Duane Esposito’s new book of poems Declaration for Your Bones is a slim, elegant volume easily read in one sitting, but you probably should be sitting. The best poems in the volume meet the high bar that Emily Dickinson set for poetry: they knock the top of your head off. The volume begins:
We’re a skull that cannot close
Around a brain of light—
The poems delve into the sedimented grief that one carries and brings into relationships with a spouse and then with children, and how that pain affects perspectives on the world and on politics. It often seems to make the contours of the world sharper and the desire for peace and justice more keen. It also makes it possible to utter difficult truths about our inability to attain such ideals.
The poems are mostly in couplets and tercets, apt forms for the declarations these poems make. The couplet is a coupling that is always trying to hinge what threatens to come apart. The couplets work to bridge “a common gash between us” or to heal it. The tercets, although never in formal terza rima, evoke Dante’s inferno and reinforce the sense of these poems as journeys into the dark wood and through the gates of hell toward an impossible love. Esposito writes, “Hope is our memory,” and, like Dante, he “abandons hope” and all its empty promises in a quest for something more sure and more real, even if that reality is secured by grief and loss. Many poems mix couplets and tercets. Where these two primary formal forces intermingle, they adumbrate the fundamental struggle these poems undertake. The triads trail off into couplets that then appear like triplets with a phantom limb, or else couplets bookend the triplets, trying to contain them and to hold in the sorrow. Not all the poems are in twos and threes, but Esposito’s penchant for these stanza forms makes most of the poems written in other numerations read like combinations of tercets and couplets. The formal uniformity emphasizes an underlying sense of entropy: a desire to bring things together and make them settle.
As the poet William Heyen states in his blurb on the back of the book, the collection is highly interrogative, an odd claim for a volume that bears the word “declaration” in its title. But Esposito’s questioning declares in the way that Rilke does. Like Rilke, whose specter is conjured in the book’s epigraph, Esposito cries out to the angels’ hierarchies in an attempt to gaze into the abyss and give an accounting of “all the words / we didn’t say / & all the words / we did.” If not declaration, then the book borders on prayer: the poems are confessions to a God that isn’t exactly there and to “all the angels…too thin for any common yielding.” For Esposito, a resurrection is nothing more than the quotidian act of waking up: “I rise / like everyone has risen before.” The enjambment’s forced descent undercuts the spiritual undertones and, at the same time, amplifies the heroics in the pedestrian act of getting up despite being fatigued and soul-weary. Dragging oneself out of bed—that daily rising—suggests the kind of gritty hope these poems supply. The residue of redemption remains in keeping going.
The poems are conversational, and sometimes this talkiness makes the meter go slack; more often, the metrics strung over taught lines give the voice a music that is at once plaintive and defiant. This tension lends gravitas to what otherwise feels notational:
& the trees are spiny. & the wind numbs.
& the sky’s unforgiving & blue.
& my body, too, goes down to the bones.
All of this, my love,
I’ve blamed on you—
down to your bones.
For some, the use of the ampersand reinforces the dashed-off, spoken quality; for others, it might get in the way and feel contrived. Either way, the poems offer many eccentric, offhanded insights like “My God, I hate ceilings.” The poems do not lack wit, although the jokes are usually sardonic, mellowed by a pervasive sorrow. Reading Declaration for Your Bones, one might recall Thoreau’s definition of composition in his essay “The Last Days of John Brown”: “The art of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle…. The one great rule of composition…is to speak the truth. This first, this second, this third.” Or, again, Dickinson’s line in a similar vein: “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—.” Esposito tends to make quick determinations in order to discharge words so that they declare things for what they are, even if it means exposing what we would rather not say or see.
Tim Wood is an associate professor of English at SUNY Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. He is co-editor of The Hip Hop Reader (Longman, 2008) and author of the book of poems Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX 2010).
Declaration for Your Bones
Yuganta Press, 2012
$10, ISBN: 978-0-938999-53-9