Study for the World's Body

Study for the World’s Body

Reviews of Study for the World’s Body

This dazzling collection opens with the cinematic "Slow Dance" from St. John's ( Hush ) first book, and ends with the brilliantly conceived title poem, an extended meditation on the "body of desire," placed alongside a skeletally-shaped elegy for a friend. Both poems use dance as a central metaphor for the movement of each individual through life, framing the volume's overarching concerns with the tensions between body and spirit, desire and fulfillment and the "balance of the promise with what lasts." The metaphor is an apt one for St. John's own evolving grace and style as a poet who invents richly textured narratives out of episodic detail, collage-like imagery and long rhythmic lines to create the effect of movement and suspension, not unlike a complexly choreographed dance. The book's final sections, featuring the poet's new work, confirm St. John's status as a poet of impressive aesthetic vision who continues to push the boundaries of narrative, language and imagination as he explores the "momentary resurrections" of human existence, "The stilled body / Giving the illusion / That it might be rising / Quite on its own.

Desire, in both its erotic and spiritual manifestations, has been the central theme for St. John, who brings together the most evocative poems from his celebrated debut, Hush, and three subsequent collections-The Shore , No Heaven, and Terraces of Rain: An Italian Sketchbook--with new work: ten pieces that explore the moral dimension of his subject and the long title poem (given its own section as "Coda"), in which he writes of "The corpses of lovers slowly walking/Across that sun-&-sinlit landscape/Of the world's body, calling out/To one another in those songs/By which we name a history, pale/& personal, or otherwise." St. John's is a highly personal vision, rendered her in language that resonates. Highly recommended.

“David St. John, who teaches at the University of Southern California and whose new book was nominated for the National Book Award, is a gorgeous writer. This has been true of his work from the beginning, but I think even those who have followed him closely will be taken by surprise when they read "Study for the World's Body." It is a selection of poems, and gathers work from St. John's four previous collections, beginning with the stylish and much-praised "Hush" of 1976, adds to it the best of "The Shore" (1980), "No Heaven" (1985), "Terraces of Rain" (1991) and concludes with a final section of newer poems. This last section is called "Merlin," and it is what is likely to surprise St. John's readers, new and old.
Because it is not just gorgeous, it is go-for-broke gorgeous. It is made out of sentences, sweeping through and across his meticulous verse stanzas, that could have been written, for their velvet and intricate suavity, by Henry James. But that doesn't quite describe them, since they are also full, almost past ripeness, of a floating, sometimes painful, sometimes wistful, intense, dark and silvery eroticism that feels like it comes out of some cross between late 19th-Century symbolist lushness--vague and specific at once--and the kind of '60s and '70s European film that talked about eroticism with a wistfulness so intense that it seemed experience and the melancholy recollection of experience were the same thing. Mallarme and Eric Rohmer, perhaps. Or Rilke and Michaelangelo Antonioni.

- Robert Hass