Last year was a tumultuous year for poetry. Two giants published articles lamenting poetry’s demise. Contemporary poets scratched their heads, banging out fiery responses. Yes, the literary world can be insular, particularly for poets, but it is staid only to those who willfully turn their attention to tired arguments of dying forms. One need only look to poets like John Gosslee and his recent book Blitzkrieg to find evidence of life. Here is a poet who reaches out, tries something new, and embraces textual hybridity.
The book begins with a reinterpretation of the term blitzkrieg as “a surprise artistic assault by massed electronic, air, sea and ground forces under close coordination.” With recent critical muttering, I wonder why Gosslee chooses a word and title with such violent connotations as “assault” when poetry naysayers see it as exactly that, but I get the idea. This poetry moves. This poetry gets in your face. No apologies.
Leading up to the central poem, “Portrait of an Inner Life,” and its story is a thirteen-poem non-narrative sequence that starts the embers. In “Summer,” Gosslee creates an image of humanity at play but enveloped in darkness: “a volley ball flies through the same air that fattens a sail / we stand outside with our mouths open like cups when it rains / kingdomless emperors parade into the night.” We are a desperate people.
Other titles in this section include “I Like to Look at Empty Things,” a six-line poem full of definite articles and the beauty of absence, and “A Water Can Sprays a Flowerbed City,” with one of the most memorable images of the collection in “I inhale and float up as if a balloon / mismatched flowers pivot on their stems to see.” The most striking poem of the opening series comes at the end. “Some People Watch it and Fall in Love Again” is constructed of lines pulled from earlier poems and transformed into a pivotal piece: “my torso heaves a cage full of birds in a tornado / I am like a dog roaming from yard to yard/ the thumb-nail-width left between two stars / she is the first person to look at me all night.” Such is the conundrum of contemporary life—we are global, we are one, we are piled on top of each other, and yet we do not see. Blitzkrieg holds a pervading sense of isolation, and this poem is the perfect setup for Gosslee’s life-changing “Portrait of an Inner Life.”
After the initial sequence comes the version of “Portrait of an Inner Life” originally published in Rattle, and what follows is a detailed account of the development of the poem—its creation, its initial rejection, and its eventual national publication and international acceptance. (It feels a little tedious and forbidden to see actual correspondence between writer and editor, but I believe that as writers we should share more of this. Outside our literary walls, the story of how poems and stories come to be is cloaked in mystery, which tends to feed the trolls.)
What I love most about this hybrid collection is its humble conception. Born of the paradox of his own frustration and comfort with solitude, Gosslee wrote the lead poem, “Portrait of an Inner Life,” in his poorly lit kitchen. After writing the third stanza, “the claw at the end / of a roar,” he said, “They were the most violent lines I had ever written. Then I saw they transcended my feelings in every way and had much larger implications than I could understand at one time.”
Inspired by the power of this compact poem, Gosslee decided to see how far he could take it. The rest of the book chronicles its journey. He had 2,000 stickers of the poem made and recruited volunteers to place and photograph them, in addition to having the poem illustrated by both Yumi Sakugawa and Scott Kirschner. He also crafted 100 glass bottles, placed copies of the poem inside them, and tossed them into waterways across the U.S.
I saw Gosslee’s poem outside a bar on Boylston at AWP last winter. The image stayed with me. Though I didn’t remember the words until I read Blitzkrieg, I will always see that poem with Gosslee's looped signature surrounded by snow on a street that would soon be rocked by bombs. That has to matter. I think of all those folks outside the halls of academia who’ve read the poem. I think of how the sticker will age and patina, how people will add words or images or tear pieces down. If this isn’t a real poet’s response to the naysaying mumblers, and if that’s not subversive, I don’t know what is.
Beth Gilstrap writes and hides in Charlotte, NC. Her work has appeared in Quiddity, The Minnesota Review, Pithead Chapel, and Ambit, among others.
By John Gosslee
Rain Mountain Press, November 2013
$10.00 paperback, ISBN: 9780989705110