These days, a poem can feel like a trivial response to the world at large and the news feeds that forever scroll across our myriad screens. “Facts,” it seems, are not to be trusted. Science is suspect. Apparently we still have not sufficiently proven the earth is round, or that we are collectively, as a species, responsible for the consequences of our actions and will be made to face them collectively no matter how highly we might value our individualism. The stock market is apparently doing fine, though that is little comfort to each successive graduating class coming to terms with the impossibility of a debt-free existence. And no matter how many reports are peer-reviewed and published by however many experts, or however many indigenous communities smack their heads in a “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you for decades” sort of way, those in position to enact policies of change are still preoccupied with convincing the populace at large that the emperor’s clothes are indeed the finest clothes, and he deserves those fine clothes because he worked hard for those clothes, and his success is our success and if we simply continue to play by the rules of this antiquated game we too will have such fine clothes, we simply must work harder and eat less avocado toast.
Enter, absurdity. Jeff Alessandrelli’s latest collection, Fur Not Light, takes its title from a line written by the Russian Absurdist writer Daniil Kharms. “ . . . It isn’t I who came here but you. / This isn’t water but tea. / This isn’t a nail but a screw. / Fur not light.” After all, as Larissa Shmailo writes in an article for Jacket2, “When all norms are violated, it may be that only the absurdist pen can accurately swath through the fuzzy edges of alternative facts and fake news.”[i] Throughout this collection, the influence of absurdism is evident in the titles of long sequences and the flow of thought and language in those sequences. The work is divided into four such sequences, bookmarked on either end by a singular poem, beginning curiously with a prose poem titled “Fin,” which begins by contemplating the nature of German fairy tale endings.
Most German fairy tales end with the sentence “Not long afterwards, there was an outbreak of the plague,” and so the
sudden death of a thousand fictional schoolchildren living in the Maxvorstadt proves imagination is a fact, fact with a spurious relationship to the truth. […]
Order is subverted from the beginning, and in this case, the speaker wastes no time acknowledging the dismal state of things. How do most German fairy tales end?
[…] Death exists at the border of fact and imagination and some fatal acceptance seals it. Hey Mr. Policeman, if you’re so smart—. And so ends the tale of little boy Gunther and Stalvirt, the magical horse that saved all of Munich. Not long afterwards, there was an outbreak of the plague.
Throughout the collection, there is an underlying concern with order, correct recognition and taxonomy, and the individual’s ability (or inability) to affect reality. The movement of lines reflects the fluidity and malleable nature with which the speaker seems to be regarding our perception of reality, and there is a tension between responsibility for how we interpret—and thus create—the world on the one hand, and a lack of control or say in the matter on the other.
So the sun milks the grass,
The flowers arrive at wisdom
Is easy to come by,
Impossible to learn.
Above us the cloudscape, constant,
Annotates our deaths and loves,
Our failures and lives.
Can anyone hear me?
I’m whispering, see. Such a normal act,
Average as the trees fornicating with the wind
While wordlessly intoning You are not your own master,
You are not your own—
The images are simultaneously strange and yet rooted in the familiar, slightly distorted while still parallel, and betray an attention span either cut short by a threatening nihilism or over-expansive in an effort to encompass as much narrative, from the profound to the mundane, in order to resist such a threat. “Resist” is, after all, the mantra of these times, is it not? Indeed, it is unclear whether the poems collectively work to demonstrate the uselessness of resistance or goad the reader to resist all the more. It’s rather easy to repeat the word resist, easy enough to point to extraordinary examples of resistance in the face of overwhelming odds, but perhaps Alessandrelli is indeed “writing daffodils again, / Trying to superimpose / Thought’s psychogeometry / Into sound, word,” thereby revealing the ordinary means by which we are lulled into submission—to assert the self over the collective at the cost of all—or by which we may resist by small measures on a daily basis.
It’s hard to pin down the tone of the work, and as is true with many good poems, I suspect my perceptions and engagement with the work reflect more about myself than the speaker. At times nihilistic, defeatist, absurd—but always maintaining that hint of resistance, if perhaps lacking the passion and emotional register to quite call it rebellious. And yet, such small acts of carrying on in a post-truth world are perhaps equally necessary. Our obsessive search for patterns and meaning—in and out of literature—does not necessarily make our interpretations correct or bear real influence on the world. And yet our search for order and the extent to which we take such patterns and interpretations of the world to heart do influence our behavior, which does affect the world, or our experience of it, which is just as valid as the insect’s experience as a collective rather than an individual. “But what, anyway, is the self / To an insect, an insect / To the self?” the speaker asks, before later in the sequence (“The Impossibility of ) asserting “We want / Where we can believe / A different version / Of our selves.”
It may be that poems are not enough to solve all our problems, and it may be that we as individuals are limited in our ability to affect change. But I don’t believe anyone would continue in the often isolating and not infrequently difficult and unsung work of poetry only to suggest at the end of the day, there is no meaning, no use in resisting, nothing that can be done. The strength of these impossible-to-summarize poems and the disorder of any narrative is in the invitation they extend to the reader to step out of the demands of the moment to enjoin in conversation for a while. If, as the Absurdists, and now Jeff Alessandrelli, suggest, there is no fixed and divinely implemented order, and if all is narrative whether it plays by the rules of neatly preconceived and articulate plots or not, let us break the narrative open even further until we have conceived of a new way forward. “I used to believe it was the light in things that made them last,” the poet writes. And who’s to say it’s not?
About the Reviewer
Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan, 2019), shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak. Visit her website at salmonfisherpoet.com for more information.