In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novella La Jalousie (1957), the unnamed narrator, whose presence is delineated only by the arrangement of exterior objects, relays his observations from behind a slatted window. Meticulous attention is paid to every nuance of gesture and tone in an intimate relationship, thus producing a composite portrait of an environment. No drastic event occurs but the robotic details of human behavior are revealed for their immense importance as the signifiers of emotion. Marc Rahe’s recent poetry collection, The Smaller Half, operates in much the same manner, but with one difference: the speaker’s shrewd surveillance is part of a human warmth that suffuses the entire collection. Suspicion of self-effacement can be found in "Screen," a poem that deals with the ambiguity of television and how it affects one’s spatial awareness, both as a technology and a reflective device:
I’ve been in the hallway, the other rooms.
I’ve looked behind the shower curtain
I’m alone. It’s just me---
Like me and a video of me.
I don’t trust my image on the screen
bent and distant at the edges.
The final couplet rejects the idea of being at the margins of the world. The second self only appears as "the haze in the corner of my eye/I disappear wherever I look." In contrast, the speaker of many poems in The Smaller Half occupies the quiet locus of his environment, often silent, always watchful. He tracks the slow inching of weather fronts, extreme heat and rigid ice. He gives equal attention to domestic settings and external environment, often blending the spatial differences of the two, as shown in "Infinity’s Grains": the "[g]reen light of the vinyl interior moves on through the urban light haze…street lights, on-coming headlights/interrupt the green with choices."
The poem "Late" concludes with the line, "…sometimes when I’m waiting I get patient." This statement (and this poem) is, quite possibly, an opening into Rahe’s work. Once composure is attained, and "gloves [are raised] to music," a stoplight casting its rays across a December evening can be described. Then, the shifting tones of what it inspires: "Doesn’t a white, white snow/turn to spring flood?/Can’t a blue horizon fill with warning?" In other poems, the state of suspension itself is evoked—the "way your heart/likes your predicament/It beats faster/as if to arrive" ("There Are Cabs That Will Come Too Late"). A pale Iowa sky is restrained by smoke and branches in "Stories": "There was a house/In the house were rooms/with tooth marks on the edge/where stories come from." Often, there is a silence wherein anything can fall: "the sound of a zombie-dragged foot" ("Felix’s Helix"), children who "pendulum" on swings in the muffling snow, mirrored by a wheelchair lift that holds the rider in stasis for a brief moment ("Earthbound"). These junctures are, at times, a site of discomfort, unannounced yet expected.
In this shaded edge of the parking lot
all the traffic moves behind
me where I sit
in the passenger seat and practice
reading the contents of an empty
soda bottle. This is a kind
of patience—anxious, self-conscious
waiting while another runs my errand.
But arthritis makes a needy pet
from the humidity, a young pet eager
to play about my knees. ("Quality of Life")
In "Linen," a reflective process is triggered by immobility, the fugue state between sleeping and waking "[i]n the bluish TV light of three o’clock/sound all the way down, morphine/inches of freshly staples incisions/on each hip." The witty and sardonic "America" recounts a hospital stay—"the hours of the days/with—what would you call them?/Roommates? Bed-neighbors?" shouting periodically at Fox News. Turning to pensiveness, the speaker reflects that, "America" itself is "some activity in the basolateral amygdala"—imagined, aggrandized through image and idea, and, "[g]iven the inalienable, what imagining/is equal to the distance between/the imagined and the unlearned."
This heightened observance also catches others in the act of looking; for example, another man in "Nice Ass" whose ogling is unsophisticated, "a statement on slowness/I could judge him for." The speaker of "Sleepless" turns the dial of his alarm "a little farther" to signal to the coughing neighbor next door: "I want to tell you I am here." Inscribing a presence in the world is an act that recurs throughout these poems: "…I am naked/in the Swedish snow/poised to dive/like a quick bear into the river" ("Ice Hotel") and, in perhaps the most memorable example:
How the stretch is not yet a yawn
but yawn becoming.
The stretch flexes me.
