Review by Kerry Krouse
by Dan Albergotti
BOA Editions, Ltd
250 N. Goodman St, Suite 306
Rochester, NY 14607
2008, 96 pp., $16.00
We like for things to be orderly—for our houses to shine and our gardens to be weedless. We want the world to be as easy and knowable as the predictably designed houses and neatly ordered streets in new subdivisions. But to read Dan Albergotti’s collection of poems, The Boatloads, winner of 2007 A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize, you have to leave the comfort of the subdivision and stand at the uncomfortable borders where worlds meet: the ancient burial ground that sleeps below the shopping mall, the sidewalk shared by the faithful and the homeless, the streets lined with fruit trees but also gutters. The poems of The Boatloads live in this intersection where antiquity intersects modernity, where the sacred intersects the profane, where faith collides with truth.
Perhaps it is our nature to view the world as a hierarchy. Even a child is aware of his rank—he is less powerful than all those he must answer to: parents, teachers, and even older children, but he may rule over all those with less power or size than his own. The problem with this hierarchy is that it lets us become too comfortable with our own position, our own power, making it easier and easier turn away from all those below us. Albergotti topples the hierarchy; he names each part of it a world and sets it in motion. All the worlds then—the gods, the humans, the animals, the earth’s elements, the dead—exist along side each other—each with surprisingly similar concerns. Albergotti’s poems interrogate the betweeness of things, the strange reflex of each order of the world to turn away from the last.
In each of these worlds, the author is our guide. He pulls back curtains and turns on lights. We follow Albergotti as he pauses by open windows and makes us listen as the sounds and songs of other worlds drift through. There are songs of light and songs of dark. Perhaps the loudest of the songs are those of the dying and the author makes us listen until we understand that the song of the dying has many voices: the recent and long dead are joined by the fading beauty of the natural world. And then, there are those that never lived as in “A Prayer for My Daughter, Who Does Not Exist”:
Bless you, my hollow child, lying under nothing tonight
in one of those other worlds. Let there be wind, for there is
no wind. Let me hear it and fear nothing for you.
Bless your yawning, unreal mouth, your uneven breath.
When you wake, will your first word be Daddy
or God? Let it be God, let there be that.
The daughter who does not exist appears in several of the poems in The Boatloads. The more she sings, the more she does exist, like a photograph coming slowly into focus in the darkroom. Her absence is visceral because she is named, and named again. In the bible, naming is equated with creation, an idea that has followed us into the modern world in the form of baby naming rituals, both religious and secular. There is an interesting irony at work here that takes advantage of that biblical echo: the more the invisible is named, the more it exists, and in this way, personal myth shares the stage with many well known ancient myths that are alluded to in the book.
Albergotti’s use of naming reminds us that perhaps man’s greatest power—the tool that separates us from all the other creatures of the world—is words. Words allow us to witness and remember, but also to create. The writer records the world, but in doing so he names, shapes, and rearranges. In The Boatloads, Albergotti addresses many familiar stories; in his hand, the ancient and modern collide as he recreates stories both biblical and mythological. As in other parts of the book, Albergotti is more interested in what is invisible, in the omissions and gaps. In “The Age of Adam,” Albergotti points out that the lack of detail in Genesis “creates a world of questions.” He muses:
What of the face? Was he formed clean-shaven? If so,
why? If not, why not? Pubic hair? No pubic hair?
And while we’re in that region, how could the man
have even been given a working penis, if God, unsure
of the final product, had not yet decided upon Eve?
Albergotti’s reinvention of these stories might be seen as another of the worlds set spinning by the hand of the poet: a world where gods sing to the reader, where ancient stories pause and change course. In “Day Eight” Albergotti continues creation past the seventh day, adding that on day eight, “The lord is embarrassed. He realizes/ only now that he will have to inhabit the world he has made.” In another poem, “Things to Do in The Belly of the Whale,” Albergotti asks the reader to switch places with Jonah. He drops the reader into the setting with advice both humorous and serious: “Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way/ for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports,” is followed by “Endure moments/ of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.”
It is easy to delight in the wit of Albergotti’s reinventions, but there is more here than cleverness. In each poem, one voice is silenced so that another can emerge. This shift, where a familiar story is told through an unfamiliar voice, brings to the foreground the omitted and unexpected. The poem “Still Bound” is reminiscent of the Akedah, the biblical story of the binding of Isaac by the hand of his father Abraham. The story focuses on Abraham, the patriarch, who is rewarded when his faith is tested. “Still Bound” perhaps alludes to the fact that there is no mention of how Isaac may have felt, or even any record of his return from the scene of his near sacrifice:
Still here, and every morning it’s almost a surprise
that the sun might come, that it could happen again.
This is how it is. The eagle arrives each day,
but not for my liver. Instead, she comes for my heart.
There are many poems in the book where Albergotti rewrites biblical history. Another poem, “When the World Was Only Ocean,” gives voice to the animals on Noah’s ark:
After a week of silence, we all knew
that we had been forgotten, when the world
was only ocean and the sky empty. None of this
had been about us. The flood was about
what was beneath us.
Many of Albergotti’s poems focus on the natural world and its cycles, and here as in other poems, the natural world is given an audible voice. It is not clear which animal exactly is narrating the poem that begins, “after the fortieth night of rain, we awoke/ to quiet and a great, clear sky.” It is clear that the narrator is a species that made it through the flood and into the world, unlike some other creatures on the ark. The narrator reports the suicide of a pair of animals—and thus an entire species—the unicorns “who gave into despair.” The unicorn—a fantasy animal that is usually accompanied by rainbows and glitter—is hard to take seriously. This makes it all the more miraculous that Albergotti so deftly writes them into existence and then immediately erases them in a scene that is simultaneously poignant, surreal, and sad:
The heavy splash they made filled the day.
We watched them as they sank through water as clear
as the cloudless sky, their large bodies spiraling,
heavy haunches first, their faces staring back up at us.
The points of their horns traced two circles
again and again, all the way down to the silty floor of creation.
Shifting power is just one of the ways that Albergotti investigates one of the world’s greatest dichotomies: the visible vs. the invisible. In each of Albergotti’s many worlds, there appears to be a similar frustration: the inhabitants are seeking meaning, looking for the divine in the most predictable of places: the void. The price, it seems, is that we search for the divine in the ether while ignoring the world at our feet. There is a lot of alienation here as this plays out in the relationships between the gods, the men, the children, the animals, and the dead. In “Song of the Gods,” the Gods directly address their situation:
We live in the light/ unbeheld,
in morning glare and the low rays
of evening. Always here in the light.
And we are not seen. We are not seen
again. We do not grow old. Those who do
worship us. But they do not see us
None of the worlds see each other; each creature moves on unbeheld by the last. In reading The Boatloads, we become witnesses, called by the author to truly notice all that we deem too ugly, too far removed, or perhaps even too small to turn our attention to. The natural world plays a prominent role here with the author regularly shifting the search for meaning from the infinite—the invisible world of the gods—to the miniscule—the earth’s elements and all the creatures held within them.
Each of the poems in The Boatloads addresses in some way the search for meaning. Working together, all these poems seem to ask, “Is it possible to truly witness the world and still have faith?” Albergotti does not answer this question, but he does face it head on. In “Affirmation of Faith,” he writes “I believe that if I try to say nothing/ the slow, steady movement of this world/ will say something.” He ends the poem “Rhetoric” by addressing the reader directly: “Close the book and look out the window/ See the leaves whirling in the cold rhetoric of the air.” In other words: look and keep looking.
The looking may reveal the dichotomy present in most of the poems in The Boatloads. If you put down the book and open your eyes, you will inevitably find suffering, even in the smallest orders of the world. But while you are paying attention, you will notice the beauty simultaneously there, that which on a different day you might have walked past: the golden leaf lying solitary on the expansive lawn, reduced by the sun and wind to a fragile lace, waiting at your feet like a gift.
Kerry Krouse’s lives in Oakland, CA and teaches at Chabot College. Her work has been anthologized in Appetite: Food as Metaphor by BOA Editions. Her poems have appeared recently in The Mississippi Review, Linebreak, and Lumina, among others. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org