June 5, 2020KR Reviews

Where Differences Speak Together: On Reading Jeff Alessandrelli’s Fur Not Light

Portland, OR: Burnside Review Press, 2019. 80 pages. $14.00.

Poet and essayist Jeff Alessandrelli’s second poetry collection, Fur Not Light, celebrates the simultaneous, multivocal experience of imagination and reality. This collection makes frequent transitions between an inexhaustible collective of themes. It is the kind of book that blends messages so thoroughly that any attempt to deduce a single take from it will fail to understand the full impact of Alessandrelli’s collection. Appearing throughout Fur Not Light are investigations into human/animal individuality, gender and sports, the personal growth of youth, the relationship between imagination and experience, and the inevitability of death, as well as other understandings. These themes come in and out of focus as the speaker approaches a less filtered experience of themselves and the world. The conflict of even one of these questions could alone inspire a valuable collection of poetry, but Alessandrelli’s Fur Not Light draws from distinct strands of thought and experience to offer a truly multifaceted reading experience. Each strand represents a way of “Trying to superimpose / Thought’s psychogeography / Into sound, word” (73). Alessandrelli’s speaker dives into what it can mean to live with awareness, going as far as to delve into “. . . a single ant nest in Jamaica / [that] Was recently calculated to house 630,000 ants” (53). There are no limits to Fur Not Light’s world, vast and somehow familiar. This familiar quality comes from the ways that Alessandrelli prepares the reader to read the poems, using metaphor, multivocality, and cyclicality to transform and transition disparate thoughts into one another. This book proves to us what we think we already know; namely, that the world is full-bulging-at-the-seams-alive.

Alessandrelli’s title comes from a passage by Russian absurdist writer, Daniil Kharms, and it demonstrates the importance of metaphor to the collection. The epigraph ends with the lines:

It isn’t I who came here but you
This isn’t water but tea
This isn’t a nail but a screw
Fur not light (7).

The exchange of one unique thing for another prepares the reader for Alessandrelli’s metaphorical thinking, which helps us understand the book’s changes in perspective and “Je est un autre (I is an other)” approach to self. Whether it comes in the form of third-person vignettes in “Nothing of the Month Club” (29-33) or deep-dug considerations of animal mentality, the collection’s self is intentionally irregular. “But what, anyway,” the speaker asks, “is the self / To an insect, an insect / To the self? . . .” (53). Fur Not Light reflects on a wide range of experiences, where everything has the potential to become something else.

In this sense, Fur Not Light enacts a quiet but persistent empathy in the world of creative writing. Refreshingly, the poems don’t draw attention to their actions, but instead take for granted that the world is full with difference. This book will humbly refuse to call attention to its range of experience, but this review must stress the value in seeing the world as varied it is. In Fur Not Light, metaphor and the potential of imagination make new realities for us by way of partially being someone or something else.

Fur Not Light often works with multi-vocality to give movement to its living themes. For example, the poem “Nothing of the Month Club” reads like a series of third-person dialogues, whether with other people, oneself, the internet, or (literary) tradition. In a book so full of themes and considerations, it follows that everyone and everything voices itself as part of that ubiquity, from the genius to the insect. The poem “Resignation Modes” focuses on conflicts of limitation with which each vignette’s figure must contend. The titular theme of resignation connects each figure together, making each iteration of resignation a voice in a poem that choruses louder together than separately. Together the individual sounds converse with themselves in varied volumes and pitches.

The variety of voices from different mediums adds to the poems’ exchanges, activating its themes by expanding “. . . these sameold // 26 letters . . .” to circles outside the self (27). The tone of such collective thinking promotes a sense of collective responsibility that inevitably benefits communities. Fur Not Light proves how constructive outward dialogue is to personal development. Not that the speaker is perfect by the end, but the effort of self-reflection is evident. Toward the end of the book, the speaker admits, “I used to believe it was the light in things that made them last. Oppressed by an education. Now I laugh and laugh and laugh” (69). The hope is to know the tragedy in learning.

Alessandrelli’s collection moves from idea to idea by means of circular shape, sometimes connecting to itself and sometimes spiraling slightly off. The circular shape offers readers a way to organize the book’s themes coming in and out of play. By giving visual shape to the recurring themes, sometimes within one poem, Fur Not Light’s reader can experience multiplicity in form and content together. The speaker overlaps two distinctly unique experiences: an interview with French artist, Jean Cocteau, and sext messages from the speaker’s ex. Alessandrelli’s speaker uses the words “shut up” as the point of contact between one circle and the next:

Pestered as to why he would save something
As unwieldly as smoke,
As gauche and obvious as heat,
[Jean] Cocteau gently explained,
“Shut up.”
Responding to a shirtless selfie
Sent by his old ex-boyfriend,
His new ex-fuck buddy,
Shut up! reads the text of a message . . . (64-65).

After the above quotation, the poem moves into explicit and implicit communication between the speaker and their ex. Here, “shut up” marks the point where one cycle transitions into the next, and the heat of Cocteau’s fire and the heat of sex round out into rings overlapping at one point like the number eight. Both the beginning and end of this passage connect back together through circular gestures. The beginning of the passage quotes Cocteau saying if his house was on fire, he would save “‘The fire’” (64). Cocteau, as well as Alessandrelli, draws together the cause (house fire) and effect (saving the house fire) of a disaster. The passage’s ending, “Un-response response,” typifies circular shape by focusing on the contradiction of a non-response. Throughout Alessandrelli’s collection, cyclicality becomes an opportunity for one perspective to encounter another. The common connection, the point where the circle re-cycles, is a transition point, and a transition point is where metaphor grows in the dual existence of this and that, where connections between different elements are voiced. It’s a point where differences speak together.

The importance of Fur Not Light lies in its multiple concerns and varied perspectives that prove life is larger than any one thing, even if one exists as a person. Not only is this book necessary, but it is also kind to its reader, in that it provides the tools with which to enter the poems. Fur Not Light is an example of radical humility, and its widespread concerns for all living life require a levity of ego. Any work of creative writing could be said to chip away at the ego, but few, and I include Jeff Alessandrelli in this group, make the effort to actively challenge the ego. What, after all, applies to everyone if not human/animal individuality, gender and sports, the personal growth of youth, the relationship between imagination and experience, and the inevitability of death? But the fact that Fur Not Light is also approachable and enjoyable comes as a result of Alessandrelli’s careful attention to ways the reader can move between these endless questions of self and other.