Paper Radio, by Damian Rogers
Reviewed by Alessandro Porco
I begin with a confession. Reading through the opening section of Damian Rogers’s debut book of poems, Paper Radio (ECW Press, 2009), I thought, this is interesting but I’m just not getting it. Everything seemed ho-hum, a little too clean — “seemed” being the operative word. I thought, she’s certainly capable of some striking images and suggestive lines, lines that prompt a double-take every now and then: “The house is burning down / and I am thinking of boats,” for example, from the poem “Redbird.”
I couldn’t seem to tap into Rogers’s frequency, and I nearly gave up hope. Sometimes, like two people on a blind date (each with their respective charms and tastes and each vouched for by a third party), a poet and reader don’t make that ideal love connection. It’s nobody’s fault really. All changed when I got to the final poem in that opening section: “Running Along Ontario.” All of a sudden, the blind date I couldn’t wait to end became the girl of my dreams (to push the blind-date analogy along to its conclusion).
Ostensibly, “Running Along Ontario” is just what the title suggests: four poems centered around running — that is, what we see, contemplate, and recall as we run, as well as the toll such an activity takes on the body. Of course, running has metaphorical connotations at play, too, in the sequence, i.e. the things, feelings, and people we run to or from in our lives, for better or worse. But there’s also the idea of running away with one’s imagination, though always reigning that imagination in via the real embodied experience, one foot after another jolting forward. But what’s most appealing about the sequence is Rogers’s desire to catalogue everything. There’s an complete and utter insatiability at work in the poem.
Her eyes are propelled by her feet, and vice versa. She takes stock of the world but also, reflexively and refreshingly, her own way (or waywardness) in it: “When I run, it’s as if a rusted lock has unlatched. / My feet lose their rhythm on the pavement.” One gets the sense that Rogers is talking about a whole lot more than just coordination here, especially since that same section begins, “I have a gift for crying, a talent I’m wired for.”
Later in the poem, you get this rather macabre passage: “A whole tree trunk rolls back and forth in the shallows / like the body of a woman floating on her back. / I want to drag it out of the water and take it home.” There’s even a dream vision: “I remember a dream of whales beaching their bodies on sand / like men tossing themselves off bridges or buildings. / As if death were as simple as surrendering to another element.” In each verse paragraph, Rogers takes an image, an idea, or a conceit and “turns [it] back on itself.” The mannered accumulations and digressions have, ultimately, an effect of breathlessness. Yet she’s able to counterbalance that with stabilizing, pithy remarks such as “The world has no corners, / though everything we build in it does.” (Those might be two of my favorite lines of Canadian poetry in recent years.)
“Running Along Ontario” gave me cause to reread the opening section in toto. In doing so, I was ready to tune into Rogers’s dial, to enjoy the cutting sensibility just below her tranquil surface. “The Brass Bell,” for example, is a deft ekphrastic consideration of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The poem begins with an aesthetic appreciation (“Cocteau’s Beauty glides / in silver-screen brilliance / down a river of light”), followed by an unconcealing of the “trick” which produces the punning Beauty the speaker so admires (“her ball gown conceals / roller skates. / An off-camera push / and she floats along singing.”) But by the poem’s mid-point, the speaker turns away from cinematic description and analysis. Here, appropriately, sound displaces image (“her voice is a brass bell ringing”); memory displaces actuality (“the way I remember it”); and, lastly, the film’s fictional characters give way to the speaker and her lover. What follows is a startlingly accurate, if bleak, appraisal of love: that is, while we can recognize and ignore the tricks or formal machinations at work in the magic of movie-making, such tricks or secrets are far more difficult to accept when it comes to the intimate relationship between two people: “Your bed vibrates with the secrets / you keep sealed inside your skin.”
“A Great Happiness Awaits” is just as satisfying as, if not better than, “The Brass Bell.” Both poems adopt and undercut the fairytale. In the sixteen lines of “A Great Happiness Awaits,” Rogers is able to tell a rather moving tale, which begins on a “brushstroke road” — here, Rogers’s original and suggestive adjective tips readers that this is all artifice and that we ain’t exactly in Kansas anymore.
