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Affordable Poetry

Tom Hibbard reviews

a brief chapbook of poems by Larry Sawyer

In this untitled and modest chapbook of new poems, Larry Sawyer looks in the mirror and sees - the reflection of a French artist named Armand Fernandez; a painting by Picasso; the gray-brown of a cold November day; imaginary molecules of irrelevant physicality, rather scattered and quizzical; himself too, sometimes humble and sometimes arrogant, disconsolate, mellow, especially, as Henry Fonda once said, ‘warts and all’.  

The lines of poetry make an easily affordable substance, like the handicraft, hand-made-style paper that is used as the chapbook’s endpapers, a settling-out of numerous omnipresent elements.  

Now the shapes move
form becoming constant
in Nice I was born
among the potted plants
and nude staircases

Sawyer, who lives in the Chicago area and edits ‘Milk’ online magazine with Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, wasn’t born in Nice.  Perhaps in reveries he imagines being born in Nice, carelessly projecting the squalid-by-comparison, compacted features of where he was born into these revealing Matisse-ian forms.  Where he was born resembles Nice the way Sawyer resembles Fernandez, the way human beings resemble a ‘species’, the way a palm tree resembes a pine tree, the way written language or ‘patterns on black wall-/ paper’ resemble the divinity.

To some degree, what we have is what we are given, all of it the same, the same blindness, the same sickness of heart, the same moment-to-moment amateurishness.  But it doesn’t appear the same on the surface.

you prize the parrot at the doctor’s office              
over its shoulder is slung a man in a fur of fire
the slithering ruins of the landscape in Greece
and here comes winter again knitting caverns.

Rather than dividing between have and do not have, Sawyer seems to divide between inside and outside.  Outside is confusing; inside is bustling with purpose.  

Take one long last look at yourself in the mirror
Do you like the reflection of our worried times?

Where in the reflection is oneself?  ‘Businessmen go out with the wind’  The wind mixes with the self.  The wind is everything mixing with everything, except what we have been able to separate out from it.  In viewing his reflection, Sawyer attempts to distinguish between the predetermined and that portion over which he can exercize self-control—choice, reason, understanding.  

In starting from the surface, whether it be actual or reflected, Sawyer views such things as choice, understanding, consciousness through a prism of fortuitousness.  What meaning can be observed is not great and is perhaps a little dirtied and banged up and possibly mistaken.        

my heart is a clock, a rusty pulley with nothing to drink  

Three things the minimalist cover design of ovals resembles to me - movie-version marks supposedly left by octopus tentacles on skin, body cells and pills.  One poem in the chapbook is titled ‘Pills’.  Pills would be on the side of the predetermined, the genetic, a uniformly manufactured chemical that controls humans rather than the other way around.  As a prod, they ‘Turn the key to breath’ but also sometimes cause the self to forget the self, ‘skipping past my choked/ childhood of innocent calm’.

Another thing that is on the side of the genetic is history.  But history, which is always a reflection, is helpful because it informs its readers that some of what we take to be in the realm of the subjective is not but is an effect of pervasive distorting inhuman winds.  In the poem ‘Some War of 1812’ are the lines

the grim time frowned upon the players
Smoke is everywhere.  You cannot see the other ships or the lake....

The poem ends, ‘The captain goes down with the poem!’  Down or up, sometimes difficult to predict.  Nor does it matter entirely.  What matters more is being a captain rather than being captained—not an obvious or a pleasant role but rather an implicit and painful one.

In opposition to the genetic is the invented.  In the line ‘you were invented’ I read ‘you’ as meaning Sawyer himself as-object.  But, as I say, Sawyer doesn’t press the point.  ‘In opposition’ is too strong a phrase.  ‘Alongside’ or ‘unlike’ would perhaps be better.  Or indeed ‘similar to’.  The lines of the poem ‘Produce Suit, Please Juice’ describe the process, the construction of invention.

A renewed taste dries here
by an unreal wall, in a personal world-
instinct develops the tall surf lunges
      you are in close proximity to the
splendor of refuse and myth
      still you change the sheets of major depression

I’ve included Sawyer’s poem ‘Geez’ from issue 13 of the online publication ‘Shampoo’ in the purview of this review, a poem I remember liking as I encountered it.  It seems to belong with the poems in the chapbook and reinforces the chapbook poem ‘Venusian Primer’.  Sometimes Sawyer not only doesn’t press his point but expresses pointlessness.  Both of these poems contain alliterative sequences of unrelated words.  In ‘Geez’ are lines such as

ephedrine escapades erode extracted elegies
escrow grantees evidently evict elephants

These lines seem to despair of virtue, especially of trying to communicate in a sincere way.  In ‘Venusian Primer’ the word use is alliterative and also nonsensical in defining made-up ‘terms’ such as ‘urp’ ‘turp’ ‘surp’.  

murp - meep murb melk mosp morst murz molz millifizen/ millifizzenzeit

The poem ‘New Vocabulary’ also fits with these.  One quality the genetic and the invented seem to share is incomprehensibility.

Similar to the invented is the accepted, the exercize of human virtues, of intelligence over the genetic, the indistinguishable elemental.  Larry Sawyer’s little chapbook itself is distinguished in this way, not by the high quality of the poems but by the refreshing quality of the poems.  He has taken what’s been given him.  The difference between what humans are made out of and what they make out of themselves is blurred.  In searching the limits of meaning, Sawyer has discovered a way of presenting it more sharply.

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