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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Ecology in the sense of relation: each part eating and excreting the other, breathing in and breathing out. That we understand this best in models, in the human-crafted biospheres and laboratory experiments, marks the limits of our comprehension. The microcosm we can more or less understand, map out, though Pence would also remind us that such mapping is a part of our own ecology. We reduce the cosmos to an outline of a handprint on a cave wall, a set of phrases repeated over the crackle of a cooking fire, the rudimentary narrative of origins and ends whispered as an arrowhead is sharpened.
In this volume, narrators witness sacrifices (sprinklers of blood, hot, from the hacked neck) and pits from wherein our ancient ancestors and other early relations remain in bone traces, embedded in the stratified earth. Pence speaks of the smell of such old, old earth, soil as terroir, carrying in its taste traces of an entire cosmos. For cosmos—think Whitman for the sense of this word, more than any metaphysician—is what Pence is after, each poem a world entire, an ecology, that delicate balance of exhalation and inhalation, air and flesh.
The attention to ecology here takes us from the beginnings of poetry to the jetsam-clogged outskirts of our current world. We see the bear with its “head stuck in a plastic // Walmart candy jar. Bulk-sized Jujyfruits. Honey / of all hives . . . one / winter away from death, having lost half its body weight.” An engineered piglet, product of industrial logic and classic mad scientist daring, is nonetheless, is still just a baby mammal, responding to heat and affection and song. But the concern with the living others with whom we share space homes in on the domestic, too: a father, something of his mind shattered, who blinks and walks away. He is alternately a terrifying shadow and a kind of absurdist conversational partner in these pages, remembered as that man who demonstrated masturbation and loomed at the side of his daughter’s bed but also as a present voice, speaking, his mad counter-logic a kind of tonic. Haunted as now his daughter is haunted, she who “even at age nine . . . knew he was a man more lost than any child” now attempts to enter into his psyche, his syntax, and finds herself suddenly lapsing “twenty years in the past,” staring not at the limbs in front of her but at what is doubly lost. While the commercial world around us promises that “All loss can be avoided” through various salable tactics (from “right liquid ounce, / right sexual mount, right hedge shape, right help mate, / right gruel, right bio-fuel, right SPF, / right laws against meth, right sugar substitute, / right Buddhist attitude”) in truth loss lingers, a pit excavated into the ground, into the past, a breath taken away, a lingering scent of chemically-flavored fruit chews as we starve and starve. Pence, in this powerful collection, burns with witness to such loss and its reliving—and, inherent in such recognition, a call to responsibility.
Official Charlotte Pence Web Site
Official Black Lawrence Press Web Site