A review of 'Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan'
Any discussion of Jean Daive’s Under The Dome: Walks with Paul Celan must start with admiration for the work of the translator. For the French poet Daive’s chronicle of Paris walks with the great German-language poet Celan is a treatise on the question of translation, operating at precisely the point where translation meets poetry. That is, at the edge of the incommunicable. The allure of this odd chronicle has to do in part with an endlessly short-circuited intimacy during a half-decade of Paris walks — a failure that is clearly a trope for the difficulty of language to transmit over deep and definite gulfs. Each poet is conversant in the other’s language, indeed, translates the other. Yet so many of their conversations are riddled with ellipses, with gaps, with odd performative reaches, that the reader is endlessly aware of the tension between languages, between systems and ways of speaking. Rosmarie Waldrop does a remarkable job of scoring the sense of moving between systems, through all that gets left in the abyss. One can literally feel in the brilliant Waldrop English-language version of Sous la coupole that restlessness of the mind, that reach that involves a continual motion between different strives toward poetic gesture. Her translation of this chronicle which is so much, in itself, about translation, is one of those exemplary renderings from one language to another that adds as much or more than gets subtracted.
My first encounter with Rosmarie Waldrop’s writing was A Key Into The Language of America, a poetic reinscription of a colonial document about an essentially missing indigenous language in the Rhode Island region. I was at first troubled reading the text, which is both poetry and essay, by the inference that what is left of the missing “Indian” is alone (my italics) difficult place names. But the German-born American poet Waldrop’s project turned out to involve a language-focused reveal of the limits of consciousness prevailing in her adopted culture vis-à-vis the indigenous Other. It was a serious interrogation and poetic re-splicing of a “progressive” 1643 chronicle about the “Indians” of the region and their language, written by Roger Williams, whose very presence as a colonizer of Indian land augured the cultural genocide to come. A good example of the layers of time and thinking involved in translation.
In translating Daive’s Under The Dome, Waldrop is acting in the more usual translator mode of directly channeling into English a French-language story involving a German-Jewish poet refugee from a mid-twentieth-century European genocide. It would be tempting as a translator to smooth over the gaps, the awkwardnesses, the misfires, a little, for the sake of clarity. But this important translation excavates what Benjamin called the poetic essential of the text by deploying language that very quietly, unobtrusively, has the effect of metonymically underscoring the layers of transliteration already present in Jean Daive’s recounting of his 1965–1970 Paris walks with the great Celan. Written twenty years after the fact, in prose fragments that often recall, in tone, the discursive language acts of nouvelle vague cinema, the translation is in turn taking place a couple of decades after the text is written. But time cannot alter the longing, in language, for connection. I find myself almost physically experiencing the actual sense of continual transition between systems of thinking, which is, indeed, the poetic secret of the text and of Waldrop’s adroit translation. Precisely because the effect is cumulative, is a metonymic progression, it is difficult to provide an analysis in this space of how she accomplishes this task. Sometimes, it is with what seems to me an odd choice for an English rendering. Here is a tiny instance of that:
— There is a trap. There is a trap between Paul and me.
I might have been tempted, here, to reach a little more. The English “There is a trap between Paul and me” is odd. Speculating on the French version, which I have not seen, I might have said: “There is a serious complication with Paul.” But Waldrop, the poet, does not water the surface language for the sake of “message”; she takes it to the other extreme, and may, in so doing, reveal the text’s most profound measure.
THERE IS A TRAP:
If Daive’s memoir already suggests, with its semantic leaps, the “trap” of gaps or abysses experienced in conversations with Celan, the quite lovely prose fragments recounting those Paris walks also blur time. And the French poet’s refusal to make the slightest concession to the linear draw of prose releases the (non)meaning from the “trap” of that relationship. Like the donkey that Daive watches while writing the chronicle in a Greek Island café two decades later, Celan augments distance by remaining a static image that “does not let anything encroach …” Though he [the donkey!] “cries, he weeps, he brays,” what the chronicler Daive hears, in the untranslatable braying, is the anguish of the “still living mass fall into the sea, into the Seine.” The mass is Celan’s suiciding body. That the braying stands in for the poet in itself gives pause. A pause full of telling vectors about Daive’s take on the relationship. Celan is always leaving. That is, he is always disappearing into the obliquity of his own interior, reappearing seemingly with effort, with a certain pomp that may simply be the awkardness, again, of transiting syntax, so conversation seems performed:
— For it is said you shall translate on the seventh day.
