William Corbett

Review of The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight
(Poetry Project Newsletter 185. Summer 2001)

            Charles North’s The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight marks the return to publishing of Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry.  It is an exceptional book by a poet whose work has leapt to the fore the past five years.  Following upon his selected prose No Other way (1998) and his New and Selected Poems (1999), The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight confirms that North is one of the top poets of his generation. 

            North’s immediate forebears are Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and James Schuyler.  He honors them by forming new combinations from what he has learned from their work.  North is adept in many forms both conventional and original to him.  Within these forms he has great range and effortlessly moves from the concrete to the abstract.  He is a poet of improvisation and discovery. He has a sense of humor, embraces beauty for its own sake and has a gift for short poems that grow large in the reader’s mind.  Indeed, all of North’s poems effloresce.  If he has a subject this line from “Note on Fog” is one way of putting it: “The utter disorientation, seeing things and not seeing things.”  At the heart of North’s poems two and sometimes more things happen at once.

            At forty-eight pages The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight recalls the “slim volumes” of yore.  Since North writes slowly these might be all the poems he had on hand, but his book has an interior design.  North arranged his poems so that variations on the Richard Rodgers song “Younger than Springtime” thread through the book.  He counters Rodgers’s “Gayer than laughter are you / Sweet than music are you” with “Smarter than morons—faster than slowpokes—“  North’s oxymorons accentuate the doubling in his work as they sustain an echo in this book, one that reminds the reader of how much fun it is to read North’s poems.

            Fun is a risk North has long been willing to take.  His “lineups” are the best game invented by a poet since—well, I’ve wracked my brain and not found anything remotely in the same ballpark.  They are incomparable both for what they are and for their refusal to wink at the reader.  North is a poet able to deliver pleasure without assuring us that it will help us build strong bodies in twenty-seven marvelous ways.  He is confident that gorgeousness is good and so is plain speech.  For him it’s not a matter of one or the other but of having it both ways.  North does not need a reason for what he does beyond the nature of his imagination and the demands of the poem under hand.  The core value of North’s work is in the freedom with which he operates.  His “Risks inside art” become exhilarating risks for his readers.  It is good to read a book and be delighted by it, to feel one’s imagination engaged for its own sake, to get the sort of workout that poetry alone gives.  “A poem is a pheasant,” wrote Wallace Stevens.  The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight has exactly that sort of presence.