Broc Rossell’s debut book of poetry, Festival, starts with an Oppenesque pronouncement that could be read as an ars poetica:
It becomes necessary to live
Which if impossible
Are predicated on that definition
And therefore open
The same way I open to what’s
Nested in the white tree
These lines offer an opening in several senses. There’s Rossell’s refreshingly measured phrasing; in contrast with lineation that aspires to dismissible skimming, the quickest transmission of a pose, Rossell’s lines ask to be read as lines, each weighted with a lure at its end. Their music is compelling—note the scansion’s shifting three-beat dance—in part because it serves ambitious sense: the first line’s proclamation is almost ridiculously vast, yet it orients as swiftly as Milton’s “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit.” The stakes are clear: one is brought to such a statement, asserting the necessity of living, after other attempts at living have failed. The next line qualifies this scope without diminishing it, the “ways” becoming “the same way” through twisty yet sensible phrasing that recalls the patient restlessness of Carl Phillips, the glide and snap in Niedecker.
These lines invoke an ambiguous “what’s” within a precise “white tree.” Throughout Festival, Rossell is similarly receptive to the roosting of the seemingly inapparent within landscape, objects, and ideas. He often strips a perception—or mutes the perceiving self—to bare a better canvas. “Take my clothes / make me the world,” he writes, showing a characteristic interplay between relinquishing possessions and inviting possession. This relinquishing permits consolations, which in Rossell’s work are often a half-glance from revelation: “I always seem to be able to keep a desk / or a plank for a desk / or forage in the alley for fruit,” he writes. That fruit comes back later. Its sustenance is in the melons, each “like a note from the Diabelli Variations,” that the speaker sells until “lurch-sailing through a thorny crowd / and home with a truck bed of melons”; Rossell’s windfall acceptance includes returning home with his wares, their sustained noun. And, beautifully, there’s related fruit in his prayer “for an apple crown / in apple country.” Forget scarcity: here is a harvest of unsimple abundance, a request to be presented, royally, with the fruit that’s most present in the landscape.
Rossell’s poems often emerge into such present particulars after contending with the depletions of darkness. They leave the “suburb / of my language / and my light,” readying for unsettling rituals in which “impenetrable / darkness gives birth to joy.” This lessening, intent on how a flashlight’s narrowed beam can guide descent, requires more than description. “Figuration hurts” and will not be enough; similarly, “the elegy” must “forswear incident,” that narrative diversion, in favor of “the color of a dress.” Let that color last, the poem suggests, more than what the dead did, their names and dates. Rather than preserving a perception—resurrecting it in a poem—such moments suggest the compassionate regard with which one might walk the resurrected calmly into an afternoon. “The kid slips in the door,” another poem cuts off, abruptly; I’m with the kid, whoever she is, in the suspense of that instant. Another ends: “I find myself speaking / I have a cup in my hand / And someone gives me some thing,” a final phrase that, in disavowing precise figuration, precise incidentals, favors the act of gifting. The gift, it suggests, may be one’s own hand.
It may also be one’s surroundings. In Rossell’s work, the hinge of “there is” at once identifies where and what one is. “There is my first bicycle. There is my mother. There is the coyote, red as cinnabar and tall as a Shetland pony, cresting over the wall into the flood canal,” he writes in one poem. This metamorphic identification extends into another poem’s tender queries (“Are you safe // Have you had enough to eat // How is your family”), suggesting that courtesy can be a form of compassion, that it can be clement to “have something to give” and to “give it / like a thing / apart.” The ease in these perceptions is hard-won. At some points, the process of standing to attention—of attending to “what’s,” to what “there is”—leads to dissociative states (“I wakes, I trails fish scales”) that take their toll (“it took Jack Daniels to make that tree recognize me. I don’t think it was cheap”). Elsewhere, seven knotty lines of riddle are solved by a graceful phrase: “An early afternoon in California.” But the resin of the riddle remains.
In the urgency of naming (“this is a meteor / and that is the sky”), Rossell’s poetry simultaneously celebrates the world and reveals the ways in which attempting to fix life in language, to hold it against loss, can ever only be partial. This dual impact recalls works of expansive catalogue, such as Inger Christensen’s Alphabet and Juliana Spahr’s This connection of everyone with lungs, though Rossell’s writing is admirably compacted. Its concern, ultimately, is ethical. “You are more real than my this is,” Rossell writes, showing a motive that exceeds simple depiction; you are “the aperture of my blind spot.” More than swivel on the idiom of “apple of my eye,” this phrase illuminates that another, regarded with care in the midst of darkness, can lead one toward the real. “I feel the warm day become real when you do,” Rossell writes. This intimation of the world’s reality leads to unrulier identification, both empathetic and troubled by presiding absences: “I am a trucker’s wife humming a tune. I am a white bear at the window. There is no moon.”
Festival offers this experience in mixed, untitled lyrical forms counterpointed with black-and-white images by Aaron Cardella. Cardella’s art brings to mind both medical imaging and the incidental, interstellar facial shapes found in burnished surfaces; they help the book seem neither book-length poem nor contained sequence but something more variegated and fibrous, a project that accommodates more than it says. “Do they answer to it,” Rossell asks at one point. This “it” isn’t defined—though one might rightly remember the “it” of the opening line—yet it summons the questions at the heart of the book: how do we answer to darkness, to the infinite, to our own precise and thus precisely passing perceptions, while caring, as tenderly as we do for ourselves, for the things and people that surround us? Rossell’s work doesn’t answer these questions, but, movingly, it answers to them.
Zach Savich’s fifth book of poetry is The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn). He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
by Broc Rossell
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, May 2015
$15.95; ISBN: 9780986025785