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Yellowrocket, by Todd Boss. W.W. Norton & Company. $23.95.
In Pursuit of an Echo 062409 AE 2 Poetry Media Services Yellowrocket, by Todd Boss. W.W. Norton & Company. $23.95.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Story last updated at 6/24/2009 - 10:47 am

In Pursuit of an Echo
Todd Boss's new poetry collection depends on rhythmic invention

Yellowrocket, by Todd Boss. W.W. Norton & Company. $23.95.

Early in his first book, in the midst of comparing the sound of an incoming cyclone to the sound of a nearing commuter train, Todd Boss reflects on his quotidian approach to terror:

Queer,

to compare a work of nature to so

tame a thing as steel wheels riding parallel rails,

but isn't that how terror assails us: by masquerading

its powers as everyday things, spinning clouds

into funnels, towers into tunnels?

- From "Not Crash, Nor Roar"

The queerness of the comparison stands only if we accept the comfort of the everyday, if we really feel at home on our morning commute. Personally, I can't believe that any imagination jarred by art could uphold the dialectic between domesticity and disaster very long - even for the sake of art. Happily, Boss's best poems present a more nuanced view of daily life, where terror doesn't lurk behind every curtain but inheres with the passage of time:

One can even miss

the basso boom

of the ocean's

rumpus room

and its rhythm.

A man can leave

this earth

and take nothing

- not even

longing - along

with him.

- From "One Can Miss Mountains"

The way this poem simultaneously celebrates existence and mourns its insufficiency brings to mind Randall Jarrell's observation that "The ways we miss our lives are life." Boss's elegy expresses loss most sharply through its various delights, from the word "rumpus" to that final, quirky rhyme. As with the colors and cadences of the world itself, the poem's pleasures remind us how much we have to lose.

About half of the poems in Yellowrocket contain the acoustical energy and plain-spoken wisdom of "One Can Miss Mountains" (I would be remiss not to suggest the primary influence of Kay Ryan). Many of the other poems, however, filled with flat stanzas like -

God wrote a poem about me,

which should have been flattering,

but He let me read it,

and it was awful

- From "Worst Work"

- should have been omitted from the book. The longish title poem, "Yellowrocket," a recounting of Boss's family history on a Wisconsin farm, stands out as an impressive mixture of narrative and lyric compression. At the end of the poem, the speaker's emotional ambivalence about his family's history is enacted through the discovery of an off rhyme, which - like the uprooting of a beautiful weed - pleases and unsettles in equal measure:

Call it love,

but if you call it love,

call it a love that

persisted, that

stained the palms

and reeked when

you pulled it,

like yellowrocket.

Precisely because of its compression, poetry like this demands constant rhythmic invention to avoid sounding overdetermined, like a nursery rhyme. To my ear, "Yellowrocket" is almost spoiled in the preceding three stanzas when Boss's rhyme-generated syntax becomes pat:

the otherwordly lull

of the breeze in our

break of white pines,

5-wire fences posted

in good straight lines,

the easy spirals

of the golden eagles

that nested in our

hardwoods' crowns,

the kind of sky

in which a small boy

drowns.

The line breaks don't stop us from noticing the way every clause here ends in a thump, as if Boss's phrase-maker suddenly jammed. Deterministic rhyme also compromises what else is going on in the poem. Pursuit of an echo leads Boss to a clichéd sentiment - "the kind of sky / in which a small boy / drowns" - which contradicts the more restrained nostalgia in the poem's ending quoted above.

When sound isn't the driving force, Boss's poems suffer from his less developed rhetorical talents. He is not, for example, a great crafter of analogies. His poems about his wife and children demand metaphors that transcend, rather than reiterate, the quotidian - instead, Boss gives us, "our better days like lighter weather," "the clogged pipe / of our marriage," "a neglected / load of regrets on his clothesline." Nor do Boss's attempts at humor do much to enliven his narratives, as in this encounter with a supermarket cashier:

"It's your diction,"

she says softly.

I check my fly before

signing my name.

- From "She Rings Me Up"

A different poem succeeds, however, when its vivid descriptions of a household -

Crusty screws

affix the soap dish

Spack of caulk

slops a crack of tile

- From "Six Nights in a Hotel"

- imply the similar disrepair of human relationships within.

To my mind, Yellowrocket can be divided into three sections of nearly equal size: poems that shouldn't have made the cut, poems that display glimpses of Boss's gift, and Todd Boss poems. Of this last category, "The Hush of the Very Good," "Ere We Are Aware," "Nocturne," "Constellations," "One Can Miss Mountains," and "How Smokes the Smolder" demonstrate his knack for the short, domestic lyric. All these poems share the syntactical intelligence that close attention to sound provides. Listen to the way momentum builds as rhymes rub against each other, as sound unwinds to pitch-perfect sense at the end of "Nocturne":

Somehow

the regular

click and chime

of passing time,

like water, turns

a waterwheel

that turns a gear

that turns a stone

that turns upon

another stone

and fine and

finer in between

our dreams like grain

are ground.

Nate Klug's poems have appeared in Poetry and are forthcoming in Literary Imagination and The Yale Review. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Todd Boss, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org.


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