Archive for the ‘Why We Like It’ Category

Why We Like It: Andrea Cohen’s “Tip”

Monday, November 14th, 2016

James Ellenberger: Short poems are like potato chips: I often really enjoy the work, but am left wanting more. The best short poems seem to be able to circumvent the desire for more by engaging or evoking a world well outside of the page. In the case of haiku, the poem’s brevity isolates different cairns of human experience, directing us toward something impactful without telling us how that moment should resonate with us. For example, here’s Basho’s famous frog haiku (as translated by Robert Hass):


The old pond—
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.


This poem transports us without drawing clear guidelines of where we are, which leaves the piece feeling timeless. Even when we’re gone—and the words that we’ve fretted over, too, are gone—the old ponds will be older and the frogs, always new in their sleek skin, will continue leaping. It’s comforting to think that the burden of creating beauty isn’t on our shoulders, that sometimes it’s enough to simply linger in a moment.

“Tip,” a poem Andrea Cohen in issue 13.1, manages to say an incredible amount in only five lines. Here’s the poem:


Always, on the tip

of his tongue, something


cold and deeply unthinkable.

Around him you


always felt sinkable.

The first thing that drew me to this poem was its clever use of wordplay: The tip of the tongue becomes the tip of the iceberg, implying that what we say goes much deeper than the words themselves. In a slightly different way from the aforementioned haiku, we’re given an emotional cairn washed in allusion rather than the description of a single event in the world. It’s hard not to consider Hemmingway’s Iceberg Theory here, particularly in the sense that, as readers, we’re never privy to what’s actually being said (or isn’t). The effect is rather magical: the sheer physicality of the tongue and iceberg must come to terms with the poem’s negative space (“unthinkable”). I see the other elements of this poem (the distancing effect of the self-reflexive “you,” the insistence on “always” as how this poem is framed in time) navigating the negative space that ebbs around these lines like an ocean.

Formally, rhyming “unthinkable” and “sinkable” forms a sonic bridge between what’s tactile and what isn’t; the feeling of being “sinkable” is stark and dire, while what’s “unthinkable” can’t be grappled with as directly. This creates a feeling of unease, one that’s made more poignant with the allusions to the Titanic, which serve to clarify the scale of this attachment (or detachment). It feels as though, in other words, the world, not merely the “you,” is sinking.

Gaming Poetics: Hexagon, Hexagon Again

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

James Ellenberger: The Settlers of Catan is a resource-management game that requires each player to stake out territory on a lovely, numbered hexagonal landscape. As the game progresses, the players rely on dice rolls (both their own and those of their competitors) to restock their coffers with wool, ore, lumber, grain, and brick so they can build roads, cities, and additional settlements. Players may trade resources, but most are acquired by rolling the dice. The game, then, is a mixture of early board evaluation (i.e., where to settle), luck, and one’s ability to balance personal progress with the progress of others, which is acatan-imageided by trading. You want, in other words, to trade freely until it becomes clear that those trades will result in a loss.

What does any of this mean for poetry? In Catan, each hexagon has a number on it (2–12), reflecting the possible rolls of the dice. A hexagon with a 6 or an 8 will most likely be rolled more frequently in the course of the game. Hexagons with 2 and 12 are rolled rarely, and plots numbered thus are often considered less-than-optimal places to begin your civilization. If we’re to think of this in terms of poetry, there are certain structures and subject matters that have historically fallen into the 6 or 8 category. Nightingales were all the rage in England, an easy 8. Sound poetry isn’t as widely loved, probably putting it around an 11—in Catan terms, something less likely to succeed. But who’s to say what will happen over the course of the game? Who’s to say that in twenty years sound poetry won’t be an 8 as well? As the tides of taste ebb and flow, probabilities fluctuate. One may end up edging out the competition—creating something meaningful to many, something lasting—despite the odds.

