Perfecting dissatisfaction

A review of 'The Smaller Half'

The Smaller Half

The Smaller Half

by Marc Rahe

Rescue Press 2010, 75 pages, $14, ISBN 9780984488902

So-subtle but also entire avoidance of the ironic or deeply transcendent moment end-stops many of the poems in Marc Rahe’s spare and affecting debut, The Smaller Half.  More than just a show of resignation, refusal, or wariness of the comedic or the sublime, Rahe’s poems are reflective of the times in which we live. Why wish so hard for alternatives that don’t exist? Why indulge in the complex mysteries … when it’s hard enough to get the errands done, furnish your house, try to be good?

In a poem titled “Petition,” Rahe writes, “I’ve signed the petition against me” (16). Things are not as they seem. The doctor mentioned in the poem is not a doctor; she’s a maid. A description that the last signer of the petition was seeking revenge is quickly altered, too. He was actually in need of Security, with a capital S, of the Campus variety, and these cops seem to be hot on the speaker’s sweaty heels. Rahe writes,

I’m perfectly dissatisfied.
The fist in my chest clenches
and unclenches according to my medicine. (16)

So much is out of one’s control. Perfecting dissatisfaction, however — it comes off as stoicism, sometimes, and other times it’s tinged with obvious regret — is clearly a significant part of Rahe’s project.

In the poem “Dear Paul,” something terrible has happened to friends, and a previous encounter, one from youth, is described obliquely and formally: “The indecency surrounding that incident / makes me feel terrible shame” (21). Paul’s wife Joanna, we learn, was badly injured or killed in an auto accident. While the speaker’s concern is clearly pronounced throughout poem, his honesty in the direct address of the final stanza is genuine and surprising — more than a little sad, even off-putting.

My glass is empty now.
We arrive the second of August.
You won’t need to meet us.
All solace we may bring you,
we will then. (22)

So is it coldness or wisdom that compels the speaker of these poems to practice repeatedly many forms of avoidance? Or does Rahe simply nod along to acknowledge the fact we wish to deny or make excuses for; that it’s a challenge now more than ever for any of us to bond?

Much of our best poetry is intentionally deflective. But Rahe is sometimes able to deflect experience and open up to it simultaneously. Here is “Thrift Store” in its entirety.

Thrift Store

I am afraid for my life.

The exit sign is audible.

Second-hand clothes from the dead
and the living. I don’t know

that I can love a stranger.

Unrehearsed, never to be tried over.

Every pair of pants
affords a disappointment.

A stranger’s hope
that usefulness hasn’t faded.

I understand the longing. (37)

While we know he doesn’t really understand this “longing” — none of us does, really, until it happens, and probably not even then — Rahe is able to summon longing in its complexity and neatly shelve it for another day.

“I disappear everywhere I look,” Rahe writes, in his poem “Screen.” And that artful “now you see me and now you (and I) don’t” move is on display throughout this collection (55). Why does the speaker of these poems surrender so often and in so many ways? Because, in Rahe’s poems, the world is way too big, and the single person, the single voice, is far too puny, too powerless, in comparison.

At the end of the collection, Rahe writes, “sometimes when I’m waiting / I get patient” (72). Here and elsewhere he presents an exasperating lesson for readers taught to fight to reach the peak and against the dying of the light. No matter what challenges the culture imposes, somehow acceptance becomes an utterly complex contemporary stance Marc Rahe develops and even redefines throughout this memorable collection.