Body & Glass   by Rodney Koeneke   Wave Books , 88 pages, April 3, 2018

Body & Glass

by Rodney Koeneke

Wave Books, 88 pages, April 3, 2018

 

Reviewed by tyler flynn dorholt

If I could construct poetry’s new fiefdom, I might assign Rodney Koeneke the role of Assonance Patrol; yet that wouldn’t allow his reach to extend the way it ought to, in the way that it does in Body & Glass. Though robust enough, Koeneke’s usage of assonance (which sneakily contains the correspondences within the book) is often only a minor peak in his topography of thought. His poetic applications are manifold and meticulous. The poems in this book refurbish old images and upholster new ideas, and as such they read like treatments, handlings, attempts to rake clarity out from the linguistic cosmos.    

Yet what is clarity, I imagine Koeneke asking, especially in our vast spectrum of human needs and desires. Is it available “while we play statistics / in the episteme’s census,” or is it the “green earth under snow,” or is clarity just the act of handling—treating—anything at all, anything as long as it is kept close to us, close because we need to reckon with our imaginings by groping the global into the local. Whatever clarity is, I speak of it because, as a reader, I find myself searching for it in Koeneke’s poems (and not in the kind of way a poet’s uncle might ask about meaning, cornering your during the holidays to say he doesn’t get your poems). At first, I thought I was being toyed with, that there is a relinquishing sequence in the flesh and sands (body and glass?) of this book that I arrived a second too late for; that the way some of the nouns in these poems either hide behind meaning, or flitter obsolete, estranged me; that I was brushed under the aim. But then the poems start to code themselves, or seep from their own codes, and the syntax that unsheathes such codes saves me from growing delusional in my sprint for clarity. I stop suffering the small stuff and find a speaker. Consider Koeneke’s “the new poetics,” here in its entirety: 

 

Snake, be quick—excuse of words

to make me sharp and want to write

waits in metaphor’s sleepless taunt.

People, use stones! Compose things

slow to weed sounds boys invent

from drone’s new lows. Saxifrage

in young stands lovers meet behind

nervous to dismiss significance

Ur-names meeting Ur-things

in the flowers, bees reconciling workers

to their combs. Quiet, writing

don’t strike ideas I let be composed

but through that flow of breath that is not

my breath, split ore from rock

that’s not my ore, my rock. 

 

Arriving just more than halfway through Body & Glass, this poem brings it—clarity—all back home. A poem that whispers “hear me out here, this is what’s going on.” The poem is a treatment in how it takes up defining itself while also rescinding its own involvement in such defining. We use words to sharpen ourselves but writing—putting the words in, down, out—mystifies the composure of our own thinking, and in coming to be, writing—even speaking—is tortured by its proximity to the images and voices encircling it. The poem calls our attention to thought as a disjoined journey, one where we actually have to let thought be composed and not impede or circumvent it by speaking out of it before it becomes what it can be, something pure in the breath of a being. Yet even as I delve into this take, I know I am being gusted aback by the uncertainty of the speaker. Even the title of the book—which is Body & Glass, not Body AS or Body IN Glass—asks us to think of the vessel which contains the thinking and speaking (body) before the thinking and speaking get reflected (glass); “the new poetics” enacts the ways in which glass reflects us back to ourselves and our reflection through it is distortion. It is “the new poetics” because it is a poem coming back around to trying to figure out what the poet, and the poem are doing, fully aware this is nothing new, that nothing is new in poetics, that poems like Koeneke’s simply amplify a portion of the spectrum. My inner ear wants me to speak of this as if it’s some attempt at tuning in to glossolalia, but I won’t go that far, as even Koeneke, when he does go far—and he does, especially in cajoling landmarks and distant places—remains pinned down to a reference’s tangibility, or to a noun: 

What is it they can tell you about absence, 

how it abates, takes names

 

Becomes a wall with windows

faced on a formal garden, content

 

To accept the thin rain. The syllable

forgives the words that need it, a sentence …

 

(from “Poem for Bruce”)

 

Here absence is personified and becomes glass. The syllabic forgiveness then speaks to the ways in which names are given, even as place escapes name. But Koeneke leaves a little of the poetic construction’s blame on the syllable here, just as he does in “the new poetics” with an “excuse of words.” The poet is concerned with naming but mostly for how it actually dislocates our thinking, and thus language itself remains dislocated because of name. Naming groans distant and defies our own instances of selfhood, as we move away from ourselves, our names, to see and name other things, other people. As is such, the poems in Body & Glass read as if they’re dissolving in the volatile solvent that is thinking, and though it’s easy to be carried away when Koeneke waxes with tools like assonance and spontaneous rhyme—carried away to a place where recognition of the poem’s work can often be dusted out of vantage—it is just as important to see the back and forth between body and glass, between naming and name. 

The cumulative effect of reading many of Koeneke’s poems in one sitting feels like the mind being crocheted, portions hidden away into lockets, others coded into nodes. How does Koeneke achieve this? One answer is that the poems come together because they often end with, and on, their objects. In fact, and aside from how each of the 55 poems are titled like grapplings (a speaker grappling with how to communize abstractions), what the poems often end on—pans and stumps and satellites and edges and snow and crowns and ground and stones and rocks and boats—are objects that balance the otherwise fleeting posits of their neighboring poems’ closures, which happen (and sometimes without a period or with a question mark) on fears and aways and releases. Koeneke sums up this attempt at balance in many ways, but he does it most consistently by calling our attention to form—“form finds fame and ways / of being willing, going forward / collecting shiny things” (from “Pastorale”)–and then too by reminding us that the poet, and the reader, often feel or grapple with feeling in their minds too, not just their hearts:

 

   I find it so amazing

that work is too constricting

for poets to be read with full attention,

   attention in the love from other minds.

(from “Mazurka”)

 

Over the course of Body & Glass, content becomes increasingly melancholic. In the treatments, speakers come back to the body, mind too. The reflexivity becomes more obvious—“another year with you refracted/Into the situation of each poem”—and the answers double over—“who will care when we’re gone/and the offices canceled,/hours there revealed as so much air,” but this is a healthy turnaround, a way to see and say that any time spent in the global cast always ends inside oneself, a body in the sands, shored up, or shoring up for more. Koeneke pays attention to this, and his poems ask we do the same.

 

Tyler Flynn Dorholt is the author of American Flowers (Dock Street Press), and co-editor and publisher of the journal and press, Tammy. He writes, makes art, and lives with his wife and son in Syracuse, NY.