Books, Briefly

Rubicon by Steven Saylor

(St. Martin's Press, $23.95) "These days it profits a man to go towhatever lengths he can to avoid trouble," observes citizen-detective Gordianus the Finder, as he ponders how best to remove the strangled corpse of young Numer-ius Pompeius from his home's otherwise tranquil garden. This murder in Rome could hardly have occurred at a more troublesome time. It's 49 BC, and Julius Caesar, fresh from conquering Gaul and hungry to assume leadership of the Roman state, has provoked a civil war by marching his forces across Italy's Rubicon River and south toward the capital. Pompey the Great, opposition head of the Roman Senate, is set to flee with his army, leaving the city unprotected and in chaos. But first he demands that Gordianus solve the slaying of Numerius, who was Pompey's cousin and prot駩. And just to guarantee a vigorous investigation, Pompey takes Gordianus' slow-witted son-in-law away as a hostage. Part whodunit, part panoramic historical novel, Rubicon is the seventh installment in Steven Saylor's Gordianus series, and one of the most expertly executed of that lot. It finds the gumshoe (er, gumsandal?) settling into his early sixties, now the patriarch of a growing family, yet with his wit and wits as sharp as ever. Gordianus hardly breaks a sweat figuring out how Numerius' demise is related to the factionalism wrenching Rome asunder, and it may even be linked to information the dead man had regarding a traitorous conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. But to learn more, the sleuth must consult with lawyer-philosopher Cicero and enlist the aid of Cicero's conniving secretary; survive a hazardous trek to the coastal town where Pompey intends to make his last stand; and take desperate actions that belie his "pretensions to moral superiority." Saylor's books are delightfully rampant with fact-founded ribaldry, political treachery, and arcane social prejudices, all of which make you wonder why the hell you didn't pay more attention to Roman history in school. The author occasionally lapses into jarring modern slang ("Pompey will be mightily pissed"), and Gordianus' unexpected solution to Numerius' killing will likely cause prim mystery purists to holler "foul." But for the most part, Rubicon is a deftly written and satisfying balance of storytelling with scholarship. And Saylor's re-creation of classical Rome—complete with tomb-lined rural thoroughfares, bodyguards who snack on whole heads of garlic ("claiming it gives them strength"), and fleshy eunuch bartenders—is so vivid you suspect that he must be secretly channeling some toga-draped ancient to get his details right. J. KINGSTON PIERCE House of Days by Jay Parini (Holt, $13) Parini produced his celebrated biography Robert Frost: A Life a year after his fourth book of poetry, House of Days. Frost's influence on Parini makes this collection a pleasure in itself as well as a window on the genius of the master, whose apparently simple, homespun verse half-conceals a wily critic bent on showing us our complacencies and self-deceptions. Parini leans more toward acceptance than critique. His love of nature mingles with Frost-like hints of mortality, but he carefully orchestrates any dissonances. Parini makes claims carefully, too, because "the weak foundations/of all human knowledge make one shudder/to assume too much" ("A Conversation in Oxford"). Yet his music is confident, by far the best thing in the book, with its "water-blistered rocks/and savvy streams, the fresh-cut grass/and forests with their arms around the wind" ("Reading Emerson in My Forty-Seventh Summer"). And the title of the volume is a telling paradox. It is not merely the book's lovely name; the "house of days" is the book itself, well built yet passing under the eye as fluidly as pages turn; and it is the structure of a life, dissolving, as one lives it, into time. If this wordplay reminds us of Frost's mischief—making claims while making us question them—the metaphor itself is sweeter than anything in Frost's work, where sonorousness is suspect because it implies a false assurance just asking for a skeptic's stare. Still, Parini's poems do reflect Frost's intricacies of wonder, fear, rue, irony, and insight—a thread at a time. JUDY LIGHTFOOT On Love by Edward Hirsch (Knopf, $22) It's a brave man who publishes earnest descriptions of himself in moments of erotic passion. Written down, the act of losing one's self in the beloved seems the opposite of self-forgetful, as if the lover had brought his Thinkpad along to bed. Hirsch's book skirts this danger with the device of dramatic monologue: imagined lectures on love from Diderot, Emerson, Wilde, Hurston, and 20 others, in which character quirks are the speakers', not the poet's. Hirsch's use of pantoum, villanelle, and sestina forms, which repeat lines or end-words, is apt as well as delightful because repetition is common in public speeches. It also reinforces Hirsch's theme of transformation through love. That is, in a poem the same word in a new context takes on new meaning, enacting the mystery of change: The repeated word moves a poem onward while seeming to stand still, just as a person transformed by Eros can still seem the same. Of course, the risk of repetition is bathos, the prosiness we read poetry to escape—exhibited by the villanelle "Ocean of Grass" in Part 1. Indeed, Part 1's more personal poems are less successful. When Hirsch speaks on love in his own voice, his ideas can be thin or muddled, and his language inflated or trite. An embarrassing example is "Husband and Wife," in which he and his mate "tossed" and "burst" in "ecstasy" amid "thunder," "wild flood," "lightning," "a sword over Eden's gate"—enough! As one of Hirsch's speakers ("Paul Valery") advises, "It is not always good to be—only oneself." JUDY LIGHTFOOT

 
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