June 2004

Olivia Cronk


The To Sound by Eric Baus

More and more I find I cannot tolerate simple turns of phrase and traditional line breaks in a poem. A nice, clean poem is not something I want to get acquainted with. It seems vaguely irresponsible, lazy; and it is most certainly a yawn of a read. Marianne Moore’s catchy definition of poetry was cited recently in an article I read (in an awfully dull and writerly publication I dare not name): poetry is “an imaginary garden with real toads.” A lovely idea. But simply not enough for me. Nor for Eric Baus. His book, The To Sound, published by Verse Press out of Amherst, does, indeed, have a garden of sorts. And toads. And other creatures. Birds dying in the hand. A complicated absentee sister who sends aspirin-coated toast. But Baus is not satisfied with an imagined garden and real animals. He does something else entirely. Baus writes of a place somewhere in space that is at once in our world and existing alongside side of it. Where one expects a thing of this world, in its place, in the line, on the page, there is some other thing that delightfully trips one up while reading. Like this: “If I say my eyes are quotation marks pulled across the sky, I mean the way a beaten wing is parallel to treading water.” Oh, of course. That’s what I’m talking about. Poetry with a kick. It is not clean. It is not easy or pretty. But it is quite a ride.

The To Sound is made up of several forms, the most prominent one being a take on the letter. Baus credits the poems in this vein to a collaborative epistolary project with George Kalamaras, poet and Hinduism scholar. (A piece of that correspondence can be found at: http://www.litvert.com/Georgeanderic.html.) The letters allow Baus just the right amount of room for his bulky metaphors. And I don’t use the word “bulky” in any negative sense. The things are unwieldy, full, torn open and sewn back together. The letters are primarily addressed to a sister and then to birds (though Baus plays with the addressee easily and loosely). The birds act as beacons, as counterparts to the sister, as relief, as listeners. The sister, as I said, is a complicated character. While Baus never tips his hand, one has the intriguing feeling of following a trail of clues. “‘[S]pilled sand and lamplight’ has been my sister for awhile now.” Even his diction is unexpected. The narrator’s senses are impaired to very strange and exciting effect. “My mouth is always a three or a one.” “When you said there would be stars I couldn’t hear the s. I apologize for using my museum voice.” “I’ve got my ‘dealing from the bottom of the deck’ goggles on.” Yes you do, Eric Baus. There are pieces of handwriting scrawled right across the lips. And there are wounds left un-bandaged but for more birds and things like light bulb filament and a somnambulist. All of it seems to be code, though without a key. (Don’t read this book if you can’t bear to have the puzzle unsolved and clunky in your lap.) Somehow Baus maintains an incredible emotional urgency -- sibling distance and closeness, damage done, the odd successes and failures of language in mimicking our actual lives.

The letters bleed into a denser form. Prose poetry, I suppose. (Though I should mention that Baus regularly breaks his own epistolary stride by re-writing lines in the letters as very enjoyable lines of verse scattered about the page—the kind of lines that do not have set sequence, the kind one just follows at one’s whim.) The denser stuff leans more toward mania. Some of it was hard for me to stick with; I had grown so accustomed to the small letters with their oddities. But it is worth the work. Baus seems to move best line by line, each moment a new one. And in these longer pieces, he has room to complicate his own voice. A bit more humor starts to come through, as in the following title: “ARCHITECTURE BASED ON THE STRUCTURE OF A SMALL INTESTINE WAS INDEED A BAD IDEA.” Funny, right? And this: “I knew better staring through the small ends of funnels.” He also uses his honed vocabulary and outside knowledge with great skill. I had to look up the word: amblyopia. (A loss in sharpness of vision.)

Your vowels have been spreading since I notarized the “ancient am”
under your arm, and your tilted diction suggests a torch of arid
bladder syndrome . . .

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Anybody Speaking Words” (1982, acrylic
and oil paintstick on canvas, 96 by 61.5 inches) is perhaps the best
glottal stop for your repealed gloss, your nitrogen highness . . .

I assuage you, this aphasia will swoon.

I’ll let you look up “glottal stop” on your own -- it’s fun. For all the abstractions, Baus does manage to cut to the chase -- he gets right at the throat of poetics. Lines do double time. Nouns stand in for adjectives and vice-versa, every which way.

The title poem, “The To Sound,” is the book’s final poem, final page. This piece is a collection of twenty-three statements. Formally, it is a nice way to close. The lines do not bleed into each other overtly; each stands in its own place, with the echo of its neighbors. “To look out the window is to want to be on the side of the birds... You are the one after zero. The sister of a. Bird tuned to ash... I know I can never understand the. Even if the powder was on my lips... Stay. I know the tired sound... To look out a window is to be embedded inside birds... You are a. Too. Tuned to has. Ash... If I could stay lost to sound. If a single eye could say two... You are the one after end. The burned bird I woke up in.” Baus tugs at the old heart strings like a Romantic, but with his own brand of emotion. His poetry is a sophisticated and thrilling crawl through the garden, all of it fake and all of it real.

The To Sound by Eric Baus
Verse Press
ISBN: 0972348743
80 pages