— In which passage of the Bible is this written?
— A passage in my head.
And Jean Daive, the acolyte, panting for acknowlegement, appreciation, suffers from this distance, yet in that inimitable French way of seeing things for what they are, knows himself how to keep an ironic distance. He notes how often Celan, as they take leave of each other in front of the older poet’s apartment building, suggests “with perfectly controlled embarrassment, (that) I don’t come up because the cleaning woman didn’t come today.” Daive insists over and over again on Celan’s reticence. Re: the wartime deportation of his parents, for example, which he dislikes talking about. Or, Celan citing a remembered poster: “The One Alone exists.” — I listen, says Daive. I listen above all to his jerky diction that detaches every word, almost every syllable. The words so detached plunge into a state of waiting that indefinitely prolongs my listening. Paul creates an aquarium effect that muffles what he communicates, makes it hard to hold onto, hold onto immediately. He summons Celan’s morbidity — recounting how a dormitory nurse would wake the children mornings with Debout les morts (Up, you corpses). Daive, watching the donkey, recalls, one more time, the report of Celan disappearing, then of his body found in the Seine.
Yet, there is nothing morbid about the walks. — As soon as we talk the world seems to lose some of its solidity, and its move toward loss that interests us. But we cannot always face it. It requires an availability that is scorching, says Celan, while Daive contemplates the golden light (that) falls on our approaching fingers, fingers about to disturb with a golden-yellow handshake the usual distance. Always the hope of gold. The gold of poetry. The gold of a sunset. The gold of wonder around the next corner. One can feel the still (then) compelling shadow of surrealism on Daive’s recounting of their movements about the city. The strangeness of “hazard (risk)” that we, contemporaneously, trust less and less. Their walks awaken in the reader the retro desire to live as they seemed to. With time to sit and stroll and seek, in verbal exchanges that sometimes border on nonsense, the better to allow whatever can to surface. The better to find that place where angst meets pleasure in endless awkward conversations (cited extensively by Daive decades later — was he taking notes all the time?) that seem to be the map of their quest. — The search for groundlights is not enough (Celan). There’s the axis to be followed and … forgotten. You must above all find lightness — buoyancy — The permanent defiance of gravity.
A review of the film 'Under Foot & Overstory'
I’ve been captivated by the title of a Joseph Beuys lithograph since I saw it years ago. The image features the artist at his Documenta V desk in 1972, where for a hundred days he tirelessly debated radical politics with gallery visitors. An alert, focused Beuys anchors the bottom center; a section of the back of a head (his conversant) dominates the left foreground. On the tabletop separating them, a single long-stemmed rose reaches up into the blank top portion of the composition, slicing the image in half. We can’t do it without the rose. What can’t be done without the flower and why must it go unnamed? Why the plural pronoun: “we”? Two heads converge with the help of a plant — and visuality is implicated. The image itself would wilt without the graphic aid of the flower — its diagonal stem line, tight crowd of petals, leaves pushing back at the picture plane in every direction. The rose is essential for some constellation of conversation, communion and composition.
There are no roses in Jason Livingston’s 16mm film Under Foot & Overstory (2005), but there are dozens of tall wild flowers in full and distinct bloom. Delighted, saturated, undeniably first-person views of burgundy and fuchsia petaled plants, Queen Anne’s Lace, bluebells, dandelions — as well as insects that roam them — punctuate this work in which the filmmaker himself is a double-headed creature, sitting at both sides of the table. He is both observer and participant as he documents the process by which the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, of which he is a member, struggle to produce a mission statement to protect two hundred acres of untouched land in Iowa City, currently threatened by development. His own “I” comes and goes willingly as he listens carefully to the way language works. The sound track consists, in part, of fragments from the transcript of collaborative composition-in-process, swaths from the stream of mission statement deliberation. Members labor over sentence construction and word choice. “I have a small issue with using the word natural twice,” the filmmaker himself declares. Others weigh in: “I’m a believer in bullets, colons.” “It doesn't have to be poetry — it’s a mission statement.”
Perhaps not, but poetry is strewn throughout the film, less an object or intention than a force — an animating presence. Livingston is an essayist, but his eyes are set firmly on the poetic mobility of language shards — he’s a collector and reassembler of samples from multiple and contradictory sources of mind-in-nature and he asks us to read them all. Accompanying the conversations of the convening Friends are images from a larger constellation of park-talk that turn language-making into something we can see: the printing press production of park calendars; journalists jotting on legal pads; views of a hand-scripted park journal written by a local outlaw; and a charades sequence, shot in black and white in the snowy woods, that dominates the film’s middle section (bracketed on each end by a piece of paper announcing “intermission”). Each is a fragment of inscription, a close up of the meeting place where the chaotic stream of language meets the ground of materiality.
