Meta Meta-Ness: Poetry at a Distance
This issue of poetry, poetry book reviews, an interview, and several pieces of flash fiction has its moments: Rob Carney’s review of poet Scott Poole’s The Sliding Glass Door strikes that desired but difficultly-executed balance between entertainment and critical engagement (Carney doesn’t just summarize Poole’s work, he preaches about it convincingly, illuminating its best qualities); Nathan E. White’s elegies to a suicidal mother are believable, if perhaps a bit too restrained for my taste; and Silas Hanson’s nonfiction flash piece “The Masculinity Test” stands out as the most believable, articulate, well-crafted piece of writing in the issue.
Even with much to praise, however, Redactions relies perhaps too heavily on the theme of meta-poetics—which results in the selected poems not feeling distinct and/or vividly memorable, at least for the most part. Giving every poem in the issue a chance, I was consistently distracted by references to language itself, which were on the whole unnecessary and overshadowed many of the individual poets’ particular concerns. Lines like “Do not mourn her chemise / fallen to the ground / in scattered sentences,” “You can only drown us in excuses of deflated rafts / with vowels marooned by accents, / alphabets sailed like paper boats in the ocean / consonants committing mutiny to thoughts,” and “Emma puts sounds together, names her world with syllables,” when strung together (these selections are from three separate poets’ work) combine to hit the reader over his or her head with what might playfully be called “an overly meta meta-ness.”
Poems that by themselves have merit—each approaching beauty in their own distinct, linguistically interesting ways—have that beauty interrupted by an insistence on language itself that, repeated time and again, makes the selections as a whole feel like under-developed, first efforts (graduate-level workshop writing that is just beginning to open up and assert itself, rather than poetry that is completely self-aware and distinct), even though many of the poets represented in this issue have impressive biographies, with multiple books to their names and publication credits in many well-known journals.
My other primary criticism of the poetry in this heavily poetry-weighted journal is a tendency for the work to invoke what I believe is an annoying, overly-detached, omniscient third person better reserved for science textbooks than the emotional, evocative, creative space contemporary poetry engenders, regardless of School or aesthetic stance. Perhaps I have experienced too many poetry workshop settings, but lines like “The stately six-year-old / sat on the floor slicing / with his scimitar / pages from army and navy store catalogs” read too declaratively and objectively to ever properly enter the mystical, spirit-charged space every poem should, regardless of its subject matter. Lines like “The small boy stands / on the windowsill,” which begin one particular poem, immediately take me out of it, since they create a difficult-to-ignore space, an awkward metaphysical distance between speaker and poetic subject that renders the subject less alive than it might otherwise seem as a first-person persona or a character with a name to which readers can attach a fictional (though still believable) lived life.
All stylistic concerns aside, the book reviews in Redactions definitely piqued my interest, with Michael Dickman’s Flies (reviewed by Michael Robins) and Deborah Landau’s The Last Usable Hour (reviewed by Kurt Brown) both getting page time alongside Rob Carney’s previously mentioned review of Scott Poole’s The Sliding Glass Door. Even so, I found the additional editor’s choice portion of the book reviews section distracting and unnecessary—and would have preferred that the editor, rather than using what feels like an opportunity to address his own poetic interests for far too long, asking for donations in the process (which seems quite out of place in a book review—there are other, more appropriate places to do this: an introductory editor’s note, for example), simply solicit work from the poets he praises and feature it in the journal’s upcoming issue.
If the work in a literary journal (regardless of that journal’s aesthetic intent) is to be celebrated and generate engaged, independent responses from readers, it should be allowed to stand on its own, without unnecessary commentary of any sort—lest we, the hungry literary audience, die for lack is what is found within the work itself, to paraphrase and play off of William Carlos Williams. With more attention to editing in the proverbial “back seat,” Redactions could, I believe, become much more readable and much more easily celebrated. The polished, exciting, heartbreaking work of writers like Silas Hansen, Nathan E. White, and Scott Poole is without question proof of this. If you have any doubts, pick up a copy of issue 15. At the very least, it deserves a test drive—whether or not purchased.