One might miss, in the exquisitely shapely poems of Brian Blanchfield’s second collection, A Several World, how frequently the poems’ brash dazzle gives way to wit. In the book’s second poem, “The City State,” for instance, one might still be reeling from the invocation of an expansive shopping list (“bone buttons, stronger cord or—what / more did you need?—hard rolls, then fish and flowers in / descending sectors”) when we get this quick exchange:
Remember answering machines? The gods,
be they pleased, of whichever specific needs, accommodating
singly. Barnaby, after the tone, this is the guy from the grove.
Peaches are in. Snap beans (ping in the bowl.). Good surprises
if you hike up into the higher coppices with me in mind.
“Anything worth having’s had both ways,” James Merrill wrote; the traveler’s amble in “The City State” recalls that poet’s—or Auden’s—arch poise, and in the lines above, even “singly” slices twice (the gods accommodate singularly, and their accommodations sing). Is such wit “mere,” compared to the common affectations of plainer speech? With Blanchfield’s quick-lit verse in mind, we could just as sensibly say it “mirrors”: peaches are in fashion and ready to receive a call; the hike happens while thinking of one and also wholly in two minds.
Thus, Blanchfield’s poems offer depth through compounded surfaces, which include many registers of the vulgate (“I squat on the fire escape for better connection,” the poem ends), as well as flat-out pleasures: we’re given the mythic pick-up of Barnaby on an obsolete device, and the good ping of beans. “Pick me up can also be as frequency and antennae do,” another poem points out; Blanchfield’s mirrorings, paced with stately flutter, pick up shades of humor that are sometimes absent in recent poetry of punchlines and small skits, our contemporary version of light verse. Blanchfield at times broaches such scenarios, as in the gameshow-peepshow conceit of “Man Roulette,” but his MacGuffins are richer than gimmick. “Why are we not told plainly? / What good as a booth is this, what booth if it be one?” Blanchfield writes. “The barometer is bottoming. This booth of / ours is an eye of the storm simulation.”
Still, one might miss, appreciating its humor, the book’s stylized (and appealingly stylish) intelligence, through which its poems can turn on linguistic self-consciousness (grass is described as “sort of Garamond, ornamental”) and gentle reorientations of genre. “Eclogue of Sig Alert on the Ten East” plays with the form of an interrogation. “Pferd” begins like an exhibition’s catalog—“Gift Swiss, holding American, art Italian / tradition Boeotian”—and concludes in a performative, touristic pose: “Did they tell you that in your audio tour?” Blanchfield’s inclination toward supersaturated phrasing can recall Hart Crane, who’s mentioned in the book’s promotional materials and in a poem, “Open House,” in which a couple visits a home they will not buy (“We came in here to pretend”). That’s a familiar situation from domestic fiction. Blanchfield refreshes it through his characteristic mash of mannerism, tenderness, and supple thought, inhabiting the empty genre. He writes, “We are two men / who can agree in murmurs there is no purchase / any more in Hart Crane, but we’d keep a room for him / called Eileen Myles.”
“Open House” can be read as a slice-of-life from contemporary culture, with its foreclosures and debts, with the ways in which a realtor, “helping us / to imagine a family outgrew the rooms,” might feel that “homosexuality / blows right into the sale of synthesis, and impresses, as if / we could explain.” But it’s also an ars poetica embedded in a life: “That’s not us, not any more. But, we keep a room for it,” the poem ends. Despite that phrase’s resignation, one feels that the poem’s imagination is abiding well; one also feels, despite what the poem claims, that this imagination keeps enough clean towels for both Myles and Crane.
Such cultural engagement is most acute in the book’s third section, “The History of Ideas, 1973-2012,” which is composed of poems titled with a big concept. Each poem is framed by an epigraph from The Dictionary of the History of Ideas and a concluding quotation. “Casuistry,” for example, begins with this epigraph: “Moral solutions to moral problems, so ‘situational ethics’ pleaded, must spring from the unrepeatable decisions of unrepeatable personalities in unrepeatable situations.” It concludes, from Alcoholics Anonymous: “A pigeon is someone who comes along just in time to keep her sponsor sober.” The poem between those quotes, like many in this section, follows a loosely memoiristic thread. “Loose” might be the wrong word, given the complex regard for knots in its first stanza, which offers a parable that could please Kafka:
It scarcely varies. You make a knot amateur and complex
and ask someone over to soak it and, before he leaves,
you pull it tighter than you might otherwise alone and
dry entirely, and then wait for disintegration, you wait
longer than you live, this way. Only then acknowledge
the mess of tether or lariat was never tied to you.
Blanchfield’s poems could be seen as comparable knots—affectionately crafted; alternating between the soak of style (“By what shade stain was left we told / aptitude”) and the dryness of wit, of reticence, of confession (“This is the best way I could think to have my arm around you”); on the edge of disintegration, which ends up offering complex clarification. “One’s apprehensive / approach can be determinative,” Blanchfield observes, which could serve as an articulation of this process, as could his triumphantly deliberate description of a tortoise pulling herself toward a strawberry. One should be glad to be a tortoise to the strawberry of A Several World. It’s been ten years since Blanchfield’s first book; the achievement of A Several World makes good on the wait.
Zach Savich is the author of four books of poetry, including Century Swept Brutal (Black Ocean, 2014). He teaches in the BFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of the Arts and co-edits Rescue Press's Open Prose Series.
A Several World
by Brian Blanchfield
Nightboat Books, 2014
$15.95 paperback; ISBN: 978-1-937658-17-5