Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“You’re stuck in a dream / and without knowing / much of anything make / the best of it and if not / the best, an absolute mess,” writes Sarai in a poem that touches on angels and anarchism, Spinoza and the subcontracting of virtue. “Who knows what / anything means and all / that given all that may be / a load of crap and so may / anything unless there is / no load.” This is the sort of move that characterizes this book, a turning of thought, then a drop, like a glob of oatmeal on a new blouse. Poetry could be about “good moral character,” of course, but it’s the embarrassing facts that are what we are. As Sarai writes: “I am wet clay, not the wind.” Even angels here—and there are a few—are pretty pedestrian, waiting at the bus stop with the rest of us, nursing their own doubts or, in any case, presenting particular problems for description: “a lingering phosphorescence, no / luminescence, oh! it is incandescence.”
Nothing is quite as golden, in these pages, as transparency, though this quality can be found in “the preacher’s / rhapsodic subway lament” as well as the evangelical work—imagined as inconvenient door-to-door proselytizing—by those dead but ever-living philosophical and literary greats.
The poetry practiced here emerges concomitant with a theory of poetry as a particularly meaningful kind of work, a work of the imagination that enlarges us ethically even if it doesn’t explicitly plumb the “steadfast heart” but focuses, instead, on EpiPens and medical marijuana, the shared shiver of friends at a horror film or what Sarai identifies as ultimately “psychedelic,” “Personal history, the day-to-day.” Poetry matters because when poets say that the “struggle could end if only” it is living possibility, however wildly improbably, like “Planks laid over [a] volcano.” Poetry is resolutely work—Sarai has a poem praising Warhol’s commitment to productivity, slipping away from the party scene—and it dies in the fists of certain economic and political systems—“There’s no poetry in consumerism or / totalitarianism,” she writes. To flesh this out, compare “Your high school / English teacher” versus “Your high school principal.” One channels voices redolent of eternity, refusing the world as it is seen to be given; the other is concerned with budgets and discipline.
“It doesn’t take brains, this thing called happiness,” but that doesn’t make it any less elusive in a world of distractions, represented here by forks in mattresses, the undeserved fame of snake, and the need to kill various elves. “When Trouble farts, you can smell it,” Sarai writes. Thus, the challenge of the poet is to imagine a world in which luminescence, phosphorescence, and/or incandescence can compete with that. These poems, dappled with wry humor and an earnest self-referentiality, are part of such a project.
Official Indolent Books Web Site