Touch Wood. By Albert Mobilio. Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Press. 87 pp., $14.00
The poems of Albert Mobilio’s Touch Wood remind me of a review I once read of Pavement’s first album, Slanted and Enchanted. The songs—and here I paraphrase—were like listening to a distant broadcast of a Buddy Holly tune, the music barely coming through the intermittent bursts of static. In a similar way, Mobilio’s poems delight in their clamor, even as snippets of the contemporary poetic equivalent of pop songs—narrative, autobiography, confession—whisper through the discordance: “standing: we was nearly lifelike, / even in the close-ups but how // things modify & where / the middle goes / when the edges fade” (“Conditional Tense”). Here one might misread “middle goes” as “middle age” after the deft Berrymanesque ventriloquism of “we was nearly lifelike.” Even without the misreading, the poem’s pathos peeks through the cracks in the minimalist lines, especially in its last stanza, which plucks the heartstrings like a pop song’s hook: “quick swigs, stars / on the radio, our body / an anchor amid seas.”
On the cover of this sharply designed book, Mobilio’s name in a modern sans serif typeface stands in stark contrast to the cover art, a piece of wood seemingly ink-stamped in place, overlaying marks etched into the paint of the canvas. The book wholeheartedly engages such binaries and implicitly reinforces the old saw (pardon the pun) that good poetry is a poetry of tension—here, between signal and noise, mainstream and avant-garde, intimacy and distance. So even when the poems go a little heart-on-sleeve, they challenge one to navigate their indirections and opacities by focusing attention on the poem’s moving parts, how words and lines fit together like gears. They enact, in short, William Carlos Williams’s assertion that poems are machines made of words:
pillar then pedestal amp; yes
you want to be saved, not tossed
off, left to wrecks:
wheel’s teeth per inch;
wordage over blood pressure;
speed at which cylinders spin;
or nickels enough to fill
his fist, then hers, then how
many times clenched
makes revolution happen,
revolving doors stop. (“Touch Wood”)
As seen in this excerpt from the title poem, each line, word, and phrase latches on to the next with a particular speed and efficiency. But unlike the poems of Italian Futurism, which such adjectives may conjure, the mechanisms of Mobilio’s poems have a grime or grit to them, often conveyed in the stutter of a linebreak; they oscillate between not wanting to be “tossed / off, left to wrecks” and “want[ing] to be saved.”
The play of tensions may be most clearly seen in Touch Wood’s very different back-to-back sequences, “The Spelled Out Spark in Rooms” and “Letters From Mayhem.” The former presents Mobilio at his most clear—and, one might say, accessible. Here the signal to noise ratio tips toward scientific precision, each section of the nine-part sequence charting the transmutation of light to sight. More interestingly, and in a similar way as Sarah O’Brien does throughout her seeing-eye meditation Catch Light, “The Spelled Out Spark” invests the seen with a measure of the (transcendent) unseen:
The mind’s eye begins with atmosphere & islets
of dust. Sorts out the various
kinds of dark—the blue-black of casual doom,
the humid shade collecting under bridges
or the charcoal hue that settles
in hospital rooms after visiting hours. Beamish
to lusterless, satellite to blacktop’s skid.
Every fleck a sun, every sun a dial to be turned—
If “The Spelled Out Spark” portrays the poem-machine at its most well-oiled, “Letters from Mayhem” portrays the poem as a contraption whose sometimes disconnected parts pound out a lovely discordance. Headed by a quotation from Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”—“His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees”—“Mayhem” is itself a kind of manual alphabet. The twenty-six section titles are an abecedary, beginning with “amen)” and ending with “zeroing in).” In contrast with the previous sequence, “Mayhem” approaches its subject matter at much more of a slant, focusing greater attention on the movement of language itself, a movement seemingly—seemingly—obfuscating a deeper confessional impetus. “[E]verything is difficult,” begins “zeroing in)”, “as / I am driven by purely // directional noise but cannot match / sensation with acts.” “I’ve been with her / on roofs and on the high rocks,” ends “effable).” “Wind ballooning // our skinny jackets, the moonlight / gone dirty through our tears.”
Thematically, Mobilio is often concerned with just how, as the title poem says, “we lay down housed, / our animal griefs / intact inside such labor.” He is interested in the parts we play—how we construct and are constructed, the self being some off-kilter conjunction of the two—reminding one, perhaps, of Yeats’ consideration of mask and face. We are “lincoln logs,” both “Touch Wood” the poem and Touch Wood the book suggest—the house and that which is housed. Even as the apparently authentic face shines through the artifice, Mobilio asks, does it not become just another aspect of the mask, as poetic transparency is another level of the poem’s artifice? The poet engages these issues of the authentic and the artificial in motifs of robots and constructed identities, as in these “Lady Lazarus”-like stanzas from “Circuit Breaks”:
by purest antiquity
I’m quite the choked-up hoax
My arms inclined to climb
so physical to physical
enough to rub within
It’s dubious, this creature’s
stumbling fate: denial is
Here Mobilio ultimately equates the machine of the poem, “a prisoner’s / lyre,” with the “hoax” the speaker feels he is performing. In its play of modernist precision and postmodernist fuzzy math, Touch Wood often equates the latter with an interiority unavailable publicly—a prisoner, housed. Unavailable, that is, except through the noise of lyric poetry, which here both transmits the signal and conveys the ways that interiority comes into the shared world distorted by language. It is when one accepts the inevitability of this distortion, these poems suggest, that one may see the possibility of beauty in it as well:
Semi-private, semi-circling thoughts,
the season seeps beneath my hat
A head full of clauses when you
talk as if stirring a drink
with your tongue
We’re mixing at the mixer
Our brilliant bits ignite (“Social Struggle”)
In the end, we are not just “semi-private, semi-circling thoughts”; that interiority should rather be seen as part of the complex situations we are nested within, “mixing at the mixer.” For Mobilio, we are not unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, caught in Modern Times’s factory machinery, both humorously and tragically. Yet the poet goes a step further: we are not just caught in the machine, we are of it. This is less a critique than a realization, for the poem is the machine in microcosm, and the poem, in its tensions, may be as beautiful as it is awful. As such it may also enable a certain acceptance of the rightness of the situation—an acceptance which is also a transcendence:
the whole of it is winged, this science
of speaking about large things
you do it by letting likeness creep in,
makes me resemble you &
the other way round & it’s goodbye
to truth (“The Whole of It is Winged”)
With Mobilio, it is poetry itself—as a pocket-sized measure of our world’s large things, its awful tensions and awful beauties—that may somehow save us. “[E]ach of us flat against the glass,” the poet writes in “Despite Which Slid,” “the glass against / this cartesian forest in which we play / the stranger overly // delighted by our strangeness.” Not “his” or “her” strangeness, but “our” strangeness. As a whole, the poems of Touch Wood ultimately pray: may we always be so delighted.
Besides appearing in The Quarterly Conversation, Andy Frazee’s book reviews and criticism appear in the Kenyon Review, Verse, and elsewhere. His first book of poetry, The Body, The Rooms, was selected by Ruth Ellen Kocher as winner of the Subito Press book contest, and published earlier this year. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
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