Book Review

The casual can seem lax: as praise, “casual” can sound like a euphemism for “underdressed,” “unformed,” or, “unannounced.” If you prefer announcement, form, and dress, you might wish to toss out all the poetry books celebrated for their tossed-off style: if a blurb mentions O’Hara, Notley, or Spicer, or praises the poet’s elevation of the everyday, one might smell code for “unedited,” “unconsidered,” or “unremarkable except for its personality.”

So why do I find myself so charmed by the poems in Robert Andrew Perez’s debut collection, The Field, which contains many gestures that, in more cynical moods, I might dismiss as mere casual runs? Perhaps it’s because, even in what could be more predictable poems of demonstrative play, Perez’s poetic approach takes off more than formal garb: it combusts. Take the opening of the first poem:

my friends are writing poems for/about their kids, and here I am
still writing about fucking guys and fucking losing guys and fucking
loser guys and fucking loose guys, fucking losing loose, loser

The repetition revs like some poems by Lisa Jarnot (“you chinchilla of the marketplace in france / you international chinchilla”), and then steps to the edge of Stein (at the orbital strain of “fucking losing loose”), before spinning its riff from rant to vision in the next stanza: “at the end / I float to heaven with a strawberry milk carton, underscored by organ / music, except it’s hell.” The range of tones is admirable, running from “heaven” through “strawberry milk” to the lineated section of “organ music” to the brittle “except.”

The lines that follow continue to expand, from acute stoicism (“pre-fire, that is to say before the kiln, the shape / of the vase fully formed”) to magical desperation (“all I need is sapphire”) to flippantly earnest anxiety about pop culture and politics (“with everything falling apart, why can’t the monolith of patriarchy?”). This roving isn’t flitting, but feels both restless and patient, intent in its pursuit. The poem ends, as Perez’s poems often do, by jolting from slantwise wisdom (“anything successfully invisible is also indelible”) to a conclusion that undoes the poem—this is a poem titled, “erasure,” after all—but which would please a reader who wants their poems dressed, announced, and formed. In its final lines, the logic of “therefore” and the syntax seem as close to Herrick as to Stein, with easy-going rhyme rippling through:

therefore I love him not, something partly loved, then,
is able to be smeared and eventually wiped clean away. the children
i never have and the poems I never write, therefore, i fully love them

Rather than showing off his intelligence, however, or hiding it in wit, Perez tends to follow it toward paradoxes that reveal emotional undercurrents that pleasingly undercut the initial stances of the poems, as in the twist between “partly” and “fully” in “erasure.” In “This World,” the twist reaches fuller torque through Perez’s playfully fraught attention to associative etymology. The following lines emerge from a moment of resolve or resignation, in which Perez writes that “good / enough is good enough / for now”  since we are in a world in which “truism subs in / for truth.” He attempts a further assertion (“poetry is / an ultimate steganography”—a term for concealing messages in the seemingly trivial) and invokes a magical item from Harry Potter, before the poem turns its concern to language itself:

a man about a verb.
met him? he’s forgotten

about you, so as the world
turns, you become as necessary
as the word reliquary

but no more publishable
than a poem with the word
reliquary in it.

The well-met mix of the stark and the bathetic in the final lines remind me of “the kitten in the wilderness” at the end of Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque;” Perez often rears among such tones.

In “never been kissed,” another poem that could be a mere riff, Perez offers not just a moving consideration of a moment but of how “the momentum of newness pulls us forward” without eliminating grief or uncertainty: “sitting next to a new boy / who claims to not watch television / who prefers to read, but here we are / watching never been kissed”—. As in “erasure,” Perez isn’t afraid to stay with a phrase until it reveals more than itself, and to conclude a poem with sweeps of logic that tease a reader toward harder thoughts (note the language of proposition in phrases including “as we’ve established,” “however,” and “at least,” as in “therefore,” above):

as we’ve established, this couch is
no ferris wheel of love & the ferris
wheel of love is no ferris wheel of
love. however, we can agree that
we experience moving in a circle as
moving forward, at least.

The tenderness—or even wistfulness—in “at least” is palpable, and you can feel a similar sense, often wrung through with fun, elsewhere in the book, even in its more madcap instances (“this time it’s a pizza on fire,” starts one poem, and one feels the urgency and familiarity of hardship, and its transformations). Throughout The Field, Perez’s poems stay dedicated to moving, often in circles that end up spiraling, and so moments that one might wrongly call “merely casual” transform into charms suitable to a narrator who, when a child asks about tragedy, “tells him / several love stories.”

The stories in The Field are many, and they race between jaunty thought experiments (“now think of the saddest thing you can think of. / now think of the happiest. / how many stars are missing from each box?”) and adept rumination, between self-awareness and self-abandon, as in this continually reorienting chain: “like turquoise healing stones / over the dirty chakras of sin city. vegas baby, like santa / baby, is flirtatious / in an obvious way.”

Perhaps I was wrong to ever consider this work to be “casual”, or be tempted to use a readymade phrase for it like “deceptively casual,” since there is little deception in this poetry, rather, one feels an openness that can accelerate, in a few lines, from “santa baby” to meditations given from “condor height that address “the murky fog of truth” which “is also a nakedness.” What may seem casual, one realizes, is the stuff we are made of, which Perez knows is fleeting: “the mind / is a cloud,” he instructs, “write before it disappears.” I’m glad that Perez did, and will.

About the Reviewer

Zach Savich was born in Michigan in 1982 and grew up in Olympia, Washington. He received degrees from the Universities of Washington, Iowa, and Massachusetts. His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Open Award, and other honors. His fifth collection of poetry, The Orchard Green and Every Color, was published by Omnidawn in 2016. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.