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Poems are “instruments for thinking” (Allen Grossman). The object of a poet’s thought, however, is often unstated–especially in lyric poetry. Lyric poetry never speaks to an audience, and so–as it is when we are alone–the speaker does not feel compelled to explicitly state the object of thought but only the thoughts themselves. In this review, I want to try and discern these objects of thought in the works of two poets whose work seem directed at resolving particularly spiritual problems.

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diatomhero: religious poems

The primary question about Lisa A Flowers’ work is this: What spiritual universe does her poetry inhabit? What are its rules and how do those govern the assumptions and hence possibilities/ambitions of her work?

It seems to be a world in which incarnation is the rule, and yet there is also a kind of Heaven and Hell–locations that suggest some kind of finality. The figure of Justice speaks in one poem:

“…the Lord just takes all those who have died that day and consumes them.

The good ones are absorbed into His system,

And the bad ones pass right through it

And drop out into Hell,

Which is situated conveniently beneath Him as a toilet.

Some think they’re getting away because they’ve existed

Inside the camera of the body for so long.”

Heaven, here, I can understand as the escape of Nirvana, but not Hell–unless Hell is the earth, which I suspect is the case. What is the nature of this incarnation then? The images of the poems are constantly morphing, yet the syntax suggests stasis: it’s possible to go many lines without encountering an independent clause. Even flesh itself undergoes a kind of reincarnation.

But more importantly, I suspect that reincarnation is itself a kind of metaphor for dualism: mind-body, but also the dualism of one’s inner spiritual conflict. Reincarnation seems to be an image of the trauma of thwarted spiritual aspirations. The most compelling image of this metaphor is the “Rorschach” (from a poem of that title):

I was two places at once:

One side of my body bleeding indistinguishably into

Oneness, like an inkblot,

The other sketching the actual picture,

Past and present lives

Back to back, in a Star Wars trash compactor.

After awhile I opened my napkin and recognized myselves:

Two Versailles rivals turning fans to each other’s disdain,

A flattened hydra peeling itself off a window,

“Beast turning human,” like Nora Flood’s lover.

I think trauma is the right word. Reincarnation, though natural, seems to be a constant tearing, disorientation–a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the self of modern poetics.

This raises some more questions for me about Lisa’s work: What is the relationship between trauma and time, between trauma and eternity? If trauma can stretch across eternity, then it is a fundamental aspect of the self. It seems to me that this is the question Flowers’ writing attempts to answer; it is this conflict that she aspires to resolve.

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Digressions on God

The title of Emily’s chapbook is utterly perfect for these poems. “Digression” is almost a sustained method. One line in particular captures this movement:

Today I will have a conference with God,

And then I will boil a potato.

Many (not all) of the poems begin in an abstract thought on God or theology and eventually unwinds into an indiscernible particularity of Vogel’s everyday life. For instance, Vogel often addresses a “you” without any qualification–a figure made poetically inscrutable by the particularity of reference.

As readers, we are quite used to the opposite model–the upward aim–its firm entrenchment in Romantic poetry, especially. Vogel’s poetry is deliberately “downward aimed”; in this sense, the chapbook’s dedication–”In honor of the Holy Spirit”–is entirely appropriate as the Holy Spirit is God’s outpouring upon the world. This chapbook is not about man’s ascent to God, but God’s descent upon, His digression on man.

So what are the spiritual aspirations of Vogel’s poems? I think Vogel states it fairly directly in her poem “Exile” when she says

One must find the most reasonable solution

to the problem of despair.

One must come to some conclusion about God

without upsetting

the order of ordinary miracles.

What is the spiritual universe of Vogel? In her poems, this problem of despair is the abstract, where the idea of good can overwhelm the good, yet it is enmeshed and arises in daily-ness:

I am not, like a Poet, walking alone on the street,

reovering lost memories in the stench

of fih markets, finding hidden meaning

in a city train.

I am consoling your busted heart

in a desperate attempt to dispel the terrible Pride

which plagues my spirit. I am mad

with the desire to go mad with desire.

Yet final line contains a conundrum, and I believe it is aspiration of these poems to resolve this conundrum: “desire” is used in both its senses here–both abstract (“the desire to go mad”) and particular (“with desire” for the particular “you”). Vogel attempts to rectify both these senses of language by means of her digressions.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

“Hello Darkness, you smell like hot dogs.” (from my poem “Ralph Wiggum, Redacted” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt) Most of my poems reside at The Afterlife Bar and Grill.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

A few of them got all dressed up in their Sunday best and presented themselves to the editors of some of the more prestigious, pretentious literary journals, who said things like “This one comes closest, but I don’t love it enough to publish it in The Hi-Falutin Review.” Such a pointless death, like the one suffered by my first car, not to mention Kenneth Patchen, who wrote “The animal I wanted couldn’t get into the world” and other lines penned, as Valery said, “by someone other than the poet to someone other than the reader.” Our prayers might be missives from someone other than us to someone other than God. Behind my beard is a face that’s different from the one my wife fell in love with years ago. Behind any given joke is the funk that made us look for laughter. If you don’t know what I mean, you’ll wake up one day knowing. You’ll look up and see sunlight hitting a mountain so hard they both seem ready to shatter.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

They sleep in hotel beds and dream of flying and then falling beneath the sound of their own breathing. They dream of the broad curves of Crazy Woman Creek Road, which I drove down once as the sky hazed over. They dream of dying but it’s like a turtle entering water, the water creasing and then smoothing itself out.

“This morning my alarm clock tried to wake me
so my feet would take me away from my dreams
to my dream job. ‘Can I borrow a feeling?’
I sang along, which made my tongue feel
brand new, took me back to my childhood home
in good ol’ Springfield USA, scrunched me back into
my ten-year-old skin, which even then didn’t fit right,
and there was Homer, Dad, in a scrubbed new SUV,
dealer decals still on the windows, the proud provider.
I hopped onto the bench seat beside him, and the car
became a spaceship as Dad and I became Kang and Kodos,
tentacled and drooling. I turned to wake Jessica to describe the dream
to her, but just then I remembered that she’d left me
and the dream fell away like Timmy O’Toole down the well.
Jessica thinks I cheated on her, but she didn’t
see me do it. She can’t prove it.
Eat my shorts, I said to the nothing that wrapped around me,
not like arms, not like a blanket, but like midnight, like a rope.
I got up to shave, but my face had been erased,
lost, probably, in the smoke-clouds at Moe’s,
where a son, like his father, gets drunk off his Duff.
I looked closer and did see a face in the mirror.
I didn’t turn into my dad. I turned into Milhouse’s dad!
¡Ay Caramba!”

(from my poem “Bart Simpson, All Grown Up” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt)

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Everything makes sense
if you squint just right, and at least once a day
I realize that whatever I’ve been saying
isn’t the point at all. I spend most days listening
to other people almost making sense, and I don’t
ask them what the hell they’re talking about
because they’re on television or the radio, or
because I’m eavesdropping from the next table.

AND

You may remember me. I drove a float
in the Springfield Parade. You wore your crown,
your sash, and your gown as you waved
and blew kisses at everyone but me.
Remember? I hauled the Marshalls
and tested the microphone for the band
that played your wedding reception.
You may remember me. I wore a tiny
red, white, and blue thong to the beach,
hoping to lure me some fish.

(from my poem “Troy McClure” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt)