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"The Body Electric" is a superb compendium of contemporary American poetry. "Nothing Like it in the World" is the latest from historian Stephen E. Ambrose. 

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The Vitality of Verse
"Books shall speak us/ when we are gone, like soft, dark scarves in April." Those lines are from the poet Ted Berrigan in one of his unrhymed sonnets that appeared in The American Poetry Review. One hopes "The Body Electric," edited by Stephen Berg and others (Norton, $35), an anthology of the best poems from APR, will become such a book.

This is a superb compendium of contemporary American poetry — eclectic, often daring and always interesting. All the heavyweights are represented: John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, W.S. Merwin, John Berryman, A.R. Ammons, etc. This tabloid-sized journal, founded in 1976, has gradually emerged as one of the preeminent venues for contemporary verse. Nobel winners such as Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heany and Derek Walcott appear in this selection, but there are also works by poet-maudit Charles Bukowski and the patron saint of Beat, Allen Ginsberg.

As a fan of what can be loosely described as "alternative poetry," I can't help noting that the Irish laureate, Heany, only has four poems included, while Ginsberg has eight. I'd like to think that disparity is as much from national pride as an allegiance to the avant-garde by the editors.

Local readers might be happy to see that three Virginia poets make the cut: Charles Wright, Rita Dove and Carolyn Forche. It's gratifying to see so many women given equal billing — not just standard poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Denise Levertov, but more contemporary poets like Jorie Graham and Dove (a poet's name if I ever heard one!).

In his illuminating introduction, Harold Bloom notes that while none of the postwar American poets, in his view, quite measure up to the previous generation that included Stephen Crane and Robert Frost, he still believes in the vitality of our verse from reading the selections in "The Body Electric." I think that our greatest bard, Walt Whitman — from whom the editor derived the title of this fine anthology — would agree.

— Joseph Lewis



Building the Railroad
While the Republic was being splintered by volatile issues that would later culminate in the Civil War, an audacious plan to unite America commercially was shaping the idea of a transcontinental railroad.

In his new book, "Nothing Like it in the World" (Simon&Schuster, $28), Stephen E. Ambrose, the renowned historian with a keen awareness of American events, objectively relates the intricate motivations of the men who made the development of this railroad a superlative undertaking. An additional incentive for its construction was the competition of two companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads.

The first whisper of an idea for a railroad was in 1861. Grenville Dodge, a seasoned railroad engineer, approached a fledgling politician, Abraham Lincoln, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with territorial and topographical maps suggesting that this town would be an ideal starting point. Lincoln's interest and support was a catalyst for the birth of the Union Pacific Railroad when the Pacific Railroad Act was passed in 1862. This act authorized a committee of zealous men of prominence and wealth, appointed by now-President Lincoln, to raise the necessary capital for the railroad that would begin in Omaha, Neb.

The Central Pacific Railroad was the brainchild of Theodore Judah, a confident, combative surveyor, who presented an ironclad case for starting a railroad in Sacramento, Calif., in 1862. Convincing four of the richest investors and speculators in California, a group headed by Leland Stanford, that this enterprise would be lucrative, Judah raised funds through tirelessly lobbying and selling land grants and bonds.

The cooperation of Mormon Brigham Young, who wanted Salt Lake City to be a major tourist center, infused a potent energy into both railroads, which would eventually unite in Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869

'Nothing Like it in the World" is a readable story of a project which would transform the American landscape. This book does justice to a unified American spirit that transcends any class or social division.

— Bruce Simon



Heads-Up:
For local poets who are interested in reading their work, here is a short list of places to consider:
Barnes&Noble, Libbie Place. Third Tuesday of each month, 7:30 p.m. Featured poet and open mike. 282-0781
Border's, 9750 W. Broad Street. Last Tuesday of each month, 8-10 p.m. Open mike. 965-0733
Puddin'Head's, 1211 W. Main St, Friday, Oct 13, Nov 17, Dec. 8. 355-2739
Shockoe Espresso,104 Shockoe Slip. Second and fourth Sundays, 2-4 p.m. Open mike. 648-3734.



The New York Times obituary for Dick Francis' wife tells us that Francis credits her with his research, and editing. He says that she refused to be listed as a co-author, but he thinks he will now not write another book. A loss for horse and mystery lovers!

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