Is it more satisfying to play on the margins, shooting for the 11 and 12 tiles, putting one’s faith entirely in lady luck? Or is it more satisfying to use probability to your advantage? Should we follow our brains, our hearts, our histories, or the muse? Poets generally pick and choose among these categories, not opting for one particular mode over another. For example, the sonnet form, a true classic, can be augmented in a way that evokes its history without carbon-copying its classical interests. As poets, we’re always foregoing one form for another, a stark image for something more ghostly, a concrete moment for something invested more in musicality. We weigh our options, assess our resources, and then we begin to build.

toast“Fertility Treatments, Toast,” a poem by Cate Lycurgus in our current issue, does something that I love: It merges two subjects (breakfast and fertility) in a way that makes us look at both differently. If breakfast were a Catan hexagon, I’d give it, say, a 2; I’ve read some poems about breakfast, some stunning ones, but it’s not generally what comes to mind when I think of poetry. Fertility, however, is an 8 for sure. Birth and death are the bread and butter of poetry, with love smeared on, either liberally or sparsely, depending on who you’re asking.

In taking something that we expect from poetry (discussions of birth, of life ongoing—or of life attempted) and linking with something that isn’t immediately identified with art, Lycurgus manages to make the familiar feel fresh and the quotidian really sizzle. Some of my favorite moments here involve the liminal spaces between the lexicons. For example:

if it’s you
clinging well-
oiled or butter’s better
Baby, best
to hash this out

I’m enamored with the double meaning of “Baby.” It’s simultaneously a concrete aspect of this relationship (i.e., a term of endearment) and a kind of negative space, an absence: the idea of a baby rather than the flesh-and-blood thing. In a similar vein, the usage of “hash” speaks toward breakfast and the fragmented nature of this conversation, the difficulty of it, creating an immediately compelling subtext. As a reader, I very much feel “the thing that cannot be said” that lingers around this table.

In Catan, the “scope” of a player’s game begins before luck has a chance to rear its (sometimes ugly) head; the world is, in essence, your oyster. The decision of where to settle is made actively, intentionally. If you choose to put down stakes by the desert, or on plots labeled 2 or 11, then the path of luck is all you’ve got; probability isn’t on your side. “Luck” is relatively intangible, like the muse, inspiration, or however else you’d like to approach it.

The “scope” of Lycurgus’s poem, its form and function, is to marry two sets of images and words. In selecting both familiar and unfamiliar poetic subjects, Lycurgus rewards her readers for noticing the subtle, brutally intelligent lines drawn between some relatively common phrases in English. The “luck” behind poems is whether they stay with a readership or not, whether people will find them to be surprising. Once a poem is written and out of your hands, who knows what a readership will do with your work? In choosing to bridge these two subjects, Lycurgus shifts the balance, changes the stakes, and in making us painfully aware of the possibility of loss, wins us to her side.

Why We Like It: “Fourteen Shakes the Baby” by Susann Cokal

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

Chris Collins: Susann Cokal seized me with her first sentence: “The first one is not so bad, hurts, grinding on the sticky floor with the others watching.” And what proceeds is the story of a character known to us only as “Fourteen”—a girl who’s “been a teenager for a year already”—and her brutal night of being repeatedly raped at a party.

As a father with a daughter just a few years younger than Fourteen, I squirmed in my chair and at times had to pause reading to breathe. It’s difficult to write violence; Cokal does it with a delicacy that haunts. The rhythm of her sentences turns the page and the stomach: “She feels the ticklish trickle between her legs and knows she’s puddling on the filthy linoleum.” Although what occurs in the story is pornographic, Cokal’s artistry brings eloquence to the sequence of events, leading the reader through the assaults on both Fourteen’s body and mind.

minor-rape-mainThe story is not a chronological progression but rather a back and forth, giving us interludes of Fourteen’s movements, from her day at the beach with friends, to her sexual assault by surfers on a kitchen floor, then by college students in a shabby apartment, to her pickup by police, to the day of her first court hearing. This remarkable and distressing piece is written with a veracity that mesmerizes. The tragedy captivates—like a car accident from which we cannot look away.

