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When Wallace Stevens writes of the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” or when Gertrude Stein quips about her hometown, Oakland, that there is no “there there,” each word splits and spills a new meaning. These words thereafter do not clip closed; they will not be contained in any small box.
Thomas Devaney, in his new book, is fascinated with language in too close acquaintance with itself. His repetitive fireworks bloom at the start of A Series of Small Boxes with a palpable sense of mastery. The first poem, “Rome,” a place where one is oneself subject to mere repetition — commanded to when in Rome do as the Romans — begins:
There are lines from movies
That can ruin your life, is a line,
You say, that could ruin your life.
And indeed the poem ends with a poetic line that with a the flip of an adjective transforms a city full of ruins into the doubled, and dangerous, “Ruinous Rome.”
The next few poems offer the spatially and scenically Jamesian, “I could see he could see it, but that’s all I could see,”and “It’s how he looks when he looks,” as well as the intrascenic “‘It’s not always better to know better.’” These early poems parade repetitions that would stand out as merely clever if they didn’t so clearly mean to stand out. They genially prepare us for further uses of the device, more complicated and unsettling ones that require that the form be familiar such that poetic substance doesn’t dampen under the visible machinery of repetion or chiasmatic construction.
And a few poems later, in “In Iceland there’s no reason,” Devaney ventures to close with the double image of “the sun is out for fifteen minutes/ makes a fast-reverse and is out again.” “Out” serving as a pivot where these two lines create two exactly opposite landscapes.
Throughout, the book charms with what Alan Gilbert in The Believer describes as its monumentalizing quotidianness. But that is only the vehicle to express an increasingly agonized relation to language. The visual comedy of lines such as
White is white,
it takes up space,
and the scenic comedy of the lines “You don’t say, ‘You don’t say,’” cede to far more anxious and less playful reiterations.
In the eponymous poem, Devaney insists that “We don’t know if ‘No one really knows.’ We don’t know that. / For us it’s only countless boxes and trying.” Trying’s double sense more than doubled by its relation to the “countlessness” of the boxes. This is a poetics of increasingly hard trying, as Marianne Moore might have it.
The middle of the book is less occupied with the repetition of memory than with a fear that repetition will fail to work as continuation. Poems begin to show the complication and strain of repetitions such as “The afternoon was too sunny to last/ for more than the afternoon” and “We had a hard time with time.” This book performs a poetics of graduating complexity without losing a unifyingly humble voice. As Devaney has it late in the book in the discombobulatingly titled “They’re fighting in Atlantic City, Atlantic City,” the poet is overtaken by “The urge to put question marks after everything,” wondering “Where did we leave all the exclamation points?”
Turns out that in this book question marks act more like exclamation points than exclamation points. The exclamation points wandered off into irony, as in “miniature miniature golf” which closes: “Oh Wildwood, New Jersey — /Oh Seaside Heights — /Old Faithful Fountain of Youth!” Question marks, on the other hand, flag many things in these poems including alarm, agony, insistance, and need. But they can also create liveable, upswinging silences.
The final poem paints a scene of responding to
...the question you asked me — to gloss
the Wallace Stevens line:
“Nothing that is not there and nothing that is.”
“Nothing + Nothing = Something, that is ‘Nothing,’
which is really Something,” I said not knowing
where that came from. But is it all about the questions?
It’s the amplitude you feel, hear, see, and
For the moment — and longer (we hope) — we feel, hear, and see too.
I am describing you at our limits, that is, our best failed distinctions.
As there are suppers and there are suppers....
The book itself closes with its own best “failed distinction,” a worried question addressed to the unanswering, because dead, John Cage. However, this is also John Cage, composer of delectated silence. Thus, this is a moan and a kind of manifesto: “And where, dear John, is where?” Creating, and throughout the book querying, the silent space between this confident demand of an absent intimate and the wistful question is the drama and the real achievement of Devaney’s poetry.
John Emil Vincent is a poet and critic. His latest book of criticism is John Ashbery and You: His Later Books (U Georgia). He is presently editing a collection of criticism on Jack Spicer that will appear in Fall 2009 from Wesleyan Press. He is an Associate Editor of The Massachusetts Review and a newly minted poetry editor of Swink online and has published poems in many venues including failbetter, Cortland Review, Spork, and elsewhere. He presently teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON.