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The back of the book says that Sanders sets his work in "the contemporary urban milieu." Once in a while, this milieu takes concrete shape, as in the Shea Stadium sections of "The Warning Track" or the slow passage of "Dirigible" over Manhattan (27). But most of the time, Sanders moves in an indistinct fog of abstractions. "You know the type of letters people send from the coast," he writes in "Salt Airs" (40). In "1998" "the box scores of politics / . . . came down from on high like hang gliders / over the river" (29) – what coast, what river? There is scarcely a recognizable locale in the first two sections of Warning Track.
Which is only to say, of course, that the back of the book is incorrect. Sanders isn't exploring any known milieu, urban or otherwise. He explores the nature of truth-telling. A common motif here, in poems like "Occasional," "Irrecoverable," and "In Progress" (12-19) is for a poem to start with an intention to tell the truth, and then to get distracted – either by the horror of the task or by the minutiae of a stylized modern lifestyle. The truth remains unexpressed – not so much ineffable as not worth the bother of telling. There are several poems that evade representation in the same way: extended metaphors like "Prescription" (35) and "Reeds" (37) where the tenor of the metaphor is obscure. All we have is vehicle, Sanders seems to conclude: there are plenty of red, red roses around but our love isn't like any of them and we're not even sure what or who our love consists of.
Such stylized modern spaces, areas for thought if not for reportage, are endemic in contemporary verse, though they are not of recent origin. Almost the whole oeuvre of Wallace Stevens, after all, takes place in just such abstract settings. What a contemporary writer must do is make his exploration of these placeless places as interesting as those of Stevens, aurally and intellectually. Sanders is occasionally up to that challenge (a very high bar indeed).
In "Local History," for instance, set "many parlances ago" (44), a character, a "you," remarks that a house has "wings." Tenor, vehicle, literal, metaphoric, dead, alive? One thinks of Stevens's "Postcard from the Volcano": "We knew for long the mansion's look / And what we said of it became / A part of what it is." Sanders goes a step further. Not even the look of the mansion is stable:
Landscapes don't die, but the look of them does,
the flag still waving just as always in a familiar yard
seems out of place, as if suddenly it has no right
to be there
"You have no choice but to move forward," the poem's speaker tells us – "forward" here being into adult language, with its knowing and its critical self-consciousness that what it knows has been known by other people before. "But there's always that desire to be astonished" by metaphor brought back to life, especially by children. Or by poetry, as Tony Sanders can do at his best.
Tony Sanders. Warning Track. New York: Turtle Point Press, 2004.