April 2010

Josh Cook

poetry

g-point almanac: passyunk lost by Kevin Varrone

The two epigraphs imply we should approach this book as one approaches a city in winter, with our focus not on people, actions, or details, but on the environment and atmosphere. Some moments in the book progress towards an enveloping experience, creating an expanse of language and image a reader can wander in, but those moments are often undercut by substanceless weirdness, pseudo-profundity, and poor structure. Something always snapped me out of my mind of winter just as it was beginning to solidify into a compelling experience. Still there are excellent individual poems, some moments of successful environment, and a number of brilliant lines in the collection; enough quality to suggest great potential in Kevin Varrone.

The opening section, “dismantling the season,” is a microcosm of the successes and challenges of the whole work. It opens, in “winter” with a brilliant play of sound and space, “uncertain tint iffy/ slant, there,” and contains wonderfully musical lines that push readers towards a state of mind; “round table. plastic chairs. propane grill./they say green now white easier” from “+3,” “streetlamps pose as questions; street signs chant hexes.” from “+5,” and “this second sky trestle.” from “+15” for example. Furthermore, Varrone is not afraid to send the reader to the dictionary, intelligently using challenging words; (“yclept” from “+2” which is an archaic word meaning “having been called” or “named” and “perdix” from “+4” which is a genus of bird) words that powerfully resonante because their sounds fit seamlessly with their lines, while their meanings challenge our intellect. But none of these lines, or any of the other good ones are surrounded with enough quality to maintain their effect from one to the other. Varrone suffers from a common affliction of contemporary poets inspired by past avant gardes; he writes as though weird were its own justification. “one day early, two dainty doves.” from “+4;” “chevrons to the sky:/ a super-cooled liquid pre-/epiphany.” from “+8;” and “sillystring sidewalk/ abstracts/ (a sort of j. pollock walleye).” from “+12,” for example.

The next section “fortnight for distaff,” is the best of the collection. The long lines filling the page envelope the reader in atmosphere better than the short line white space style the rest of the collection. In this section, I felt winter and space and the action of exploration. Furthermore, “1.9” is the best poem in the collection. The sound of the repeated phrase, “cape sable island, nova scotia,” the exploration of the manner in which stories are told and understood, the transition of bird images from the majestic “10,000 brants” to “the pigeons” which are “blinded by the light and the peasants club them to death as they flee in a sort of panic,” all create a powerful expression of narration in space and image. If I were Varrone's editor, I would have suggested he restructure the collection to focus around “1.9,” building on its themes and images. “Fortnight for distaff” has other excellent poems, including “1.13” which tweaks Borges' image of a map the size of the world it represents with the lines “inside the map is another map,” and “every city is three cities.” Its images of concentricness, in the line above, in “inside a salmon is the small ring of a/ lover and inside that ring a small universe,” and in “every home/ an awkward hectare nesting in a triangle,” imply a method of reading the collection; that we should experience the sections, poems, and lines, as maps inside maps.

“Fortnight for distaff” would have been a breathtaking chapbook. The intensified focus of isolation would have deepened the imagery. Its distinctive quality makes it hard to reconcile with the overall structure of the work. Most of the individual poems are numbered suggesting this work exists in time, that it was written over a winter, and that Varrone wants to preserve that chronology. Ironically, coherence is lost by adhering to this chronological format. Regardless of when Varrone wrote it, “a small series of prayers,” the next best section, would have had a much greater impact either right before or right after “fortnight for distaff.” And “intercalaries,” a series of short, vacuous, pseudo-profound poems with titles like “Joy,” “Wonder,” and “Time Beyond Time,” rather than harmonizing the collection, completely dissipates the effect generated by “fortnight for distaff.”

I think a rigorous reexamination of the structure and a few additions and substractions, either by himself or with an editor, would have made this an excellent book of poetry. Still, this is an encouraging work. Varrone demonstrates great talent for idea, image, and line. And the good individual poems are very very good. Passyunk lost is the third installment of Varrone's g-point almanac series and though I haven't read them, the information about them implies they are in the same augmented journal-in-time style as passyunk lost. Varrone is far too talented with lines and words to continue to let his structures constrain the potentials for his expression.

g-point almanac: passyunk lost by Kevin Varrone
Ugly Duckling Presse
ISBN: 978-1-933254-52-4
104 pages