Renewal and Experiment:
Two First Books in Contemporary American Poetry

Brock, Geoffrey. Weighing Light. Ivan R. Dee, 2005. (88 pages)

Millar, Joe. Autobiomythography & Gallery. Brooklyn Arts Press, 2007 (94 pages)

American poetry in the first decade of the 21st century continues to evolve in subject matter and technique—and not always through the typical 20th century onslaught of the new, but also through variation and through that famous Modernist dictum by Ezra Pound to “make it new.” Geoffrey Brock’s wonderful debut, Weighing Light (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), weaves a conversational diction and emotional immediacy through traditional poetic forms to create powerful autobiographical lyrics. These psychologically delicate poems renew poetic forms without spotlighting the technique, a suave accomplishment that has eluded many similar poets in recent years. In contrast Joe Millar’s Autobiomythography & Gallery (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2007) offers a variety of disjunctive language experiments in lyric-size poetry and some larger series, and there are interesting morsels among the smorgasbord here. Millar’s eschewing of clarity and concision likely is his strategy for representing what he calls the “obesity” of life. Millar shows flashes of insight and talent. However this book’s New York School strategy of presenting poetic data, rather than selection and concision, may appeal to adherents of this approach, but it offers little beyond technical play for readers not swayed by new for new’s sake.

Weighing Light

Geoffrey Brock is expert at capturing the illuminations and dislocations of being a young adult journeying toward stability of place, profession, and a relationship—while offering readers a mature, witty voice. Brock already is an accomplished translator of Italian—having translated Italian poet Cesare Pavese and novelist Umberto Eco—and he currently teaches in the graduate writing program at the University of Arkansas. Brock’s sparkling debut has been long in genesis. As a result it possesses a sense of weighed experience even when engaging in neophyte tales of moving apartments and fleeting romances. Alongside this, he also tackles mythology and handles his own moments of introspection; Weighing Light contains a number of gems.
       In poems such as “Epithalamium: Midsummer Convergence” and “Eating Carrots with Charlie Bernheimer” Brock recalls friends and a professor from his student days seen in the bittersweet permanence of memory. Meanwhile the earthly stage-set already has changed. This theme becomes even more explicit in the mostly iambic pentameter sonnet “And the Day Brought Back the Night,” where the speaker pretends to be in a relationship until a:

. . . fact checker showed up, late, for work
And started in: Item: it’s years, not days.
Item: you had no dog. Item: she isn’t back,
In fact, she just remarried. And oh yes, item: you
Left her, remember? I did? I did. (I do.)

Geoffrey Brock approaches loss with humor. He embraces memory with palpable emotion.
       Weighing Light mostly offers short lyric poems of expressive emotion and reflective wit, such as “Move,” “Modern Romance,” “Mon Chat, Mon Semblable,” and the poems cited above. His poetry uses colloquial speech and deadpan humor combined with occasional rhyme and mostly iambic meters. It will be interesting to see if Brock develops talent for philosophical poetry found in the opening poem, “Abstraction,” or if he ever attempts longer narratives, a talent for which is hinted at in his three-page montage “Mundane Comedies.” “Mundane Comedies” ends with an allegorical tale, written in unrhymed iambic pentameter in tercet stanzas, with a concluding couplet. It ends like this:

“Well now if that don’t just beat all,” God says,
Gazing across the field at a knot of men
Arguing outside the tent. He seems

Tired; evening has fallen and many remain
To be interviewed. “Uh, yessir, it sure does,”
I stammer, handing him my application

And standing by the folding metal chair
That faces his. “So, Mr.—” But a cry
Cuts him off, and he rises to his feet,

Flustered. One man lies prostrate on the ground;
The rest have darted back inside the tent.
A gust of wind disturbs God’s hair, his robe.

I cringe, expecting—what? Minutes pass.
“Your application,” he resumes, “I thought—
I’m sure I set it here when I stood up.”

There’s nothing here but us, two empty chairs,
And sun-baked earth. He checks his pockets – nothing.
He turns, chagrined but not apologetic,

Smiles, and tells me: “You’ll have to come on back
Some other time.” I thank him and set out,
Sad but relieved, toward the swaying trees,

Now black against the darkening plain of sky.
“Good luck,” he calls to me. As I glance back,
I see a woman emerge from the tent, sidestep

The body, and begin her trudge toward God,
Pale application flapping in her hands.

Autobiomythography & Gallery

Iowa Writer’s Workshop veteran and installation artist Joe Millar offers a smorgasbord of poetry in his first 90-page collection. The book’s wandering technical adventurism will be its primary attraction for some, and lack of editing under the proud flag of hyper-modern verbosity a repellant to others. The book certainly could have been cut down in pages--though to be fair, Millar may not believe that every line of poetry should matter as Modernists such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and others advocated in their promotion of imagism at the beginning of the 20th century. Millar’s aesthetic comes from the mid 20th century explosive and effusive Abstract Expressionist movement of Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell, and in writing, John Ashbery. However Millar’s poetry does benefit from focus when it offers focus. For instance in eponymous poem, “Gallery….,” Millar writes insightfully:

I am that corruptible thing
pruned by incentive          steadily working toward a whole-someness
what doesn’t
                    kill you        only makes you
                                                               more you
a blue flame at that spirited center
                                                   But what is it at the periphery
                                                     that held at this distance
                                                               desires to be held?

There is much to admire in this insightful beginning; the passage begins with a Christian-echoing assertion that Millar himself is “that corruptible thing.” The next line points out that “corruptible” people are made better through “incentive,” a diction from market economics, but which in this line of poetry refers to being tied to humanity’s search for wholeness. The narrator is “pruned” through the process of “steadily working” toward this “whole-someness.” This vaguely-worded phrase “whole-someness” is effective in showing that the goal of wholeness cherished by many remains a mystery. What is it exactly? We sense it and strive for it, but rarely understand. The next line broken across the page horizontally offers a twist on a Nietzsche’s aphorism so Millar can argue that there is no escape from the self through experience. Experience only “makes you / more you.” This dive in “you” is the poem’s most intense fire. It is “the blue flame” at the core of burning. Millar uses the descriptive word “spirited” to echo the word “spiritual,” leaving readers with tasty hot food for thought. The poem then asks about “what is it at the periphery”—asks how the self relates to the world?
       The poem then drops this question and runs on and on for many additional pages. Millar’s strategy of piling all sorts of associations into his poems leads him to follow this opening question with additional stanzas featuring a bus ride, an art gallery, “[m]ascara-purple clowns,” and then fifteen more pages. For the modern reader on the information superhighway, I wonder whether endless and seemingly unedited data can be the best literary strategy. Autobiomythography & Gallery offers a river of images, verbal play, and quick scenes. Its unanchored assertions tackle today’s diverse and disjunctive world. Here in “Gallery….” precise philosophical poetry would have continued this poem’s compelling, argumentative, and visual opening. Instead, it sidesteps it. In the end, stringing together lines of data however novel is easier than writing coherently about the nature of the self, the self and the world, or corruption and wholeness. That is the “news” of poetry that still needs to be written, read, and discussed.

Gregg Mosson's first book of poetry Season of Flowers and Dust is forthcoming from Goose River Press in November 2007. He edits the annual journal Poems Against War, including most recently Poems Against War: Music & Heroes (www.poemsagainstwar.com). He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where he was a teaching fellow and lecturer. His commentary and poetry have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Baltimore Sun, Loch Raven Review, Beauty/Truth: A Journal of Ekphrastic Poetry, and other places.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761