BY BRIAN DUNN
In contemporary poetry, we have come to expect leaps and digressions. We expect the subject of a poem to change quickly and, as readers, are asked to do quite a bit of associative work. In his essay “Association in Poetry” Carl Phillips writes, “When applied successfully, the associative method makes for a poetry that demands—both of the poet and reader—that the mind be athletic, not just able to negotiate the leaps, but able to find in such leaps a restorative vigor that is among the pleasures of reading great poetry.” It seems to me there are varying degrees of these leaps—some strictly associative, some more smoothly transitioned.
In her debut collection Raw Goods Inventory, Emily Rosko demonstrates her ability to negotiate leaps in different ways: sometimes suddenly, sometimes smoothly. I like this poetic impulse. It drives every poem to be different that the one before it. However, at times, Rosko’s sudden leaps prohibit me from entering the poem as fully as I’d like to. In addition, I can’t make sense of many of the line breaks—the voice often seems too choppy to be read aloud, forcing me to default to the sixth grade theory that “you just ignore the breaks, read right through them.” In the end, though, we are left with a few great poems from a young poet in her first collection.
The title poem opens “Oh, clouds that do not look like cherubs, move over! My heart / isn’t big enough to include you. The crows shit on / my car every morning.” Rosko’s poetic impulse here is quite humorous—to follow the dreaded H-word (heart) with the infamous S-word (shit), but the leaps from clouds to cherubs to the heart to the crows are thrown at us too quickly. Here, I’m asked to do too much work in trying to connect things that may have no relationship at all. The poem continues later in a similar fashion, taking us through many quick turns—“Dear sister whom I cannot relate to, I surrender my popsicles / to you! Friend who kept my videotapes. Ex-lover, / you fall so clumsily through old poems. Book, you / looked better on the shelf!”
I’m happy, though, that Rosko’s leaps do function well on occasion. For instance in “Insulation” she uses a heat wave as a springboard for a poem that soon deals subtly with such politically giant issues as gendering and mass destruction—ideas that creep slowly into the poem rather than being thrown at us suddenly. In “Less Art, More Monkeys” Rosko demonstrates her knowledge of Siberian culture, and despite dropping a few too many names (I’m tired of Googling by the end), the poem pays off with these great last lines on Kazimir Malevich: “His painting ‘The Black Square’ tells us: / whatever you can build with your mind / can order reality. / Easily reproducible, it stands / solidly, a weight behind your eyelids. A square / because it’s functional, highly modern. Black / and unobtrusive, so you will not be / impressed by where it’s all leading.” Moments like these are what will bring me back to Rosko in future books; they somewhat forgive the awkward leaps and line breaks found in many poems. Her poetry, like so many things, is beautiful when left simple, ugly when muscled by intellect into being what it’s not. One such simple image struck me in the last lines of “In the Land of Sleeping People”: “I’ve placed a rock at the base of my bed. / I pray if you come back / this will keep you out.”
University of Iowa Press 2006
pp. 82, Paper, $16.00