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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

L.S. Klatt reviews

Brief Moral History in Blue by Beth Roberts

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Emerson argued that, for a person to transcend, he must peer through a ‘transparent eyeball’ and cultivate a personal, unimpeded relationship with the outside world. There is something of this passion for clarity in Beth Roberts’s first book, Brief Moral History in Blue. The poet climbs into her ‘spectacle vehicle’ and scours the terrain for translucence. ‘In the beginning were the good / voices that beveled our eyes and filled / our ears at ground level with the world’s / own curvature, / gave us the lure / of touch.’ Like Emerson, Roberts embraces grandeur — ‘that fresh house in the clear / ing clear of meaning.’ But because she is forced to jockey through traffic — what her ‘century requires’ — Roberts contemplates at faster, less tranquil, speeds. The panorama, depicted in several poems as coming from the inside of an automobile looking out, is dazzling, blurred, and cartoon-ish.

For Emerson, ‘the memorable words of history and the proverbs of nations consist. . .of a natural fact, selected as a picture or parable of a moral truth.’ Roberts shares a nostalgia for this kind of pastoral and abbreviates the ‘long landscape’ with her 47 instamatic snapshots. But the subjects she gleans are chosen for their duplicity — they are fields that can be ‘folded in two.’ Terra firma, as this artist construes it, refuses to sit still, and she must refocus constantly to locate it.

Ironically, Roberts finds her bearings by looking up. Brief Moral History in Blue figures as her almanac, replete with the scoring of seasons, obsessions about weather, notations on the sun and moon. Climate control becomes a way of dramatizing her personal history, an attempt to pin down the next emotional disturbance, but as she says, ‘weather hides well.’ In ‘Narrow Escape,’ a childhood memory of being seduced by a molester intrudes upon an adult who is anything but reflective; she merely wants to distract herself with television. In ‘Mise en Scène,’ the speaker fixes on martyrs ‘licked by God,’ yet ‘Truth is my car sped past the ditch while I / pictured the rest...// Not chosen.’ The Doppler effect of these lines, while nebulous, gets her closer to her own atmospheric unrest.

The analogy of almanac is apropos for other reasons. Like Poor Richard, Roberts is prone to epitomize, especially in her titles, a habit that predetermines the poems. ‘Mind Makeup,’ ‘Give It Up,’ and ‘Near Miss’ exemplify this overly clever directive; ‘True to Form,’ ‘The Real Thing,’ and ‘Moon Over the Time ’n Space Drive-In’ function similarly as billboards for epistemological agendas. Fortunately, the book leaps over these lapses. To encounter the ‘real’ — intimacy, closeness, and love — Roberts trades philosophizing for poetry. ‘The beautiful thing,’ if it can be found at all, is a lyrical quest. ‘The best place for the heart’ proves to be the ‘body’ and, more specifically, the voice box: ‘It’s always there, though we can’t / believe it, the hand on the heart, the heart / in the throat.’

Whatever the heart symbolizes — conviction or affection — it’s clear that language demands center stage. When at an impasse, Roberts follows her words in order to find a way out of suffering or conundrum. ‘As you empty the thought or fill the feel, / you surround the hole of the mouth that wells up // and understand.’ Emerson posited language as the ‘vehicle of thought’; in Roberts’s hyped-up version, language is as much ‘spectacle’ as ‘vehicle.’ Avoiding set rhyme schemes but staying within more or less uniform stanzas, Roberts devises sonic constellations out of internal rhyme and repetition. These episodic bursts cluster in spectacular patterns. Wordplay also disperses expectations, as when ‘sunsettling’ stands in for the more obvious ‘unsettling.’ Like Clark Coolidge, whose verve depends on malapropism, neologism, and ricochet, Roberts bounces back and forth within a multivalent vocabulary.

Images such as the burning house also jump — often from poem to poem — and the result, in this instance, is that the poet’s ambivalence toward domesticity is reinforced in a way no single poem could underscore. Metaphors flicker and ‘waver’ as well, suggesting that meaning, like the universe, operates according to a special relativity. This is familiar postmodern dogma. What propels it is the rhapsody, the ‘bright idea in the fantastic garden.’ The landscape Roberts revolves is punctured with ‘gashes,’ ‘wounds,’ ‘shots,’ ‘holes,’ and ‘desires,’ but ‘snowflakes pivot through the gap.’

The problem with ‘moral’ relativity, as Roberts points out, is one of decision and discernment. If everything is in motion — the ‘Still Life’ in ‘disarray’ — how do we distinguish between lover and molester, the real thing from the perversion? What choices keep the cosmos from entropy? Brief Moral History in Blue, when successful, does not force an answer. Instead, it magnifies a disintegrating American roadside and the characters who question its fissures. The outlook, perhaps, is pessimistic and post-utopian — ‘along the highway’s slow declination the / arrow of the car / fell far’ — but it’s our choice whether or not to putter in the abyss.

Jacket 19 — October 2002  Contents page
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