Review by Larina Warnock
by D.A. Feinfeld
Fithian Press, A Division of Daniel and Daniel, Publishers, Inc., PO Box 2790, McKinleyville, CA 95519; ISBN #1-56474-437-X, 96pp, $14
D.A. Feinfeld's Rodin's Eyes is a collection of 50 poems with no discernible central theme, but which all play off one another for the reader's benefit. While the collection is crowded with striking images and ideas, the most striking quality of this book is the range of poetic technique and form. Within its pages, there is something for nearly every poetic taste and preference, but most distinctly, this is a collection for the surrealist and the well-read.
The surrealist will find a multitude of poems crossing the boundaries of the here and now, moving the reader into an almost dream-like state. The title poem, "Rodin's Eyes," sets the tone for the nearly-real quality of the rest of the collection by drawing on the thoughts of the narrator as he tries "to walk past Sargent's portrait / of Rodin" but can't because "the eyes pinned me." Thought processes are accurately portrayed with the lines "He never saw me, can't see me now; / he can’t chip my face / in a marble block" and as unrealistic as these thoughts might be, I can relate to the experience of convincing myself that something is not real.
Later in the book, Feinfeld describes a childhood picture-taking experience with this same surreal imagery in "Posing." The narrator, on posing for a photograph, finds himself staring into the sun and "whirled / sunward; solar flares snapped / at my head." Certainly this child didn't really whirl into the sun, but this image works because the reader can relate to the feeling. Feinfeld brings the reader back to the world with language as strong and jarring as a parent’s voice is likely to be: "We told you to smile!"
For the well-read, this collection is filled with allusions and scientific ideas. From the mythological reference to Antaeus in "Quantum Theory of Gravity" to the extended metaphors of medical diagnoses in poems like "Conjunctions of Aphasia" and "Confabulation" to artistic and literary references in “Effacement” and "Simplify, Simplify," the intellectual reader will find plenty of double-meanings and footwork in these pages.
It would seem then that Rodin's Eyes is inaccessible to the more casual poetry reader. This isn't the case at all. Feinfeld is able to immerse these sophisticated topics in a common vernacular with precise imagery. More importantly, the poems are interesting enough that a reader who might otherwise skip over unfamiliar histories and words wants to dig deeper into them. Those who do are well rewarded with layers of interpretation not immediately noticeable. The title poem, for example, reads almost like a narrative about a singular experience with a painting; however, further research shows that both artists had very distinctive and unique artistic ideas that propose new meanings for the poem. Since this is the first poem in the book and the title poem, that layer of meaning extends well beyond the first page.
Unfortunately, not all of the poems share this interpretative ambiguity or power but lapse into mere descriptions with no outward significance beyond the poem. In "A Field of Dandelions," I expected one of the exceptional metaphors found elsewhere in the book and was disappointed that the poem, while aesthetically pleasing with lines like "too fire-new to name" and "they hood themselves in cloud," lacked any meaningful purpose other than an original description of a common weed. Clever? Perhaps, but not important.
Poems like "A Field of Dandelions" and the later "Lessons from the Rain" didn't stop me from continuing to read--partially because they are embedded between poems with such import, but also because the poems are so aesthetically pleasing. Feinfeld succeeds where many poets fail through his adept use of consonance, assonance, alliteration, slant and internal rhyme. These techniques allow the reader to enjoy his work simply because it is beautiful. For example, this excerpt from "Brown Study:"
Brown mouths a child's dirty word
staining clean white shirts
with daubs of mud
Brown holds our eyes
in a wooden vise
taps out telegraph on a log
words steadier than pulse
In the first strophe, Feinfeld uses "ow" and "ir" sounds that almost soften the blow of the heavy-handed image while in the second strophe, the less drastic subject matter is given a jarring feeling with "ize" and the hard "t." It is no coincidence that this particular poem also experiments with line breaks and punctuation to give significance to the drab subject of an often-neglected color.
These poems often verge on experimental and rarely take subjects in their expected context. The best example of the originality Feinfeld captures comes in an unmarked series of seven poems near the end which could pass for nature writing in the scope of their descriptions if not for the fact that the animals described do not exist. The playful and often satirical tone of many other poems in Rodin's Eyes looms over this series that describes various human concepts in specific bestial terms. "The Pantoum" becomes a feline entity "with quicksilver claws and fangs" that "holds each panting muscle in check." Of course, this poem is written as an actual pantoum and the others which describe sycophants, codicils, and even a spork are equally clever, hilariously unique, and provide an interesting twist in a poetic world that often gives animals human characteristics.
Rodin's Eyes is occasionally playful with poems like these and sometimes remarkably serious with references to the holocaust, street children, and severe illnesses. The poems often border on the surreal even as the collection immerses itself in conscious thought and continual awareness of narrative setting. Most of the book contains layers of possible interpretation while a few poems stand as little more than beautiful artwork. But like Sargent's portrait of Rodin, the eyes pulled me in and I couldn't help but wonder if Feinfeld was chipping away at the marble block of my consciousness.