A Smidge of Confusion, A Glow of Fear

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Vogelsang is sometimes so restless its hard not to wonder how and when he sleeps, and he makes the reader confront the question of whether sleep, or any kind of ease, is a valid way to spend time.

Arthur Vogelsang has a quarrel with the world. Sometimes it’s a lover’s quarrel and always the decency of his voice comes through with a jittery edge he owns. He’s won three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and has work in respected journals and anthologies , including American Hybrid from Norton, which I praised elsewhere. He edited The American Poetry Review for more than thirty years.

Expedition—New and Selected Poems contains work from four earlier volumes, and the title comes from a group of poems originally planned to be published alone. This collection is coherent and unnerving. Its also gives the imagination a killer session at his custom-designed gym. Vogelsang is sometimes so restless its hard not to wonder how and when he sleeps, and he makes the reader confront the question of whether sleep, or any kind of ease, is a valid way to spend time.

“Drive Imagining” the first piece in this book, was published in 1983 and still zooms:

I’m speeding west somewhere in the top of Ohio or Indiana.
And to my right is the Arctic Circle, all white and scary.
It is very dark and cold
But my car is very powerful, shut, and too warm,
To my left is super-powerful New Orleans Radio 87,
Beaming girl singers with crooked jaws.
I test you by asking the time but
You trust me not to give you the wheel while you’re sleeping.
Your mouth is like the curve of the earth for fifty miles on flat ice.
Out loud, unevenly, I say where the road right goes. No answer.

Your skirt is high and little.
Filling the front of the car with pounds of white.
My nails raise the flesh there;
Electricity from the big dots and standing hair sends the radio signal
Into a trough. Eyes shut, you are awake
Enough to say I can’t breathe, fix the heat.

Fixing the heat is not something Vogelsang does, because he knows that fire is one of his most suitable tools, wildly tricky (as in trickster ish) to handle, but also because it illuminates scrumptiously and unpredictably, as in these lines from “Liquids in Quantities:

When another massive body calls the sun to come
Its incandescent sauce shifts like our salty water.
There is actually a bulge in the water off Delaware
Where there is actually a concavity or long shallow crater in it off Spain.
Places on the sun are not places
Due to so many places there being purple gas
That changes to disappearing dry white relish
Like a surf of only pebbles and no water
Or that explodes as if that were its job
Which is to explode as much as possible.
All the words on the sun are for explosion.
You could think of a sun joke like over there in the Sea of Ruth
But it would never smile because as soon as you said ‘over’ it would explode.
How may it have tides? then and how many those tides
Be approximately like something that went on in Jackson’s dreadful brain?

Even if the apparent Pollock is missed, this piece, like incompletely understood Pollock –meaning all Pollock–is worth getting immersed in. The “dreadful brain” is part of all of us.

No surprise, then, that Vogelsang would compose a poem called “Arthur Rimbaud,” which first appeared in The Laurel Review, or that the particulars in thought and place are so immediate and urgent, as in “ No Eye Contact,” which is very short compared to most of his poems, and no less affecting :

The birds change their minds every few seconds,
That is the only difference between us,
The crazy man said on the long pier.
It was the first cold afternoon, for California.
They were single-mindedly doing their huge sane shift,
The black ones maneuvering by stars or the sun
Which is the same thing, from Canada to here
And the brown ones fleeing screaming down to Oaxaca and Chiapas, as
Always, per last year and so forth backward back and forth.
I had not taken a mild pill for stress
So his contention, said evenly, with authority, like someone interviewed,
Was hot in me, but I hid that
From my acquaintance, a known poet,
Who turned as if insulted by a member of our group
And there was no group, just the two of us,
Or, to be totally fair, the three of us—
My friend turned away to the rail and the sea, a body of water
Which never makes sense as it slides
On some grotesque flexible stem.

Vogelsang treats words like a caffeinated painter who knows exactly what he’s doing with his enormous palette and is not afraid of the buzzed –thoughts that help him pick and mix colors. Absorbing Vogelsang takes time because the poems are so packed, and it’s wise to take deep breaths between them. “More Lying Loving Facts, You Sort ‘Em Out,” is the book’s finale, and this passage is typically muscled :

For a long time the Spanish from Spain
Who came here became slightly insane
In a special way and just a little.
You can try this yourself.
Walk farther than you can into the forest in New York
So it’s a tossup whether or not you know the way back.
For you there’s going to be a smidge of confusion, a glow of fear
That smells like burning rye toast.
And the illusion you are the only person alive
On the earth. You will probably have the second illusion
That no one likes you, which doesn’t jibe with the first illusion
Of no other people. This was about the extent of slight insanity for the Spanish.

That’s about a quarter of the piece , and once again, his whole never loses sure-footed dislocation. “Sure-footed dislocation” sounds jarring and is contradictory, but the spectacles Vogelsang grinds have a novel, utterly necessary prescription. We’ll never see anything else like them.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →