The epigraph for Scattered at Sea, the new book of poems by LA poet Amy Gerstler, reads like a warning (at least to readers of my poetic temperament): “He who obtains has little. He who scatters has much.” In an internet age of juvenile co-option of older images and texts (and this quote, from the oft-appropriated Lao Tzu, is pretty high on the danger scale), this might seem like a rally to the more popular modes of social discourse: the blog post, the tweet, the facebook wall. Scattered thoughts, loyalties, and identities abound in our contemporary era. Do we really need our poets to transmogrify their shallowness into art? Is poetry meant to be such a similarly scatterbrained commentary?
Gerstler is, and has been in many of her previous volumes, interested and fascinated by everyday strangeness. She is endlessly curious about things, actions, occurrences, juxtapositions. It is this curiosity at its most basic that she addresses with the epigraph above. If many of her topics are ‘pop’—sex, drugs, YA drama—it is because she does not discriminate when it comes to exploration. These are not underwater swims; she doesn’t exactly plumb the depths. But a string of kelp beds in strange coloration on the surface? A nasty oil slick twenty miles long? That plastic island swirling brightly somewhere in the middle of the vast Pacific? These are to be tackled with relish, and Gerstler does not hesitate to consume the results whole.
There are forty-two poems in the book, separated into five sections. They are structured like the concatenation of subjects the title suggests. Frequently, one or more ideas or objects in a poem show up in the following poem, secondary themes in one become primary in another, residue from a prior section pervades the section following. Gerstler examines this string of topics like the jetsam trailing a desperate ship—as evidence of some massive human endeavor, just over the horizon. As the evidence piles up, you can start to regard each poem as part of something greater that, although indirectly, they are all really addressing: modern society, human values, and especially, human mortality.
In this way, Gerstler’s mind isn’t so much scattered as it is a scatterer: she likes to link; she likes to take in the big bustling picture. All our refuse is here on display—neuroses, habits, hypocrisies, throwaways, yearnings, loves, regrets—she has more than enough skill to catch them and chronicle them for us in her curious and curiously driven verse. One poem, appropriately titled “Debris Trail”, begins thusly:
The world hikes up her skirts and her
underthings are so lovely!
Gerstler’s best poems—“Childlessness”, “Stoics”, “Extracts From the Consoler’s Handbook”, among others—are concise yet expansive, quick like the rest but so well wrought as to shine brilliantly. Again, from “Debris Trail”:
Ancient explanations arise, and torchlit
processions. Currents of mercy singe rims
of each cup and leaf. I want to emit yips of love
while being refined in that fire, right by your side,
to lie flat on my back as meteors scorch the night
sky, both of us godseared, weeping, struck dumb.
Gerstler’s marrying of sex and the spiritual dimension reminds one of a kind of internet-age Dylan Thomas. Many of the poems deal with spirits, deities, or are simply directly addressed to God or to gods.
She also, like Thomas, writes about sex in licks and sniffs, dirty and spirited, reverent and brutal at the same time. Men in the book—male bodies, sexual organs, romantic ideals or failures—are treated as objects of fascination and strangeness. Multiple poems deal with the concept/fantasy of being a man. One poem, “Kissing”, examines the strange mammalian act: how do two moist mouths lock and have something large come from it? (Gerstler correctly perceives the faux ‘ancientness’ of how we’ve come to excuse ourselves for this. I’d add that we also close our eyes—a child’s attempt to eliminate the embarrassment.)
Gerstler has a reputation for boldness and irreverence, as well as for her persistent wondering at typically un-wonderful things. Sometimes she’s tight, but more often the verse is loosely fashioned, words wandering toward resolution. “Like sea anemones at high tide,” she writes, “our minds snatched at whatever rushed by.” Her rhymes are not usually rhythmic, but instead reflect each other at various intervals. Gerstler opens the collection with “Sea Foam Palace”:
Pardon this frontal offensive,
dear chum. Forgive my word-
churn, my drift, the ways this
text message has gotten all frothy.
How was it you became holy
to me? Should I resist, furiously?
Seafoam Palace is a real place, though I’m not sure Gerstler is addressing it. But she could be, as the artspace-cum-museum—it’s in Detroit—advertises itself as a ‘modern Wunderkammer’, which could also describe Gerstler’s book of oddities, as well as her tone of fascination about them.
Gerstler, for better or for worse, is a poet who knows her readership: how little it might be, how pressed for time. Some of the poems actually feel like they are wrangling their reader, which can be a surprisingly fun ride, to be thus apprehended. Still, a few of them—“Kitchen Annunciation”, “Self-Portrait As Cave Lady”, “Cursing the Party Responsible for Her Suffering”—are one-offs, quick jokes, too easy and trivial for this collection.
Awe and a sense of wonder can carry you only to a certain point, after which you might find yourself tiring, in search of solid ground. A few times, over a span of two or three poems, this happens. But it is also Gerstler’s style to not slow things down. The poems are quick, they come at you like meteor showers, there is always movement, things are always passing or we are passing them. Again, this can get uncomfortable, craning your neck to catch a brief stream of light out of the corner of the eye. Her most successful poems shine in such a way as to make the overall effect an understanding of what you’re seeing at lightning speed.
Often, I could have taken more of a good thing. A woman, for example, watching an obdurate moth on the ceiling, in “noble clinging mode”, pinning her midnight hopes on its unlikely survival. But this is just one in a scattered series of images, no more lingered over than a taste of tea. An entire poem about that woman-and-moth attraction would have been welcome.
Gerstler, of course, has given us fair warning, and, in the end, calls our attention to what is really ‘scattered at sea’ among all these playful things and colorful plastics: our once-warm ashes.
That the beloved dog lasted as long as he did.
(His patience and resignation remain,
though you can no longer smell them.)
That waking ever follows hibernation:
truly astonishing. Incredible, that illness
is ever recovered from, that curtains so
faithfully translate the language of the wind.