My feelings towards poetry in general are, to put it simply, complex. Or maybe it’s not as I can crudely word my view as such: “I once loved poetry and considered myself as a poet but now I do not love it or claim that title.” More specifically, there are a number of poets that I think are quite worthwhile of people’s attention but in general I find myself aligned with Henry Miller’s criticism of modern poetry in The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud:
“Our [modern] poets are jealous of the name but show no disposition to accept the responsibilities of their office. They have not proved themselves poets; they are writing not for a world which hangs on their every word but for one another. They justify their impotence by deliberately making themselves unintelligible. They are locked in their glorified little ego; they hold themselves aloof from the world of fear of being shattered at the first contact. They are not even personal, when one gets right down to it, for if they were we might understand their torment and their delirium, such as it is. They have made themselves as abstract as the problems of the physicist. Theirs is a womblike yearning for a world of pure poetry in which the effort to communicate is reduced to zero.”
That said, I must admit that besides the poems shared in a writing group I was in two years ago that I did find worthwhile, I haven’t read any published poetry over the past several years written by anyone in the past twenty years because of my general ambivalence to it. I recognize that there are likely a number of modern poets quite worthy of public attention, however my awareness of this axiom has not been such that it is strong enough to circumvent my desire to avoid having to go through so much chaff to find a few grains of wheat. As such my literary diet has prioritized fiction and non-fiction.
A recent exception to this course is the collection of poems entitled Dead Horse by Niina Pollari. Given the long introduction to this book review – which normally jumps right in to the matter at hand – I will now place at the beginning what I normally state at the end and write that I think that this book is one of those pieces of wheat, it is one of those worthy publications of poetry. I will also add in the interest of full disclosure before reviewing this collection of poems – as if this medium were an investment program on television and I were a financial analyst offering advice on what to buy to build your stock portfolio (which in a way is was I am now doing) – that Niina is one of the two great loves that I have had in my life and that for a brief but bright period half my lifetime ago she was my creative inspiration and collaborationist. All this said, to the Dead Horse!
One of the aspects of the book that I like is the sly humor throughout the poems. There are a number of witty phrasings and lines that never seem to make a poem seem trite or cheap. For instance there is the poem I Love The Phone. This piece reflects how it is that phone connectivity has become a means for self-evaluating people’s worth to others, how people’s nervous anticipation of the vibrating ring of phones has them almost like Pavlov’s dogs and how the digital trail left by it is more valuable as it is tangible. Rather than spouting a jeremiad against this technological entrainment of the body to the logic of the machine – she closes with:
And when the archaeologists find me they can see all the times
That people called or texted
And they can say to themselves
“She was very beloved”
In a way that is humorous, she is able to point out with this that one day our anxieties about such cyborgization of the self will seem without cause and be the new normal. As someone who has seen in their lifetime long notes expressing interest in a person from being cute and endearing to something indicative of some sort of mental disorder, I can both understand, relate and appreciate what will inevitably be the datedness of our thoughts in a few years.
This is not the only instance of technological apparatuses impinging upon the person in Pollari’s poetry (a phrase I crafted as such simply because I found the sound of it sonorous). At the high end of technical development, Niina references a computer in To The Specialists that is sat in front of for “13, 14 hours a day”. While surfing the web for work, it re-forges her spine her spine such that she must see a laborer referenced in the title. At the low end of technical development, she references a home – a.k.a. the safe for the self – in Self-Love is Important that she has stayed in for a for prolonged period of time and this disconnection from nature leads to the consumption of psycho-stimulants (coffee and wine) that leaves a feeling of self loathing only negated by the intellectual recognition that she mush love herself. Lest I get too lost in following certain themes throughout, let me go back to the place my train of thought left before making the above connections.
There’s humor and connection to each not only within the aforementioned individual poems, but throughout – hence their categorization into Bones, Blood and Money in the table of contents. For instance in Nature Poem she states that “Nature bores me / The way a thing I don’t understand bores me / Like when I looked up an article about plagiarism…” and then in the next poem, To The Bone, she states “Please don’t stare, I don’t feel good / I lifted that line out of a teenager’s blog”. The juxtaposition here has an immediate comic effect. The apparent contradiction is not, however, just humorous but insightful as in the latter alluded to work is the sentiment that though people exist as types their manifestation of them is always novel just as songs lyrics may at times sound trite, their meaning changes based upon the context in which they are said or sung. It’s this understated dark humor and depth of perception that made me enjoy the book so much.
For instance in Personal Pain, Pollari recounts a minor operation and a number of other instances in which she experienced physical pain – be it the piercing of a tattoo needle or that of a safety pin. Having spoken with a number of people in the tattoo and suspension scene I know that her assessment of the original stinging sensation referred to in the poem is as she says in the last stanza:
The pain was not transcendent
As much as I would have liked for it to be
Wanting transcendence through pain is a deep wish I always have
I know I am not alone there
All of the other poems are worth reflecting on in greater detail. I feel like I may be speaking insufficiently about them, however I also want to encourage your to experience them for yourself. If you’d like to read other’s comments about a few more passages, there’s this and also this. Suffice it to say, I’ve read and re-read the collection a few times not and continue to find it engaging. That said – to be honest I must admit there are a few moments when I struggled to understand certain poetic choices – for instance in No Emergency why she chooses to break up of stanzas certain stanzas – as well as the meaning of a few of the images and transitions. I think it’s more likely that I’ve grown accustomed to a certain type of writing style and so sometimes buck the small amount of labor that goes into a deep reading. I’m happy to accept these mysteries now and look forward to solving them later.
Also check out this response to Dead Horse called You’re Not the Only One from Night Redacted by Chelsea Hodson.
And then there is this book-video-preview-i-don’t-know-what-to-call-it-thing: