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70pp. Persea Press. 15. 978–0-89255–359-4. Paper.
Douglas J. Belcher
In this, his second and most recent collection of poems, Lovely, Raspberry out this year from Persea Press, Aaron Belz offers verse that is wry in humor, subtle in its themes, and surprising in its effects. These poems have you blink twice and read them again, thinking to yourself ‘hmm… did I read that correctly?’
Much of the book allows us to view thoughts on conversations and exchanges with a romantic someone — a partner not physically or emotionally described in a tangible way, who is nonetheless greatly influencing the content of the poem. Discomfort is a consistent theme in the book; discomfort at the approaching of a unspecified threshold of emotional intimacy with this partner, the crossing of which or encounter with seems to be realized in nebulous terms after the fact. That is, the language of the encounter itself is not nebulous, but only how the encounter with this threshold manages to weave its way into and out of the consciousness of the poet.
The blink-twice effect mentioned earlier is the poet’s as well, in other words, and has therefore no play in the realm of gamesmanship or manipulation, neither with the invisible partner of the poems, nor the reader, but instead reveals itself to be a general sense of piquant wonder over the vicissitudes of emotions and images the poet manages to conjure when juggling the complexities of the relationship.
In the poem ‘Reinventing the Wheel’ the partners reinvent each other into imaginary, ‘better’ (my word) selves; the author becoming ‘a pensive, slightly overweight woman / with a knack for arcane geography.’ The partners then drink brandies and seem amused with each other, yet the tone of discomfort remains, and a certain threshold of intimacy is left unbreached… ‘[You are] still not knowing what is in my mind — / a peninsula where it rains but never snows.’
We see a series of public and private engagements where discomfort arrives in a similar way, sometimes in the form of an interrupting acquaintance, or a petty thief, if not always of property but maybe only of a restful moment among friends. An uncomfortable situation convenes on a nearby subject, such as in ‘Asking Al Gore About the Muse’, where Al Gore, waiting for a bus, tries to befriend the author, but some interpretation of feminism between them stands in the way, leaving the inheritance of discomfort split evenly between the two of them.
There is also ‘The Portrait of Robert Preston.’ Here, the reader views a portrait along with the poet, wherein a gentleman is represented as bright, wide-eyed and alert while all else around him, including his wife, landscape, property and pets, is portrayed as dark, shaded and sleepy. The painting leaves one with an uncomfortable feeling, and this reveals the skill of the poet — something is troubling here, but is the problem in Robert Preston, in everyone else, or in the painter? There is much resembling portraiture in less direct ways in the text of Lovely, Raspberry, and people who enjoy that art would have something to gain by reading this book.
Returning to the depiction of the lover/partner, there are moments where all in the relationship is tranquil — ‘I love mon papillon / as she’s waking up / among twisted sheets’ (‘La Vie,’ p.7) and there are other poems where we are walking right into a tiff — ‘It is good to look at ducks / I never said that I do everything right.’ (‘Looking at Ducks’)
There is an enjoyable man vs. environment type of piece, where the subject of the poem seems to be suffering from heatstroke or some miscellaneous illness while resting between swarming, garish parties. The romantic partner arrives to take him, amidst his stuttering protests, to a ‘fire anthem celebration.’ The poet’s skill at quick, effective language and curious imagery becomes apparent:
The heat-soaked hexes from Mexico
Rowed north in boats. The white
Texan vixens came sailing in too, on brooms.
The place was full of hicks in tuxes.
Other aspects of this collection include a poking fun at cults of ‘authenticity’, people who live on the internet, superficiality, and boring Canadians. There is also a more serious concern over fetishism when it may or may not correspond with displacement of facial features, which is gently invoked by the occasional juxtaposition of the author with the children’s toy, Mr. Potato Head, but given very clearly in the poem, ‘Beard Beard’:
You loved me once
but now you don’t,
because I shaved
off my goatee
and left only
a strange moustache…
I swept it up
in a Ziploc
in case you ever
want it back.
A lurking spirit of disarray pervades the textual content which sometimes reads as a kind of surrealism or cubism, intruding and pecking away at some poems and narrations like creatures with multiple egos or faces, moving in and out or through a window or passageway which is mostly apparent to the poet. This is from the book’s longest poem, ‘A Box of It’:
Yet you finally arrived
with your trix, a multiheaded
Bubba Sparxxx whose jaundice
never shows because his
retelling speaxxx distractedly
of the women at Key Biscayne
Horses, snakes and ‘cartoony’ animals walk in and out of some poems like a fantasy, and the poet’s face sometimes seems to be in different places, or physical compartments, or one or another aspect of the face or body has been compartmentalized: ‘Each of my feet has a nose and a mouth’ (‘Shifters,’ p.47). The above selection of transitory beardliness, particularly, is oddly reminiscent — in a thematic sense — of ‘The Temptation’ by Baudelaire:
The Demon, In my chamber high
This morning came to visit me
And, thinking he would find some fault
He whispered: I would know of thee
Among the many lovely things
That make the magic of her face
Among the beauties, black and rose,
That make her body’s charm and grace,
Which is most fair?…
Baudelaire later answers in the poem that it is the whole subject of the person that he loves, not any particular part more than another, and the demon is banished (only to reappear a few poems/years later). Belz’s poetry, while acknowledging the force of disarray, would check Baudelaire’s often-recurring motif of wholeness or balance-obtainable-through-a-relationship, or the quicker answers often unveiled to maintain one, suggesting that taking such a course would be perilous at least in the psychological sense.
Whether to take that course in poetic practice remains something of a debate, and one recalls Frost’s concern about free verse as ‘tennis without a net’, to which an anonymous poet is known to have supplied/replied, ‘[how about] tennis without Robert Frost?’
The language in Lovely, Raspberry is simple, clear, and to some extent Ashberian with its flat, parodic tone, punctuated surrealism and occasional invocation of God, likely provoking the review by John Ashbery in the first place. Ashbery has stated:
‘Reading (Lovely, Raspberry) is like dreaming of a summer vacation and then taking it.’
It is, and it is also a summer vacation from which one never completely returns. The sense of the book is that some of the poems are describing events that have come, to borrow Vonnegut’s phrase ‘unstuck in time,’ likely not penned to illustrate that the author himself is stuck somewhere in the past, but more toward the Roger Rabbitian expression whereby the ‘cartoony’ animals and real ones mingle together throughout time and space, why? — because we (and he) can go there, to often entertaining effect.
Baudelaire, Charles: The Flowers of Evil and Other Writings, translated by F.P. Sturm, W.J. Robertson and Joseph T. Shipley, originally published in 1919, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2008.