BILL SCALIA Reviews
A Disturbance in the Air by Michelle Poulos
(Slapering Hol Press / The Hudson Valley Writers Center, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., 2012)
The sixteen poems in Poulos’ chapbook take the reader from New Orleans (twice), to Greece, to unnamed but certainly exotic lands, as well as to a high school football game and to “an ordinary house with emerald trim.” The unifying theme to the work might be thought of as a search for empathetic authenticity; the poet exhibits a marvelous sensitivity to the conditions of others, most notably on the fringes of “conventional” society, and describes her relation to them, often in terms of satisfying a desire. Desire is a powerful, driving force that seeks a target, one that desire itself doesn’t always define clearly. Poulos’ chief accomplishment in this work is how she redefines, in each poem, not the meaning of desire, but desire’s scope, power to distort reason (though reason and desire are not necessarily oppositional), empathy, joy, and pain – in short, a kind of ontology of desire’s effects on a person in search of what Levinas terms “the Other.”
The poems work best when those feelings of desire are evoked through Populos’ wonderfully detailed eye for the ephemera of experience; that is to say, not the most obvious fact of an observation, but the shading that brings that brings the fact into the foreground, a little like hearing the echo of a sound without hearing the sound. For example, in the wonderful poem “Sirocco,” the simple declaratives “Every injury’s a black fruit that turns, like devotion, to the sea,” a keen vineyard observation and also a felix culpa assertion of fact; or “Even here / love tenses against disappointment,” in which the word tenses (a tense itself of a tense that is, in a sense, tense-less) captures in the creation of a verb an inexpressible relation; or in “The Angel of Broken Instruments,” “We are always more than we believe,” which the poet leaves us to read as either assertion or negation; the line itself by necessity invokes the participation of the reader.
But, I find myself wanting more of poems like “Herzog Screened at the Rave”: “Nothing better than dropping two tabs of acid / painted with the purple face of Jesus . . .” The tension in these two images of seeking fulfillment, expressed in the language of sacramentality – LSD as communion at the church of the rave – is in keeping with one of the book’s larger themes (the search for authentic experience as an answer to desire), but in the poem, these two approaches (chemical, hyper-physical vs spiritual meditative) don’t develop (I am sure I am at fault here because I so wanted to see this happen, that I had this expectation of the early promise of the poem). In the best poem of the book, the closing poem “The White Rabbit,” Poulos gives us this line, referring to the rabbit: “It sits so terribly still.” The adverb terribly is the perfect choice, the only choice for that line, considering the connotations of the term (causing terror; to an extreme degree). But, in the next verse, “the possibility presents itself / that the animal is stuffed” seems pitch-poor and over-written. The passive voice is not necessary (the rabbit in the awareness of the speaker is already assured), and given Poulos’ word skills, “the animal is stuffed” begs for a sharper image. But these are comparatively minor concerns, as they occur infrequently. Poulos sets a high bar of expectation in the extraordinary opening poem “The Angel of Broken Instruments”: “I was banished to the basement, / where for hours I’d spin myself / on a stool with clawed feet clutching / three amber glass spheres, the harp tinkling / each time a moth grazed its strings,” such that I am impelled to seek more (the moth reappears in the book, as a plane, “the thin black cross under each wing shrouding her / like night’s ragged shawl” in “When the Wind Falls,” and the scissors, “metal blades hiss over his head” in “Assimilations of 1918, with Scissors”).
In the end, though, Poulos achieves reconciliation. The Angel of the opening poem, self-manufactured from pieces of discarded musical instruments (we might say a postmodern “muse”), finds an authentic, empathetic act in the book’s last poem, in which the speaker encounters a frightened white rabbit, and concludes, “Let me take you back through the fields, / you who never turned from me, / who held violets in your mouth.” Even if we discount the fertility imagery (and the spiritual component), it is clear that Poulos is both the poet and the rabbit, unified at the end in an act of empathetic liberation.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.