Getting to know each other better

A review of 'Lovely, Raspberry'

Lovely, Raspberry

Lovely, Raspberry

by Aaron Belz

Persea 2010, 80 pages, $15 ISBN 978-0-89255-359-4

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:

It’s confusing
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.