17 Beginnings of Reviews

Reviewed by Kathryn Cowles

1. Brenda Sieczkowski’s Like Oysters Observing the Sun is a book that hinges on etymologies, and punning, and false cognates, a book that rewards those people who read it with giant dictionaries by their sides. Sieczkowski leaves little breadcrumbs of words for these readers-with-dictionaries to pick up along the way.

And so, in a poem full of intermingling sounds, natural and mechanical, we get, “A cricket / song is just a violin with frilly teeth-teeth. Teeth-teeth. / You’ll discover two squirmy new word animals— / fritinancy and stridulate—in empty kettles swaying” (12). It is enough for the poem’s logic that these two unfamiliar words feel and sound so odd and attractive. I can sense their jittering layers. But the diligent reader who looks them up gets little ribbonwrapped word-presents. Fritinancy: A chirping. Stridulate: A shrill sound an insect makes by rubbing together two of its parts. The words themselves feel onomatopoeic and pay their way with their sounds. But looking them up causes something in the poem to snap into place, some dual reward system. This effect is characteristic of Sieczkowski’s work.

2. This is a book that regularly takes the diction and registers of scientific language and remystifies them, turns them into the stuff of the lyric, of poetry, or of religious liturgy, of chant.

3. This is a book that draws attention to its missing parts, to its fragments and ghost limbs.

4. This is a book haunted by lists.

5. This is a book about -ologies, about studies of, each poem taking a new approach. The section headings are scaffolded into kinds of study: “I. Aetiology”—the study of causes. “II. Storiology”—the study of popular tales. “III. Hauntology”—the study of how history, like a ghost neither quite present nor quite absent, haunts the here and now and ghosts our future. And “IV. Eschatology”—theological studies concerning death, judgment, and where the soul ends up—heaven, hell, etc.

Because, Lord, don’t we all know, one single methodology, one single way of studying, no matter how obsessively followed (and these poems are gorgeously, winkingly obsessive in their methodologies), cannot get us to truth. Two methodologies cannot get us to truth. And, as it turns out, four methodologies cannot get us to truth. But they can throw handfuls of salt at the invisible truth so we can see the way the salt falls and understand a little more about truth, about its blank, but shaped, space.

6. This is a book that points to other books outside of itself. This is a book haunted by a book haunted by a white whale.

7. This is a book full of textural language, a book in which the way something is said, the disposition of its words, has something to do with what it means and how it feels. Denise Levertov, in “Notes on Organic Form,” has called this thing Extended Onomatopoeia, where the sounds of words match not a sound in the world, but “the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture.” 

Observe, from the poem “Museum of Withdrawn Experiments” (the same poem from my example in section 1):

            No combination can replicate, faithfully, the heartsick
            train whistle ripping night into linen strips. Whistle
            the screech of a night bird flying into an echo of its own

            extinction. Bandage. Strung on the backyard clothesline,
            the other not-right kettles clank like couplings
            between boxcars. A burnt-out string of party lights. (12)

There’s something amazing happening at the level of sound mixed with connotation here. We get the concept of train whistle, but also the multi-layered noise of it. We get the connotation of useless, torn linen, of torn night, but also the texture, the sound. We get that the bird only comes out at night, a sense of something both dangerous and endangered (the self-willed bird that “fl[ies] into an echo of its own” is allowed to be powerful a little longer in the white space before it’s undermined by the word “extinction,” and we end up holding tight to both contradictory readings). And the sound of the bird layers onto the sound of the ripped linen, which layers onto the sound of the train. The bandage (helping something hurt) layers onto the strips of cloth, gives them a use, and the strips get strung on a clothesline (perhaps one seen from the train), along with tea kettles (which imply more layered whistlings). And then the kettles clank like another part of the train, the figurative language intertwining with the literal imagery to create a kind of sensory, conceptual richness. And with the kettles hitting against each other, we get the cuhnk-cuhnk-cuhnk of the wheels on the tracks, coming, as it does in life, just a little after that almost-heard train whistle, along with the flickering, burnt-out party lights at the end, full of charged imagery and also connotation. And all of this, we are told in advance, still does not “replicate, faithfully, the heartsick / train whistle” we started with. The sound in the world cannot be replicated, cannot be actually heard on the page. But that “emotional onomatopoeia” can get us pretty darned close, can give us the feel. This is what poetry does.

