Aaron Belz is out to get you. Get you thinking, get you laughing, get you good. The poems in his first full-fledged collection, The Bird Hoverer, will get to you, too. In other words, they’re smart and funny, and also big-hearted.
‘The Preserve’ opens the collection, appropriately, with diverse images of flight: ‘neon/ frisbees rotate around the barbecue’; ‘headlights/ flush up the ground-nesting birds/ till they scatter like spiders in the sky’; ‘a sea of woodpeckers rises to the fore’. The subtle logic of these images works from round objects to whirlpooling fauna, for the purpose of collapsing the distance between earth and the heavens. But in the middle distance spiders dangle, the dream of conflation makes the flesh crawl.
Whenever Belz offers the comforts of home, rest assured they will prove discomfiting. Or rather, rest unassured.
‘Canaries’ begins by describing ‘The jackknife you filched/ with etchings of boxing gloves on it’, and some ‘metal fruit/ in the center of the table’. Characters hear ‘an audible hum/ like that of a remote dishwasher’, then the speaker explains:
I had been sitting in a lather
about my cracked telescope case.
I said, Rudy’s not in earshot, sister,
he ran out for decorative pomegranates.
After a soothing, faraway churning, and a promise of clean plates – no need to fear that jackknife now – anger surfaces, anxiety fissures a near-to-hand telescope case (note the echo of ‘spiders in the sky’). An absurd twist follows: ‘he ran out for decorative pomegranates’. But the pressing need for a frivolous addition to the centerpiece soon erupts – check your hilarity – into the real violence of ‘skinning yams’ with a ‘tangled fork/ of only two tines’. Another tine has perhaps already broken off in something. Or someone. Rudy’s name intimates blood, Rudy-red blood.
Such shocking developments crop up everywhere. What’s startling is that the poet himself seems as surprised by them as anyone. Consider the bewildering first lines of ‘Map Tools’:
A voice announced, The crematorium is closing now.
Please, everyone, proceed to the new infirmary.
So I did, and voilà – my liver spots were cured!
Though the action progresses with apparent optimism, from the dead to the sick to the well, wellness is not what this poem’s main concern turns out to be:
and my heart felt all bombed out, the way it does
when someone you vaguely know dies suddenly,
and you wonder what must keep the stars on their spindles,
or what keeps the tickers clacking in rows along the street.
The heart as ticker, a suggestion that the parking meters are running out of time, a nameless acquaintance whose loss is at least as devastating as a loved one’s – in the end the stars are poised to fall on an empty street, everybody’s gone, gone back to the crematorium. Or everybody’s at the new infirmary. (One can’t help wondering about the old infirmary: Did it have to be replaced, or supplemented?)
In ‘Arizona Beach’ a man appears ‘with three golf balls in his mouth’, with a peculiar stance and darting eyes and ‘a big stick of chalk in his hand./ He was spelling something in the air.’ His screed about gypsies and boom boxes and surf boards elicits from the speaker an unexpected judgment: ‘This man could not have been a lunatic./ He was too dexterous, and besides, he was wearing a suit.’ Only a mad poet could arrive at this conclusion.
Or a poet who has retained a sense of childlike amazement. Belz’s eclectic reference points attest to a wide-eyed fascination with the world. He commingles high and low culture, the historical and the contemporary – ‘The Violent Visigoth’ features a cordless phone and Trans Am – to inject humor into the poems. But his postmodern pastiches also allow profound emotions to assemble. His poems about women (‘Clare Considers’, ‘Andrea and the Bees’, ‘Pam’, ‘Stella’) offer poignant portraits of love and sorrow.
The poet himself pops up, here and there, to astonishing effect. Most astonishing, in this regard, are the closing words of the series, ‘Fifteen Poems that End with “Good Luck”’: ‘Dear Mr. Belz,/ Good Luck’.
The language in The Bird Hoverer darts and flutters with avian speed and agility. The wordplay is particularly brilliant in ‘Nicely’:
The grainy ice lies nicely, nicely,
the stinking crocuses in the glen
provoke hummingbirds to feistiness,
and me and my aunts bat piñatas, piñatas.
In this poem Belz displays both linguistic facility and mastery of the short form. Elsewhere he uses the short form to problematize, however playfully, the relationship between language and knowledge. For instance, in ‘Apes’:
I love the decentralized subway system.
It goes from California to Laos.
In California, there are connected windows.
In Laos you lose those, but you do have apes.
Try saying ‘In Laos you lose those’ three times fast. Then try imagining apes on a global subway system, any global subway system.
There are two parts to The Bird Hoverer, ‘Among Birds’ and ‘Names of the Lost.’ The first part is stronger than the second, but ‘Names of the Lost’ still offers many pleasures. Among these are three poems titled ‘My Factotum’, the last of which comprises this wacky two-liner:
My factotum lives in France.
My factotum has no pants.
Exclamation marks punctuate every sentence of ‘Bruce Beasley!’ The poem rails against an unread book by Beasley, an intimidating book that has sat on a shelf ‘since 1988!’ But the tone bears almost no trace of anger. The exclamations sound like an agog teenager writing an e-mail about life being unfair. The abrupt and resigned finale – ‘It’s OK!’ – is exactly the conclusion you’d expect from a teenager who’d rather not think about something troublesome anymore. It’s clear, however, that the mature poet will continue to be haunted by Beasley’s book – among others.
The best long poem in the collection is found in the second part, in ‘The Man with No Hat’. Here the lines stretch out and tense, but never threaten to break, and the subject matter, though mirthfully shot through with quasi-historical European referents, conveys a serious concern for poetry and cultural revolution.
The closing poem, ‘Life is a Dirty Secret’, expresses initial disdain for literary exaltation of the real. But the last lines acknowledge the necessity of certain illusions, that poetry’s function is to ease the pains of life, and even ‘to make it seem grand’. The Bird Hoverer does indeed make it seem grand.