Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner (The Physiocrats 2011)
In Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner ponders whether any emotional response to art or religion is purely an affectation or desperate insistence on more than the “actual.” This chapbook is an excerpt from the poet’s novel of same name, published this year by Coffee House Press. Any overlap between real and fictive is beside the point, but it is worth noting that both Lerner and his narrator Adam received Fulbrights to work and study in Spain, and both grew up in Kansas. In Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam does what we might imagine a real Fulbright poet does: gives readings, has conversations, smokes spliffs, visits museums. He lets us observe one particular morning ritual:
I was usually standing before [Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross] within forty-five minutes of waking and so the hash and caffeine and sleep were still competing in my system as I faced the nearly life-sized figures and awaited equilibrium.
One morning, his routine is interrupted because another man is standing at the painting. The man weeps, and proceeds from painting to painting, sobbing at each and garnering the attention of museum guards. What is a museum guard to do, our narrator wonders, when “on the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting valuable materials from the crazed or kids or the slow erosive force of camera flashes” and “on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears.”
Lerner’s narrator is skeptical of “profound experience[s] of art.” He also wants to avoid the pitfalls of pure pragmatism—after all, he is in Spain because he “claim[s] to be a poet.” But he questions his own actions in every circumstance, revealing a vulnerability when encountering Maria Jose from the foundation (“I had been convinced…that my fraudulence was completely apparent to her”) and when kissing people hello, as per the local customs (“when you were drunk or high and foreign, you could easily slip up and the catch the corner of the mouth”). But the machinations of the mind and the things of the world are too mysterious to allow for final interpretation, and to doubt the value of heightened spiritual awareness even hints that such awareness has value. Lerner reminds us that total understanding is always a myth. His spirituality, if you can call it that, is based on curiosity pursued, never on the presumption that humans have the capacity to find a coherent answer. The novel is excellent, but this chapbook excerpt features a wonderful excerpt and is ideal for anyone who doesn’t have the time or attention span for the full novel.
Laked, Fielded, Blanked, Brooklyn Copeland (alice blue books, 2010)
This lovely, wee book from alice blue books is a miniature museum draped in Thai handmade paper. If you go inside, tune in. Sound counts most in Copeland’s “Laked, Fielded, Blanked.” The poet also relies on observation to get from spot to spot. Her poems explore the geography and geology of Morse Lake Marina, where “The Big/ creek meets/ the Little creek” and “Hammers break open geodes: scalene/ jig-jags.”
Copeland mixes natural observation with (perhaps) confessional verse about a relationship between the speaker and the “you” that suddenly appears—and then dominates—the experience. This relationship, though suggestive through layers of metaphor, is less compelling than the precise, intricate beauty of her descriptions. In that sense, Copeland recalls the influence of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and their progeny:
The wordplay, even letterplay, of “someone’s anemone” is part of a complex score that spans the entire chapbook. The poet also reveals a gift for negotiating tight spaces with apokoinu and other enjambment techniques (“from the word/ go we’ve/ done as one, laid/low”).
I close with one of my favorite stanzas, as it shows the work at its best—lyrical and clever:
Rotted out boat
will stay afloat
as long as you pretend to
Dendrochronology, Greta Goetz (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009)
The cover of Greta Goetz’s Dendrochronology reveals both the immediate and cumulative effects of the collection
: cluttered, impossibly large for its square-shaped cover to hold. Similarly, Goetz’s twenty-eight poems (the first twenty-six of which are not titled but numbered), with their exceptionally long sentences jammed into square forms, turn quickly and forcefully, from recollection to reflection, down the page. These techniques coupled with the omission of punctuation at the end of many poems create an urgent voice from a speaker whose thought or search has not finished despite the fact that the poem has.
Dendrochronology is the study of a tree’s rings to understand both its age and its history of environmental conditions. Thus, Dendrochronology is a study of a self—its history and growth as well as the changing tenors of its experience. Goetz’s poetic forms, particularly at the sentence level,
mimic the growth rings–their overall shape, the tree’s trunk. In this, they effectively contain their subject, especially in the poems where a contrast of concrete image and abstraction creates brilliant tension propelled by her driving syntax:
…me, the stranger or accent ague,
a sign more than a well-peopled phrase, the accent not concrete
enough to be riveting, just there at the edge of everyone
else’s interests, homeless, alone, a mark, a reminder
of the primordial need to speak yet unable to promise
in the recognized code, there where the horses gallop
from cave walls into eternity…
There are few grammatical signposts or pauses for readers. This is only a problem in Dendrochronology when the poet lays in too many cumbersome conceptualizing (“it is easy to react in the face of carelessness belonging to/ adolescence, viewed through hindsight or clarified by regret”; “the privilege that is history and upbringing, which despite compassion creates a blindness that cannot be broken without humility”) and clumsy or obvious language (“this is how/ I spell discouragement; a feeling of being unanswered”; “I am a traveler in all of/ the senses of the word that I know”). But perhaps this is Goetz’s point, as stated in the first poem: “Talking mouths block the exit/ entrapped in frustrated good will/ like a dense city,” for its effect is certainly similar.
At their finest, Goetz’s poems refrain from confession and indulge instead in what emotions—particularly questions and doubts—arise amid particular human experience. Too often, however, Goetz creates an exhausting read; amid the dead wood, there is little space for a reader to breathe. Or bother.
–Roxanne Banks Malia