By Jon Leon
Cosa Nostra Editions, Iowa City, Iowa, 2008
Split Level Igloo
By Eric Amling
Human Hair & Co. Press, Raleigh, 2008
Poetry just doesn't sell like fiction: That's the bad news. The good news is that the relatively dreary climate of poetry-publishing ensures that the chapbook will continue to flourish.
While there are no firm rules as to what constitutes a chapbook, it tends to be fewer than 48 small pages, and with a stapled or stitched rather than bound spine. It's often produced by hand, in very limited editions. In a culture of automated production, the chapbook has the rare aura of an artifact made with care, for you. Two new chapbooks by two local poets demonstrate the vibrancy of the format.
Alexandra, by Raleigh-based poet Jon Leon (the author of several other books and chaps), employs a clean, elegant format: a cream-colored, wraparound cardstock cover with an all-over print title in pale pink cursive. Like the cover, the work within is both sentimental and austere. The poems are mannered, drastically condensed and convulsive: Leon's romantic spirit and Marxist ideology vie for dominance in a psychoanalytic crucible; longing Hilda Doolittle quotes clash against prolix manifestos about capitalistic rationality and libidinous cathexis.
With its proliferation of first-person pronouns and whispers of the epistolary form, Alexandra is an analytical work that sears like a confessional lyric. Leon writes, "Gloria,/ The worst is that/ we could be nostalgic/ for our life, that we could say/ March is a metamorphosis/ away and I will/ not see you at my/ hotel room if I have one[.]"
And it seems as if the worst has come to pass in this profoundly elegiac work, which bids adieu to a world human enough for Doolittle to write "O I am eager for you!" without irony. In one rococo, arresting sequence, Leon intones, "goodbye heliotrope/ upon/ upon/ sated/ without breath/ and rebec/ good night/ nor reft/ nor wistful/ yours[.]"
But whose strange and restless voice lies behind this unsigned valediction; whence does it emanate? Perhaps the afterlife? "All the roses were gone/ and people kept saying/ 'It's winter.' I continued to walk." No, not quite—Leon embodies the perspective of the post-capitalistic soul, degraded to the point that it believes in "no/ one human speaker," no desire untainted by industry. But this disembodied soul still longs to touch another through the hedge mazes of power, psychology, money and politics, even as it despairs of ever doing so: "there is/ a way out of this diary/ if only through/ the dreary/ consciousness/ of someone else[.]"
By the time you read this, Eric Amling will have relocated from Raleigh to Brooklyn; consider Split Level Igloo (Amling's sixth self-released chap) his parting gift to the Triangle. It's humbly appointed in a plain gray cover with an orange title sticker, as befits the modesty of Amling's verse, which resembles plain-speech prose in a way that broadens its appeal beyond diehard poetry audiences.
Amling often works with musicians—he opened for the band Dr. Dog on one of their tours—and musicians who flirt with poetry are often the best points of reference for his work, although one suspects there are a few James Tate books in his library. Like Bill Callahan, aka Smog, for instance, he's handy with skewed aphorisms: "Never bring a porcupine into your waterbed," he admonishes, and "Never bring your nosebleed into a marshmallow factory." And like David Berman of the band Silver Jews (whose own book of poetry, Actual Air, is the closest precedent for Split Level Igloo), Amling's poems are declarative yet oblique, quotidian yet surreal. They align themselves around constructs that are wholly of the world while drawing unexpected connections between them: stacks of carrots are "the trophies of slaughtered snowmen," and an "open cold-cream jar on the midday windowsill at the K-spa" reminds him of "ox red quartz in the showy plaza of a blood cell."
Also like Berman, Amling trafficks in a postmodern Southern gothic, a mirage-like version of life below the Mason-Dixon. He paints old-time gentility and disposable mass culture with the same nostalgic brush. When Amling says that he was "born the same year as the stealth fighter" and his "best shirt is made in Korea," he seems to be talking about a world that none of our traditional narratives are sufficient to explain. He pieces this world back together with fading signifiers: school-glue colored moons over Kentucky, bloodhounds named Scotch and Water barking at a rotary phone, Jordache jeans, WaWas and credit unions, salt licks, lassos, "Pepsi country," and the "unbridled facial hair of the 1860s."
Split Level Igloo is a work of unchained imagination and high-concept slapstick, but also of emotional gravity: The trash-culture references that fill the poems seem to function as childhood mythology for many 20-somethings, including Amling, who still can't fathom the "adult contemporary errands/ of standing before tabernacles of cologne/ or dragging deer from swimming pools."