Urban Imprisonment

Manhattan as a Second Language By Jana Harris Harper and Row: $5.95; 98 pp.

MANHATTN AS A Second Language grapples with the power of language. The women in Jana Harris's poems are imprisoned or empowered by words, even the tones and textures of their voices or other voices. Even her worst poems are valid experiments displaying the voices of people Harris has heard, people who don't speak the way she would write. In these poems the language rings somewhat flat because Harris is uneasy using certain alien voices. At her best, Harris ties together the different voices with a strong, frank thread of her own.

The book name and the first stanza of its title work convey the message of most of the first half of the book--entrapment in urban society:

in this new place

from a 12th story window

she looks across black

smokestacked roofs

writing about Alaska

and the Aleut raven

guarding Spirit-of-the-Smoke-Hole,

thinks of going down

into the street

windows curtained

Most of the worries of the woman in this poem stem from her attempts to learn a second language, a tongue of stale, curtained windows. She is imprisoned not by the street but by her aversion to her sole option--going down to the street and speaking the street language of the men she will find there. The lines she repeats--"thinks of going down into the street"--are the antithesis of her images of Alaska, the source of "williwas wind," volcanoes, spruces, birds, and the Bering Sea.

Harris's women are also imprisoned by the thoughts about men that they voice; some call the names of dead husbands, for instance. Others, imprisoned by job descriptions, define themselves by what they do. To describe her life's purpose, one woman says. "I canned them pears/and I canned them pears." The vitality of these poems lies in the contrast of their doldrums today with the glamor of other lives and locales--the voices in the poems trap themselves but manage to describe a broad, exciting world.

In fact, Harris risks avoiding her own voice in some of the poems. Some of these works use a man's voice to tell a tale through his letters, with almost no interjections from the poet herself. Harris's interpretations of the man and his letters lie in how she strings together the images, what images she chooses to have him describe, and in the creation of this male character. The end result is a near-complete adoption of another voice which threatens to imprison the poet, who is reduced to reading and retelling letters. Nevertheless, the experiment works when Harris allows the letter-writer to stretch the limits of the poem to include banter, as she writes in "The Man After Crossing the Gulf from Kodiak":