… encouraging the well being of physical and mental — mind, body and spirit, if we want to go — go in that — crazy little thing — well-being — of mind, body and spirit — that’s good — encouraging? well-being. enhancing? I like enhancing. enhancing, that’s great. ok. would it be a mistake to move into words like contemplation? exercise? relaxation? contemplation. reflection? reflection is a nice word.
everybody could come up with a list of … these words, that they get out of it. by saying just well-being, we leave that open to — I think that’s right — open to personal interpretation. enhancement of personal well-being. overall well-being. I just rather — without getting into those touchy-feely words that — not that I’m opposed to them.
this is an interesting struggle we’re having here. I don’t mind using the word spiritual. I don’t mind using the word spirit. It’s that phrase — it connotes too much. yep. uh huh. but I think promoting well-being might be something …
which in itself has … carries meaning. it’s not empty. well-being.
does anyone feel like we've lost something significant?
do we have a word processor?
We enter Under Foot and Overstory on a dirt path cutting through an emerald swath of woods, the image slightly rising and falling with the motion of what feels like the filmmaker’s feet. The up-and-down treading reappears, enlarged, in the ongoing joining of ground and sky in the film — from bare feet (again, the filmmaker’s, it seems) landing on grass to upward views of a snow-caked tree and towering flowers resting against a sky that couldn’t be bluer. This vertical travel is abstract as well: the film’s reverential consideration of the lush parkland (its spiritual potential) is joined by a steady taking-in of its most mundane and material elements — clipboards, throat clearings, bullet points.
The distinction between the filmmaker’s own feet and those of others blurs; the first-person singular morphs into the plural (again: we can’t do it without the rose). The rhythm of Livingston’s opening walk catalyzes a cascade of park-traversal from every direction and at every rhythm: a woman repeatedly roams its fields with a camera; a little boy bounces down a walkway with his father; a monarch jaggedly flutters; cross-country skiers glide by. Wheelbarrows, tractors, and shovels also make their own tracks in the land — at this point the “we” of the film includes the developers, too. All these crossings of the park, all the indentations made in the ground, are part of the cosmos of inscription that Livingston is following.
The variety of language threads and registers present in the film — bureaucratic, poetic, public, private, spoken, written — stems in part from Livingston’s insistence on relentless listening over stylistic continuity. He describes Under Foot & Overstory as an experiment with placing “intervals of very subjective visionary-inflected styles of shooting” side by side with the reformist and persuasive impulses of documentary. As one of the mission statement writers says: “the problem with having a lot of voices — you end up with different styles.”
Toward the end of the film, the Friends of Hickory Hill Park struggle to know how or if “permanence” should appear in the mission statement — can they demand the infinite protection of this public land? But in the final moments, next to views of the sun dropping in a burnt orange sky, text informs us that “soon only a handful of private homeowners will see this sunset — developers bought this vantage point.” Livingston returns to the emerald path of the film’s first shot — but this time makes a 360-degree rotation, revealing the fact that there are multiple paths at this juncture. He chooses one, and soon we are out of the woods, and the dirt path turns to a new stretch of sidewalk. The camera finds the place where ground and concrete meet and pivots, so that the screen is split in two.
A review of 'An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris'
The objective of a Baudelairian flâneur or Situationist psychogeographer might be described as the revelation of what’s hidden in plain sight. With their modern walkabouts, these conceptual strollers break free of the direct lines of commuter travel and instead happily wallow in an inefficient dawdle. A close cousin, the aspirations of constraint-based writing can be said to be the exploration of the “potential” literature created via similarly artificial detours from more traditional paths of composition.
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris was written by Georges Perec during a gray Parisian weekend in October 1974. The stated intention was to “describe … that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” A nonambulatory flâneur, Perec sets himself up at a cafe in Place Saint-Sulpice to do as his directive epigraph of Life: A User’s Manual orders us to do also: “Look with all your eyes, look.”
Of course the underlying joke of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is the absolute impossibility of exhaustively documenting any environment, however quotidian, or any instant of time, however short, especially with the beautifully linear and limited tool of language. While pretending a goal and attitude of rigor, Perec’s simultaneous assumption of futility colors the work with a shade of melancholic comedy — a cosmic joke with failure and constant loss as the punchline.
