Contrapuntal by Christopher Kondrich

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Contrapuntal, Christopher Kondrich’s debut collection of poetry, demonstrates a degree of tightly controlled, nearly obsessive focus that is uncommonly found in poetry, the contemporary form of which, by seeming necessity, thrives on partial gestures, brief meditations, and lingering fragments. In this regard, Kondrich’s work displays a degree of specificity and attentiveness that is more commonly found in long works of prose, as these are not subject to poetry’s interrupted and sporadic form. Inasmuch as his writing moves with an obsessive narrowness from topic to topic, it imposes a creative restraint on the work that enhances their depth and focus. This at once highlights Kondrich’s poetic dexterity and the subtle emotional intensity of his writing, while placing focus upon the ostensibly secondary themes of Contrapuntal, such as phenomenological perception and the difficulties of establishing a stable identity while distinguishing between an unstable self and others.

Contrapuntal is divided into four sections. Each section covers roughly a quarter of the book, and each comprises a series of untitled, typically brief poems (it is uncommon for a poem to cover more than half of the page). Kondrich’s poetic lexicon and syntax are unremarkable; his lines form traditionally structured sentences, and the individual poems tend to build a logical progression and development. The brilliance of Contrapuntal is realized through the relation that the poems bear to one another; within each of the book’s four sections, the succession of poems serves to deepen and enhance the overall thematization. Unlike a more loosely joined collection of poems, in which a topic is frequently viewed from a number of disassociated angles, Kondrich delves deeper and deeper from one poem to the next; his poems seem to burrow within mental obsession and neurosis, rather than providing a series of surface-level snapshots.

The poems in Contrapuntal often resort to the expression of scientific and musical knowledge as a means of expressing or circumventing anxiety, as if articulations made with the words and objects of a distinct and non-“literary” discipline will enable the poet or his persona to obliquely express emotions and concerns that would otherwise be unutterable through a traditionally “poetic” lexicon. This effect is most pronounced within the fourth section of Contrapuntal, which primarily focuses on Tim, a character recurrent throughout the book, his use of a mysterious substance “T” that Kondrich shrouds in medical terminology, and Tim’s difficulty in choosing a piano to perform with. While this extended musical meditation starts out as a seemingly banal aside, it builds into an intensely emotional series of second-guessing and barely concealed panic. On page 66, Kondrich’s persona thinks

If I chose the Bösendorfer,
I would now be saying
that the Steinway was the
obvious choice, that I was a fool
to pass up what was
clearly the optimal piano—

However, this position is anxiously reconsidered on the subsequent page:

Perhaps we were lead
astray by our inclinations
towards a Bösendorfer
or a Steinway when our
real answer was a
Schimmel all along,
but I detest the Schimmel
with its indeterminateness
and squeaking wheels. (67)

kondrichThis obsessive anxiety is also manifest in a concern with the phenomenology and constitution of the self. In the literary world that Contrapuntal creates, pronouns are prone to slippage; the “I” of many poems is constantly unmoored and may represent more than one individual; terms such as “you” and “we” are similarly ambiguous. Although the tone of most of Kondrich’s poems tends towards wry observation and muted longing, this seems to conceal a deeper confusion or skepticism on the part of the persona, who questions selfhood and whether the interiority of a subject is private and autonomous, or if it is permeable and allows others to conjoin with the self. Midway through Book One, Kondrich writes,

Later, when I spoke
to the empty house,
I spoke about how
you were another person
entirely, which made me
think that there was
someone else who
might want to be me
as much as I did. (19)

Such a statement exemplifies one of Contrapuntal’s many strengths: it is psychologically insightful without being narcissistic, and borrows from John Ashbery’s deft use of murky pronouns—without appropriating Ashbery’s tendency towards verbosity—to piece together poems that demonstrate consciousness of language’s machinations and a perceptive emotional sensitivity. Kondrich’s poems tread and retread internally established themes so that we, the readers, may be drawn into their wonderfully detailed and dry language and emotions and may experience the poems’ repeated and familiarized thoughts as our own. Just as Kondrich’s persona suspects there to be “someone else / who might want to be me,” these poems manage to infiltrate the reader’s own thought patterns and communicate a necessary otherness to those willing to listen.

Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has a MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder. More from this author →