January 20, 2011

Review by Lynn LevinThe Glass Book by Valerie Fox

THE GLASS BOOK
by Valerie Fox

Texture Press
1108 Westbrooke Terrace
Norman, OK 73072
ISBN 13 978-0-9797573-8-9
2010, 81 pages, $14.00
www.texturepress.org

As a reader and a writer, I have been striving to liberate myself from the literal, the grounded, and the logical. Toward this end, I’ve been exploring experimental poetry, and in this quest I was most fortunate to discover Valerie Fox’s enchanting new collection The Glass Book. Call these poems anti-narratives or lyrics of serendipitous moments, the poems, many of which are prose poems, tune into our clickable, branching, speeding, channel-changing lives. In this collection, her fourth, Fox pokes at memories and lets her poems vault from images of city streets and parks to old abodes, travels, and frequent references to cameras. The effect is fast-paced. The surprising juxtapositions often conjure the surreal. And while the poems love discontinuity, they are strung together by a sense of whimsy that is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes disturbing. Always through the chaos and trickiness, I feel the comfort of a moral sense.

Valerie Fox is, I believe, exploring the poetry of resistance, a term that Tony Hoagland uses in his essay “Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness” (Poetry, September 2010). Hoagland observes that contemporary poetry is bifurcating into two systems that seek “two different kinds of poetic meaning: Perspective versus Entanglement; the gong of recognition versus the bong of disorientation.” The latter type of poetry, says Hoagland, seeks “dis-arrangement.” It “aims to disrupt or re-arrange consciousness.” It resists conventional understanding and desires to draw “the reader into a condition of not-entirely-understanding.” Valerie Fox’s poems follow this spirit.

Take, for example, the title poem “The Glass Book,” in which the poetic speaker follows the rovings of a homeless and somewhat deranged woman through the outskirts of downtown Philadelphia.

Back in the city, the same woman was living on Green Street. Everyone was always saying how gentrification was happening so fact. Every day she saw it going slow.

She was having a slow life.

She sat in her own cave of warmth. Just a few minutes earlier she had been walking fast, searching and hungering for the word “I.”

The main text follows the homeless woman, but the poetic speaker interjects side statements that deliberately swerve from that lost soul to satirize the writing process or the literary or scholarly life. Many of these remarks, introduce themselves with the phrase, “I’m calling this page…”; and they are enclosed in parentheses. After a passage in which the homeless woman swings from thoughts about a particular street, her unborn children, a new hat, and farm food, the poet jars the reader with this self-ironizing observation:

(I’m calling this page, “What people really think about during times like job interviews”)

At another moment, Fox interjects:

(I’m calling this page, “Letters to real people and lyric poets”)

This longish poem strolls the city blocks glimpsing the violence and loneliness of the streets. It is embedded with compassion for its destitute and confused subject. Then every so often, it jumps from the streets to those satirical observations about life at the desk.

Fox’s interest in dreams and the subconscious meshes with the poet’s attraction to re-arranged awareness. A section of The Glass Book is called “The Dream Book” and includes such poems as “Dream Variations (For Tuesday)” and “Lecture on Dreams.” All the poems in the collection thrive on a mind open to randomness, and much of their delight comes from their constant movement and unpredictability. The poem “Arrange in an Order” offers the reader twelve lines that might variously be seen as hilarious, private, worried, or even everyday. Here are some samples:

you crossed some rivers, like 8 or 9 times

you are cooking this meat outside

you should delete that prison time from your resume

you must have been enchanted when you let go the mules

your fantasies are observing you

Should I try to rearrange them to make conventional sense? I don’t think that’s the point. Playfulness and deliberate re-arranging of consciousness is the point. The lines give me a disturbing kind of pleasure.

The surreal and a sense of threat brew in many poems. Take these lines from “Hotel Resident Artist”:

Then there’s a crow hovering outside my hotel
window. It dips close, red talons raised,
wearing not just fur, but blue fur
and shopped out wheezing under the weight
of its purchases. Walking around underground.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Tour of Old Haunts,” a poem that seems to combine private references to incidents in the speaker’s life with admonitions to self. The impression I get is of a person trying to gently coax herself into forming normal reactions and behaviors. And that would work just fine if events didn’t throw curve balls at her and life weren’t inherently so strange. On a return trip to an old neighborhood, the speaker announces:

She carried around the throwaway camera, all day, and there were many times to use it, though she didn’t.

There’s a lot of undeveloped film in her life, and film canisters.

Across from there they saw Fred’s Magic World. Twice she had to go on stage, once to tie someone up.

The above line about tying someone up in a magic show speaks to a normal event in a magic show, but the reference to the magic show itself casts the poem into a sort of paranormal world. And the poem, true to its subjectivity stays in that mysterious space until it ends with a visit to a retired philosophy professor who is dying and, in his final moments, asks a visitor to tell him who is he is. The idea of visiting one’s old haunts turns from memory to humor to the staging of magic to death and loss of self.

Fox’s poems embody a sly humor but also reference violence and loss. Her poetry of resistance beckons me outside my structured and conventional way of reading and perceiving. The poems tell me to be friends with the unpredictable. The poems say, don’t parse us, ride us.

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Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection Fair Creatures of an Hour was a 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry. A review of it appeared in Rattle.