November 18, 2016KR Reviews

On Alamo Theory by Josh Bell

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 82 pages. $16.00.

On the cover of this small and abnormally square book of poetry, a man in a suit holds a square gas can in an even smaller square photograph. Looking west, presumably across America’s heartland, he watches the line of fire that he has started with a kind of smug indifference. In the pages that follow, Josh Bell offers a similar objective look at lines in danger of burning the rational framework in which we imagine ourselves safely contained.

The title poem brings us back reductively to square one, so to speak, insofar as, “We never really learned / the correct usage of the voice box.” Though Bell’s poetry rightly warrants the effusive praise it has received for its tonal range, its predication upon such an unstable reduction often proves an even meaner feat. “It’s getting late,” he writes at the end of this poem, “and I’m the only / American on the dance floor. Still.” His final “Still” here ambiguously captures four parts of speech, interrogating his very presence in the conclusion. Does he continue to refrain from any movement or does he keep on busting his moves? While Yeats made it hard to tell “the dancer from the dance,” Bell leads us into wondering whether the music has stopped all together or possibly just plays in a head unsure about what it’s doing on that dance floor in the first place.

The repression of a questionable identity returns in the next poem, “Josh II: The Return of Josh,” as it does throughout the collection (in blatant self-referential titles like “Where the I Comes From”). When Josh returns in this block of prose—another square—children fix their gaze upon the approaching poet before their parents call them in for the evening. Along with human subjectivity, the tradition of the pastoral remains unstable, contingent on the viewers’ unreliable gaze:

We thought it walked a lot like Josh, clean white shirt down the soybean
rows and toward us at the tree line. Josh walking through a field so green
and real it made us feel like getting married just to look at it. Except
for how the cricket-sound had moved inside of us, the crickets stopped
their buzzing as he walked, and we took our eyes off Josh for a second,
cows on fire in the pasture neighboring the soybean field, saw them
crashing, tallow and sulfur, into golden hay bales. . . .

Told as a little story, the poem presents the poet himself as Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” only Josh, or at least the idea of him, changes the surrounding landscape to the point that he sets cows on fire.

There is nothing that new in our postmodern age, of course, about radical subjective interrogation, or even, sadly, flaming cattle. Like the advent of bebop in jazz, however, Bell raises the stakes of aesthetic mastery. Visit almost any MFA workshop these days and you’ll find plenty of hard-to-decipher poetry intent on some kind of ahistorical relation to the past and meta-reflection upon language. But what begins making this an exceptional poem upon closer reading is the way “Kim said Ribbon” after seeing Josh tie the object to himself and how that naming, which earlier marries viewers to their human subject, eventually unravels a categorical “Answer” about the essentiality of Josh.

Such ribbons of language sufficiently recur as möbius strips, playfully threatening to collapse binaries of poet and reader. We get tied to so much fun that Bell insists on having with meaning that often it seems as though we choose to implicate ourselves in the process of creating a reading—our own reinventions—of this rhetorically subjective world. A poem like “Vince Neil Meets Josh in a Chinese Restaurant in Malibu (after Ezra Pound)” makes the ’80s front man of Mötley Crüe emblematic of vain attempts to reclaim past glory, which is to say figuratively remember his own Alamo. Neil, Josh, and Pound become so interchangeable that we could put the poetic tradition itself in their places. It seems that the theory in the book’s title would have us do so. Irrespective of such a reading, lines here remain lyrically enjoyable, as so many do, almost as a kind of pure poetry:

Back when my voice box
was a cabinet-full of golden vibrators, and my hair
fell white across the middle of my back
like a child’s wedding dress,
I made love to at least a dozen girls
dressed up to look like me: the hotel bed a sky
filled with the flock
of our south-flying mic scarves

Neil wants so much to insist upon his own past relevance to an American audience. Considering that he is eating Chinese food with Josh Bell while approaching an imitation of Pound, he further allegorizes our claims upon our past literary greatness:

                              Sometimes I myself
wonder what I was thinking then, but those words
went on to live forever, didn’t they, radioed out
into the giant midwestern backseat

If forced to choose a best or most representative poem from this book, like a hit single from an album, I think this would ultimately get my vote. It’s one to which I keep returning, perhaps because of how the verse so deftly turns upon the speaker’s sense of himself. As he considers his past with the women, he muses:

all of them hoping to enter me—to enter anyone—
the way they thought I entered them,
and the way I entered them was wishing
I was someone else, or wishing I was
the someone else who’d come along
to enter me, which was the same thing. Love
in battle requires a broad
taxonomy, queerness has its ever-more-visible degrees.

Despite a somewhat losing battle to heroically assert the past self into the present, Bell makes delightfully brazen efforts worthy of a rock star in his prime. Responding to the poet’s offer to help in the Chinese restaurant, Neil concludes with a request that summons Pamela Anderson by channeling the progenitor of high modernism:

Please tell Circus Magazine I love them
truly, and please pass Pamela this message:
If you get back to Malibu by springtime, drop by the houseboat,
and I’ll rock your ass as far as Cho-fu-Sa.

Among the few noteworthy handfuls of poets writing verse that so effectively joins such radical aesthetic highs and pop culture lows, Bell arguably establishes himself as the most American. “American History” captures the spirit of our past by relating an indulgent paean to pork chops, hysterically extending Eliot’s metaphorizing of theme as meat that the poet throws the guard dog to render his sly stylistic effects.

American also in its excess, Bell’s verse covers ample ground, yet like himself as dancer in the earlier poem, ultimately questions if it really gets anywhere. In a longer, more ambitious poem, Vince Neil resurfaces as a kind of inverted Whitman:

                              The body
is a problem. Not that I believe
that I have to be this endless thing inside myself, undoable filament
in a buckling cabinetry of flesh.

After descending from a great height in an elevator, he explains how he still feels himself headed further down “through the asphalt, to the fires,” claiming, “I can’t / stay away from the underworld.”

Returning one of his many selves back to another kind of box, this time a coffin on its way to dead masters like Dante, the Greeks, etc., his own poetic lines again threaten to consume him: “I am / almost postverbal now.” So delightful does he make this journey, however, that we end up wanting to call his personal cell number (included in this poem), as if compelled, along with Vince Neil, to go down in flames.

Roger Sedarat is the author of Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP's 2007 Hollis Summers' Prize, and Ghazal Games (Ohio UP, 2011). He teaches poetry and literary translation in the MFA Program at Queens College, City University of New York.