Take for instance his quickly (and quietly) abandoned categories from the morning of the first day: “Outline of an inventory of some strictly visible things,” (which includes letters and numbers) “Trajectories,” (which includes the direction of the buses, and “Colors” (which are reductively plain, e.g. a “blue bag” and a “green raincoat”). These arbitrary categories slyly underscore their own arbitrariness (you could even say their own silliness). By beginning his project immediately with a feint at cataloging the infinite (e.g. trajectories) Perec initiates a one-person epistemological Laurel and Hardy routine.
Part of the comedy too is the Sisyphean cycle of trying, giving up, and then starting all over again. A poignant example of this occurs with Perec’s observation of buses through the city square. He’s constantly noting them:
The 96 goes to Montparnasse station (6).
A 63 passes by. A 96 passes by (11).
A 70 goes by, full (22).
In the middle of the work he interrupts to comment parenthetically:
(why count the buses? Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they
cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re
The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they
have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag
marked with a big “M” of Monoprix, or a customer to order a coffee instead
of a beer…) (22–3).
But then the following morning:
Buses pass by. I’ve lost all interest in them (29).
Yet soon enough he’s back to noting them:
A bus: “Percival Tours” (31).
A 96 goes by (42).
The 63 (45).
The 96 (47).
Constraint-based writing might also be described as the poetic residue of someone else’s thought experiment. So in addition to the re-realization of his chosen task’s impossibility, in Perec’s shifting categories and evolving real-time commentary, we’re also privy to other discoveries. For instance, due to Perec’s time-stamped headers, we get a sense of the speed of thought, at least of Perec’s, which feels both leisurely and focused. The reader gets, in other words, a very real sense of how long it takes Perec to write an entry so that, despite the noted impossibility, a rather vicarious understanding of Perec’s weekend is achieved.
Ultimately then the inherently doomed objective goal of exhausting a place in Paris leads us surprisingly to the successful portrait of a particular subjectivity. It’s a stunning and bittersweet act of intimacy and remembrance. For example in the following passage: the startling moment of Perec’s inclusion of the word “splendid.” Interrupting the stream of so-called facts, this simple adjective for a moment sights Paris pigeons uniquely through Perec’s eyes:
An 87. A 70. A 63.
Rue Bonaparte, a cement mixer, orange.
A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86.
The wind is making the leaves on the trees move.
It is one fifty.
SNCF parcels service.
The people from the funeral procession have entered the church
Passage of a driving-school car, a 96, a 63, a florist’s van, blue, which parks next
to the undertaker’s van and from which a funeral wreath is taken.
In splendid unity, the pigeons go round the square and return to settle on the
district council building’s gutter.
There are five taxis at the taxi stand.
An 87 goes by, a 63 goes by. (13–14)
This handsomely designed book from Wakefield Press also includes a moving translator’s afterword, which argues (thought provokingly if not entirely convincingly) that An Attempt can be seen as an “inverted version” of Perec’s masterwork Life: A User’s Manual. Certainly larger than its slim dimensions indicate, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is, in the end, less a strategically flawed urban snapshot than a mysterious and craftily unauthorized autobiography.
A review of 'A Reading: Birds'
little red leaves / down to bare words
Both the name of this publisher and the first line of the book’s single poem answer each other, in their two four-syllable joinings of language to the natural world. But the words in the book are not so bare, sewn into covers whose outer life consists of light blue and white geometrical patterns that alternatively make me think of abstracted patterns of clouds and a weaving together of the world. Cranes and flowers grace the inner covers, and in the poems, a weaving of words, with little abstraction, though indicating a great and perhaps mystical geometry of nature.
The cranes flying through the fog, out of the sun into the
open valley to feed, with ducks and geese and tundra
swans, the flocks so numerous in the old days they say the
sky was darkened for hours with their passing. (9)
Always, in this book, words as well as birds. The passage above ends,
The legendary, nearly mythical abundance of that time, how to say
it or see it or imagine that time. (9)
first printing of A Reading: Birds, by Beverly Dahlen published by Little Red Leaves' textile series, February 2011
“That time” is, at times in this lovely (in all ways) book, ancient, or prehistoric, or the time of the author’s youth (which can also be mythical in one’s mind). Seeing “the great central / valley of California [summer the first time I saw it, men tossing watermelons hand to hand into / a boxcar on the siding: Modesto?]” (7).