Susann Cokal on “Fourteen Shakes the Baby”: I’ve been told this story is harrowing. It harrowed me; it hurt, but it wouldn’t let me stop writing. I lived with the idea for decades, hearing young girls’ stories both from their own mouths and from the men who lusted for what those mouths might be made to do. It took a long time to find the form that would convey the sense of brokenness that comes after such a violation—the body, mind, memory, and psyche all rearranged.

For a while I lived next door to some of it. A new neighbor popped up on the sex offenders map when he moved in. Somehow a story spread through the neighborhood that the guy was a victim of a scam, that he’d been dating an underage girl who said she was eighteen and then brought him to court to get some of the family money. I did a basic online search and found newspaper articles closer to the truth: A young girl had been raped multiple times one night, then reportedly had consensual sex with the man who was now my neighbor before being raped again by another man. The papers’ bare facts about this case and others melded with personal testimony about survivors’ traumas and a frequent tendency to blame the victim: “She’s oversexed”; “She wanted it”; “She liked it once we got started”; “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! […] I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.” That last claim is from Lolita, a book I love for many reasons but not for this one; the others are typical comments from people outside the experience.

So I lived with the imaginary fourteen-year-old of this piece of fiction as if with a “real” person (she is very real to me), and finally the narrative started coming in staccato, disordered bursts of memory and sensation. I wasn’t sure “Fourteen” would ever find a home, but I needed to write about her, and I’m grateful to the editors for putting her in these pages.

Why We Like It: “And We’ll See You Tomorrow Night”

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016


Julialicia Case: I’m not much of a baseball person, or even a sports person, so when I came across Dave Mondy’s essay “And We’ll See You Tomorrow Night,” I did not expect to be swept away. After all, the piece focuses on the “Best Baseball Game,” a twelve-inning matchup between the Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox in June 2006. It seemed like a topic for a very specific audience. Mondy, though, like any good storyteller, begins early on with an engaging hook: “[This is] the ultimate story for any fan—the story of how Andrew, Allan and I actually influenced who won the Best Baseball Game.”


Much more than a sports essay, “And We’ll See You Tomorrow Night” is told in a series of small sections numbered consecutively, such as “1 (bottom),” and “10 (top)”—each section coinciding with the inning being described. Mondy covers a variety of subjects, giving us facts about famous baseball players, reflections on his relationship with his friend Andrew, and quotations from David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife, a book on the craft of playwriting—and though these topics are diverse, the careful structure and varied approach give the sense that something greater is going on. At one point, for example, Mondy discusses “Elysian Fields: the name of a park in Hoboken, New Jersey, that was the site of the first baseball game in 1846” but goes on to remind us that “Elysian Fields was the afterlife home of Greek heroes. . . . These would be the less obvious connections between the Elysian Fields and baseball: Heroes and Theater.”


Though the piece is filled with interesting tidbits about baseball, Mondy constantly alludes to things that baseball and storytelling have in common, as well as the ways that sports and stories play a crucial part in the human experience: “What I mean is that, though it is terribly self-centered, it’s hard not to view oneself as the center of the world . . . But sometimes, getting wrapped up in something outside oneself, something like a great baseball game, can take us out of our myopic minds.” While it’s true this is an essay about one person’s experience at a baseball game, it is also an essay about the ephemerality of friendship, the desire to influence something greater than ourselves, the sense of loss that often accompanies memory. Mondy seems to suggest that anyone can be a baseball person. In fact, we are all baseball people, even if we don’t know it yet.

Why We Like It: “Acheron” by Donika Ross Kelly

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

Molly Reid: Lately, I’ve been interested in the way I—and perhaps other non-poets—read poetry. How might a fiction writer look at a poem differently than a poet? What do I seek in a good story, and how might that translate to a poem? (Do I need some kind of narrative arc? Lovely language? Image? Surprise?)

Reading submissions for The Cincinnati Review this semester, I’ve had to confront some of these questions, as we’re required to read both poetry and fiction (as well as nonfiction). Having never taken a poetry class, I was at first really uncomfortable with this. I felt unequipped to judge without the kind of rigorous critical apparatus I have for fiction. But after a few weeks, I settled in a bit. Though I may not always be able to name the form or rhyme scheme the poet is using or even completely understand what the poem is trying to do, I feel confident in saying whether or not a given piece works for me—the same way I can judge a nice brie from a rubbery cheddar. (I let the editorial staff parse the finer details; thank god they’re reading behind me.)

