These Happy Eyes, by Liz Rosenberg

These Happy Eyes, by Liz RosenbergMore light comes, she says, through horizonal windows: this is why her poems are in prose, and I suppose it’s also why the book is square, opening into double panes the color of thick cream. In the oddly blurry author photo on the back cover, she rests one, over-exposed hand on the branch of a Japanese maple in its autumn glory, but inside, the world is sharply focused, and more often than not it’s winter or early spring. She has numbers for the mailman — 1, 2 and 3 — rather than letters. Whatever she sees she becomes, or wants to, until it threatens to crush her in thirteen chapters. I don’t know that I have ever read a poet so attentive to the breathing of other people. She notices the spaces filled by flying snow, shadows, and the smoke from her neighbor’s chimney: “Nothing so small it does not drag an immense tail along behind it.” She listens to children. “What exactly did Kryptonite do to Superman? Krypton: his birthplace. Did it make him homesick?” The publisher’s logo, a woolly mammoth drawn in too-great detail, appears twice, the first time on the half-title page, a sombre, hairy contradiction to the words above it, These Happy Eyes. As I read, slumped in a plastic stack chair on my porch on the morning of April 1, three deer walk by in their ragged molting pelts, ears backlit and veined like autumn leaves that forgot to stop clinging. Woodpeckers drum, and some of the birds whose names this poet doesn’t appear to know become almost anonymous again, the familiar turning unknown — just the opposite of what she quotes Hölderlin as saying. I find an old index card with the draft of a poem scribbled on it and tear it into little bookmarks. Soon the book is bristling with these fragments, which are the same cream color as the pages. “I am,” she says, “not made the way I was taught to be.” My furnace rumbles to a halt and I catch my breath, read the last two poems in a new-found silence.

(Click on the thumbnail to go to the book’s page in Open Library.)

28 Comments


  1. Open Library shows me what you have shown me (and I thank you) but it won’t open the book…alas.

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    1. No, and WorldCat doesn’t show any copies in the Penn State library system, which is odd, since Mammoth Press is in Dubois.

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    2. These Happy Eyes is now available at Amazon, Alibris and some other good online places. But yeah you’re right, more libraries should carry this one. It’s that beautiful, and definitely worthwhile. Libraries seem to ignore prose poetry in general! Love your image of the pages bristling with your own index card bookmarks. You are a born reviewer and make books come alive.

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      1. Thanks! Yeah, I like linking to the Open Library site for online reviews because it offers the option of Amazon, Alibris, Powells, etc.

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  2. when i read your intro to “the plan” what resonated with me was the desire to break out of boring notions about how to write about a book. i struggle with that, too. it must be the book report mentality that is built into us beginning in elementary school. i like the idea of a creative-writing type response. looking forward to reading!

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    1. Thanks. I think you’re on to something — I remember writing those book reports in grade school, too, and resenting the way they took the fun out of reading.

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  3. “I don’t know that I have ever read a poet so attentive to the breathing of other people.”

    I’m sure no poet has ever had a reader quite like you, either, Dave. What an astonishing post.

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    1. Thanks. This was my “show don’t tell” attempt to indicate how moved and inspired I was.

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  4. In your last post you wrote:
    “I’ve been trapped in pre-conceived and rather boring notions of how to write about books, I think, and I’m hoping to break out of that. ”

    Hear hear!! Or: here. Here.

    Would that all reviews were written this way – so much more valuable to know what the engagement feels like, viscerally and associatively, than to read posturing by too-often bitter critics.

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    1. Glad you liked, but really, I couldn’t posture if I wanted to. I may have read a lot of poetry, but I have little idea who the important poets are, and very little command of critical language or tools.

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  5. I really enjoy this approach to writing about books so much more than a typical critique or analysis. This is the type of writing that makes me want to know the book as well. I look forward to reading more of these posts. Good luck with your reading schedule.

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    1. Well, thanks. I am like a long-distance runner, trying not to think about the finishing line. A book a day I can do. Thirty books in a month? No fucking way.

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  6. I liked this a lot too. Probably the least valuable part of most reviews is the assessment and placement part that bulks so large in most of them, and which is actually all about the reviewer’s abstract critical notions and biases and not really about the book at all. This was really about the experience of reading the book.

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    1. I’m sure it will strike some as self-indulgent, though. You’re right, but sometimes, comparing a book to others the audience may have read can be a useful way to convey what it’s like, and I don’t promise to completely avoid that in the future. But I’m glad you all like the idiosyncratic approach I took here, because it’s probably a pretty good indication of what most of this month’s posts will be like.

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  7. What a flight of contradictions! You’ve blurred and highlighted a review’s usual praise and reservations into initial reactions. The reader of the poems doesn’t escape into objectivity, and either do the readers of this post. If it’s self-indulgent, I say, then so is reading.

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    1. “Escape into objectivity” — I like that! Of course, subjective judgements masquerading as objectivity are the biggest cop-out.

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  8. Oh shit, you write wonderfully! That’s such a fantastic evocation of all the stuff that blunders about in my own head when reading, and as such is bracing and inspiring as well as oddly comforting. If I was a writer I’d want you as my reader. In fact if I was a writer, I’d commission you to write a footnote to every chapter, as a kind of parallel book. Except then everyone would skip my writing and cut straight to yours. Quite right too!

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    1. Well, geez — thanks! That’s one reason why I like virtual texts, of course: online it’s quite easy to write parallel texts, as we’re doing right now. But print is still a lot more relaxing to read.

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    1. Well, if deploying correct grammar were at all central to being a good writer, you might have a point, but it isn’t.

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  9. I’m heartened for some reason to hear you say what you did about correct grammar, though I can be a bit compulsive about it at times. It’s something I want to let go of a bit.
    This is gorgeous. Reads like a prose poem. Thank you.

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    1. I’m with you Laura. I too get compulsive, frequently at the cost of the prose. Which is why it’s good to have Dave put it in perspective. It makes me happy to hear him say that grammar and the use of it shouldn’t necessarily be central to good writing, though I like to think that I’m not making a fool of myself!

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      1. Attention is central to good writing, but attention to grammar is only one aspect of that, and if the so-called rules are viewed as invariable, they can really hamper the imagination, I think. There are all kinds of totally bogus rules, such as the one against ending with a preposition, or the prejudice against double negatives. Sometimes even something as basic as subject-verb agreement might have to be broken for the good of the sentence.

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  10. What a gorgeously written review! And what gorgeous prose poems by Rosenberg. Am familiar with her other poetry, and also recently read her novel Home Repair but I didn’t know the prose poems. I was able to find a copy through Amazon, but I noticed Mammoth Press also has a website and I could probably order there or find one on EBay. Anyway, so beautiful, both the way you write about your very personal response and the quotes you picked made THESE HAPPY EYES a book I had to have ASAP. Glad I did. Thank you!

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    1. Well, I don’t know her other work, so I’m happy (though not surprised) to hear it’s equally worthwhile. And it’s always gratifying to hear that a blog post about a book I was enthusiaastic about has prompted someone to track down the book. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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