Saturday, June 22, 2013

What I'm Reading: Equivalents

88º ~ hot, hot, hot with humidity that rises throughout the day, bright sun with a chance of storms that I do not believe, as they've avoided our neighborhood for so long

I picked up Jessica Baran's Equivalents (Lost Roads 2013) on a whim at AWP, in part because of the book design.  It is a hand-pleasing square, 6.5" x 6.5".  I also picked it up because Baran won the first Besmilr Brigham Women Writers Award, which champions work by female poets who live outside the literary centers on the coasts.  In fact, the deadline for 2013 submissions is just a week away.  While I haven't submitted, after reading Baran's book, I'm inclined to do so.

The notes at the back of the book tell us that Baran takes the title of the collection from the work of Alfred Steiglitz, specifically his set of photographs of the sky, taken from 1925 - 1934.  The collection is divided into three sections, where each section has a title but the poems within are numbered rather than named.  We have "On Dailiness," "On Dissonance," and "The Panorama."  The first two sections contain lyric prose poems, while the third contain poems with traditional line breaks.  The first two sections contain philosophical musings about the modern world (think technology / white noise versus nature / enough calm to contemplate), while the third is a reflection on John J. Egan's panoramic painting of the Mississippi River housed in the Saint Louis Art Museum, containing many of the themes of the first two sections as well.

As I sank into Baran's syntax (sometimes sparse and fragmented, sometimes prone to catalogs and lists), I kept coming back to the movie, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the title of which is a Hopi word for "life out of balance."  The film contains no plot and no dialogue, but is a series of scenes exploring the consequences of modern technology on the natural world and on our society / lifestyle.

Baran's themes run in similar veins, without, perhaps, the clear call to action as in the film, and her poems are definitely not plot driven, instead piling images and aphorisms one after the other until we are weighted down with contemplation.  She uses the language of commerce, capitalism, and politics, interwoven with the language of artifice, photography, and film.  For example, the first poem in the book opens with this:

I'm not interested in propaganda. The space where you arrived is empty when you leave. The lake is open to questioning. Everyone has a different method: of lending, of accruing debt. Water can be boiled in all sorts of weather, but the pot cannot be outsourced.

Everywhere in the poems, we are reminded of the artifice of modern life.  The poet is clearly looking at the world through a specific lens, a lens that may be adjusted or exchanged for another, shifting views and ultimately shifting truths.  Nothing is stable, and we are all facing that gigantic, empty sky of Steiglitz' photographs, which come to symbolize the greater void in living a life out of balance.

Baran's first section, "On Dailiness," is probably my favorite, as it contains many comments on domesticity (and therefore often comments on the female).  In poem number four from this section, she highlights our disconnected nature, a disconnection that began way back when groups of humans gathered into societies and started "taming" the wilderness in order to live.  After describing sheets, sofas, a bed comforter and other daily items of housekeeping, Baran continues:

An anthem to dailiness. An American history of lost civility; the decline of small gestures. ...  Is this the clearing you were looking for? It's not what you expected: not the rich black burnt thatch long lost woodsmen cleared in a wood of pines. Not the tractor-flattened part of the meal-colored prairie. Just a carpet sample thrown on faux terrazzo tiles.

In these poems, we are confronted with a town crier whose words bounce around a cluttered, over-stimulated town square, and we ultimately fear / know that no one is listening as we hear proclamations that "consumption levels are off," "decades collapse," and "[i]ndustry encroaches on nature--a great Modernist trope."  Meanwhile, we must all "self-curate or vanish" as "[i]t's never easy getting words to work" and "[p]lace doesn't matter any more."

While all of this may seem heavy, political, and heart-crushing, it is also comforting to know that there are others out there observing and commenting on the cacophony of 21st century, American life.  It is the job of poetry to slow us down, to open us up to the clutter and the void, and to lead us on, wherever the journey takes us.  At this, Baran excels.


Tawnysha Greene said...

What a neat book! I'll have to look at it!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Tawnysha, let me know what you think if you read it.

John Vanderslice said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Sandy. I always enjoy how thorough you are in your comments.

Sandy Longhorn said...

You're welcome, John!