Friday, August 31, 2018

Lindsay Bell: The Naughts

More than a year ago, I promised former colleague of mine at Columbia College Chicago, Lindsay Bell, that I would review her book, The Naughts (Finishing Line Press, 2017). I had the best of intentions to write the review in 2017. I could cite reasons for my delay that might seem justifiable--more pressing deadlines, the priorities of family and work, health issues. And those would not be inaccurate. However, alongside those reasons is the reality that I chose to do other things rather than get down to reading and writing about this book as promised. Two things have resulted from my experience: 1) I now forgive all five of my writer friends who have promised to review my books, but never have--I understand much better how one can allow that to happen; and 2) following the suggestion of Dr. Joe Dispenza to not get up from one's meditation without asking "What is the greatest ideal of myself that I can be today?" one of the things that came up for me this morning was "to reread and write a review of Bell's book." So, Lindsay, my apologies, and here we go...

Consulting The Compact (it's not really) Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, produces the following for "naughts": 1) nothing; 2) wicked, evil, morally wrong; 3) lost, ruined, injurious, hurtful; and 4) in arithmetic, ciphers (which is to say, zeros). Most online dictionaries list "lost or ruined, worthless or useless" as archaic. And finally, the online slang dictionary has only one entry: "The decade from 2000-2009." I found evidence that the decade 1900-1909 was also called "the naughts."

One of the strength's of Bell's collection is that her poems touch on all of the above meanings and more. The more is the light her poems shine on this world, complete with its worts and naughts, by juxtaposing seemingly disparate images and ideas with a sparse language that is oftentimes quite gorgeous. I am reminded of Jorie Graham's " Self-Portrait As The Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]" from The Dream of the Unified Field with a poem like "Ode to the Apple:"

For the wanderer who forgot
            how to turn a phrase
            who wants our love;
For the wretch whose apathy
            ate her careless,
For we can aspirate
            the earth
            but we need a conduit
            to get the worms
            out of our will;
For the snake,
            in careful netting
            on the banks of the Clear Creek
For the dogs cocking their heads,
            backed away,
            while their humans
            inclined to their doom;
For in the ever closer, wherein
            something lies coiling-
For the utter giving in of predator
            and prey, entwined
            and equal,
            without blame or conceit.

As in her final stanza above, the diction and meaning of her poems in this collection are all "...entwined / and equal, / without blame or conceit." Bell brings to the page a knowledge of, and love for, geology. Utilizing earth science as a tool to excavate the unique language of her poems results in slanted meaning and exposed history, as in "Margin Architecture:"

Later faults dismember our early geometries,
            a failed arm wastes, leaving the mark
            of its absence
commonly bounded by angular unconformities.
            Blue abides in everything, slashed with black,
            dots of light pock our walls.
We are the consequence of erosion, or a poor seismic pick.
            Our earliest memories of water,
            captive to heave and throw, strike and slip.
A sequence of calcareous mudstones and marls
            sum our lifetime moments,
            some marine transgression, resultant desertification.
Submarine channeling
            bespeaks burrowing creatures, deposited
            by meandering, fixed by their outlines.
A topographic map : cipher of our hinterlands
            interbedded basement interactions
            created a seam, fingers lace with blue.
Volcanoclastic sadness, the minor plays of Shakespeare.
            Dust motes deposit in geologic time as we hover,
            watch the names they've given us
Attempt to interpret themselves.

This poem attempts to mine the depths of abstractions such as failure, transgression, memory, and sadness by providing a concrete language for them. Other poems that drill deep into universalities, searching for poetic ore, include "Streber" and  "Love Did This." "Streber" begins with:

Today I smelled the summer's
sad last batch of freedom fries

heard the ice cream truck hemiola
whose pitch unwinds with each iteration.

As I pull into the driveway
rain begins to plunk in the gutters

in seamless concord with ending.

These lines showcase Bell's strength for taking a conglomeration of concrete language and putting it under pressure until it is metamorphosed into an abstraction that carries qualities of each particular. This shifting of language back and forth from specificities to generalities is characteristic of the collection. Thus, dipping into a poem here or there will not always provide a true sample of Bell's capacities. Her work requires taking it all in before assessing its value. When one does, all of the nuances she occasionally demonstrates in a single poem come through, and her work excels. Witness how she does this in "Love Did This," shifting from "love" and "fear" to "the toaster / in the bathtub," and "the faint hearing test intoning right / then left..."

Love Did This

I'd been kidding myself with play fear
but real fear just woke me up,
put a robe on my nakedness, yoked me again.

It said, Lo, I am the toaster
in the bathtub
of your performance anxiety,
the real projector,
the spit and glare and cross yourself.

I am your mother's weary voice,
the faint hearing test intoning right
then left, I am the singsong of baby's breath
carpeting a grave.

I am the burden of you
who are my slave.

There is playfulness in the above lines that occasionally bubbles up into full-blown whimsy in a poem like "Proximity." But even here, "The Naughts" are never far away, stepping onstage from the wings of the poem for the final scene, as they are ready to do throughout all of this surprisingly fresh collection.


I was born with a historical gap.

All my clothes were fitted for it,
pink and asymmetrical.

I was a pink lobster, lop-sided meringue,
chewed air with my hands, ruined my toes.

The floor wept under me.
I was timing.

Allergic to gift horses,
all glossy, candied things.

I was crocheted into a name, sing-song.
The picture of innocence : a tutu in danger.

Looking forward to the decades built on the naughts of the new century, we who claim to be writers are called to join Bell by "Imagin[ing] rape as a theft / of letters : [to] write through holes / in the alphabet." Brava, Lindsay! May we, as you have, all find our way in.