November 25, 2008

Review by Eric Greenwell

LEAVING IOWA
by Michael Meyerhofer

Briery Creek Press
201 High Street
Farmville, VA 23909
ISBN 978-0977447121
2007, 63 pp., $10.95
http://www.brierycreekpress.org/

In Michael Meyerhofer’s first full-length collection, Leaving Iowa, winner of the Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry, he ventures to drift off the page into a vivid world of dreams and fantasy, were it not for the consistent chain that binds him to the follies and vulnerabilities of being human, anchoring him here, with all of us, in reality. With astounding linguistic awareness, he presents this complex struggle in a very lucid way, conveying concepts as complicated and depthless as the faculty of imagination with comprehensible simplicity (“I grew in its shadow, knowledge that there was something in this world I could not see”). And this relatable quality extends further, as Meyerhofer’s speaker exists in a world no different from our own, full of repairmen, handshakes, haircuts, trips and falls, funerals, sex, mothers, religion and the Trojan War. Meyerhofer embeds these concepts in narratives with a fierce dedication to honesty, sparing not the dour truths of life, acting as a brilliantly diverse and all-inclusive account of human emotion—a voice of humor as well as tragedy.

The first section of this book consists predominately of first person narratives. In “Death, the First Time,” the initial poem in the collection, the reader is exposed to human fragility in an experience laced with familiarity: “I was seven, running across the ice/when I slipped and cracked my skull,/blood bursting like crimson novas…” Physical vulnerability is brought to the forefront. Note that we are not invincible; we have accidents; we break like vases and glasses succumbing to gravity, a force enacted upon all things with no exceptions. Our uniqueness lies in our ability to feel, yearn and improve our state. Unfortunately, life will be cruel and emotionless, constantly thwarting our attempts. This truth adds a profound layer of depth and beauty to Meyerhofer’s prevailing honesty:

…Standing in the kitchen, I thought of how
we’d already spent my entire fall
scholarship on the Obsidian headstone,
plus what it costs to place a funeral
poem in the County Press News
for three days—how soon, I leave
for college, wash dishes and sell blood
just to pay interest on family debts,
not even enough left over for
a case of Natural Light or a joint
on what I knew would be many nights
alone in the dorms, wanting to die
“The Check”

Meyerhofer draws both external and internal vulnerability from these empathetic and tangible experiences. These narrative poems begin the journey fittingly, highlighting reoccurring motifs.

Consistency as its base, the book continues, dispelling fantasy in this real world with solid examples and comparisons, claiming “…the heart is not symmetrical,/not an arrowhead angled safely down—/it’s a meaty crimson fist that swells/like a bladder about to explode” (“Iconography of the Heart”). This use of symbolism becomes more prominent as the reader progresses. Meyerhofer focuses less on the first person I, although never abandoning it completely, and begins to create alternative narratives, cleverly handpicking varying subjects, such as historic and religious figures:

…Later, undressing after battle,
we see the soft hands of servants
peeling off his stained metal webs,
then his heavy vest of toughened
leather tooled with hungry lions,
softer cloth for padding, finally
some good luck charm hung
like a clapper against the heart—
“A Knight in Cross-Section”

Meyerhofer is conscious of the armor we wear, the characters we create in our stories and tales, and, above all, that it is all fiction. In this world, the armor always comes off, peels away layer by layer no matter how thick it is worn, to expose human flesh. All we can hope is that luck persists. Nothing will make us less fragile than we already are. In the fantasy world we create, we do not die; we are courageous, successful and perpetually satisfied. But Meyerhofer finds value in authenticity. A mirror exists in this poetry—an unbiased mirror, as all mirrors are, that reflects exactly the things that are placed in front of it. When humanity views itself in this mirror, all men and women discover a vulnerable and fragile existence, susceptible to despair. Meyerhofer captures a real beauty in this truth: this is what makes humanity so human.

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Eric Greenwell is a Midwestern native recently graduated from the undergraduate creative writing program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale with honors. He has worked as a grocery store manager, music shop clerk, farmhand and computer technician. His work has appeared in the Chiron Review and is forthcoming in Main Street Rag. He is currently struggling through the grueling process of applying to MFA programs.

The author can be contacted at: eric.greenwell.mail@gmail.com