Lovely, Raspberry, Aaron Belz, Persea, 2010
“The roses this June will be different roses,” writes James Schuyler his long poem, “Hymn to Life.” The line is a simple enough assertion of the cyclical rituals of spring to be unremarkable. But like much of Schuyler’s representations of the everyday, the emotional stakes of the poem are at their highest precisely when they seem unremarkable. These will be different roses, Schuyler writes in the next line, “Even though you cut an armful and come in saying, ‘Here are the roses,’ / As though the same blooms had come back, white freaked with red / And heavily scented” (215). In Schuyler’s poems, nothing of course is too mundane to be rendered in precise physical detail; through our immersion in the ordinary we experience the emotional complexity and gentle weirdness that arises from the tactile world. Schuyler is a key poet for mapping the wonderfully tilted world of Aaron Belz’s poems. It is easy to call Belz’s poems strange—which they are—but this only partially explains his work. Like Schuyler, Belz is a poet who absorbs the unremarkable particulars of dailiness and makes the quotidian radiant. In both poets’ work, the everyday is praised, a deliberate hymn of sorts, and then immediately complicated. The emotional and intellectual tangle of the everyday is valued because it is experiential, not discursive, and because it is for these poets undeniably tender. And what makes the poem linger is the way strangeness undergirds the ordinary—the way, for instance, Schuyler’s roses are “white freaked with red” and their presence in the room “heavily scented.”
The poems in Belz’s second collection, Lovely, Raspberry, pivot on a deliberate paradox in which the everyday is both mundane and luminous. At times it seems no ideas really inhere in things, as in the beginning of “Ginkgoes”: “It was a weird weekend weatherwise. / Stuff touched down, from funnels to hail kernels” (13). The purposefully unpoetic “-wise” suffix in “Gingkoes” crucially anchors the opening line and cinches its breezy alliteration, yet the poem shirks particularity in its rendering of the weather maelstrom of the second line as mere “Stuff” from the sky. The coyness of Belz’s deliberately unpoetic poetics barely flashes before revealing the poem’s complex interconnected relationships. Within the language-play of “Ginkgoes,” a serious love affair grows, wearies, and dies—the kind of “Stuff” that has touched down for centuries from poets. Belz is a poet of minute specificity, too, as in “Beard Beard,” which fixes itself so determinedly on the particular that it could seem unable to move past its hermetically sealed close-up of the “strange mustache” that remains of the speaker’s shaved goatee (15). Yet the poem’s deft manipulation of tradition suggests that much more is at stake than an ironic dramatization of the uncanny, as “Beard Beard” builds toward a final, iambic stanza that yearns to reverse chronological time and repair what love and loss shave off our lives.
It doesn’t take long to see a delightful bait-and-switch at work in Lovely, Raspberry—luring readers with weirdness to illustrate just how “normal” the strange can be. Some of the first poems in the book, such as “Critique,” “The Love-Hat Relationship,” and “My Chiquita,” begin as if they were smart-alecky one-offs or extended puns. But Belz’s unadorned (and hilarious) phrasing draws the reader into the increasingly nuanced world of each poem—a world in which, significantly, the poet is more concerned with the lives of others than with demonstrating his own wit. “My advice to young people is to like hats but not love them,” the speaker of “The Love-Hat Relationship” explains. “Try having like-hat relationships with one another. / See if you can find something interesting about / the personality of the person whose hat you like” (3). As in poems such as “In Verity” or “Looking at Ducks,” the speaker’s seemingly languid self-interest masks a deep curiosity about, and intimacy with, the external world. Belz is a poet of interdependence, rooting for the collective as he lingers on the integrity of the private individual.
As in his first book, The Bird Hoverer, Belz is drawn to ordinary people at the same time he seems to praise the aloof singularity of celebrity culture. Hollywood stars and celebrity politicians ascend beyond us, it seems, until Belz reveals that we are all “waiting / for the same bus,” inhaling the same diesel fumes as the celebrity who boards the next bus (17). Celebrity culture imposes its self-interested muses upon us in this volume, but these muses eventually are as accessible as one’s fellow bus riders. The speakers in Belz’s poems actually are spurred into imaginative production by the presence of stars: the aura of another’s stardom seems to make us stall, but, as in “Asking Al Gore About the Muse,” this initial passivity is actually a prelude to art-making. As he ascends into the bus, Gore “casts a glance over his shoulder as if / to say, aren’t you coming darling?” but the speaker of the poem decides to stay behind at the bus stop to make something more lasting than the ersatz productions of celebrity spectacle (17).
