Emily Dickinson told us that poets should tell the truth but tell it slant, in the belief that coming toward something from the side, unexpectedly, may reveal more of its reality. A variation on this might be that poets — or some of them, anyway — see the world, but see it slant. When the normal is seen just slightly askew, it can be wildly absurd, puzzling, amusing, or occasionally luminous. Robert Hershon is a poet who sees the world turned ever so slightly toward the absurd and the fabulous. In his new book, Calls from the Outside World, Hershon writes about those moments that come alive under his observation and in the light of his humor. In "Messiah on Varick Street" the poet sees a "man in a gray suit" who "eats his lunch in Sounds of Brazil/He seems to be an ordinary citizen/until the light catches his earring/and makes it dazzle." But then the poet realizes that the man is not wearing an earring. One bright shaft of light is penetrating the city, moving through the window, and marking this particular man:

This one, this one!
It's the sign from heaven
all America awaits
Divinity! Take my life,
my wife, my wide-eyed babies!
I will run home to get you
my life savings
Until then —
please take my watch

Hershon enjoys the moment and the wild situation in his own imagination, but there is no doubt that he kept his watch.

This puzzled and bemused view of his city and his country is often the subject of Hershon's poems. "International Incidents" chronicles just a few moments where he sees the ordinary things of America in a foreign light that makes them funny and emblematic:

The teachers in the lounge
crowd around the
Swedish visitor
You must be very
one of them beams
to be Swedish
She has no idea
what this means
She says,
I don't dislike
being Swedish

Hershon is very much a poet of New York City, where he has lived all but a few years of what is now getting to be a long life. In his work, New York is always either the center of the world or the touchstone by which it is understood. Hershon does this with none of the air of cultural superiority that occasionally mars writing from the city, at least for some of us out here in the provinces. Rather, New York, and particularly his neighborhood in Brooklyn, is his window to the world. Calls from the Outside World ends with a short poem, "Locked":

The body like a tenement
Bathroom. . . . The tiles loose
the faucets dripping, the rust
stains in the tub, the weak
yellow light
And the banging on
the door
Hey, you say
Hey, I'm still in here

Robert Hershon reads from his poetry at the U-M Residential College Auditorium on Thursday, March 23.

[Review published March 2006]