Otremba’s are poems of rigorous looking. In most, a speaker coolly observes a work of art, a person or animal, the poems’ tensions emerging in part from the speaker’s struggle for knowledge and connection.
“One doesn’t need to enjoy the thing, only mean it,” writes Paul Otremba in “Offices,” a poem from his debut collection, The Currency. It’s a line that expresses the split between feeling and knowing, two of lyric poetry’s central concerns. In this way, Otremba locates himself squarely within the lyric tradition, his work exploring the self in all its extreme interiority, attempting to, as Harold Bloom has said, “enlarge a solitary existence.” In The Currency, however, the relationship between feeling and knowing is a fraught one; no easy Keats-ian epiphanies here. In fact, Otremba’s poems more often explore the uncertainties of observation and apprehension, the destabilizing effects of perspective and the derangements of feeling.
As an instinctive observer, Otremba has a natural interest in visual art: paintings, sculpture, film, even tattoos. These subjects unify the book, as do his formal control and emotional composure. Otremba’s are poems of rigorous looking. In most, a speaker coolly observes a work of art, a person or animal, the poems’ tensions emerging in part from the speaker’s struggle for knowledge and connection. For Otremba, “looking” is a form of knowing, or at least an attempt at it, and the observer is as much a part of the subject as what’s observed. Consequently, the watching “eye” haunts the book. As he writes, “How can I know/ the eye without its names?” (“Gray Windows”), or “as when my father/ handed me the knife (my eye/ floating dimly in the stains)” (“Cleaning-House”), or “…its orange light skimmed, my eye/ snagging against the surfaces” (“The Birds”). The eye, an organ of perception, is usually described separate from its body, the source of all feeling. As an image, therefore, the disembodied “eye” not only makes concrete the book’s obsession with looking, but also foregrounds the speaker’s inability to “feel” the world as clearly and deeply as he “sees” it.
This tension plays itself out dramatically in “Rest Stop,” one of the book’s few narrative poems. Here, Otremba tells the story of a disenchanted couple (“Our anger had become just another thing we couldn’t commit to”) who pull into a rest stop where another couple have stopped. A woman in the parking lot looks on while “the serpentine, tattooed arms of her boyfriend” probe their car’s overheated engine. Initially, the speaker registers apathy, but when the woman’s son goes missing, the speaker is quickly drawn into the unfolding drama:
When we heard their voices becoming clearly
a name, we knew it was a mother
and father calling, what we all fear.
These were the kind of people who could lose
a child: frantic, almost chiding the boy,
who must only be playing a child’s trick.
Behind a tree, he became the tree, and his face
contained all faces of children emptying
Here, the missing child humanizes the couple. The woman is now a mother like all mothers, her son’s suffering the suffering of all children. This, in turn, leads to a complex recognition that brings together the mother in the parking lot with his traveling companion:
and when I looked from the mother to the woman
I was with, what looked back was inconsolable.
Trickster, not the boy but the angel,
don’t come to make good on your promise,
your dark reprimand.
The above turn unites the couples and mythologizes their pain, which now takes on Biblical connotations, human suffering as scriptural punishment, God and the fallen angel. It’s a classic lyric strategy, the inflation of human experience through story and myth. Significantly, however, this inflation is quickly reversed:
….There was no angel.
And the boy was found down by the dog park.
Over the small, round rise of her stomach,
he rested his arm, the inked coils of a snake.
Paradoxically, “Rest Stop” denies the speaker’s epiphanic moment even as the final image—the boyfriend’s tattooed arm over the woman’s seemingly pregnant stomach—invokes the serpent and, thus, the fall of man and the birth of human suffering. In this way, the poem both refutes and extends its Biblical conceit. The grammatical ambiguity of the final “he,” allows the reference to operate on several levels, referring to the boyfriend but also to the woman’s son and the trickster Angel. It’s an ambiguous move, denying the myth’s literal truth but affirming its figurative power. In the end, the narrative provides a sophisticated map of the speaker’s psychological drama, a failed struggle for connection as he attempts to access intense feeling.
This struggle takes on even more explicit religious dimensions in “Surfing for Caravaggio’s Conversion of Paul,” in which the speaker searches online for a painting depicting the moment when Saul of Tarsus, on his way to Damascus, hears Christ’s voice and is struck blind by divine light. Significantly, it’s a moment of religious transformation, one from which the speaker remains distant. The speaker informs us that he’s looking up the painting because he’s been “reading a poem/ about a poem about a Caravaggio”. The degrees of separation here are important as, once again, the speaker struggles to bridge the vast distances between knowing and feeling. Although he announces,” “I don’t have to go to Italy/ to stand in line for a conversion,” he also quickly reaffirms his skepticism:
Are the brushstrokes authentic, or the light?
Or the salvation (which doesn’t share
a root with “salivate” or “salve”),
something saintly? No, he’s still
Despite the painting’s power, the speaker remains unconvinced by Saul’s transformation, so he searches online for another version:
…But Caravaggio painted
another version, and in this frame here,
nowhere near Santa Maria del Popolo,
it’s over, and the new convert weeps—
out of shame? because his shirt’s torn
open exposing his loose breasts?—
or he isn’t weeping at all behind his hands.
The new version, however, leaves the speaker in the same quandary. What’s the truth of religious conversion? How does one pierce the mystery to understand and even experience it oneself? As he concludes:
If I were closer, I wouldn’t understand
more about why he covers his eyes,
because with a click it’s a throttled Isaac
staring out, ignoring both knife and canvas.
With a click of the mouse, the speaker replaces Caravaggio’s Saul with Caravaggio’s Isaac as portrayed in his painting “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” An image of religious conversion is replaced with an image of religious sacrifice, rebirth with death, salvation with victimization. The shifting image captures the contradictory impulses of religious experience, reintroducing Otremba’s recurring images of blindness and sight, looking and not looking. The speaker cannot understand the transformative experience of faith, “because” he cannot reconcile its destructive impulse as embodied in the victimized Isaac. Notably, this experience is mediated by the computer, a tool of modern science, of the skeptical mind, a tool for thinking, not for feeling.
In some ways, it’s tempting to think of Otremba as a failed ecstatic poet, a man who longs for but can never fully experience transformative feeling. In the end, however, what’s remarkable about The Currency is that it provides such a vivid record of this inner struggle. While it’s true that at times Otremba indulges too readily in the use of conventional lyric images—bruised light (Vigil), a “blossom-heavy” branch (Icarus)—these moments are almost always tempered by an equally precise and unsentimental gaze. In fact, it’s easy to wish sometimes that the poems would drop their veneers of composure to express the feeling held at bay by the observing eye or to at least dramatize the reach for feeling more dynamically. But perhaps it’s that restraint that most convincingly embodies the poet’s struggle. Ultimately, the book presents an at times bleak but always complicated vision of the mind struggling to apprehend the world that contains it. And the reader is left with, if nothing else, the chance to engage the expressive power of art, “a small grace” (“The Currency”), Otremba tells us, but a grace nonetheless.