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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Aaron Belz's Lovely, Raspberry reviewed by Joseph Harrington

Aaron Belz
Lovely, Raspberry: Poems

ISBN 978-0-89255-359-4
Persea Books, 2010
80 pages, pbk.

Reviewed by Joseph Harrington

“You expect me to tell you about the interior of the room/ in which I’m typing this, and connect that to my feelings,” begins Aaron Belz’ second full-length poetry collection, Lovely, Raspberry. Readers of his first book (The Bird Hoverer) needn’t be told that he won’t make that facile connection. Like some of the poems in that volume, this one proceeds to elaborately eviscerate contemporary “mainstream” poetry, with its predictable rhetorical moves and taken-for-granted subjectivity. At the same time, it dives into one of Belz’ major concerns: the ultimate impossibility of easy connections – whether between lovers, reader and writer, word and referent, subject and self. “Lets put our heads together/ and try to think up a third room unknown to either of us” – this book is that room. But by the same token, You can’t connect with I: “I cannot even begin to do it, for I am a ranch boy/ and not even a very good one; I live in El Bandito, Texas.” Like the other poems in Lovely, Raspberry, “Direction” takes a detour down the rabbit hole, to a place weird, hilarious, and utterly unexpected – even by the writer, one infers.

In “Skee Ball,” he admits that “[i]t’s true that I am experienced in the ways of freeform thought . . . I practice stream of consciousness in a professional way . . . and often enjoy observing the way other people’s minds move about unhindered by reason.” Skee balls or screw balls: Belz can toss them in rapid succession. His signature wacky humor owes as much to the Ernie Kovaks as to the New York School: there is parody of the high-fallutin elegiac poetic voice, but there is also wit, as in “Thirty Illegal Moves in the Cloud-Shape Game”: “Potatoes/ Waves/ Ghosts/ A Rorschach blot/ Fuzz/ Clouds/ A dragon head/ Chèvre,” and so on. This is a smart gag – one based on a logical gap and linguistic slippage. I could go on to talk about legibility and representation – about the fake and the real, the funny and the serious, or (as one poem title has it) “Signal versus Noise” – but I won’t, because doing so would be out of keeping with the spirit of the thing, which is fundamentally that of dark comedy and “perspective by incongruity.” “When every word sounds cliché,/ each turn of phrase derivative,/ that’s when I turn to slapstick” – and it is a strategy that works both to enliven and to defamiliarize the writing. Many of the poems are elaborate and bizarre jokes with punch lines that are even more bizarre (have you heard “The One About the Ectoplasm and the Osetoblast”?); the joke is on the joke. This book will make you laugh a lot more than most poetry books, largely due to the poems' dark, deadpan tone and debunking bent:
My Best Wand

Of all the magic wands
I’ve bought over the years,
only the steel one
with the sharp tip
really works – you point it
into someone and say
and the person magically
becomes wounded.
The pieces in Lovely, Raspberry sound like dream narratives, chance operations, homophonic translations, jabberwockery, Beckett dialogue, logical syllogisms gone awry, or horrifying kids’ poetry. But then this is the speaking subject who, when “[t]illing Charles Reznikoff’s back yard/ brought up a dozen lions and several patches/ of wildebeest hearts.” Only Belz could find such playful imaginative richness in the backyard of the great Objectivist, and he doesn’t even need to cut-and-paste Google search results to do it. Sometimes that richness takes the form of verbal riffs for their own sake:
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.

Brad, that’s enough. Play it somewhere else.
OK – but Aaron, please don’t. This fanciful, rick-a-tick-tunk hullabaloo is just the antidote for capital P Poetry. There is indeed some subtle rhyme and meter in here, but just enough to make you do a double-take. Indeed, stanzas in the same poem sometimes don’t seem to have much connection to one another, beyond variations-on-a-theme – which is enjoyable, if you can take your reasonable hands off the verbal steering wheel for a bit. “Do not express yourself mildly: do it wildly.” Lovely, Raspberry does it.

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Joseph Harrington is the author of Things Come On: an amneoir (Wesleyan University Press 2011), Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan 2002), and the chapbook earth day suite (Beard of Bees, forthcoming). His creative work also has appeared in Hotel Amerika, The Collagist, Otoliths, Fact-Simile, and P-Queue, amongst others. He teaches at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.