Time and memory give way to a presence of all-time, “Standing there in the air.” (13)
Remember, though, in this book that presents and invokes both the real and imagined natural world, the consciousness of writing such a world, the task is not just to see and note the birds but to say them, and not to say them only as an individual, but as part of the human “we.”
croaking out of the sky (5–6)
In such saying, we partake of literary imagining, noting, and questioning the natural world, from William Blake’s “Little lamb, who made thee?” (14) to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “I caught this morning morning’s minion” (13), whose very movement of syllables — sprung as they are — calls to mind the flight of birds, particularly its sometimes sudden change of direction.
How does one catch a bird?
While Dahlen may not share Hopkins’s quite literal sense that the birds and all the world are “for Christ’s sake,” she manages to suggest the possibility of spiritual presence, a thisness that humans may only approach, or hang onto, in words, in language.
Finally as much as about birds, A Reading: Birds is about us, the humans, who are often stuck outside.
we voyeurs peeking
through our glasses
them with lists and
cameras the birds
their exotic rituals (12)
Yet collecting them in lists is not getting there, to the heart of the matter, to the meadow of first permission (as Robert Duncan, another great California poet who invokes childhood memories, might have it). We need all our words, all our imaginings, to get there. We need humility in the face of the natural world. We need to listen, as to the mourning dove.
Softly, thinking of its story,
why does it mourn. Listening. (17)
An endnote to the book presents a story told by the Yurok people of northwestern California, about how the mourning dove came to have its particular call. This tale too is an imagining that catches the bird in its words.
In writing about the work of Beverly Dahlen, I think too, as with observing the birds, I should remain quiet, reading and listening. She is a marvel to apprehend, in all her words. Why?
because they sing
because they fly
A review of 'Lovely, Raspberry'
Serious is the name of a former contestant on Flavor of Love. Serious is a misdemeanor. Serious means grave or somber, which Aaron Belz’s second poetry collection, Lovely, Raspberry, is not, or it can mean thoughtful, critical and earnest, which the collection is. More importantly, it’s a pleasure to read.
The poems don’t trumpet intentions of grandeur, but through their brightness, musicality, and richness of imagery, they invite connection in an idiosyncratic way. Concern for the reader is never abandoned. Empathy-sans-pandering is the book’s signature style.
Belz’s poems aspire to please, yes, but slyly, self-consciously, personably. Some are conspicuously set up as jokes, such as “the one about the ectoplasm and the osteoblast,” wherein these characters are sitting at — where else? — a bar, discussing their private lives. Getting to know each other better, the osteoblast asks:
Why are you the outer relatively
rigid granule-free layer of the cytoplasm usually
held to be a gel reversibly convertible to a sol?”
And the ectoplasm is like, “Wow, that is such
an awkward question.”
The bartender interrupts to take their beverage order, recommending a fresh keg of the new brew:
They both break into fits of laughter. “Oh my gosh!”
says the osteoblast, “Dead Buy is a German-style
Maibock that’s deep honey in color with a malty
aroma, rich hearty flavor and a well-balanced finish.
Now does that sound like the kind of beer we drink?”
The biological facts of these absurd characters reveal that cytoplasm makes up the outer layer of a cell and osteoblasts are responsible for bone formation. If you choose to probe this angle, the poem discusses differences in nature and behavior; it can be interpreted as a parody of the struggles of selfhood. Or, it’s simply a thrilling bon mot about temporary social allegiances and awkward attempts of fumbling towards intimacy.
This choose-your-own-depth layering is the most striking feature of Lovely, Raspberry. Light surrealism contributes to this effect, as does the conversational tone, dry humor, and queasy punch lines. In another poem, “i met katharine hepburn for cocktails last night,” the speaker is imbibing with the late, great actress. Hepburn has developed a tremor, however, resulting in a headshake to nearly every question or proposal, ranging from drink offers to sexual solicitations.
In Belz’s poetry, interactions are regularly misunderstood, expectations are shot down and unpredicted situations rise from the ashes. We never do discover Hepburn’s intentions. These poems inhabit a world where every confession manages to be both serious and not, balancing on a razor’s edge between froth and deep melancholy. “I kissed her cheek one time when it came my way,” is how the poem closes, on a note of uncertainty, of grand gestures swept aside, of affection swiped but quickly returned.
