Melanie Waltman reviews Megan Volpert's Face Blindness
published by BlazeVOX 2008
Megan Volpert's first book, Face Blindness, is a solid effort. Her book presents itself as an attempt to straddle the post-avant "middle ground" with both lyrical confessional poems and experiments in incoherency and dreamlike, associative (or hypnotic) states. She wants to demonstrate, understandably so, that her artistic scope is as wide as is her talent. Therefore, placing herself in neither the "post-avant" camp nor that of the slam and/or performance-oriented poem, Volpert samples from myriad styles in her inaugural book.
Admittedly, this is Volpert's first volume of work, and she may settle into a particular style as she continues to publish. At the moment, she indulges in both whimsical yet speculative considerations and rigidly structured poetic experiments. Volpert's captivating language deserves attention, as she states in her last poem, "amor fati": "when the cover is closed / still I linger the accusation / you come willing." Indeed, Volpert's voice lingers after the final page is turned. Her confidence in having captured the attention even of those who would return her book "to the library," is demonstrated aptly in this sparse, open finale. Like a final chord of a song consisting only of the first and fifth notes of the scale, it begs to be filled in by the reader's assessment and interest in the work that goes before.
Volpert's mission statement, so to speak, is stated in "an abstract" at the beginning, and its wording deserves the name. "The problem" she says, "is poetry, or poetics or the poem, or perhaps the poet...What did I do? Whose hat is this?" In this selection of poems, Volpert indeed wears many hats. Her poems range widely, from discussions of her influences, hostile letters to real people, and odes to Nirvana in sonnet form. Additionally, the entire book serves as a self-conscious reflection on what it means to be a writer and how one goes about the process. This is made particularly evident in poems such as "symptoms of good editing", where she deconstructs one of her previous poems, and a criticizing British voice (presumably also her own) comes in to lecture her on her trite choices of words. The chilling spectre of a perfect reader also haunts her and mocks her work, while fairies of inspiration and disconcerting nightmares about feminist theorists percolate in her brain with equal significance.
Many of Volpert's experiments work brilliantly and still manage to say something distinct and vivid, such as "and I was not inclined toward inspiration without her", a beautiful poem about inspiration in New Orleans in which the poem begins at the end, but makes sense regardless of how you read it:
wore the shards for a crown
all three I broke
one marked good one marked evil one marked pretty
filled with the fine white sands of time
I dreamt three glass jugs came into my possession.
Another bold confession is "the professor in office 227", which speaks candidly yet coyly about mutual desire and masturbation. In these poems we are allowed glimpses into her inner world, at once both provocative and subtle: "writing hand doing its work across its own body / reaching that word he knows without reading / through blank bricks we listen in explicit silence." In this sense, her book could be considered a sort of personal confessional journal in the vein of Gabriel Gudding's Rhode Island Notebook, though obviously more structured and more focused on her identity as writer than her personal life. One can only guess if her "confessional" poems are autobiographical, purely fictional, or somewhere in between.
The name Volpert chooses for her book is highly significant, as the term "face blindness" refers to the medical condition—also mentioned in the title of one of her poems—of prosopagnosia. The sufferer of this condition, despite being equipped with good eyesight, is incapable of recognizing faces: his or her own, family members', those of friends. Therefore the sufferer must come to grips with reality and memory by identification through relationships with others, by location or by someone's back instead of their face. Volpert's book challenges the reader to identify poetry from its back, so to speak, or from its relationship with other poems rather than by its face. How one identifies and categorizes her poetry (or fails to) is its own sort of face blindness, and as Volpert sinks her readers further into her world, one becomes disoriented and questions the relationship between poet, text and reader. The lines between one type of poetry and the next, between that which is significant and arbitrary, between the meretricious and the divine (much like the eye on the front cover of her text) are deliberately and deftly blurred.
Occasionally Volpert reaches too far into the post-avant and loses her audience. Her "oulipian conversations with...Nietzsche" falls flat in its labyrinthine word-maze, as do some of her more obviously formulated experiments in the post-avant, such as "Name Pong Poetry", which is a long list of seemingly random words: "yoga mat blue green taupe / lama are am ergo be" in which she forbears to use the letter "i." However, these "sour notes," if you will, form only a small part of her overall narrative and can be overlooked without detriment to the rest of the text.
Volpert's poems are highly structured despite their lack of capitalization and punctuation. She plays with blank space on the page to allow for longer silences and provokes with italicized text and columns of words that occasionally bleed together. Her work is also self-referential, such as in a sequence of four poems that all speak from a different perspective on the events of one night discussed in the first poem: one fairly straightforward, one angry and vituperative, another from a time in the near future, and the last from the writer's point of view as she edits the first poem. Volpert and/or her editors do assume here, slightly problematically, that the book's average reader will dutifully page through her poems from start to finish in a linear fashion. In reality, particularly for a compendium like this one, I was much more inclined to flip around to poems whose titles caught my fancy or were short enough to read when I was crunched for time.
Ultimately, Volpert's first collection of poems is a fascinating and revealing look into the struggles of a writer determined to exercise her right of free speech in an extravagant, excessive, cocksure, schizophrenic, slightly mad whirlwind of a debut that pleases and aggravates in equal measure, but never fails to keep my interest. The book is definitely worth picking up, as its lyric flights and blatant accusations are as well-articulated as they are odd. Much like M.C. Escher's Relativity, the stairs in Volpert's mind are set at odd angles and lead places that stairs perhaps aren't supposed to go, but the journey is both entertaining and educational. If Volpert can only rein in her impulses to follow inarticulate experimental formulas that confuse more than elucidate and allow herself to merely write unhindered by such self-imposed constraints, her next foray into poetry will be even sharper.
review by Melanie
Waltman is majoring in English at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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