Along these lines, I thought it might be fun to take a look at a poem that spoke to me in the latest issue, Donika Ross Kelly’s “Acheron,” to try and examine the process of fiction-writer-reading-poem. Or ignorant-pleasure-seeking-individual-reading-poem. Not a deep critical analysis but a kind of casual aesthetic anatomy.

“Acheron” begins with the lines “This the season men were turned to trees—/ the formula simpler than we initially imagined.” This is exactly the kind of opening I like in fiction: an imaginative ltreemaneap, a strangeness, not to mention the compression of language. There’s the obvious hook—men turning into trees—though it’s the “season” here that really wins me over. It indicates a time limit, a particular container, retrospection. Even a nostalgia. Then that second line (“the formula simpler than we initially imagined”). What formula? How could it be simple? Who is “we”? And what (and why) did this we imagine what they imagined?

Such a beginning prompts a string of questions that—were this a story—would most likely get answered in some fashion. In the poem, however, none of these questions is answered (with the exception, maybe, of “the formula”: “The stiffened limb and rooting feet, the slow/ crawl of bark over skin; the god mourning/ a man now hidden.” Well, not answered so much as jerked around a little, like contents under pressure.)

I love this space—it makes me want to use words like liminal and hybridity. Why are we always trying to solve problems in fiction, find answers? It makes me consider how there should be more of poetry’s trouble-making and question-asking in my own fiction. And also, most definitely, more men turning into trees.

Why We Like It: “The Brief Second Life of Winston Whithers’s Wife” by Leslie Entsminger

Monday, February 29th, 2016

Eric Van Hoose: Ghost stories tend to hinge on the question of the ghost’s existence. Either the figment is real or it isn’t, and story’s purpose is to find the answer. But from the first moments of Leslie Entsminger’s “The Brief Second Life of Winston Whithers’s Wife,” when the spirit of Winston’s dead wife—initially haunting his bed—calls him an asshole, it’s clear that this is a different kind of ghost story. Ghosts are definitely present, inhabiting coffee grinders, violins, dildos, vacuums, and their hauntings are circumscribed by expensive, legally binding contracts drawn up and sold by the Church of Inanimate Possession (which, we learn, has branches “everywhere”).

Though most ghost stories test the limits of plausibility and reader credulity—Are there no rules? Are we meant to take this seriously?—in Entsminger’s hands, the paranormal world is no excuse for license. The story sets strict rules and takes them seriously.

toasterAn hour later, Winston sat in the kitchen with the toaster in front of him on the table. It had changed. The dent where one of their cats had knocked it off the counter was gone, and it was definitely shinier. It had taken a few tries. The pamphlet had given vague instructions to find the object with the “most vibrations,” which confused both of them, until Chloris had concentrated and had gotten the hang of it.

Entsminger’s ghosts are profoundly constricted, confined, and through observing the details of this limited kind of embodiment, we see the impoverishment and, simultaneously, the beauty of the bodies we all haunt.

They fell into their old habits, the only exception being that each evening he carried Chloris into the park so she could hear life around her. In the morning, Winston left Chloris on the counter so she could hear the radio. When he came home, he ate dinner and told her about his day. After an evening of game shows, he took her upstairs to bed and tucked her in. At first, he’d wanted to snuggle, but Chloris didn’t like it, saying he left fingerprints on her.

When you’ve begun where most ghost stories finish, when the hauntees are aware of the circumstances and can, as Winston does, verify the relevant contractual details (haunting length, senses involved, instructions for inhabiting different objects), where do you have left to go?

A lot of places, it turns out, and it’s that sense of plunging into the unknown, entering unexplored territory and becoming subject to all kinds of genuine surprise, that is part of the pleasure.

One . . . pictured a woman in a field of daisies, photographed midspin. Her skirts swirled out as she held a blender in front of her, her expression that of someone deeply happy and in love. The caption read Still together, plus now he can really make you margaritas!

Ghost stories can frighten, agitate, linger. They can make us wonder if something is there after we’ve turned off the light. In short, like all good works of art, they can add something to our realities. But until I read “The Brief Second Life of Winston Whithers’s Wife,” I didn’t know ghost stories could make me think about love, about kindness, about how our lives are saturated with beauty, about what it means to unplug my toaster. This story is so powerfully affecting because its ghosts are never the point. Instead we get lonesomeness, objects seen anew, insight about human relationships, aging, grieving, and what it means to care for things and for each other. Chloris’s second life might be brief, but for those who read Entsminger’s account of it, her story it is sure to live on for a long, long time.

Why We Like It: Joshua Coben’s “Antechamber”

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Antechamber – Joshua Coben*

The father is a dark door
the son may lean against
to listen for the locked room
of himself, his next life.

Later he will listen there
for the echo of his own
death. Meanwhile he becomes
a dark door for someone
else. It takes him years

to grow so broad and smooth,
so wooden and closed. He does
not feel the ear of his son
pressed close and listening.

José Angel Araguz: The best poems have an ability to refresh our everyday world, and even have us looking closer at how we define that world. In “Antechamber,” Joshua Coben uses the metaphor of a door to inhabit ideas of being locked out and bring them into the emotional realm of familial roles. The speaker’s straightforward tone charges the short lyric with the certitude of allegory; meanwhile, what develops within that allegory is made up of the uncertain. This back-and-forth movement creates a tension that evokes the restlessness born out of what is unspoken. When so much of human experience is made up of listening at the “door” of one another, poems like this one help us to make sense of what we catch.

Janus1Speaking of doors, this poem had me thinking also of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. He is typically portrayed as having two faces, one looking to the future while the other looks to the past. Coben’s poem taps into this simultaneity; the speaker’s meditation, in a way, is a statement on how self is made up only in part of social roles, and never strictly defined by them.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Tyler Durden in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

tyler_durden_brad_pit_by_killscrewTaken on their own, these words work on the other side of the spectrum Coben’s poem inhabits. The impetus is the same – a brief exploration/explanation of what the self is – but Palahniuk’s character engages ideas of self through being heard rather than through listening.

The poem and novel’s messages meet on the page, itself a “dark door” where the reader listens in.

*reprinted with permission from the author. Originally published in issue 12.2.

Why We Like It: “Make No Bones about It” by Cindy Beebe

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Rochelle Hurt: In music, riffing usually refers to a method of composition in which a single element (like a series of notes in a specific order) is repeated, sometimes changing slightly with each new iteration, in order to form a pattern—though riffing is often improvisational. It’s a technique common to poetry as well. For example, anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each line) can be understood as a linguistic riff, as can internal rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, and consonance.


In her prose poem from issue 12.2, Cindy Beebe riffs on the turn of phrase “make no bones about it,” which serves as the poem’s title. She jumps right in with an extension of the title, “Not one single bone,” and then elaborates using “bone/s” as her riffing point and reintegrating the word “make”: “Make soup, if you like, though bones in the soup are not allowed. Even nice, fat ham bones, with ham bits on them.” In this brand of crafted spontaneity, repeated words and sounds become bridges to new phrases or ideas. Later in the poem, “make” and “bones” return to set off the following chain of sonic events: “Make no bones that float. Or sink, either. Make hay, rather. Make barley, alfalfa, the cows will love you. The cows will bow to you in one smooth, synchronous plié. A little cow ballet.” The progression here is not narrative, nor even logical in a traditional sense—rather, Beebe’s movement seems to be guided by an associative logic. This is a form of play, of course, but it is serious in its linguistic endeavors.

The author describes her process as a means of finding new life in worn out language: “Idioms have always fascinated me. I marvel at how they are able to retain their place in our language, sometimes for centuries, long after their origins are forgotten. If we were to look at them with our eyes open, as though we were children again, what new things might we see in them? What old things might we see differently? Writing “Make No Bones about It” was sort of like milking an old, familiar cow to find out what she might still be worth.”

While Beebe’s riffs do not form a predictable pattern, they are tied together. In this way, the poem forms an expansive network of meaning and connotation with a single idiom at its center. Each individual phrase or idea acts as a lateral extension of meaning from that center, and this allows them to cross back and forth over one another: “Such as whoopee. Such as in the morning, when you are floating still in your little boat of sleep, and the other skin, the skin that isn’t yours, comes drifting over into your own sleepy flesh. And there is this mesh like a dream you dream together. Dreams of whoopee, lots of whoopee.”

This lateral structure is precisely what makes the prose form perfect for Beebe’s poem. The prose block here is a wide plane on which this network of meanings can unfold, expanding outward rather than moving forward down the page in a linear fashion. Additionally, the condensed form supports Beebe’s associative leaps. The breathing space that would be provided by line breaks is not required here, where the reader is whisked quickly from one riff to the next—so quickly, in fact, that when one arrives finally back at the poem’s title phrase, “make no bones about it,” the arrival feels both astonishing and inevitable.


(The opening guitar riff from Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” is one of my favorite earworms.)

Why We Like It: “Stolen from the Cries of Ravens and the Red Smell of the Wind” by Jay Leeming

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Anonymous crawled down a muddy slot in the earth
to put red handprints
on the cave wall, Anonymous who painted the Crab Nebula
onto a rock ledge and translated the winter wind
into black ink
on vellum, Anonymous the unknown
worker, toiler in darkness, craftsman with a name
drowned in shadow. All our works are but footnotes to the creations

of Anonymous…

José Angel Araguz: So begins Jay Leeming’s “Stolen from the Cries of Ravens and the Red Smell of the Wind,” a poem whose main themes are the evolution of art both as process and as instinct, and the way in which all of mankind’s material accomplishments mean nothing in the teeth of wind and time.

Y’know, light stuff.

In all seriousness, though, there is a deftness to the lyric voice in this poem that keeps the reader engaged and the narrative fluid despite the big concepts driving it. As Leeming’s poem traces ideas of ancestry from the get-go, I cannot help but read into the poem a kind of poetic ancestry, other poems that this poem seems to point back to and be kin with.

The first that came to mind was “Hands” by Robinson Jeffers, which starts:

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no more,
No other picture

These opening lines echo Leeming’s. Both poems make use of the image of handprints, but where Jeffers reads into it a connection to earlier humanity and life, Leeming takes the symbol of the hand to begin a meditation on the artistic process. His “Anonymous” is fast at work in the first stanza, throughout time and mediums. When the speaker of Leeming’s poem says “All our works are but footnotes” to the work of Anonymous, he is acknowledging the precedent and connection to Anonymous via art, as if each new artwork was a way for an artist to turn and face those that came before and raise a hand in greeting.

I find another poetic “ancestral” link via the layout of the poem. Noting how it is structured in eight-line stanzas on the page, I immediately thought of Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” a carnival of a poem that doles itself out in the eight line stanza known as ottava rima. Beyond sheer number count, where Byron and Leeming meet is in ambition. Byron’s poem is a favorite of mine not for sheer virtuosity (though hundreds upon hundreds of rhymed stanzas is no small feat) but for the elasticity Byron is able to work into his lyrical line, a line able to hold politics, myth, literary criticism, and humor.

Leeming accomplishes a similar feat as he moves from meditating on the “early works” of Anonymous to casting an eye to our contemporary world:

…So short a journey
from runes carved on a ship’s bow to egg tempera
on a walnut board, from manuscripts illuminated with the colors
of crushed acorns to a thirty-foot-high poodle
constructed of pink birthday balloons
and neon-green hubcaps.

