01 January 2010

Anxious Music by April Ossmann

Review by Christina Cook
 
Anxious Music
By April Ossman

Four Way Books
Perfect binding, 52 pages

ISBN-13: 978-1-884800-81-8
ISBN-10: 1-884800-81-5
Link to Purchase


In keeping with April Ossmann’s slippery use of words and her “catch me if you can” voice, the closest Anxious Music comes to having a title poem is “A Kind of Music,” buried in the middle of the collection. This poem epitomizes Ossmann’s signature change in key, moving between major chords of playful, casual language and minor chords of more serious, reflective language. Just as in regular music, it is the insistence of regular measure which lends a firm yet flexible coherence to each poem, as well as to the collection as a whole. This is music which alerts the reader that the poems it orchestrates are to be read carefully, and read more than once or twice.

 “A Kind of Music” invites us to consider
that “quick” means alive
     as well as fast, that “dead”

is the final measure
     of the lack of motion, so speed
must be a measure
     of life, and the quality of life
a measure of speed,
     so if you’re in the check-out
line at the grocery
     (remembering that “checking out”
is slang for dying),
     and the line’s not fast
in the sense of moving
     at an acceptable speed, that’s life
threatening. . .

The clipped line breaks and short line lengths, along with the largely mono or disyllable words and the contractions, are collectively calculated for speed. Although this piece is built on the linguistic equivalent of staccatos and sixteenth notes, it is also deceptively complex, and requires multiple reads to capture the high-speed wordplay and turns of meaning. The poem could almost been seen as describing itself when it goes on to ask us to
     Consider that music is used
to rouse as well as soothe,
     that no music is made
without motion (the heart,
     to emotion); that speed
is a kind of music—
     the music we most desire
to dance to—
Ossmann does not let the music of her poems simply lift into any abstract shifts of air or thought. Rather, she grounds them in specific moments of every day life: from the grocery store check-out line in “A Kind of Music” to flipping through the dictionary on a Sunday morning in “Epergne,” a poem which also sparkles with wordplay and wit. She slows the poem down to a whole-note pace by infusing its variously long and short lines with abundant white space and letting it sprawl over two and a half pages, ever so slightly loosening the dictate of left-justified lines. As in “A Kind of Music,” Ossmann uses the full range of a given word’s various—and possible—meanings to build the central tension in the poem:

I am looking for epergne when I find it, Sunday morning,
   in my Webster’s Unabridged between ensorcell
(what desire does to the brain)
   and ensphere

what we think the head does to the spirit,
   though it might be the opposite—
the soul ensphering the body, the body
   meant to contain only what it could, a tenth,
of its guiding spirit, the rest

   streaming continually out—
the way light illuminates the lampshade and spills over the edges—
   but the word that stops my search is ensoul:
The speaker goes on to explore the possible insights which this found word may yield to her, wondering if “daisies or roses, trash or ashes” could be ensouled, and realizing that
   when I think of it, I’ve had or assumed
scant control over what I allowed in
   or what’s been tossed in my soul.
I have been the epergne I was looking for—
This realization is far from the end of the arc that this poem takes, however. After this moment, the speaker goes on to probe more and ask more questions, indeed ending the poem with a question mark. No answers are final, no conclusions ends in themselves in this collection of poems, but rather invitations to look at objects and ideas from a different perspective, to find a different angle, a different answer, a different question.

Just as the speaker of “Epergne” supposes the opposite of the meaning she finds in the dictionary: “ensphere—/what we think the head does to the spirit,/though it might be the opposite—,” the speaker of “Photo of the Artist With Chainsaw” also challenges the received idea of the interior position of the soul. In a stunning depiction of a man who is seeking trees to sculpt into figures with his chainsaw, we see a vision of art as the catalyst for such a profoundly literal baring of the soul:
He wants to give himself
wholly to something, not
like he gave himself
to women, to the bottle
and needle, no,
just this once,
he thinks, he’ll give himself
to something beautiful
and clear and final. Just
this once give himself
to something with
no holding back—something
to turn him soulside-out,
like jade green blown
Venetian glass. He’ll sing
an opera, dance the tango.
But here Ossmann again shies away from a pat closure, choosing to end the poem by humorously depicting the effect of the catharsis—that the artist will seek out another catharsis—rather than holding the reader’s hand through an explanation of the event itself:
He’ll remember finally,
all the names he’s forgotten,
and answer to his own:
Edward Hopkins, wildlife
artist, willing to travel.
What if ensoul does not mean to endow with a soul? What if it means to turn something insoul out, to make something dance just as Edward Hopkins does to himself when he puts the chainsaw to the birch? What Ossmann says in “Epergne” is true: “I have not done what the poets have done/which is to give objects or words a soul.” Rather, her poems ensoul things in this last (if only posited) sense: they show what things truly are, as only art can. The collection’s first poem, “One,” for example, opens with the line “I wanted the avocados” and ends with “I steered my cart/down the market’s/gleaming avenues,” however, it is not about avocadoes in the usual sense. It is about avocadoes as they truly are:
something
that cost too much, that
felt too smooth
on my tongue,
that would torment me
with its absence as it would
with its presence.
I never passed them
with indifference.
After reading this poem, neither do I. Ossmann’s range is so wide, she can even show the act of washing dishes, with all its mundaneness, as it truly is: not mundane. In “Whose Fragile Lips,” she washes
[f]irst, the glasses, whose fragile lips I trace
with a lover’s hands: glass too thin
at the rims, bottoms too round not to slip
my soapy grasp, though I keep thinking
I’ll invent a better grip. Do I press too hard—
or is the glass too frail?
I can not hold it gently enough.
Under my strength I see it breaking
like before, opening, and reopening
the white crescent moon of my early injury.
Just seven stitches in a body’s life
of injuries, but I remember every time
I ease my hand into the soapy glass,
grateful, for each reprieve.
Just as I no longer pass avocadoes with indifference, neither can I wash a wine glass without being reminded of how close to the edge we live, of how we must bear our fragility with strength: a delicate balance to maintain in any arena of life, and one often struck imperfectly. Ossmann explores life’s many arenas and their attendant imperfections with the precision of a surgeon and the sharp wit of a polished conversationalist. Eschewing perfect closure, her poetry achieves a fullness which matches the range of life as it truly is, from its quotidian depths to its delightfully soulful surfaces.

***

Christina Cook is a poet and translator and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals including, most recently, Prairie Schooner, Hayden's Ferry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Sojourn: A Journal of the Arts. Her manuscript, Out of the Blue, was shortlisted for the 2006 Dorset Prize, and she was a finalist for the 2007 Willis Barnestone Translation Prize. Christina holds an MFA from Vermont College and an MA in English and American Literature from the University of Cincinnati. She is a poetry editor for Inertia Magazine.