Like The Bird Hoverer, this volume has no use for a mythologized, abstracted muse. Instead, the poems fuse ironic distance and Romantic earnestness, reminding us how concrete the imagination was for the Romantics and how concretely the imagination talks back to us as postmoderns. Belz’s idea of the canon is one in which we quarrel over cocktails with celebrities—and at times with poets—and kiss their cheeks on the way out. This isn’t evasion masked by glibness, as can be the case sometimes in contemporary poetry. Instead, it is an act of glibness in the service of a more serious purpose—as if, like Frank O’Hara, the poet suddenly discovered “that if [he] wanted to [he] could use the telephone instead of writing the poem,” a realization that of course leads him back into the poem with an even greater commitment to it (O’Hara 499). Marjorie Perloff reminds us that “beneath the bravado, O’Hara is quite serious” (26). What seems like bravado in O’Hara’s “Personism” is, for Belz, a faith that the internal voice of the Romantic imagination manifests outwardly as talkiness and conversationalism, as in his version of “The Waste Land”:
If I had been T.S. Eliot, I wouldn’t have written ‘The Waste Land.’
As myself, however, I do plan to write it, but not with a typewriter,
and I will never turn it over to Ezra Pound’s manic red pen.
In fact, I will not even publish ‘The Waste Land.’ Instead,
I’ll whisper it to white doves that constantly appear at my window
wearing bib overalls and green mesh trucker caps, the ones
chewing bits of hay and sighing that they’ve had a scant harvest. (53)
As if preferring the telephone to the writing of a poem, the speaker vows to “whisper” the poem to the white doves outside his window rather than publish it. The tendency with such a poet is to seize immediately upon the humorous, but Belz’s humor depends on its commitment to plausibly realistic detail rather than just to one-liners or gags. Wearing overalls and trucker caps in a poem otherwise saturated with irony, the doves might seem anthropomorphized upper-middle-class hipsters slumming at a bar drinking PBRs. But in Belz’s “The Waste Land,” these doves instead are truly listening. They are part of the speaker’s bizarre journey backward from Eliot to Chaucer, where he passes out wine “to the dames of Kent with the expectation / that they would get really drunk and try to pants me” (53). They are, in short, peers, whether as mythic doves “sighing that they’ve had a scant harvest” or as the women of Chaucer “pantsing” the speaker “as the Kentish stars winked down at us” (53). Much the same is at work in “Tilling Charles Reznikoff’s Back Yard,” where the speaker’s nurturing of artistic influence produces “cartoony animals” that leave him “look[ing] like a startled duck” (27). Where Pound demanded cold “commerce” with his artistic inheritance in “A Pact”—and confessed his attitude was like “a grown child / Who has had a pig-headed father”—Belz’s relationship with his precursors is, in contrast, playful rather than anxious, and relational rather than competitive (Pound 27).
In the world of Lovely, Raspberry, our poems are as serious and nonchalant as our telephone calls. They must be protected from Ezra Pound’s “manic red pen,” and they are meant for a non-hierarchical audience of peers. And in Belz’s unusual vision of tradition and individual talent, we get pantsed by these peers before we could even consider picking up our manic red pens and correcting them on matters of poetics, history, or canon formation. When we return to our sources—for inspiration, for a cohesive tradition, for a secure sense of self—we find instead a provisional unity always undone and remade, a mutual re-tilling of shared soil, like the ongoing (and utterly ordinary) relationship between the self and its world: “Every human body faces the same basic challenge: / What to do with all those sensory impulses” (44).
Belz, Aaron. The Bird Hoverer. Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2007.
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald
Allen. Berkeley, U of California P, 1995. 498-99.
Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
Pound, Ezra. The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1957.
Schuyler, James. Collected Poems. New York: The Noonday P, 1993.
Tony Trigilio’s newest book is the poetry collection Historic Diary (BlazeVOX Books, 2011). With Tim Prchal, he co-edited Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (Rutgers University Press, 2008). He is a member of the core poetry faculty at Columbia College Chicago and co-edits Court Green.