Reviewed by Micah Mattix
by Aaron Belz
Persea Books, New York
The Comedic Effect
A number of poets and critics, including Stephen Burt and Tony Hoagland, have recently sounded the death toll for what Burt has called “elliptical” poetry and Hoagland, “hip contemporary skittishness.” Hoagland sees a return to autobiographical narrative of the 1980s, Burt, a renewed interest in the objectivism of Pound and Williams. Yet, while I think (and hope) that the worst of the elliptical poets will fade, others, whose work is less dogmatic, committed primarily to poetry, not “theory,” will continue to be published, and rightfully so.
Aaron Belz’s second volume of poetry, Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010) is a case in point. While some of Belz’s poems exemplify the disconnectedness and the “fronting” of poetic voice that are the touchstones of elliptical poetry, he is no caged pigeon. In the first poem of the volume, Belz writes:
in which I’m typing this, and connect that to my feelings,
but I’d rather tell you about the interior of your room
and use that as a symbol for something less abstract.
Actually, here’s a better idea. Let’s put our heads together
and try to think up a third room unknown to either of us,
then divide or multiply its number of windows by the least
number of words necessary to describe it.
In this way perhaps we can accurately triangulate
brief but nearly photographic images of each other’s
mothers when they were first married, in veils,
and of their driving down the street with tin-can tails,
of their first orgasmic separation, their little giggles,
and of their medication when it came time to prescribe it.
You expect me to tell you about the spite in my loin
which is the sad hail of commas in the professor’s paragraph,
Here Belz takes aim at the gentrified use of metaphor—connecting interiors to feeling—that tarnishes so much of the late 20th century lyric. There are few spatial interiors in Belz’s volume and no confessions. Yet, the “better idea” of triangulating “brief but nearly photographic images of each other’s / mothers”—a reference, perhaps, to the sort of objectivism proposed by Burt—turns out not to be a better idea at all. We end up back in the mind of the poet, and worst of all, the image being triangulated is of the “first orgasmic separation” of our mother.
What seems to be a dead end, however, is transformed with a comedic flick of the wrist:
but I cannot even begin to do it, for I am a ranch boy
and not even a very good one; I live in El Bandito, Texas.
I am an old man in Maine, I manage a dime store,
and you, you are a movie director, but only in your mind.
We’ve been set up, of course. Belz establishes and thwarts expectations that are not ours but his of what ours might be when we read a poem. In doing so, Belz shows how the comedic turn offers a way to “front” the solipsism of the lyric that is much more interesting than the pedantic fronting of poet-theorists. Comedy, dependent as it is on incongruity for effect, both points the reader to the structure of the narrative of the poem and entertains. Of course, the effect is temporary. After all, Belz admits that event is “only in your mind.” Yet, there is a momentary transcendence, here, that makes the reading (and the “fronting”) worthwhile.
In “Privacy” Belz writes that when “every word sounds cliché,” he escapes via “slapstick / and boorish sexual innuendo.” This is true to some extent, but mostly, as above, he relies on incongruity or light, surprising logical leaps. In “What,” for example, he writes:
Every day I get emails
that say things like
BELZ! We should
have done that one
thing that one
how ARE things?
And I always reply
the same way,
I do not know
who you are.
Where do I know
But I never hear back.
I save all those emails
in a special folder
labeled “I hate my life.”
Or in “My Best Wand,” he writes:
Of all the magic wands
I’ve bought over the years,
only the steel one
with the sharp tip
really works–you point it
into someone and say
and the person magically
While Belz, like Koch, can occasionally try too hard at comedy, it would be wrong to see his poetry as nothing more than a reminder, as John Ashbery puts it on the jacket, “that poetry should be bright, friendly, surprising.” Rather, in addition to providing the momentary escape noted above, humor, unlike mere fragmentation, recaptures the surprise and quickness that are the touchstones of almost all poetic forms, from sonnets to ballads to epigrams. If poetry replaces the prose of the “sad hail of commas in the professor’s paragraph” with a sad hail of disconnected images, it becomes parasite of the prose sentence, however subversive. There are no sad hails in Belz’s volume.
Micah Mattix’s reviews on poetry and poetics have appeared or are forthcoming in places such as First Things, America, The Chronicle Review, Octopus Magazine, Books & Culture and elsewhere. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the review editor of The City. His book on Frank O’Hara is forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield and Fairleigh Dickinson.