At the same time, there’s a realism of feeling. The pastoral idealism of “the smell of an orchard in bloom” is quickly transformed into something visceral and vicious: [the smell] hits her in the chest / like an open hand.” The story is “simple,” as Rogers writes: “[The young girl] loves a man / who is married to another, / one who wishes that she dry up / and crumble like an autumn leaf.” Rogers explains the situation matter-of-factly. But she doesn’t conclude the poem with any trite moral lesson or psychologizing of the young girl; that’d be too easy and Rogers is way too good for that. She writes, instead, “There will be plums. / There will be a white pillow beneath her head. / There will be things worth writing down.” At first, I thought these lines open the poem up to some potential yet still unknown future; in other words, this early, difficult love will not define or cripple the young girl in years to come. But upon reflection, I think Rogers is, in fact, skipping ahead to the end of that girl’s life (the autumn leaf image does a little foreshadowing in this case). At death’s door, the desire to recall first love (“things worth writing down”) — as wet and sensuous as a “plum” — and to record and share its power (“writing”) is more important than ever.
Paper Radio is divided into three sections. I’m going to jump ahead to the third section, “Red Thread,” which, like section one, gathers various discrete lyrics together. The third section’s poems are connected insofar as they deal with nostalgia and disappointment, teen angst and rebellion, young love and sexual awakenings — in other words, the often difficult transformation from innocence to experience. Some of these poems read like mini-John Hughes flicks but with a more libidinal and intellectual urban edge, and I mean that description as nothing but the highest compliment; or, perhaps it’s better to say Rogers infuses her poems with a pop lyrical touch, yet she does so without making her work saccharine. For example, consider these lines from “Drugs for Girls”: “I’ve lived all over the world, I’ve left every place / pyramid winds and diamond rains slaking the sphinx” — the emotive plain talk of the first line is redoubled and busted open by the adjectival richness and exotic atmospherics of the second line. This is great stuff.
Rogers also displays a nice range in terms of form (a villanelle, rhymed couplets) and genre (biography, carpe diem, manifesto). But what’s most important is that there’s an attitudinal boisterousness to the poems in the final section: the speakers are rough and tumble — they’re willing to let loose, to be aggressive, to be sexually forward and emotionally open. They rejoice, they suffer. They win some and lose some. Sometimes, the poem’s speaker can be awe-inspiring (as in “Honor Roll-Student Drunk at Pep Rally,” when the ugly duckling turns sexy beastess); other times, the poem’s speaker recreates cringe worthy and authentic moments of awkwardness (as in the finale of “Don’t Look).
And if section one of Paper Radio, especially with a poem like “Running Along Ontario,” presents a poetics of insatiability, then in section three Rogers shows cool — sometimes ironic — restraint. For example, there’s the very Ashbery-like opening lines from “Biography”: “This is not my story. / Odds are good it’s not yours either.” But the best example of this restraint is the very moving “A Man on A Motorcycle.” The poem’s spare and direct rhymed couplets, in addition to its adopted perspective of the young child in relation to the eponymous myster man (“His face is a smudge but he knows your first name”), generate the poem’s pathos and, oddly, its unexpected sinister atmosphere.
I’ll admit that the middle-section of the book, a sequence titled “Dreams of the Last Shaker,” didn’t excite me as much as the first and third section. As Rogers explains in her notes, “The Shakers were a religious group founded by Anne Lee, a factory worker and mother of five children who all died, in the late eighteenth century in Northern England. The group called themselves the United Society of Believers, though outsiders dubbed them ‘Shaking Quakers’ or ‘Shakers’ due to their practice of ecstatic dance during worship.” Rogers adds that “the Shakers flourished in the mid-nineteenth century and at one time were considered the most prosperous and successful utopian experiment of its kind in North America.” This history of the Shakers is fascinating yet that fascinating quality doesn’t always translate into the sequence or a compelling dramatic figure. But there are certainly a few fantastic single poems, such as “Milk and Honey” (with its revision of genesis), “Sundown” (a critique of our complicity in continued destructive behavior), “The Era of Manifestations” (a song of devotion), and especially the perfectly chiseled, Creeley-esque existential minimalism of “The Hole” — one of the book’s many standout poems:
of this small
Eat it up
Paper Radio is a remarkable debut, and Damian Rogers is a poet I look forward to reading as she continues forth into future projects. She has a “brushstroke” touch with words. That stroke is most potent, though, when it gets a little bit unruly, even cheeky. More than anything else, Rogers “[turns] our eyes inward / toward our dearest lies.” One can’t ask for more.