Book Review

Joseph Noble reviews Colleen Lookingbill's "A Forgetting Of"A Forgetting Of, by Colleen Lookingbill, is a visionary work that ranges through one woman’s experiences with a wide-angle lens that, at the same time, reveals our culture in all its prismatic detail. The action of the poems and the book as a whole metamorphoses from one image to another, one idea to another, one voice to another. Alternatively harrowing, tender, erotic, earthbound, and mystical, the poems in the book change tone and direction line by line. Indeed, each line seems to forget itself in the next. Yet the book does not forget; rather, it bears witness to the violence, tenderness, vulnerability, and strength that we encounter and embody each day:


“We have seen madmen sitting for so long with their great ability to explain decisions and the logic behind without music…”


A line from the poem “Glimpsing Venus” dramatizes the position many find themselves in: “Reading unquenchable books behind closed door, bring up sale of human beings, unintended irony, a practice no one questions.” The madness has forced many underground to gain what has become covert knowledge: how human beings are sold every day. And this knowledge from “unquenchable books” connects with the utopian, liberatory imperative of A Forgetting Of.

The “unintended irony” that Lookingbill speaks of here is the genuine type, the irony that takes us by surprise, enlightens us, and quenches our thirst for the truth, not the omnipresent, omnivorous, glib irony that seems to hold sway these days and that is simply a poor way of dealing with the slavery of the mind, body, and spirit that Lookingbill depicts. Irony is a trope,  not a way of life. Lookingbill realizes this, and the sincerity of her gaze and her irony is brave in the face of the “madmen” whose gaze she has stared into. Yet she makes this supplication: “Give us time to recover eye-to-eye.” This is the gaze that will liberate, that will heal us and help us recover, the gaze from one person to another. “[O]ur responses connect…intimacy tangled in grass flowers.” Our connection with each other also connects us with the natural world, something we will see more of later.

As Lookingbill says, the wholesale practice of slavery currently underway in our culture is “a practice no one questions.” The dark logic of our world’s current financial inequality and the complicity of silence between the centers of power and the disseminators of information is, as we have seen, “without music.” This logic and silence does not enlighten or uplift. It does the opposite: it oppresses, darkens, pushes down, suppresses. It is not even the healthy, active silence that Lookingbill invokes when she presents her “ability to accept silence as an idea of composition.” That is a creative silence, one that sustains, not the silence that maintains ignorance, in which “no one questions.”

It is significant that Lookingbill picks music to pit against the explanatory logic of the madmen; though a highly mathematical art form and mode of thinking in one way, it is also probably the art most resistant to logic and explanation. How can one explain what a note or melody or passage of music means or why we feel enlightened from a piece of music? Music is a way of thinking that is radically different from the logic of the spin masters of politics and business. Though it may be used to sway the passions at times, music doesn’t persuade through syllogistic logic or a series of disingenuous propositions. Nor does Lookingbill’s poetry proceed syllogistically, but rather musically, associatively, rhythmically. That is the logic her work uses to wend its way through a depiction of our times, a depiction of the forgetting of so many things, be it the financial or physical enslavement of people, the lost world of nature, or the enlivening bond of the eye-to-eye encounter.

Let’s consider now elements from a poem that comes from the last section of A Forgetting Of: “leap with nature.” In this poem, our attempts at control, even on a personal level, are undermined:


rain soaked orange blossoms
languidly undermine mnemonic trick


Nature shows us a different way, a different rhythm, and helps us make the leap beyond our control:


seasons keep us waiting long enough
while counting out our rhymes


The seasons bring us to their rhythm, while ironically “counting out our rhymes.” Even our own parceling, our own ordering of the world (artistically, sonically) ends up being articulated by the natural world’s own order.

We may try to order nature, we may try to net the leaves as the first line describes, but we end up netting them with “broken margins.” The leaves will not be contained. We may assert, “let me decide / which fruit is carried on the wind”; we may try to contain “streams of watertight atmosphere”; we may construct the “window pane against the dusk”; but “blooming waters reach home,” and the “sunflower’s turning stem / draws gentle dart restored sight / away like grains of sand.”

However, the tenor of the voice in “leap with nature” does not condemn the self’s attempt at control; rather, it seems to gently understand it and realize that it is simply something we do, something that eventually leads to our own enlightenment and coexistence with the natural world. As Blake has said, “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Indeed, “leap with nature” shows us how our attempts at control can lead to rhymes and rhythms that are in tune with nature. This attunement occurs when our margins are broken and our “restored sight” is drawn “away like grains of sand” from our hypnosis of control through the “gentle” influence of the eye at the end of the “sunflower’s turning stem.” The control we see in this poem is not that of the madmen we saw earlier in “Glimpsing Venus,” but rather the control that, ironically, comes naturally to us as part of who we are and that, in itself, gently leads us smack up against nature and what it has to show us, which is the loosening, the metamorphosis, of that very control itself.

The latter part of A Forgetting Of shows us the rebirth we can attain, away from the dark logic and silence of the madmen. From “you think of me”:


goodness is invisible
making use of fate to find your face


Through the redemptive logic of our natures, we can actively use our own fates to find our faces and remember who we are. The grip of control gives way to


outstretched arms a steady lake
clear mind already unselfish


Our redemption and rebirth are seamlessly a part of nature: the arms are the lake. The “neutral eye of heaven,” though “sufficiently cryptic,” does “enable us to see both poise and energy.” We don’t need to understand in order to see, to know. And through this renewing redemption, “we are ourselves, our own virginity.” We and the world are born anew.

If we find this redemption through the simultaneous discovery and remembering of who we are, it will encompass our world. From “such a griminess”:


A lake hovers, the kind of feeling one gets when all events rock back and forth like movement on a bookshelf


Again, we encounter an image of water, like the “blooming waters” that “reach home” in “leap with nature” and the “arms a steady lake” in “you think of me.” The buildup of these images toward the end of the book foregrounds the baptismal nature of the metamorphosis taking place. The transformation happens from lake to bookshelf, from nature to culture. The poem shows us how both realms, indeed, how “all events,” have a rhythm. We discover, or remember, a gentle rocking, a vibration, a music that permeates our lives. And what we encounter as we make our way through A Forgetting Of is a world helping us remember what we encounter for the first time.

About the Reviewer

Joseph Noble’s poems and essays have appeared in OR, New American Writing, Hambone, Five Fingers Review, The New Review of Literature, Talisman, Eleven Eleven, and other journals. Six poems from his series, between, are currently included in the exhibit “Social Behavior Lab” at the San Francisco Exploratorium, and more poems will be published in a forthcoming issue of Hambone. His book of poetry, An Ives Set, was published in 2006 by lyric& Press, and his book, Antiphonal Airs, will be published by Skylight Press. His chapbook, Homage to the Gods, was published in 2012 by Berkeley Neo-Baroque. He also plays flutes and saxophones in the quartet Cloud Shepherd, with poets Andrew Joron and Brian Lucas.