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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Certain forms of sickness heighten sensation, make the skin prickle in response to even the expectation of touch, make molars resound down to the deep-sunk nerves at even the slightest of stimulation, make the eyes wince from the glare of a blank page, make the faintest rustle of rhythmic clicking echo to excruciating volume. You drown in your own perceptions. There is some of that suffering here, in these clean lines, finished with an often cruel polish. “Geese vaporized through the jet’s turbines / are just another form of air,” for instance, or a bridge, after a flood, is “like a mink’s leg in the trap, / that over a summer of scratching itself hairless, / its inflammations turned black.”
For all the throb, there is the medicinal gloss, the gurgle of drugged soothing. Television is “a pill / inducing sleep” for one narrator. Another wishes “for the slow lives of the statues to catch up, // the analgesic of snow to smother the snow.” All the while knowing, as the next line goes, that “a tree cracking in the cold is the densest // kind of ache....” The lines here alternate between emulating the experience of anesthesia and the pang as it instantly wears away. Consider the blend of submerged ache and spiking throb in the clatter and hum of this passage: “Each morning I wake // to the restaurant emptying its artillery of bottles / into the alley, while evening is the hue // of an apple left atop the radiator.” There is a logic, too, shaped by such oscillation between pain and numbness: “I believe in painting the fire escape the color of water / that the starling’s center is a single rusted nail.” Or, perhaps better put, these poems give witness to a perception that emerges from such a condition: “Each morning a man maims the same tune on the subway platform. / Concierge half asleep in your chair, do you half-hear, half-see / the silverfish?”
A clock made of bones, “the gun chest’s mahogany scent” or “the neo-electrical taste of a 16 penny nail, / the delivery trucks’ insecticide / fumes of derelict idle” are all reminiscent, visceral triggers, testimonies of a circumstance. But symptoms and their talking through are but prologue here, as associative, as gauzy or ethereal—“I had a paper cut for a voice. / I was mostly alone.”—such hallucinatory passages, partially palpable, are palpable all the same, words sunk through feelings like a long pin through a specimen moth. Rasmovicz realizes there is something beyond that fever, the chills. The voice of these poems cannot rest content with documenting such fleeting physical sensations, like “Bong water, scat in a paper bag aflame on our porch. / O holy prank of the skin in which we reside.” And so a philosophical turn, meditations from within this physical shell, this world of words and experience. A Cartesian move, to take the unexamined assumptions, turn them over like a potsherd. For Rasmovicz, background noise, the hourly gurgle of apps, becomes a fresh window into epistemology:
Cloudy tomorrow and 53. Cloudy Wednesday
and 60. Periods of sun and 64...
That is what we look forward to.
Not that the predictions are accurate,
or knowing anything about anything
There are other windows. For me, the most jarring image—the most true?—narrated the sense of just how alien it can feel, “looking into the eye of a horse. / A perfect vacancy, // a perfect oculus, a kaleidoscope of black / reminding that life is never yours / exactly....” Alterity, the academics call it: and for a poem to sing back some knowledge of this edge of knowledge can be compared to those archaic maps that marked off the monstrous and uncharted margins of the human world.
Imagine an invalid, bed-bound, insomniac, pondering “whatever animal it is at 3 AM / beneath the living room floorboards” and pondering by that pondering the nature and limits of the self, stretching out, from within the containing envelope of paper-thin, rag-damp skin, to various map-edge moments, lived and imagined. That gives you some sense of Idiopaths, in terms of tone and power. A knowledge that comes from illness, from the dreams of disordered and restless sleep that, in some stolen second, offer a sense of scale unprecedented, a gaping maw, and the invalid, in relation, some tiny and insignificant, ignorant thing, yet altered by the vision, and even as that invalid coughs awake, buckling over, breathless, some fragment from the nightmare lingers, not as terror, but as some paradoxical promise, a cellular memory of something beyond:
That until you’ve drank from the vivisected head of the plastic baby doll
found at shoreline
will you understand half of what a dandelion root knows,
can you come to your name as your own.