March 2, 2018KR Reviews

On Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi

New York, NY: Persea Books, 2017. 92 pages. $25.95.

In a poem by Walter Savage Landor, a flower provokes alarm:

I dar’d not touch it; for it seem’d a part
Of her own self; fresh, full, the most mature
Of blossoms, yet a blossom; with a touch
To fall

The poem, titled “Fiesolan Idyll,” has arrived at a key moment: idyll meets anxiety. Five hundred years earlier, the characters in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron fled to the exact site of Landor’s poem, Fiesole, an area in northern Florence. They must have been anxious, too—they were running from the plague. Over a fortnight, despite unspeakable danger only miles away, they tell each other salacious, hilarious, and passionate stories. In the face of uncertainty, the company chooses delight. How do we find pleasure—and accept it—in a world where grief is a certainty? And if we can’t, what might we lose? I found myself thinking of pleasure, peril, and the gathering of a motley crew while reading Rocket Fantastic, the third book of poems by Gabrielle Calvocoressi.

No stranger to the persona poem, Calvocoressi’s previous books include long sequences voicing, for example, witnesses of a horrific circus fire or Amelia Earhart’s awed onlookers. Rocket Fantastic is something else. The book’s personalities don’t appear in the first person; instead, they’re illuminated and interpreted by a central speaker, as if Dante or Alice read tarot. The characters include The Dowager, The Major General, members of a Court, and The Bandleader, a central figure whose confluence of genders is represented with a symbolic pronoun, dal segno, pronounced with an audible intake of breath. The Bandleader’s poems, presented on the page in suggestively splayed lines, speak to and through the speaker, chronicling a complex erotic alliance. One poem, “The Bandleader calls it the Angel Position,” begins:

                       The what? I asked. The Angel Position. Let me

explain, the Bandleader says. No.

                       Let me show you. Down on whose knees.

dal segno’s below me.

Calvocoressi’s use of whose recalls the merging of intimately touching bodies. Heard aloud, whose as a possessive determiner could be mistaken for the contraction of who is, suggesting the vitality and creativity of eroticism, the ways sexual pleasure can offer transformative possibilities. This device repeats in a later Bandleader poem:

                       I like to watch whose start to want the things

dal segno can’t have. How dal segno starts to stare

                       then smiles like no one’s looking, whose eyes getting black

and wet like a horse.

The same poem ends:

The Bandleader on whose stomach,

                       Staring out the window.

It is. As I kiss the small of whose back.

The homonym suggests both agency over a body’s constituent parts and something else, a full but shifting interconnection that desires, invents, plays, and studs itself with joy. A queerness, in other words. New ways to is.

These ideas appear in other poems without the Bandleader. “Shave,” for instance, opens the book on the subject of self-invention and multiplicity. “Yes, I was a lady once,” remarks the speaker in the midst of shaving a face. “But now / I take the blade and move it / slowly past the jugular.” Whoever the speaker was is not who they are. “Like the buck I am,” the poem begins. But exactly what sort of buck can wield a straight razor? It doesn’t matter because the poem eschews ambiguity with confidence:

I was
once ashamed. It was a thing
I did in private. My own self
my quarry. No more.

The reader witnesses the other side of transformation: a figure poised, self-assured, and made new.

Another poem, “She Ties My Bow Tie,” acknowledges that newness may lead us to blunder. It corrects the reader’s a priori belief that what we thought was:

the sound of the deer drinking
at the base of the ravine was not their soft tongues
entering the water but my Love tying my bow tie.

We’re quickly reassured:

Forgive yourself. It’s easy to mistake her wrists
for the necks of deer.

If we have jumped to quick conclusions, so what? We can be put right, the poem suggests, with tenderness, and then given something equally beautiful and praiseworthy.

If much of Rocket Fantastic explores an eroticized present, it also recalls past sorrows. Less villa in Fiesole, more peril in Florence, or, in this case, primeval forest by way of Connecticut. In this realm, the speaker recalls the lasting influence of siblings and guardians, depicting both authority and fallibility. The poem “Four Long Years at Court” begins:

I really miss the forest. And how
I used to hide there with the Queen.
I miss how we used to dance
And how we ran from Court.

Later, the poem notes that “You can make a life / up in the time it takes to watch / your mother die.” Whether this time is a moment or eternity is a meaningless distinction; the loss marks the realm and its inhabitants: “My armor shone / all morning, by nightfall it was blood and ash.” In other poems, tenderness is diminished by distance, left unarticulated, or refused entirely. “One time I tried to sit beside the Dowager,” the speaker says. “She stared / at me ‘til I got up and walked the long walk to the other end.” The poems of the Dowager, the Major General, and the members of Court contrast with the vitality of the Bandleader poems, establishing a dark-edged atmosphere in which light, when it arrives, is all the more astonishing.

Paradoxically, grief, like eroticism, serves as one of Rocket Fantastic’s engines of delight. The poem “The Sun Got All over Everything,” is set by a pool amongst sun-licked, lounging bodies and bougainvillea. To honor her mother, the speaker had made “a plan to cry all day.” It might seem, as the speaker notes, “like something I’d make up in a poem,” but what looks like affectation from one angle is sacred ritual from another, calling to mind, for example, the Jewish tradition of reciting a mourner’s prayer on the yahrzeit or anniversary of a loved one’s death. But the speaker’s plan is thwarted by beauty. The flaring California sun “made a mess of a day / that was supposed to be the worst / and lured me outside so I forgot her death entirely.” The light

Poured across the girls and slicked across
their Dior lenses. I put my tongue on it
exactly when I should have been tearing
at my clothes and lighting candles.

Having insisted on sorrow, the speaker changes tack with an emotional versatility that, like the sexual versatility of the Bandleader poems, adapts itself in the service of pleasure. This isn’t impudence or impiety; turning from loss toward literal light, the speaker still finds devotion.

Landor’s “Fiesolan Idyll,” ends on an ambivalent note. After the flower is refused:

She drew back
The boon she tender’d, and then, finding not
The ribbon at her waist to fix it in,
Dropp’d it, as loth to drop it, on the rest

No surprise, Rocket Fantastic also offers flowers. The penultimate poem, “In the Darkness of the House of Pleasure,” ends with the lines:

It matters to no one
That the bouquet was made

Of lemon balm, witch-hazel,
Of rosemary with its bluest

Flowers made manifest.
But I thought, my Lord.

And I thought
I would give anything.

The speaker’s attempt at pragmatic indifference lasts only as long as it takes to name a nosegay’s blossoms and is then abandoned. The making of something matters, and so does its offering, whether met with refusal or acceptance. In Rocket Fantastic, pleasure is hard-earned, a lifetime practice worth pursuing, leading to flares of joy. Despite the past, despite everything, the world has its way with us, kindling want. We’re near a shimmering pool in California or back on a hill in Fiesole seven hundred years ago, in good company, listening to stories as the sun sets, then rises.

Sam Ross's first book Company was selected by Carl Phillips for the Levis Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in 2019 from Four Way Books.