Precarious by Allan Peterson

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Oh, Allan Peterson. I thought I knew thee. I thought, To read an Allan Peterson poem is to expect the precarious, the poised, the anticipatory, the appointed. An aesthetics of the delicate edge. Imagine a soft rolling ball, the movement of one image tumbling so easily into the next, or an image that could shift its weight slightly, but enough that any reader, even the trained poetry reader, would wince, because it feels like the poem might possibly slip, as though Peterson is going to let the poem fall off this delicate, so comfortably soft ball. It won’t. It doesn’t. The miracle of Fragile Acts and All the Lavish in Common is how the poems keep their reader situated, balanced, between, OK, cared for. How? It’s Peterson. Oh, Allan Peterson! That’s all it takes. His is the bounty of Imaginative Intelligence. How was it poetry trusted him with this brand of intelligence? Every piece of an Allan Peterson poem feels like a machine of soft cogs with soft balls rolling among them, and all delicately snug against one another.

And so Peterson’s new book aptly titled Precarious, out from 42 Miles Press. Ah, more machines! But these machines are different. They are still soft and tumbly. Of course the poems surprise. They delight, even. The poems are an inhabitation, like the 19th Century usage of rheumy, they are a body that forms inside your smallest breathing. The poems, like the poems in previous books aren’t momentous but more of the moment. And perhaps that’s what makes the gravity in these poems such a surprise. To my reading, the poems in Precarious center on the emotional perspective of the speaker, which marks a shift. Where before association and the mechanics of each association marked the primary understanding for the poem, these new poems are gravitated to the inside of Allan Peterson. There is gravity in the poems, but it’s a tentative kind of gravity. If you’ve read Jane Mead’s House of Poured Out Waters  or Fanny Howe’s Gone, if you’ve been surprised by the tenderness in Robert Fernandez’s Pink Reef, then you know the tentative gravity I’m speaking of. It’s like information that you anatomically feel. It’s like a voice being spoken into the absolutely darkened room, aware that all it has to speak to is darkness, so why not mimic that absolute darkness?

Precarious is not absolute darkness, though. Or even Absolute Darkness. It’s more like an articulated string of beads worn around a Darkness’s neck. “Why, Darkness, those brightly colored beads really show off how dark you are!” Which is what makes this book, for me, an extended, articulated description of hope rather than what usually feels like Peterson’s soft, enthusiastic celebration of possibility. That’s not to say hope and possibility are mutually exclusive. And that’s not to say possibility and all of its mechanics is absent from Precarious. In a number of poems, the speaker can be looking out the window, sensing possibility, enacting the world as a cascade of associations and pageants (think kaleidoscope at that moment of tumble, where the shapes so easily reassemble so they look completely new). Here’s a quote from “My Lucky Stars”:

They are all lucky    my stars    the archer    the fish
actinosphaerium    even if they prove to be wren skeletons
and I count them as numerous as companies
that send me endless gummed labels with my name
But today the sky is too thick and a hundred things
have plowed into it my lucky stars are occluded

The tumbles, especially from actinosphaerium (definition: microbes found in fresh water with radiating arms) to wren skeletons, or numerousness of either of these natural objects to the numerousness of companies sending the speaker “opportunities” should be easy to follow. And this really is Peterson in stride, in possession of the mechanics in a poem. But add to this the darkened enacting of hope. “Thank you lucky stars” as the saying goes, but what if you can’t see those lucky stars. What if you know the lucky stars are out there, whether it’s the luck that you can be truly fascinated by the shape of a star appearing among the numerous microbial organisms in fresh water, or it is in the ironic luck of junk mail and solicitations? And what if, ironically enough, you know luck is all around you, but you still don’t feel lucky? Such is the dilemma of this poem. And yet I would argue this poem is about hope, or at least this poem rearranges the Peterson aesthetic so that that dimmed view of his lucky stars is actually presenting a speaker fully aware he is surrounded by lucky stars wherever he looks, and he just needs a small hint to guide himself to them. Spoiler alert, read the rest of “My Lucky Stars,” and the speaker finds them: “My fortunate stars my lucky billions.”

But whatever the implicit or explicit possibility, I can’t help but read all these poems as poems of mortality. Dark mortality. Final mortality. Not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper mortality that is addressed directly in some poems, and which I can’t help, then, but reckon with in every poem of the book. In this poem, “Inevitable,” death appears, though it is unclear whose death the letter might be referring to.

The inevitable often
stands by plainly but unnoticed
till it hands you a letter
that says death and you notice
the weed field had been
readying its many damp handkerchiefs
all along

Allan PetersonThere is a way of reading this poem as the elegiac, occasional poem. The “I learned of your death today” poem, concluding with the disturbing Dickinsonian image describing the speaker’s grief. But I can’t help but read this “your” in a more self-reflexive way, where the letter arriving is for Peterson, who is then witnessing how the world he experiences will experience his inevitable death. Is it the title “Inevitable” that makes me think this? Is it how “unnoticed” the inevitability of death is? I could be persuaded that this poem really is about the speaker learning of a dear one’s death. The poem opens with “To have that letter arrive / was like the mist that took a meadow.”

But I am responding to an overall trend in the book, where the individual experience is contrasted to a global reality that isn’t overly concerned with this speaker’s existence. But I ask is global reality really to blame for this sense of ambivalence? There are so many individual experiences happening all the time. Yours. Mine. The moons glittering on a warm sea. If I were so lucky as to play the role of glittering moons, I’d likely hog all the beauty for myself. Allan Peterson would, too. As evidenced by his poem, “Transit.” Peterson makes shastas move toward the sun with their eyes closed. Or a truckload of wear-dated carpet hums all night in a Hardee’s parking lot. With so much activity, Allan Peterson. What would a global reality possibly care for the hopes and concerns and mortality of one Allan Peterson isolated to his personal corner of the earth? Maybe that’s not a fair statement. With so much activity, global reality can’t help but have an Allan Peterson who can see and experience the world that he does. But should there be no Allan Peterson, there will still be a global reality doing all the global reality activity. That doesn’t make it heartless, only busy. So busy. The way a kaleidoscope is busy. These poems, that are so conscious of their worth and their worthlessness. They make themselves more endeared, more needed, more clutched, more cleaved to. Such a fine needle.

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →