, philosophers, presidents, and private citizens. Perhaps as a sign of humility, the book is heavily epigraphed by passages that prepare us to view the challenge of human fate as a game that can be smiled at, win or lose, because we can understand the rules. The order is not the order of decorum, but one created by challenge. “He told us / it is impossible to imagine our own deaths,/ he told us, this may be the secret of heroism.”
Meredith’s expression seems to take on the fixed smile of incantation, and it’s a rare poem that does not leave the reader with his own smile of familiarity, a little miracle of transformation, like “a jewelled/seafarer bringing water to the parched plain.”