As Leeming’s poem comes to its conclusion, the speaker tells us of a tribe “whose every member/ was born blind” and:

who out of the cries of ravens
and the red smell of the wind carved a spiraling labyrinth of skewed huts
and towers crafted only in jubilant answer to the visions

of the inner eye…

This image of a blind people creating in the dark returns us to the opening note of the poem, back to Anonymous and how little we know of the humans inhabiting that era aside from what they left on a cave wall. Reading these lines, the reader is once again before Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “traveler from an antique land,” who tells us about Ozymandias and his ruins. But where Ozymandias, that “king of kings,” asks us to “Look on my works, ye Might, and despair!,” Anonymous’s call, according to the last line of Leeming’s poem, is to create art despite the knowledge that it will be “…scattered to all the thousand/corners of the air where no hand or eye will ever find it again.”

Why We Like It: “Book of Distances” by Brandon Amico

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

bulletCaitlin Doyle:
 Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously advised writers that a gun introduced in the first act should always go off in the second. Poet Brandon Amico aims his gun in the opposite direction: “In my book of distances a bullet fired / on page thirty-seven pricks the reader’s / thumb on six.” Amico deftly blurs the line that separates the universe inside of his “book of distances” from the world of his poem, in which the mysterious book has been figuratively placed. We can never be sure whether something will stay within the book’s covers or break though (like the thumb-pricking bullet) to penetrate the many boundaries that Amico tests—between poem and book, past and present, reader and words, self and other.

On a first encounter, “Book of Distances,” with its wild leaps and surprising juxtapositions, might discomfit a person accustomed to experiencing language as a linear and narrative medium. Yet the poem never alienates such a reader. What I admire about Amico’s work here is that the piece rewards both seasoned poetry-lovers familiar with navigating associative modes and readers who come to poetry in pursuit of more basic pleasures. By placing an imagined book inside of a poem, one form of written artifice inside of another, he asks us to reconsider the relationship between art and creator. He also spurs us to reflect on our own relationship to artistic works and those who make them. “Book of Distances” embraces difficulty and eludes easy understanding, even while inviting us into a world alive with images that we can see, touch, hear, smell, and above all, feel.

RooseveltAmico observes “how far Aeolus’s breath carries the resilient germ / of history, / genicular, Franklin and Eleanor / Roosevelt being fifth cousins.” He then informs us that “genicular has no closeness to genes / except in the brain’s language center,” information that is “covered in detail in chapter eight” of the book of distances. It’s no accident that Aeolus (known as the ruler of the winds) is a name shared by multiple characters in Greek mythology, all of them thought to be genealogically related, much like Franklin and Eleanor.

When Amico notes how the “brain’s language center” joins “genicular” to “genes,” even though there’s no shared etymological connection, he extends his exploration of genetic ties to an examination of how we view units of language in relation to each other. As readers, we can’t help but develop an association between the two words, despite the poet’s insistence that none exists. This paradox comprises one of the many slyly artful strategies that Amico uses to interrogate how humans both inherit and create different forms of connectivity.

As the poem progresses, we move backward from chapter eight to the “fourth chapter” in the book of distances, which is “a compendium / of keys. / Office key, key to the city, / car, the shed . . .” Initially, the keys appear to promise another kind of linkage, a bridge between our yearning to enter closed-off spaces and our ability to tangibly do so. They also seem to glimmer as a possible symbol for the larger question of how we might unlock the poem’s complicated meanings. But when Amico observes that the locked shed can be entered without a key—“the frame/ can be shifted, the latch slid out”—he suggests that keys of any kind, whether literal or metaphorical, may prevent us from seeing that we can often access what we desire without relying on means beyond ourselves.
GunLitDeviceOf course, no writer should introduce Chekhov in the first paragraph (is there any gun more loaded than that?) without returning to him. So it seems fitting for me to finish my appreciation of Amico’s poem by evoking, once more, the Russian maestro. As the piece approaches its end, Amico asserts that, whether or not we read the book of distances, “we still stretch / toward our lovers’ knees and our first homes.” Like a weapon introduced in a play’s first act and fired off later in the show, the knee image here brings us back to the word “genicular,” with its surprising meaning (of or relating to the knee), in the poem’s opening lines. Amico compels us to remember his use of “genicular” in association with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. When we picture one of them reaching for the other’s knee, Amico’s exploration of the human hunger for connection finds its final, strangest, and most memorable embodiment.