Take Dead Aim

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fountainAim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize is ambitious and clever. By turns entertaining, fascinating, and charming, it is also monotonous with its adolescent charm and fluorescent insistence.

William Carlos Williams, probably during a medical house call in rural New Jersey, wittily observed that a poem is a machine made out of words. The prose poem is a hybrid engine of prosody: with its dual motors of poetry and prose, it is an oxymoronic contradiction, yet has benefits of both—it can contract emotion, complicate figuration, and speed and vibrate the instant moment. Within its frame, like a photograph, the prose poem signals the importance of its subject, yet it also has the drawbacks of being neither fish nor fowl. It can be ambivalent and anecdotal, and its most severe limitation is that it cannot rely on the line to make its greatest leaps.

Elizabeth Marie Young’s first book, Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize, is a new book of prose poems that swirls with delight in inventive language, jumps of psychic distance, and a comic display of irony, especially in its confrontation of two worlds: that of the classical Greek and Roman and that of our world, puffing with electronic misapprehension. Young is a professor of Classics at Wellesley College and she is particularly interested in the collision of lyricism brought to contemporary lyric by  Roman poets (e.g. Catullus) even though sometimes those lyrics demand disassembly, pastiche, or the incomprehensible. Many figures from the Classics appear throughout: Gaia, Diana, Ajax, etc.

Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize is by turns invigorating and frustrating. Its wordplay and fragmentation exists solely in the world of language, as a series of loose personal allusions approaching chaos. The fulcrum of each is propelled by the attention of an intelligent human voice speaking through muscular nouns, thick-veined adjectives, and otherworldly metaphors. Young relies less on interesting verbs, and her poems are populated with the veneer of the strange:

“your drunken tapestries will soon be torn apart to line some nesting yuppie’s cave”

“My inner Liberace was playing tribal drums with a dozen long-stemmed roses”

“They are white as Ophelia’s ubicomp angustifolia suckled on pluots and drowning in monochrome blitz like a wunderkid high on the raw promises of those huge sushi eyes.”

As in these examples, the bubbly mix of the fresh and the arbitrary meld into new areas of language. Their tone—wry, quickly paced, unembarrassed—connects everything.

Young is constantly winking at the reader, who, if willing, goes along on the journey and is constantly tickled and surprised by what is found there. In another state of mind, however, the reader is not so much alienated as numbed. There is a certain sameness to all the poems here. There is no emotional arc, no narrative trajectory to tether the leaps of language to political concerns, rhetorical questions of love, being subversive, or even the disembodied speaker herself.

One of the funniest, and most endearing poems here, “60 Degrees Outside but It’s Still Snowing at J. Crew” has all the insouciance and strengths of the best the book has to offer. It begins:

Would you like to fuck the cashmere, I can go start you a room. “No thanks, just looking,” upchucks the nom de plume all pink beneath her camisole and bright-eyed as the breeze.

Later, the voice answers itself:

What’s so inviting about data when you can’t even compute the circumference of this shibboleth? God help me, I will shoot the next person who tries to sell me on a shade of green I can’t even pronounce. Hyperbarbaric, baby. Please, don’t liquefy the salesgirl.

This provides the pleasure of playing around in someone else’s mind for a while; and she’s smart and has sharp, fleet-footed things to say.

One especially fascinating and vexing concern of Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize is that all of its 64 pages are prose poems, and there are no spaces, no breaths. Space in a poem that uses lines allows for a musical interplay between the white pace of the page and the words themselves, and this in itself can provide meaning. Li-Young Lee has compared this phenomenon to one in architecture: an architect uses brick, steel, or glass to essentially configure empty space so we become aware when we enter it whether it’s a public space, a sacred space, etc. A poem likewise uses the materiality of language to configure the empty space on a page, and it is that deep silence that provides at least part of the meaning we derive.

To paraphrase the great Abstract Expressionist painter Jack Tworkov, the page is a surface, not a space. The words articulate the surface in the way a musician articulates sound. This articulation is the poem, not “space.” In fact, space is not a physical property of the page on which poems are written. Space is an expression.

Young is subtly aware of this question. All the poems of Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize are alphabetical, except one. The only possible reason to do this is to draw attention to the misplaced poem, “Empty Space Is Vast Inside the Cells of Human Wit,” which falls in the T area of the table of contents. The poem alludes to the leaps of meaning the motions of the mind take as they condense time; the poem suggests that the empty space of the page is superceded to a certain extent by the dense environments of language. The speaker says: “As an expert I should know how not to read your silences but then you smile and I trip over a pile of descendents.” She draws attention to the silences between people, and between the histories of poetry that Catullus and other Latin poets have with poets now.

Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize is ambitious and clever. By turns entertaining, fascinating, and charming, it is also monotonous with its adolescent charm and fluorescent insistence. However, as the flavors and aftereffects of the book last afterwards, it has a certain urgency in its pushing through with language that I deeply appreciate.

Read “Virginia’s Ninjas,” a new poem by Elizabeth Marie Young in Rumpus Original Poems.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →