Review by Conrad Geller
THE RIGID BODY
by Gabriel Spera
The Ashland Poetry Press
Ashland, Ohio 44805
2012, 69 pp., $16.00
For me, the experience of reading good poetry has always been strangely like falling in love. The onset of either one is equally mysterious and unexpected, and when it happens, everything changes. As with love, too, I always wonder whether my reaction to a real poem comes from the object itself or internally, from some sort of magic powder sprinkled on my sleeping eyelids before I awoke. Maybe, I think, this is just a moment when I’m ready for a poem.
In any case, I found myself reading Gabriel Spera’s The Rigid Body with a growing excitement, maybe not, frankly, as ardent as the excitement of first love, but enough for this fading body to accommodate safely. Here, I thought, is finally a real poet, one who cares about both language and feeling.
For example, the first poem in this slim presentation, “Apricots,” is full of surprises and delights. He says of the ripe fruit that it “flumps to the ground” and lies with “its zither of meddling flies.” The poem itself, in regularly iambic, rhyming quatrains, follows the fruit from ripening to picking—climbing to them “on toddling ladder feet”—to the “sweet stench” of the canning.
Spera is generally comfortable with traditional forms, a rare enough feature in any contemporary verse. There is even a Shakespearean sonnet, “Sonnet (with Children),” a light piece that doesn’t aspire to the heft of the form’s eponymous creator. I was surprised, also, to find a visual poem, “Sisyphus,” in which the lines are arranged to form a geometric figure, in the manner of George Herbert and, more recently, Dylan Thomas.
For the most part, the poet pays close attention to rhythm, cadence, sound quality. When he rhymes, he shows a remarkable ear, mixing strict rhymes with experiments like “parts – thoughts” and “full – possible.” The overall impression I get is that the poet is easy enough with the traditions of his art to tweak them a little.
Many of the poems provide a close observation of the natural world. Topics include crabs, worms, bedbugs, opossums and the California desert in bloom, brilliantly described:
… through low-slung hills
smothered in a dense slather of wildflowers, hills
like ocean swells slicked with sunset or an algal bloom—
The narratives are another matter. In a few poems, the poet participates in what seems the current fashion of describing suffering in almost pornographic detail. “The Community,” for example, depicts the prolonged gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl, and in “Dark Night” the narrator gives a first-person account of systematic torture. In another poem, “The Forsaken Cry,” Spero comments on cruelty but doesn’t describe it, echoing Auden’s, “The Fall of Icarus”:
About torture, they were all wrong,
The old masters, …
The poet’s unwavering eye doesn’t blink at ugly description, either. In “At the Medical Waxworks at Bologna,” the topic is a museum of childbirth grotesqueries, including:
half born, a cough shy of original sin,
a triple coil of pale umbilical cord
tendrilled around the neck.
The narratives tend to be more like music videos than conventional stories. They offer a rush of seemingly discordant images that somehow make sense. In only one, “Body Worlds,” was I lost in the whirl of images and never completely found my way out.
I like these poems best, however, when they are about what the poet loves. The ones about children reveal both an understanding and delight in them. The sonnet already mentioned shows a funny mix of love and annoyance at the demands of a child:
My love is like a deep and placid lake …
Not now, sweetie, Daddy’s busy, OK?
My favorite of the light poems is “The Goose in the Bottle,” which retells an Aesop fable as an interaction between a father and his little girl, who has put a flower into a water can and can’t get it out.
The longest poem in this collection, and my overall favorite, is “Studies for a Portrait,” a frank love poem. In seven parallel sections, the poem looks at the woman’s attributes (“Consider her ability to sleep …”) with the same close observation that the poet spends on moths and birds. The result is one of the brightest and most moving love poems of recent times.
All right. I have to admit that the rush of love isn’t much like the rush of poetry, with different content and quite different expected outcomes. But The Rigid Body has given me new hope that poetry is indeed not dead, and that there may yet be new ways of looking at a blackbird.
Conrad Geller has reviewed books, plays, films and especially poetry in a long career. He is also a poet himself, his work having appeared most recently in Rattle #38.