Foiled Again, by J. Allyn Rosser
Reviewed by Michael Goodfellow
Allyn Rosser’s manuscript won the 2007 Poetry Prize run by The New Criterion and has just been published as Foiled Again. The prize favours formal poetry, and while partially formal, Rosser’s poems are often long-lined, multi-page, and free verse. The poems take small segments of everyday occurrences and focus them to an incredible degree. While a focused image may look unrecognizable and blank up close, in all these blank places she imagines emotions and thoughts and occurrences, then zooms out and talks about what we cannot see anymore but is still there. So her poems are concerned with the imagined interiority of things. They are also concerned with definitions of inversion: looking into the self, and separately, seeing things outside oneself rearranged.
Rosser’s speakers imagine the interiority of things in a way that reforms the speaker’s exterior world and indeed the speaker’s self. This happens in the poem Eastern Box when the speaker, driving along, sees a turtle in the road. The speaker stops the car and picks it up, saying “The shell was smooth / and dark and hard, with blazing / yellow bird’s-head glyphs / in perfect symmetry skirting the dome. / It was a high, gleaming dome, / arched in mad exaggeration […] I kept standing there until / my whole body formed a question, / my future emptied for what might / now fill and direct it, my sometime / soul, my mind, open wide, prepared.” The turtle’s shell looks like the world, and so the sky arches in the same way as the shell, and the speaker’s body in kind. In Municipal Playground, the action is similar: a human is picking up and examining something from the natural world. But this time, the speaker of the poem observes the examiner. The speaker imagines the thoughts of a schoolgirl and the beetle she is holding: “‘I must show this bug to that boy,’ / she says of a sulking preadolescent […] He is the wrong boy. / The beetle, sensing danger, flies off […] probably wanting his mom to make him lunch.” The speaker does more than imagine the thoughts of the examiner, she goes further to imagine the thoughts of the beetle being examined. Rather than moving toward imaginings of the outward world, as in Eastern Box, Municipal Playground moves to imagining further inward realms in others; the poem continues: “[…] probably wanting his mom to make him lunch, / we decide, heading for the car, / but the boy has noticed her glances, […] He waits / and will be there again tomorrow / or next week, and she will approach / with her wistful only-child smile, / her delighting eyes, / to show him something else.”
While Rossers’s imagined interiors can be ominous, she uses inversion to ask dark questions about people looking into themselves, as in The Scent of Rat Rubs Off, where “Once again you’ve fallen for the lure / of his deference, his quick eyes’ brightness / slinking from the pantry of the righteous […] He’ll double back, affect to be concerned / when he’s the secret reason you’re bereft, / embracing you with his Houdini hold, / repeating chewed-off bits of what you say / so he seems loyal, you the turncoat jay. / You’d think by now you’d learn to be consoled / to know the soul he sold’s not yours but his, / though where yours was a hollow feeling is.” In other cases, the inversion involves the speaker’s perception of a disordered and threatening world. This happens in China Map, which seems to be a snipped rewriting of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market: “when he stopped me with a smile / that just turned me upside down: / gold caps on one side, gaps on the other.” And also in the glowing centre of a diamond that is not as it should look like, showing a love that is not anything: “even diamonds are not shaped like diamonds, / and hearts.” The poems describe these questioning gazes, both inward and at the outside world, without providing answers: “Someone will be first and someone / last in the race, there will be a replay of the finish / but not of the start, you’d think it would tell us / something, never ever of the start.”
The above are some of the more brooding poems in the book, but there are a number about the speaker’s children, and playful observations of street kids. I have a hard time finding poems about parents loving their children stimulating, but perhaps I prefer non-familial or what I would call “horizontal” emotion in poems, rather than the “vertical” emotions in poems about family members. I find the book to be inconsistent in emotional intensity and in the kinds of emotions. This may be because many of the poems are long and narrative; at least I find them so, often at two or three pages and without stanzas. The shortest poems in the book are among the best and most emotional, such as The Scent of Rat Rubs Off, and also the first, breathless, poem in the collection, a sonnet called Fourteen Final Lines that is a list of enchanting end-stopped phrases: “[…] Some toxins will not drain except by tears. / The monkey throws his feces as he swings. / In heroes, it’s the flaw that most endears.” The book is worth buying if only for this poem alone.