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Durham writer Chris Vitiello's linguistic conundrums

Box of paradoxes

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Irresponsibility
by Chris Vitiello
Ahsahta Press, 112 pp.

What does it mean to say, as local poet Chris Vitiello does in his new collection, Irresponsibility, that "A Cornell box is one thing"? How do we collapse the artwork of Joseph Cornell—often depicting a collection of unconnected objects like a ball, a bird, a cork and a tiny flag arranged in a box into a small, imaginative world—as a single, undifferentiated object?

However we do it, the reference to Cornell seems like an apt invocation for Vitiello, whose own work contains a similar spirit of play and paradox. Vitiello is an artist who collects words and aphorisms and arranges them, in each poem, into a single "thing." Reading Irresponsibility almost feels as though we've stumbled upon a writer's journal, full of copious note-taking and observation—as Vitiello might describe the process, "Noticing with effort // Efforted notingnesses." Poems begin with the time and place of their making like record-keeping in a journal, and some of them look like notes for poems that are not yet finished: poems in flux. But, as Vitiello demonstrates, a poem in flux is a poem, too.

The book begins in Topsail Island, N.C., employing the language of math in its descriptions of the place: "Rocks are graphs/ Seeing is a perpetual axis." There are mathematical symbols throughout the text, too, as in the line "Verbal nouns ≥ Nouned verbs." The poet may be at the beach, but he's thinking about language, creating linguistic equations. We get a suggestion of scenery in clouds or the ocean, but not a detailed description; when imagery does arise, the point seems to really be about language itself: "A black cloud is a gray cloud." (We might even begin to see that word is as an equals sign.) Such a line has a Zen koan quality to it, which is the great pleasure of these poems; Vitiello is making us think impossible thoughts. And you have to admire any poet who can get the term "black cloud" into a poem without a hint of melodrama.

The book is full of moments like this that are both puzzling and enjoyable: "The wasp is not thinking"; "Seeds/ wait for conditions to germinate." Occasionally the poems will give the reader very direct commands: "Stop reading here and do something else for 45 minutes." I actually found myself listening to this command, though at first I didn't intend to. The collection as a whole is a serious wrestling with definitions and a complex rumination on what it means to use language, so much so that it seems the book's intended readership might be other poets, or perhaps linguists. But maybe it is for anyone who uses language, who might have an appreciation for such clever phrases as "unfulfilled self-fulfilling prophecies" or "meaninglessnesslessness."

Occasionally, the tendency toward cleverness in the book can feel self-indulgent, or a bit hermetic. One poem, entitled "Interruption" (whose title may suggest that it should be considered separate from the rest of the poems), presents columns of the first 1,000 prime numbers, which takes up three and half pages of the book. Admittedly, I did not read this particular poem all the way through—but I confess I found its inclusion very strange. I was left wondering whether or not numbers are language, and what purpose such a poem could have. I like to be puzzled, just not too puzzled.

On the whole, Vitiello establishes a trust in these indulgences—a contemplative voice that will lead you to interesting places. While you may hear references to Durham in these pages, do not expect to be painted any pictures. This is a world of the mind, where Vitiello has sifted through the stream of consciousness and pulled out the gold for us to read.

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