by Garrett Kalleberg
Ugly Duckling Presse 2009
Reviewed by James Cihlar

“And it all comes crashing down, / or worse, that it, the poem works “

Kalleberg Cover 2

Few poetry books define their parameters as rigorously as Garrett Kalleberg’s Malilenas, and fewer still find within a system as generative. A slim poetic catalog of weights and measurements, Malilenas examines how we impose order through routine quantifiers—from binary code to cellular biology, from calendars to stock markets, from gender to semiotics—and yet how artistic expression and human connections transcend order. These tight, funny, aphoristic lines search for the hole in the language, the open door through which meaning emerges. Acknowledging the pervasiveness of numbers in the human psyche, Kalleberg questions where true originality and inspiration may arise. Exploring eternal questions of the sequentiality of experience in terms suggested by this country’s recent economic meltdown and military escalation, Malilenas is a book of fiscal existentialism.

Because measuring systems are so frequently binary, the book opens with the notion of refraction, using numbered poems in notebook form throughout. Twinning and mirroring, the self multiplies and expands, but also becomes dilute:

I grow increasingly
bright and dull, alternately
adding up to alternately
taking away (3.)

In this early poem we also get a sense of direct address to both the reader and to a partner, seeding the metaphor of artistic creativity battling language as two people battling circumstances, which is more fully developed later in the book. Using the systems our culture has provided for us, whether that includes actuarial charts, the NASDAQ index, or language, Malelinas posits whether it is possible to escape the assumptions buried within to find true meaning, and if meaning is owned by the individual or by the culture.

“In all things are numbers.” Finding puns and metaphors at virtually every turn, these poems are about how we count. On one hand, to quantify and measure is to separate, make discrete, or reduce. On the other hand, to quantify and measure is to seek essence, being or unity. The invented system that breaks down meaning into units, that divides, is also shared; how much does its operation connect us, and how much does its existence limit discovery? Taking us through various levels of quantifiers, Kalleberg praises the democracy of the cell, and discovers promise in the cycle of creation.

Temporality has long been the province of poetry. How the mind knows and how the self interprets the world is regarded as a sequential experience. Moments come to us one after the other, thoughts come to us in order, and we lay words down in rows. This incremental nature can explain how otherwise smart or good people can do dumb or bad things; being at midpoint in their trajectories, they only have part of the picture, half of the story, on which to base their actions. Poets often aspire to ascend beyond chronology, capturing a fulsome glimpse of eternity, some reassuring sense of pattern, or what the medievals considered God’s knowledge. Unfortunately, human approximations are clumsy tools for handling the divine:

                 The first garden in the god
wrote the leaves of your letter
perverted by language (11.)

If language itself is sequential, Kalleberg jokes that perhaps “advance penance reverses penury.” Grammar itself can be at odds: a “sentence” is both a unit of thought and a punishment. Meaning comes in at unexpected turns, when language degrades or syntax dissolves, or when poems take off on their own:

          A misplaced comma,
an unmatched parenthesis, an error
in spelling, or worse, calling an object
without first instantiating the object.
And it all comes crashing down,
or worse, that it, the poem works

but an incorrect result is produced (12).

Kalleberg questions authority at its most basic level: where does meaning come in? Does it reside in the poet’s original intention or the reader’s perception? Is it weakened or strengthened by the shared systems of language, etymology and syntax? The nature of systems is adherence; play by the rules and we will be rewarded. Ironically, mistakes, slips of the tongue, lead to new insight: “now on one can hour you.” But perhaps the poet is so steeped he gives voice to something larger than himself and his original intention: “I’m asking you, / am I so manipulated / to get it?” The outcome is always unpredictable, and may simply leave “a poet / on the verge of poetastisizing.” Perhaps in desperation, he offers a contract between writer and reader:


                The diseased hand in the good hand
holds the pen.

               The good hand in the diseased hand
holds the book.

The book holds the bilious inks
in a book called Bile.

It is a good book
and good bile even so
unable to relinquish spleen.

And the ink squishing in the word
unable to discharge of all debts the good
hand that put it there.

Malilenas is itself a product of its era, humorously observing the vicissitudes of the stock market and our conception of money:

The sun moved:
it’s 3:05 PM—money in the bank!
Spent by 3:07 trying to hold on to 3:06.
Thank you for having been there.

Influenced by the past decade’s militaristic parlance of escalation, surge, and reduction, Kalleberg offers funny and biting critique throughout. Taking aim at the obvious faults in the wall, Kalleberg also embraces the productive failures of language and relationships, discovering that beauty may result:


I’m glad we met,
says the joy of fucked-up luck
to a beautiful disaster.

In regards to which beauty, wounded,
remains silent.

Inspiration results from breakdowns and accidents. Love is an ineffable collision of beings, a collusion of motives, just as creativity is some collision of intention and tools, a collusion of artist and culture. The contract between writer and reader is that the process, once finished, starts all over again.