There is an oeuvre, these books included, in which poems are something like vapor — the ghostly substance that is both of here and elsewhere, limboed between corporeality and ephemerality, its lingering we surmise either a product of its sadness or resolution to haunt us, eventually burned away by sun but leaving behind a strange nostalgia on our skin and in our minds. Indeed, the experience of reading Ralph Angel’s Twice Removed is somewhat strange and similarly fleeting; at 49 pages’ worth of poems, it has to be one of the sparsest poetry books published in some time. Angel’s third collection may provide only a brief encounter, however, but he just might tell us more about frailty and displacement and the utter magicality of existence — leaving us contemplative and perhaps even entranced — than some of his peers’ tomes — heaping volumes whose lengths bury any worthwhile discoveries — ever could. Angel is economical and goes for the marrow; we know we’re off and running, set to dowse the terrain of human restlessness and transience (‘No place to get to. No place to leave from’) when his first poem, the book’s namesake, greets us:
Not even sleep (though I’m ashamed of that too).
Or watching my sleeping self drift out and kick harder, burst
awake, and then the nothing,
leaf-shadow, a shave and
black coffee, I know how a dream sounds.
What question does the first line answer? ‘What will stop your search?’ or ‘What will slow down your passion?’ Whatever the question, we can believe Angel and in him sense an urgency. Thus, we embark with him — but ‘Where?’ as the first word of the book’s second poem asks. Here is the sheer motion of Twice Removed already epitomized, and the sense that we will likely encounter some harrowing landscapes in the coming pages given the disorientation and fascinated irritation of the poet:
sudden brooding. Echoing. The ceiling
and the walls and the floor.
Between you and me
gives ground. The hills
thin to the thin skies of the sea.
As a boat
to the window.
As anxious birds that seem always
to be starving.
On death. And
living. We can talk about living
On paper. Pure
(‘Between Murmur and Glare’)
Those who have previously remarked on this book have made copious note of Angel’s sense of place (Los Angeles, imbued with a feel sometimes classical, sometimes noir, sometimes Eastern European) and history (the personal and collective past redefined for a here-and-now as in his ‘Decalogue,’ a 10-section poem which owes nothing to Moses or ‘Thou shalt not. . .’, but rather to a contemporary catalogue — suicide, abortion, murder, virginity, and child abuse), and rightly so. In Angel’s diction, prosody, calmness of demeanor, and original imagery, there is Reverdy, Rilke, Popa, even Salamun. Interweaving throughout Twice Removed is existential seriousness (‘Incredible, the silence, / this flurry of notes that reflects it’), irresolution (‘We wished // for the impossible. / We did not know we were impossible’) and wonderment (‘along the balustrades of all the gardens, // one breath is pure desire’), moments that alternately cast the speaker in the light of a rootless flaneur, wandering philosopher, or saddened painter.
In these guises, Angel documents scenes of fright (‘Images of no one. Of one’s own family, / burying itself’), cold alienation (‘I miss you too. / Something old is broken, // nobody’s in hell. / Sometimes I kiss strangers, // sometimes no one speaks. Today in fact // it’s raining’) and elusive happiness (‘Is it you / my love? // There?’) borne of this Now, a physical and tangible location in which, for myriad reasons, we’ve been overwhelmed into wondering, Is this real? As the epigraph by Reverdy, which seems to spur each of Angel’s poems onward, energizing the poet on his search, aptly states, ‘nature / images images / without a single reality / to feed it.’ Twice removed — from reality, from the self — and therefore doubly disconnected and perplexive, Angel’s is uncommonly emotive for bordering on the oblique. Much like the ‘quiet’ about which he writes in ‘Tidy,’ his poems ‘slam down / gently, like drizzled // lightning, leafless trees,’ evaporating silently as dew, dispersing, yet always above us, reminding us.
Michael Burkard’s latest book — full of revenants, revisitations, and regrets — is similarly lingering and resonant. Fifteen years passed between the writing of the poems that became Pennsylvania Collection Agency and their publication as a cohesive collection by New Issues, yet they’re not dated. Remnants of timelessness, many of the poems burn as brightly today as they would have in 1987 simply because we feel the voice behind them is true. Burkard tackles alcoholism, the slippage of friends and family and place from memory, unspoken loves and impermanence, in dreamy pastoral timbers:
A Fantasy, with the red horse red
and even the woman pointing it
out in a kind of red, a robe:
like the lamp the village
sleeps with on a single night
when the rider has ridden off
to a world unknown. The world
is unknown. You can almost
smell the skin of the horse’s teeth,
the air at night in the hills,
the grass under the beautiful dark
Burkard’s universe here is earthy and airy, full of a language as everyday and common as stones, ‘a respectful overdose of fire and silence’ (‘He Forged’). But, as in Angel’s work, ordinariness — the momentary sense we have our bearings — is misleading. There is most always a general abstractness that informs Burkard’s visions, rather than a simplicity:
— I don’t know how else
to describe it.
I am afraid to say:
‘I believe in the dream per se.’
Just as it is,
just as it was,
just as when I am empty of night
when I haven’t dreamt.
(‘Each of Them Icons’)
‘[This] is as autobiographical as I make it,’ the poet tells us in the previous stanza, and he’s correct — the self dissolves in most of Agency’s poems, leaving a spirit to float about the clouds of unknowing, via negativa:
I take wild stabs at guessing and someone might
say I personify too much /
but I have this inescapable feeling everything is
trying to give us back /
to them and to us, and that the gift /
is simply to be.
That we end but we don’t end.
That I am the stranger that I have always been.
(‘Moon to a Far Planet’)
This is true: I have never been home.
The name is an infinity of space
I am in, I have never left.
The face tries to leave again and again,
but it cannot.
(‘My Mother Orders a Children’s Book’)
Little wonder, reading passages like these, that Burkard counts Tomas Tranströmer as a major influence; the Swedish poet is also simultaneously haunted, inspired, and even prodded by place/displacement, time/frozen time. As Tranströmer said in a 1990 interview in Painted Bride Quarterly, ‘That probably is the way inspiration works for me — the feeling of being in two places at the same time. . .or of being aware that you are in a place that seems very close but that actually everything is open.’
The moments where Burkard does go wrong can be blamed on a reversion to simple confessionalism, for lack of a better term. Inexplicably, he at times eschews his strange powers and falls into the expected roles (and language). ‘It never dawned on me that perhaps the scotch in my hand / was the prison,’ he writes in ‘Katya,’ which now and probably in the late 1980s is/was the bold penance-speak of an addict, but a yawning use of metaphor nevertheless. Why Burkard would make a choice as a poet to include such fodder when there are superior, harrowing, original moments (‘A face could have asked me to stop / and I could not stop. Life was and, and’ from ‘and, and’) is unclear. Suffice to say, this voice contrived of a wholly recognizable, here-and-now sphere is distracting, but fortunately there are only several instances where it makes its off-key entrance into the otherwise somber realm of Agency, where Burkard’s charge is clear: to ‘whisper across the face of the night sky // and need you to hear me, want this inutterable distance / to die physically, to break.’ Predominantly, both Angel’s and Burkard’s books break from reality and American lyrical status quo to offer timeless, elegant revelations.