“Mr. Fibitz” begins with a resolute divulgence:
I no longer say that my beer
has “head”; I say it has a foamy
top. I say these is a goodly froth
in the uppermost portion,
that it seems almost whipped.
No, I don’t say that my beer
seems “whipped” or that it has
“head,” even as I never ask
if people are “coming.”
“I am having a big party —
are you coming?” seems
horribly confusing to me.
While this may be perceived as — and indeed, is — a series of mildly bawdy jokes, Belz here puts pressure on the representational nature of language. Stanza breaks add tension and wit. We regularly recognize double, even triple, meanings to simple diction, just as we might in social exchanges. Belz’s craftsmanship has a light touch, but serves to problematize the very effort to communicate. As with any salty humor, it’s impossible to please all readers, but Belz sallies forth with impressive audacity. It is precisely his piquant love of humanity that disallows boredom.
So the poem continues, rising in action and stakes. After dissecting various terms, the appearance of — what else? — a donkey, the title character Mr. Fibitz heightens the play. The narrator explicitly does not (and by explication, of course, does) refer to him as an “ass,” which he does not “mount,” in avoidance of the phrase, “ride / some ass.” In the end, the narrator admits:
for the listener, and the listener
is whom I care about. However,
sitting erect on Mr. Fibitz I do feel gay
happy enough to ride him for hours —
it’s just no longer what I say.
The listener is whom he cares about, emphasized by the singular repetition of that word in one tidy line. That’s why the speaker is willing to don the rodeo clown’s costume, flag down the danger, reveal misunderstandings and affections, and yet distract you from their violence, all in a colorful rush.
Lovely, Raspberry begins on a tender note, gently but with a direct apostrophe, reassuring his readers that they are not irrelevant:
You expect me to tell you about the interior of the room
in which I’m typing this, and connect that to my feelings
but I’d rather tell you about the interior of your room
and use that as a symbol for something less abstract.
Actually, here’s a better idea. Let’s put our heads together
and try to think up a third room unknown to either of us
The poem clarifies the importance of the relationship between reader and writer, and the emergence of a third element. Call it intimacy. Call it independent meaning-making. But such a triangulation amends Joseph Conrad’s old equation that, “one writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader.” Lovely, Raspberry, for whatever its connotations, is an audience-driven book that takes great care to use imagery and voice to make connections through text.
“Reinventing the Wheel” describes a paradigm in which two characters switch bodies and temperaments. The addressee becomes “taller and less confident, / with a shopkeeper’s eye and shiny skin.” The speaker, in turn, transforms into “what I had wanted to be, / a pensive, slightly overweight woman / with a knack for arcane geography.” The poem continues, swelling from plainspoken description to a nearly-satiric, pulpy-romantic conclusion:
Will we be happy as our new selves?
I ask myself as we lean back with brandies
on a moonlit night; I think we will,
I think to myself, though I’m thinking it as you,
and you’re looking down on me as I would,
as if at any minute I might steal something,
but still not knowing what is in my mind —
a peninsula where it rains but never snows.
The ability to turn a phrase unexpectedly while refraining from overtly disjunctive syntax is one of the chief feats of this book. Enjambments roll out to a tempo of continual rerouting. In this poem, the close repetition of “thinking” indicates both the sincere interiority of relationships and a baroque joke; in fact, estrangement becomes the punch line. The ending is left ambiguous, because these conundrums — identity, compromise, suspicion, the lure of greener pastures — don’t have a neat resolution. We must look away, towards the surrealism of the situation, towards lovely, maudlin details (“brandies / on a moonlit night”), towards a mental geography where feelings precipitate and ideas are fluid.
Belz’s poems are driven equally by anecdotal content and language play, as if our capacity for verbal invention can lead to more beautiful surprises in our lives. And for many readers, it does. Even the title, Lovely, Raspberry, was nipped from the found juxtaposition of his daughter’s shoebox. The color was raspberry; the make was labeled lovely. The title is, once again, a site for double meaning, one in praise of a natural phenomenon, one naming a sputtering noise whose intention — flirtation? contempt? — is contingent.
Belz is a generous writer whose work is indiscriminately influenced by John Donne and Mark Twain, Odgen Nash and John Ashbery, Richard Brautigan and Wallace Stevens.
Lovely, Raspberry proves that a worthwhile reading experience does not require research or obfuscation. In short, Belz is refreshingly unpretentious, just a nerd who loves words and is, at turns, confounded and delighted by the nature of utterance.