KR Reviews

I Claw My Way Out: A Review of For the Love of Endings by Ben Purkert

New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2018. 74 pages. $15.95.

Ben Purkert’s debut collection For the Love of Endings opens with an epigraph from Mary Ruefle: “In life, the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the number of endings.” Ruefle is well-known for the way she uses quotidian meditations to assess larger existential crises, and Purkert is inviting us into a similar rubric.

Though this epigraph reads as a kind of plain math, a truth equation, this is not a book of aphorism or serene poetic wisdom. Rather than prudently accept the certainty of an ending, Purkert’s speakers struggle mightily against it, often setting a “little / bomb” inside the edifice of inevitability.

Purkert’s pacing, at first, could fool the reader. He is meticulous, even abstemious, in his escalations. In the synesthetic opening poem “Today is Work,” Purkert writes:

. . . I like surgery
to be light. I like a cradle
overflowing with baby gifts &
stuffed-animal aliens, lime-green
to the touch. I’m really happy
for you, for your off-screen
special effects. I want you
exploding like a bridge.

This final destruction—or, rather, desire to destroy—arrives quietly. The poem, like many in the collection, is a trim column, controlled both by snug phrasing and sharp enjambment. Though this final line is terrifying, Purkert keeps the reader at a disconcerting remove from that terror, unable to fully assess the magnitude of the destruction. It’s as though the reader is watching the bridge explode on television, on mute.

Purkert achieves this sensation by wedding sparse language with cryptic imagery. He has offered the reader a direct and familiar syntactical construction (“I want you / exploding like a bridge.”), but buried within this request is a layered, obscured threat. Is it the speaker’s want that feels explosive? Is the speaker’s yearning so vast and gnawing that it is like a decrepit bridge, exploded to make way for some new crossing? Or is it that the speaker wishes to see the you itself—the desired—destroyed? Purkert often leaves the reader here, squinting at an indiscernible but certain moment of destruction—a blast, blurred. It seems that Purkert is at once resisting melodrama with these hard-to-see demolitions while simultaneously conceding their off-screen power to make us, collectively, tremble.

Explosions and burials recur throughout the collection, with Purkert’s speakers often tethered to something from which they are working to break free. Titles like “Escape Plans” or “No Other Way” or “Dark Planets We Could Realistically Flee To” pepper the table of contents. “To exit this window,” he writes in “Mirror I Don’t Know,” “I claw my way out.” The real terror lies in the sensation that the speaker may not actually claw his way out, that detonations end up the escape route of last resort.

Purkert is concerned throughout with the carnage of modern society, with environmental degradation and the trappings of an ailing planet. There is a noiseless quality to the speaker’s upset, a submerged acknowledgement of complicity in both earthly harm and personal heartache. Despite the frequency of narrative blasts, the poems themselves rarely explode. They stay taut, even-handed, a kind of formal clutching. The bombs are carefully placed but seem, still, to be ticking, creating what at first reads like longing but ultimately manifests itself as dread. The steadiness of the poems’ construction reads as another attempt at escape: Stay calm and maybe we’ll be OK. No sudden movements.

That’s what’s so stirring about this book taken in total, though—Purkert corners the reader right at the tight intersection of anxiety and desire, illuminating how often the two can be mistaken for each other. The almost bloodless clarity of these short poems (rarely does one extend beyond a page, and most carry as much white space as text) reflects the hushed tones of those who have been through great pain, of speakers who have passed some of suffering’s highest thresholds and are surveying the damage from the other side. This is not to say that there are no moments of immediate physical panic, only that Purkert attempts to assess or control those moments with the evenness of an historian’s eye.

Despite these tale-as-old-as-time concerns, so much of the book feels thoroughly modern, millennial. TVs and smartphones and El Diablo Doritos litter its pages, though the abiding quality of Purkert’s tone never wavers. He continues to evoke not only Ruefle but also Neruda, and sometimes starts to swell into the latter’s heartsickness: “Her eyes are closed, so I close mine, to be closer to her,” he writes in the titular series of prose snippets. These are the moments when Purkert lets a little blood drip on the page, and they are all the more thrilling for their infrequency. The lyric tenderness of lines like “Let’s freeze at / the tipping point when you // leave me, here in the heart / of this song” from the poem “Dear Ex” give us a speaker for whom knowledge has not overcome longing. The inescapability of heartbreak is just as confining, then, as any earthly constraint.

The unique, unsettling mix of clarity and dread throughout is what will bring readers back and back to this book. Purkert couches impossible questions in the syntax of answers, avowing that “not even a snapped // branch can fly / back where it began” in a way that feels more like a plea to return the broken branch to its tree than an acceptance of its severing. For the Love of Endings is trying to stare down irrevocability, trying to love the ending. Every line is constructed in such a way that it could be the last line, as though the speaker knows we may have little time together.

These poems, then, are bound to Ruefle by more than the goal posts of the epigraph. They share much of Ruefle’s fogged clarity, her winking melancholy, but more than anything they incite a similar sense of psychological claustrophobia. The conflict of the self against the self, of the heart against hard fact, plays out here as a brutal but restrained conflict of wills. The quote he uses from Ruefle has a second part to it, which reads, “In poetry, the number of beginnings so far exceeds the number of endings that we cannot even conceive of it.” Here is poetry that seems equally resigned to and dumbstruck by the inconceivability of human life and all its possibilities, both brilliant and horrifying. One can only hope that Purkert will continue to produce work of such exacting tension, that he will continue to resist the finality of an ending by acknowledging it on the page.

Jess Smith
Jess Smith is currently pursuing a PhD in English & Creative Writing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX where she co-founded and curates the LHUCA Literary Series. Her work can be found in Prairie Schooner, Waxwing, 32 Poems, The Rumpus, and other journals.