What are we to think of books of poetry that are deliberately odd? Book Four, for example, does not appear to be preceded by Books 1-3 by the same author. The editor/publisher, Margaret Bashaar, has added completely non-functional stitching and a large button to the cover (and varies this from one copy to the next — compare with the photo on the ordering page). And the poems are replete with metaphors and similes that confound rather than elucidate, following a strategy I’ve come to think of as “surrealism squared.”
This was, more or less, the question that Rachel and I found ourselves grappling with this afternoon as we read our way through the collection. I think our most common response was: “I really liked that, but I’m not sure why.” Which is, to my way of thinking, perfectly fine: it’s my reaction to most modern art, for example. Why hold the verbal arts to a tougher standard of immediate accessibility? It definitely helped to have a reading partner, though, to help suss out many of these poems. And reading them out loud clarified not only the aesthetic appeal of the language, but the extent to which the poems do seem to cohere, even if their coherence is not immediately obvious.
That’s a funny thing, because with Gary Barwin the other day, there were a number of poems where the imagery and language appeared to be somewhat random. That wasn’t the case with these poems. Even when we didn’t entirely understand what they were saying, they still seemed to be going somewhere — they had not only energy but gravity and direction.
When it moved like a pterodactyl inside you,
you knew the world you knew was leaving
and left. You tore the world like a ligament
still in you, and still, somehow. In the memorial
plaza of body parts, there are never enough heads.
Naturally we had our favorites. Let me quote the short poem on page 10 (they’re all untitled) in full:
Turn antisolar. To a hill you’ve never been down.
Thunder and wildness, maybe the end of the world. On the horizon,
a raw wound’s labium: the bristling day blinks shut
like a cat eye, concealing the blaze-bulb pupil. Now that you’ve left it, you know
what home is like.
Pollari returns to a number of images in multiple poems, lending them a certain talismanic quality — and helping to unify the collection. She seems especially fond of edges, pits, oil, birds and secrets. Her landscapes are stark and often frightening, ablaze with visions which she seems unwilling either to affirm or deny: “I contain // an upside-down rain,” says one poem. Another laments “all these inconvenient spells.” An interlocutor sees angels and wants the narrator to share his/her doubts. “You wanted fuck your faulty / eyes, it was nothing like that. Which I couldn’t give.”
I don’t think I’m imagining an environmental consciousness at work in many of these poems — another thing that added to my pleasure. Here for example is how the poem on page 7 begins:
When the green world begins to leak
is when it begins. Someone pours buckets of black oil
into a canal. Liquid clings to things with skins and pores
and feathers, a girl turns white and sick just watching it.
The fact is that the world doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t necessarily the job of poets to invent new stories so we can continue to feed our delusion that we understand much of anything. Sometimes we learn more by living with the questions, even — or especially — when they’re unsettling, and implicate us in the world’s continual undoing.
Watch the broken down TV
in the dark, drink down the dark
malt liquor: it’s nobody’s
fault, we’ve all just stopped
in here, lit as a TV, blooming like tissue
in a trash fire. […]
How does an ecosystem sustain.
Where can I drive to. What sweet
buds do we have left to pick
my love, my love.
Perhaps the oddness isn’t as deliberate as I thought; perhaps it’s unavoidable. And for all I know, this really is Niina Pollari’s fourth book. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever she publishes next.