Jessica Piazza’s debut, Interrobang, is a book of conceits. Named for the punctuation that marries the exclamation and question marks, the work itself is a marriage of mania and phobia; each poem is titled after a specific fear or obsessive love. The experience of reading Interrobang, then, is to continually unpack layers of concepts, to undergo a kind of Russian-nesting-doll approach to interpretation. Not only do these poems require attention to a thematic arc of psychological polarities, but the diction is at once dense and somehow also irreverent–bubbling over with wordplay, colloquialisms, and cheeky meter. Piazza makes use of unexpected juxtaposition and acrobatic wordplay to fuel the dizzy spiral of each piece.
Tackling a whole range of unusual manias and phobias is, to say the least, a big project. It feels appropriate that these poems maintain a sense of interiority throughout, particularly as a means of grounding the work and preventing it from spiraling out into an impossibly complex and vague cataloging of human behavior. The pieces don’t light upon too many subjects at once–lovers are confined to bedrooms and apartments to argue and make love again, a bereft woman lives in a home full of dolls, another woman throws punches at her mirror. Confinement works both as a means of limiting scope philosophically in Interrobang but also as a means of enforcing its subject-matter. As readers, we feel that we are inhabiting the narrow cognitive spaces of each poem’s speakers, and sometimes that lends itself to small landscapes in turn. While the poems don’t entirely ignore an outside world of things and places, they are still decidedly interior in the sense that the speakers mediate all materiality through the hyper-saturated lenses of the respective manias and phobias they represent.
In speaking about voice and style, Piazza’s trademark gestures are puns, novel rhymes, and unexpected, luxuriously varied diction. She channels a furious rush of words into formal structures (mostly sonnets) that rattle and sing with urgency. One poem, “Hierophilia” (the love of sacred things) is divided into three movements: “Pray”, “Prey,” and “Pry”). “Pray” begins:
“Along a fault line—yours, mine, or ours—
the church bells in this earthquake shake.
Offput, they find autonomy.
Canticle, laud and litany…”
“…Carol, compline, threnody.
Choral, descant, psalm and lay.
We’d never love that way.”
“Pry” has opening lines that further illustrate the drunk-with-language flow of the poems:
“I’d rise wrapped in the vise of you.
So rapt, like spinning children track
a fixed point with their eyes. And trapped,
we will be twinned with Siamese
desires. Unholy selves enshrined
by arms and lies, tongue-tied…”
Together, the three poems make a whole narrative that seems to this reader to be about a love relationship gone from improbable, to possible, to feared lost, all the while reveling in the fanciful possibilities of diction that “Hierophilia” as a subject opens up: litany, descant, enshrined, etc. Yet among the devices used, my favorite lines from this poem are “like spinning children track / a fixed point with their eyes.” A beautiful and concrete example like that stays with you; rushes through the poem and transports you back to your favorite playground or backyard.
Like the image of spinning children, I enjoyed Interrobang most where Piazza shows her deft handling of unusual subject-matter, or reveals a particularly insightful way of approaching otherwise mundane objects and subjects. A poem, “Clithrophilia,” about the love of being enclosed, takes the tact of burying the speaker in the arms of a willing lover. Another, “Pediophilia,” about the love of dolls, features a family matriarch with a dead child whose remaining family erroneously believes she adores collecting them. The eerie images here are subtle and persuasive:
“The week her daughter died, the room her girl
had occupied became a home for dolls.
The first an angel: fearsome, glass-glazed gift
to dull a mother’s utter grief…
…They bring her more, naïve. Don’t know
she weeps in the overflowing sea of limbs
that manage, year by year, to commandeer
the bed, the floor, and more. An orphanage
of girls. A thousand eyes that cannot shut.”
In this poem, the usual density of language in the book thins slightly to proffer a nonetheless astute picture of grief. Images—lodged in my mind later like gravel in the groove of a tire—are what most impressed me when reading Piazza’s work. Her attention to language is stunning, but the spinning children and the “thousand eyes that cannot shut,” the mother crying in an “overflowing sea of limbs” haunted me long after I had closed the cover. Creativity abounds here–who would expect the grieving mother in a poem about the love of dolls?
Other poems typical of this collection sizzle with wordplay. A “loch-jawed…Nessie” speaks in “Ankylophobia”:
“…Unhook me, unhinge me, this
liquid imprisonment. Taciturn
elbow, mulish talocrural, my
most stubborn joint is submerged in your
tallow. This candle, this window, you
squirm like a minnow, repeat like an
echo, arthritic libido…”
While these feats of language are less to this reviewer’s personal taste as a poetic style, I still find much to enjoy and savor here. Piazza does revelation convincingly, and her poems have an immersive quality that tangles the reader up and will not release. Her emotive instincts are not sacrificed to the jungle gyms of her wordplay. These poems have aims, purposes. They drive at broader themes, complicate assumptions. They are, truly, ambitious poems.
And the poems’ individual ambitions dovetail nicely with the broader scope of Interrobang. One might suspect that to write a book of poems almost entirely around the conceit of phobias and manias might suffer from feeling forced. Many poetry “projects” have this quality—poems that otherwise would have been left aside as chaff become featured to prop up a clever book idea. This is not the case here. Each poem thrums with a sense of purpose, contributes to a complex web of human feeling—anxiety, love—that will have the reader entranced and mulling over long after the words on the page are tucked onto a bookshelf. Thus, the conceits hardly feel conceited. Piazza has offered a strong, lively, layered work, and to enjoy it fully, one must be willing to free-fall through it, not unlike the lovers in the poem “Basiphilia” (love of falling), after coming upon a fallen tree in the woods:
“…My lover laughs. Without
the noise, without that cavalcade that trunk
and branches make collapsing, what is left
for us is only aftermath. He knows
how new a silent, upturned tree must be
for me. He knows that it depresses me:
I’ll never know the music its fall might
have made. He reaches for my arm. He pulls
me toward decaying ground. The tender sound
our falling bodies make is small, but sure.”