Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Peter Sears' Luge
a chapbook of poems, Cloudbank Books, 2008
P.O. Box 610, Corvallis, OR 97339

Short books like this one (14 pages) don't tax one's patience too much, even though yes, this is poetry, not prose, and yes, 14 pages = fourteen poems to hold in your head, if Google hasn't made us all too stupid to still be able to do this.

No, the difficult thing about Luge isn't that it's made of poems but rather that the speaker in these poems knows he's going to die. He knows this not abstractly, not in the surface way that we invoke in the old joke "well, no one gets out alive." This speaker knows it in a cellular way; his normal incredulity has mostly given way to a state of actually believing it, and this fact has engaged his imagination. Such knowledge -- call it deep knowledge -- may arrive anytime; there's no particular schedule here. But once it does arrive, it offers only two possible responses: run away fast, or change, take the ride. Hence, this small book's title: Luge.

Of course, it's the imagination's ride, as much as the body's, and this means that memory -- or imagination, for at this point they amount to the same thing -- ranges far and brings back the oddest intensities. Thus, in "You Weren't There," the poem's speaker invokes a moment in confrontation with his father, a moment when his father is so angered that "If I had taken one step into the room / I probably would have stepped on /an invisible downed power line / and electrocuted both of us." The excess of this is half funny, in a wry sort of way, and half terrifying. Which is the point. The very next poem presents this speaker at the age of 16, "his feet, his main feature, / are Smithsonian." It concludes by identifying this poor youth's "most trying habit," which is "to stand in front of you / and appear to be about to say something and not." This is also the same speaker whose third-grade imagination could get so caught up with the fantasy of being a World War II fighter pilot that "if I got shot down and crashed and burned up, // it wasn't clear if I could shift back to being just / a third grader -- or if I'd be gone..."

The poems in Luge do not suffer from the habit of promising but not delivering. Quite the contrary. But these poems do pose a consistent challenge: they juxtapose one persona with another (and sometimes with yet another). "The Guy Opposite Me in the Chemo Ward," a guy who's seeing purple trees because of the hallucinatory effects of treatment, this "guy" may be another patient. Or he may be the speaker himself hallucinating a new persona in order to keep insanity at bay.

These poems take us to the place from which they speak. As a reader, you pay attention here even if the experience seems so non-consumer oriented. What's beautiful can be so intense that the intensity becomes painful. Time goes by too fast.

What the poems make and assert most crucially is a pace at which experience -- the world's words -- arrive. At this pace, at the pace of a poem, aspects of experience are possible that may not be possible otherwise. What aspects of experience? Regret, nostalgia, fact-telling, surprises of memory, specificities of perception that amount to beauty. Even a nice long hot tub followed by a "Late Nap" and that sleep wherein "nobody comes after me, I don't / have to go anywhere, and I am immortal." Yes, it can feel like that sometimes too.

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