Hewn for breaking,
I’m the smaller half
of thirty seconds begging wind. ("Outstretched")
It is other objects (and subjects) that seem to dissolve into the periphery:
Last night I walked you like my shadow through
Pool rooms, through bars. ("Affair")
As noted, in a similar way to Robbe-Grillet’s work, people in The Smaller Half are studied for their movements—the way they carry drinks, move their bodies like "a separate thing/to take care of" ("In the Patio Chair"). Rahe’s compassionate gaze settles on the boy who is "so little/and could become almost anyone" ("Hangover at the Family Dinner"). It takes effect in the beautiful poem "Mermaid Tank" when the speaker says "I could be seen/observing their bubbles/for signs of damage," and how "[t]heirs was salt water like my tears/My tears were still in me." The short lyric "Summer" displays empathy to an even greater extent:
Always I notice the entrance to homes
where a wheelchair couldn’t go.
They are the shoulders of these houses
raised in apology.
As if they couldn’t help
But to offend. As if to say:
It is how we were made.
Rahe’s poems occur in the sensual everyday life—eating, smoking, patroling the grid of a small town. Vivid snapshots rear up from the page; in "Parade of Homes," a small boy of indeterminate age ("a green rope of summers/coiled here and there about the house") suspends his arms in the air "after the [garage] door has left his reach." In "Wife," a pair of "brown oval knees/are dear and sad." A stolen piece of "birch bark strip" ("Two Way") rests in prickly guilt in a pocket; shapes moving beneath the eyelid are "a skittering of night insects" ("Four in the Morning").
We are invited to view a pattern that gathers perspective into tight sentences:
I’m in the cantina, the bottles
behind the bar a skyline
on the horizon. The skyline
repeated in the mirror:
the edge of the town I’m in.
The view out of town
is tables, floorboards,
me at the player piano,
looking at myself over my shoulder,
my fingers aggressing the ivory.
The view out of town
is the dusty plain. ("Ghost Town")
Notice the amassing of images: bottles to skyline to a double skyline to the mirror which focuses the eye, leads it from interior to exterior through the eyes of the figure reflected back at itself, over and over, towards a Midwest summer expanse, floorboards easing into arid field. These gentle methodical building blocks are a feature of Rahe’s poems; as shown in "After a Disappointment," which exquisitely renders the chill of unwanted sadness:
The garage is without siding in the snow
The night is a garage under construction
The roof is only barely finished
The sky is black like the roof
The sky is orange over the city
where you walk […]
Details are perceived in order to draw the mind away from the pain at its center; the melting snowflakes on the arm change from star-like to "becoming milky […] The roof is black covered in white/driven by wind alone." Both the poem and its subject are multiform. The narrative merges as black into orange while the speaker walks through a dying day, in a full circle to conclude that "The garage/will contain several forgotten items." Not "does" but "will." This choice of verb compliments the unbrokenness of the piece itself which enacts a recognition of the event, and a measure of control. Many of Rahe’s poems contain this kind of delicate unfolding. We are prompted to read them several times, to absorb the intent of each word-choice, and the cadence and rhythm it produces:
Minutes my mind tends to else,
to work ahead and wishes behind. ("Crush Minutes")
Pretty much in your head
missing colors—blond, peach—
rest, froth in the ridges.
Not invisible but in a lightless
area nets bulge in current. ("Split Screen")
The Smaller Half is a blend of humor, sensibility, and the sharpness of life’s tribulations. The image of the "simple man in galoshes" creating a journey’s-worth of snow angels for passing motorists on a winter’s day ("Drunken Errand") is as enduring as the poignant "Dry Spell":
I catch someone looking eager
for me to damage my want
so I won’t have it.
Let me show you some things
so you won’t look at me.
These poems, on the other hand, demand to be read in depth. Once again, the innovative Rescue Press shows good judgment in its choice of contemporary poetic voices.
Jane Lewty is assistant professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of Amsterdam. She holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow (2003) and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2009). Her poetry can be found in Versal, Moria, Dear Sir, Cricket Online Review, Volt, Blazevox, and others. She has also co-edited two essay collections: Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009) and Pornotopias: Image, Apocalypse, Desire from Litteraria Pragensia, who are issuing her chapbook later this year. She is currently a co-editor of VLAK magazine.
The Smaller Half
Rescue Press, 2010
Paperback ISBN: 9780984488902