Return Them to Their Sources Uninterpreted

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Each conceit, each stanza, each line in Lovely, Raspberry sparkles with such wonderful ambiguity of thought that is, paradoxically, a type of clarity; through Belz’s absurdism, aspects of the human condition are illumined in unique, resonant fashion.

In these recent times of economic distress, it makes more and more sense to view all aspects of life through an economic worldview, in terms of what people might call ‘market value’. However, problems begin to appear when this financial-minded perspective is made to fit over the realm of poetry. Books of poetry make notoriously shabby houses, and poems hold little-to-no nutritional value for the human body. However, I have found that as I have been forced to tighten my budget I lean more and more on the wisdom found in poetry. If the maxim holds true that. “the market knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing,” then I submit this corollary: “sustain yourself with Aaron Belz’s poetry”—an inestimable value for a remarkable cost.

In hard times like these we could all use a laugh.

While teaching English at Providence Christian College in Ontario, California, Belz moonlights as a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles (how many poets can boast that?). This may seem an unfeasible combination, but as Belz elaborates in a recent interview, “I see a lot of what goes into writing jokes also goes in writing poems: juxtaposition, tone-shifting, verbal equivocation.” Throughout Lovely, Raspberry, Belz’s latest collection, the astute poetry reader is sure to pick up on this theme of blending. Belz skillfully melds poetic structure with eccentric humor, sarcasm with tenderness, delicate similes with downright goofy puns. In the poem “shifters,” the speaker calmly explains,

One of our children has a tree stump for a head.
It’s weird, but she also has little clumps of hair, so
that’s reassuring.

Bizarre images such as this are the norm in the collection, and at some point the reader will probably start to wonder if Belz will ever get to the ‘serious’ parts of the book. As the reader continues, though, they are likely to find that this propensity for finding strange relationships between objects has a certain magic to it, a kind of outrageous sincerity. Each conceit, each stanza, each line sparkles with such wonderful ambiguity of thought that is, paradoxically, a type of clarity; through Belz’s absurdism, aspects of the human condition are illumined in unique, resonant fashion. An example: after debating the semantics of sexual innuendo for seven stanzas, the speaker comes to an awkward conclusion, deciding,

…It’s confusing

for the listener, and the listener
is whom I care about. However,
sitting erect on Mr. Fibitz I do feel gay,
happy enough to ride him for hours—
it’s just no longer what I say.

Silliness is the engine that drives this collection, but Belz proves his abilities by oscillating from the dryly sarcastic to the gut-wrenchingly convicting. At times, his tone verges on scathing and even violent. In “what,” after exchanging cursory, impersonal emails with a forgotten former acquaintance, he relegates the correspondences to the inbox labeled ‘I hate my life.’ Later, in the short lyric piece “you are you,” the poet elaborates on the distinction between ‘you’ and ‘us,’ noting that the only real cause for alarm is

when you show up, coked up, crazy,
and end up passed out on the floor
with your cell phone playing a melody
just inches from your unclasped hand[.]

These kinds of inverted expectations that Belz stows away in his poems are what draw the reader in. By coloring his insights with such a poignant wit, Belz can successfully blend the poetic sensibilities of harshness and comedy.

Besides stylistic devices, Belz’s use of language is also notable. His diction and syntax are rooted in American English, but he is able to find room for innovation and creates subtle resonances within his poems. In “as cole becomes less of an anomaly and the large car slows,” even the title is fun to say aloud. The opening lines present a uniquely human dilemma:

Every human body faces the same basic challenge:
What to do with all those sensory impulses.

I spent one summer returning them to their sources

The speaker clearly knows this is an impossibility; the very nature of human sensory perception is a chemical interpretation of various external stimuli. However, the point here is not the feasibility of such an experiment, but the manner in which the speaker presents it, particularly the relationship between ‘body’ and ‘faces.’ Echoing the title, Belz embraces the linguistic anomaly he has created in the final stanza, where he ends with a quaint yet satisfying conclusion:

Today the so-called sun sends pieces or waves of light
into my retinal cortex and deep into my brain, for it is

summer again, and the spice bushes reek of cumin,
and all the boats in the harbor are swaying in unison.

Lovely, Raspberry is certainly not a perfect volume of verse, though. Belz displays a cunning wordplay and a gift for clever internal rhyming, and these elements lend a lovely melody. However, obnoxious stanzas full of onomatopoeia and alliteration that are overdone sometimes break this up. While these devices have their place in poetry, the places Belz chooses to use them proves overwhelming and takes away from the meaning he is working to convey.

Too much of contemporary poetry is concerned only with its standing as such—a never-ending cascade of contending aesthetic schools, sensibilities, and too much homely self-introspection. A poet must be out in the world, living a real life somewhere if he is going to have anything true to write about. Aaron Belz tries not to take himself too seriously, to the benefit of his verse. These poems work in a way that shows a frank understanding of human emotion and interaction and a skillful use of language to make light of everyday life. In a post-postmodern world obsessed with severity, Belz shatters any notion of that with his quirky yet poignant poetry.

Adam Palumbo is a poet-critic from Annapolis, MD. His research includes rigorous people-watching, too many hours on his computer, and wearing sweatpants in the kitchen. He reads a lot and writes a little. He is the recipient of the 2010 Margaret Haley Carpenter Award for Poetry. More from this author →