Book Review

“Scene,” from Arthur Vogelsang’s new collection, Orbit, stands as the poet’s possible ars poetica:

Most of the Things which call us to Come
Are not Monsters with our one end in mind.
Most of them make small noises,
And are not alluring, and have nothing in mind…

These lines epitomize a counter-Romantic strain that contextualizes much of this release. The “Things which call us”—those ineffable tugs that many poets, charmed by the Hellenic tradition, might laud as Life itself—are, with Vogelsang, of questionable origin and consequence; they aren’t sirens, speaking Homerically, rather they “make small noises” and “are not alluring.” Vogelsang is unabashedly anti-epic, and his world is far from an anthropocentric one; it is instead consistently characterized by phenomena that “have nothing in mind.” That said, the abovementioned lines unfold musically, variations on iambic pentameter, content grounded in stylistics that reflect a studied awareness of melody and rhythm. In this way, Vogelsang merges the hyper-quotidian with an operational sense of beauty. Later in the poem, we read:

What then is calling, inside my window, outside my window?
Maybe just a What, and leave It at that,
And go on to government, novels, bankruptcy, or the result of kisses.

In Orbit, as with much of his earlier work, including the new pieces in 2011’s Expedition: New & Selected Poems, Vogelsang consistently chooses as his focus the world of “Things,” suspending or obfuscating authorial perspective (frequently à la Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, and/or various so-called Language Poets). However, as much as Vogelsang attends to “government, novels, bankruptcy,” etc, downplaying the importance of ontological questions, the reader remains drawn to the “What” that’s “calling, inside my window, outside my window” as much as the aforementioned tangibles, despite (or perhaps because of?) Vogelsang’s injunction to “leave It at that….” Vogelsang’s poems are founded on absence as much as content; the reader’s experience, in turn, is as much a response to that absence as it is to the content. The poem ends,

Perhaps a Thing which calls Come is trapped in a child’s dream, screaming
Let me out! Uh, no, It’s born when you wake,
And doesn’t mind Its personal information discussed
Consciously, and in detail, as we have done.

Vogelsang strives to reject mystery as a sacred notion; or, at least, that’s his literary and aesthetic feint. No matter how devotedly he focuses on the concrete, however, the presence of the invoked “What” still remains as central to the poem as “Things.” In fact, the greater his focus on the concrete, the greater the pull of the intangible on the reader’s emotions, thoughts, and instincts. The content impacts the reader within the poem, imaginatively and interpretively transported beyond the poem into a subjective and associational response, then returning to the content within the poem, and so on, in the process forging what amounts to an interpretive and experiential palimpsest. We might say “no within without a beyond, no beyond without a within.”, and: “no Things without a What, no What without Things.” And finally, as has been expressed before in other (and more eloquent) words: “no text without a reader, no reader without a text.”

As much as Vogelsang might tout the reach of consciousness, his method displays a paradoxical suspicion that resolution, psychological or aesthetic, is little more than a contrivance. Suspension of self, on the other hand—including a fixed sense of the I as well as what Derrida would refer to as “monolingualism”—is tantamount to an abeyance of certitude, an experience in which interpretive continuity is compromised or rendered impossible (note Vogelsang’s tip of the hat to and possible satirization of Eliot’s Four Quartets):

Suppose there is no end.
Suppose there is an end but no new beginning.
Suppose there is an end then a new beginning.

Suppose there was no beginning.
But here we are anyway. Good. That’s it,
Like a loose trap that keeps springing loose.

(“Eee Equals Emcee Squared”)

In the absence of illusion, despite whatever efforts to remain equanimous, one’s left finally with dejection and/or humor. Vogelsang’s capable of working with both, though with the poems in this collection, he more often embraces the latter. Even the opening poem, “Verde Valley 1311 AD,” with its metahistorical subject, is driven by Vogelsang’s appreciation for the absurd:

Children were not people and a dead child’s spirit
Stayed with the mother until ma’s death
And then went up with her.
Or, a safety net, a dead child’s spirit could be transferred
To the next baby of the mother.

Throughout this collection, Vogelsang navigates delicate balances, for the most part effectively, which is to say that the majority of the pieces in Orbit successfully enroll the reader: these poems intrigue much as alien landscapes do; they tempt with the spectacle of alternate worlds; they present linguistic and aesthetic iterations that are compelling for both their tautological nature and playful avoidance of conventional expectations, lines that evoke possibilities beyond the egoic narratives around which most lives unwaveringly revolve. In addition, and ironically, Vogelsang’s delivery is what most engages: the persona that subverts itself is still a persona. Yet, as Buddhist teachings suggest, the reduction of ego is foundational to the discovery of authentic individuality. Such is the creative process: the poet strives to implement a mission or follow a thread in whatever direction it might lead; in either case, what he manifests is frequently the opposite of what was consciously or unconsciously anticipated. Enlightenment occurs inexplicably and when one least expects it.

In one of the collection’s more transparently humanistic passages (from “62 Miles Not 7,926 Miles”), Vogelsang writes, “We go on in some kind of endless axis / … Or we sail around something which sails around something / And the numerous curves expand close to forever,” reminding his readers that each of us is a moon and a sun, orbiting and being orbited, even if the particulars of our existence, including what we think and feel about our lives and the lives of others, are, as Shakespeare aptly said, “a tale…signifying nothing” (forget the “sound and fury”!); then again, for a poet, especially a poet such as Vogelsang, these particulars may be the only portal in town.


About the Reviewer

John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer, More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy, The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris), and, most recently, Strange Theater (New York Quarterly Books). His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have been published widely, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.