The poems in Eric Baus’s stunning fourth collection are best described as studies in scale. Presented as a series of compact, carefully crafted prose pieces, this magnificent sequence poses compelling aesthetic questions to the reader: What are the minimum qualifications for a narrative to thrive? What is possible within a very small, arguably limited, rhetorical space? Are these possibilities foreclosed as a narrative develops, lengthens, and becomes unwieldy? As Baus teases out possible answers to these necessary questions, he offers us a provocative and artfully executed relationship between form and content, particularly as form and its inevitable constraints become the subject matter of the work.
With that in mind, the delightfully unexpected juxtapositions that Baus creates within these very limited rhetorical spaces prove to be impressive as the book unfolds. In this manner, Baus ultimately asks us to consider the ways that narrative attempts to create coherence from the disparate phenomena that we encounter. He thereby suggests that narrative offers only the illusion of continuity, and perhaps this is why it appeals to us so much. Baus writes in “The Mirror’s Spores”:
The sun crushed inside a prism corresponded with the x-ray of a chandelier.
Baus’s use of narrative convention to call attention to the artifice inherent in these received structures is artful and compelling. Narrative becomes both the subject of this critique and the vehicle, raising even more questions for the reader. For instance, Baus’s use of form to create a paradox, a contradiction, implies the inevitability of these formal devices, however much we wish to react against them. What’s perhaps most stunning about the poems in The Tranquilized Tongue is the fact that Baus never engages these theoretical ideas in the content of his work, but rather, allows technique to do much of this difficult theoretical work. Baus’s new collection is filled with finely crafted poems like this one, in which stylistic choices compliment and complicate the content of each piece.
When considering these unexpected juxtapositions and surprising metaphors, it becomes clear that Baus owes much to the surrealist poets. He situates Andre Breton’s enduring interest in the unconscious mind, and its generative potential, in a postmodern literary landscape. What’s more, he does so while adhering to a host of formal and narrative constraints. As each brief poem takes the form of a declaration, Baus creates a bridge between two historical moments, two disparate literary traditions. The book often reads as an argument for minimalism, suggesting that a seemingly diminutive text is often richer and more complex. Consider “The Marionette’s Casket”:
The crossed out clone minus the wooden organs minus the puma projection minus the splintered mirage minus the orphaned eyes.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this passage is its denseness. Although only one sentence long, the poem manages to make several ambitious theoretical arguments. First, Baus’s artful use of alliteration (in which the hard “c” sound is repeated at the beginning of the piece) and assonance (where we have the “o” sound echoed as we move from “crossed out” to “clone”) reveal how associations between images and sounds can create continuity within a text, rather than relying solely on narrative devices. Additionally, Baus suggests the possibilities inherent in smaller texts, as they allow more space for the reader’s imagination. It is the diminutive length of the text, and its seemingly premature ending, that invites readerly participation, particularly as one is invited to speculate as to what it would mean for extension. In other words, could this dream-like associative logic be sustained? What are its limits, if any? Baus does not offer definitive answers, and this is part of the book’s appeal. The reader becomes a collaborator, a co-conspirator. And it is the book’s minimalist approach that makes this refreshing, and in many ways, egalitarian relationship between the artist and his audience possible. In short, The Tranquilized Tongue is as thought-provoking as it is beautifully rendered. This is a fine addition to Baus’s already accomplished and innovative body of work.
About the Reviewer
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.