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    ‘Music for Porn’ by Rob Halpern and ‘As Long as Trees Last’ by Hoa Nguyen

    In “Music for Porn,” Halpern aims at “writing something history can’t write about itself.”
    Lee Azus
    In “Music for Porn,” Halpern aims at “writing something history can’t write about itself.”

    The title of Hoa Nguyen’s third full-length collection, “As Long as Trees Last,’’ neatly condenses one of her finest skills as a poet — a knack for rendering our certainties uncertain. What our lives permit us to perceive as givens, Nguyen reveals as mere conditions, inextricably tied to and guided by greater forces — from the economy to the environment, from the Mayan predictions to the menstrual cycle, from the weight of history to the burden of the future.

    Somehow, she does all this hard work very delicately. She’ll throw in a national debt figure here, an unemployment percentage there, or she’ll spill oil and wish it out to sea. The symmetrical “US” flickers away in the center of the book like a television left on overnight: “More TVs than people/ More TVs than people.” There’s a void between those systems that shape life and the shape of our lives — Nguyen seeks to illuminate it.

    “Countrywide has collapsed/ and carefully I can shove you/ Arroyos where there were none/ Try to feel/ with a bitten-off paw/ Where the troubles are.’’ (Hyena Face)

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    Nguyen has a way of arranging an idea that lets you walk freely through it, as though a deft staff were opening doors for you along the way — which certainly doesn’t mean you can’t get lost. While her lines seem to enact our darting contemporary attentions with their sharp turns and often frayed syntax, she keeps cool and contemplative; her poems make landscapes of anxieties.

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    “Mr. & Mrs T. Bloody Mary mix/ above the Sierras and near/ the most toxic concentration basin/ a former buffalo wallow/ My soil: alluvial/ the fertile where my mother birthed/ The cab driver saying/ I should have more children/ and me wanting seriously to be/ fifteen people all at once.” (“Ridiculous Couplets”)

    Her poems ache for rain — you sometimes get the sense they’re so spare for lack of it. And while something ominous constantly feels looming just out of view — whether a rainstorm or a financial collapse — the collection is suffused with spring. Birds and chinaberries are everywhere — though the latter’s decorous, poisonous fruit feels emblematic of our toxic culture.

    “As Long As Trees Last” offers a skillful capture of the struggle between the inner experience and outside influence — turns out that private place we call the personal is actually quite penetrable.

    Rob Halpern digs a different trench through similar concerns in his powerhouse third collection, “Music for Porn” (which comes wrapped in brown paper to lend its cover collage some discretion). For Halpern, the private isn’t just porous, it has been fully occupied.

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    The body — the very vessel of our most intimate experience — has become reduced to a unit in the larger mechanism of history. War, empire, and power corral and control us, and the body is the frontier of resistance; Halpern’s is fully a poetics of the body — of embodiment, “the spirit and the beef.”

    “Music for Porn” is a sweeping, varied, ambitious work, as indicative of Halpern’s diverse array of poetic chops as of his fearless pursuit of ideas that (frequently) cross into territory that can’t be reprinted here. Split into nine sections that leap between dense poetic prose, deceptively airy lyrics, and loose sketches that lay the critical framework for the collection, Halpern’s inquiry is thrilling in its depth and unsettling in its resultant darkness.

    “Whatever militates against our dreamier pleasures I have/ Become the same meaning utopia’s crude petroleum jolts/ Coded rubber heat singing things that turn blind eyes to waste/ Erasing worlds being serial resolves my fate in theory I think.” (“Into this Suspended Vacuum”)

    Central to his exploration is the figure of the soldier. In an interview with the Poetry Foundation, Halpern described this figure as “an obstruction in sense as the poems struggle to imagine what a demilitarized world might feel like.” For Halpern, this militarization extends beyond the thrust of empire and into our most private desires. The soldier — traced from Virgil to Whitman to Genet and to the present — represents “two kinds of ‘fire’ — amorous and martial.” In his “Notes on Affection and War,” he puts it plainly: “Even while prohibiting it, military culture stimulates homoerotic affection in just proportion with a paranoid disavowal of its usefulness.”

    A section of poems titled “Obscene Intimacies” casts hues of Whitman and Shelley across chilling details taken from Iraq War site reports, and Halpern registers the complexity and intensity of war as both coldly clinical and devastatingly human: “the army won’t/ Reveal details of autopsy but a spokes/ - person sings of a body badly decom/ - posed nature’s naked loveliness buried/ Then exhumed for examination a heart/ Made callous by many blows.” Elsewhere, he observes “the market’s bad effect subliming in a soldier’s blood.” (“This Pathos of Distance, Being A Thing Inside Him Once I Felt”)

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    But Halpern’s critique extends beyond protest poetry. Throughout “Music for Porn,” Halpern seeks to “lend a name to realer sensations, the feel of finance coursing thru my veins”; elsewhere he puts this as “writing something history can’t write about itself.” And while his poems’ proximity to the political is intentional, it’s never indulged — Halpern’s lines are frank, bold, gritty, and fleshy, but he’s capable of extreme delicacy.

    “yr clover grows over everything. it all fades out/ beyond the true, my one unwritten sentence, this forest of dying/ birds. would that you were only meat” (“This Evolve, Bearing No Resemblance to Love”)

    When, in a section titled “Imaginary Politics,” he refers to sex as a “convergence of lyric and ballistics,” Halpern could well be reviewing his own book.

    AS LONG AS TREES LAST

    By Hoa Nguyen

    Wave, 88 pp., paperback, $16

    MUSIC FOR PORN

    By Rob Halpern

    Nightboat, 180 pp., paperback, $17.95

    Michael Andor Brodeur is assistant arts editor at The Boston Globe. He can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com and followed on Twitter at @mbrodeur.