8. See also: “out the kitchen window, the branches of my deciduous / tooth tree are studded with haggled pearls, milk teeth / painted all the colors of milk: low-fat cream, reduced / eggshell, whole lace, skim blue. haint.” (15)

9. I am sorry for my strange approach to a review here. This book is multifaceted and difficult to encapsulate. It jumps. It won’t sit still. It unsettles. It plays around.

10. This is a book that shows us its meta-scaffolding like flashes of leg from under a skirt.

11. This is a book of smaller books set in sections that spy on one another and steal each other’s textual allusions.

12. This is a book haunted by academic language, by citation.

13. This is a book of poems that sometimes feel constructed supernaturally using Ouija Boards made out of dictionary pages. 

14. This is a book into which the personal sneaks the way an errant “I” might sneak into the lab report of an errant scientist. At first in many of these poems, we seem to be observational biologists, getting lost in the textures of the language of natural description. And then suddenly, in the midst of that oddly pleasurable scientific distance, we get a line with an “I,” or a “you,” or a “he” that implies a corresponding “I,” and we’re shaken out of our passive voice by the implied narrative, by the sudden presence in the poem of people who feel.

So, startlingly, three-fourths of the way through a distanced, descriptive poem about the insular cortex of the brain, we get, “All he wanted was to look down into the heart of the volcano’s vanished plume” (17), or in the middle of a description of PTSD and a list of possible causes, we get a cause that seems so personal and specific as to be clearly referring to the buried “I”: “If you suffer from PTSD, you might have been involved in a car accident, been shipwrecked, undergone invasive medical procedures, been mugged, lived through a natural disaster or performed relief work in its aftermath. You might have been held hostage by the first person you ever loved.” We’ve moved from hypothetical to real; the first-person “I” peeks clearly and shockingly out from behind the second-person “you.”

15. This is a book in which figurative language moves beyond mere physical likeness and into the magical real. In Sieczkowski’s analogies, both terms of comparison feel actual, picture-able. A representative sample:

-“From 10,000 feet, Nebraska’s October farmlands resemble the scratched parquet in a shabby ballroom.” (36) (I see the farmlands! I see the ballroom!)
-“Threads of smoke ascend, the strings of invisible balloons.” (43)
-“glossy two or three shade / purple walls sepia lace curtains tatted / loose as paper snowflakes” (54)
-“[I] pick burrs, tiny as green seed pearls, / from the ribs of my socks.” (1)
-“i cut deftly into a creased / square of organ-pink tissue paper; / / what unfolds is not a heart but a set / of lungs, asymmetrical.”
-“the bright chips of vowel in a newly dealt word” (12)
- Or the whole, mixedly figurative description of an aquarium scene in
“Episodic Memory”:
Moon jellies expand, contract,
into milky hearts though
they have none. Tiny harpoons
embedded in the dendrites.
One hippocampus chirps
in a thicket of gnarled sea horses,
bent and arthritic . . .

16. There are other missing beginnings of reviews of this book. There are so many that I could not possibly fit them all in the word count. I have already written well beyond the number of words allotted to me, and I am only just beginning to get at what this is a book about.

17. At heart, this is a review about a book about beginnings-again. Because, as in the concept Hauntology, the past won’t sit still, and so the present must be configured and reconfigured to accommodate it, all with the foreknowledge of the futility of the rendering, that any new kind of study, of -ology, will have holes. One gets at things piecemeal, if at all. This review is piecemeal. The book it talks about is piecemeal, but a brand of piecemeal that lends itself to constellation, so that its little parts can be connected by invisible lines into a larger whole. Gestalt. Or else a book of separate waves coming at the sand in new configurations. Trying and trying again, and the trying is moving, is evidence of life, of liveliness, of a beautiful, thinking mind in a piecemeal world, trying and trying again. This book just won’t settle. This book won’t sit still.

I think maybe you should read it. 

Kathryn Cowles

Kathryn Cowles’s first book of poems, Eleanor, Eleanor, not your real name, won the Brunsman Poetry Book Prize. She has had recent poems and poem-photograph hybrids in the 2014 Best American Experimental Writing Anthology (Omnidawn), Diagram, Free Verse, Witness, The Offending Adam, Drunken Boat, Colorado Review, and the Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day. She earned her doctorate from the University of Utah and teaches at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region of New York.