Directions Westerly by Will Schutt (Yale University Press, 2013); Strange Borderlands by Ben Berman (Able Muse Press, 2013).

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews

It’s hard not to warm to the archness of a collection that begins, “Two doors down lived a descendant of de Sade,” lifting a trapdoor to literal, figurative, and uniquely Western nightmare. At first, the poems of Will Schutt’s Westerly move within the borders of Californian fantasy and finality, while entertaining other ideas of escape, as in the poem “Beach Lane”: “It’s a tunnel of sorts. They’re all tunnels, I guess,/even Further Lane and Muchmore Drive,/which would have us believe beyond the sagging/split-rail fence lies the answer to an urban/dream.” California is westerly, of course, but as Schutt, winner of the 2012 Yale Younger Poetry Prize, notes in that same poem: “Not everyone who dreams dreams the beach.”

In “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (a line lifted from the song of that name by pop star Billy Joel), Schutt presents the reader with a carelessly confident “we” (the “we” who mentioned the de Sade relative):

…The name meant
nearly nil to us, cluelessly humming the catalog
of history in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”—
Harry Truman, Ho Chi Minh, Rockefeller, Roy Cohn.
Hunting arrowheads, we made off with a haul
of tangled wires, nickeled tubs. Some inheritance.
Children of thalidomide, hypodermics on the shore.

The poem, with song lyrics incorporated, is a gritty reminder of the funnel of Western history (substitute American, substitute Californian), aptly including what is an almost a screenplay beat for the echo of Joel’s missing line: I can’t take it anymore.

The name de Sade may not mean much to the poem’s “we,” but these speakers live in his visceral shadow, against the backdrop 20th century. Schutt continues:

Townies spray-painted the bridge: “Sayonara,
Bob” or “Safe travels, Sucker.” At sunset
summer people walked their drinks down
to the beach—the happy human chain—
each tethered to one spot, each for now alive.

It’s the culmination of a sort-of happiness: these pacified sado-masochists enjoying a moment of stillness in their pulsating, upended world.

Schutt inhabits a Hollywood-like celebrity in the poem “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,” in which he writes his own family story: “Momentarily he’s my young father/refusing to break the news he’s been laid off/and lay the groundwork for divorce.” Grandeur still carries the weight of an ordinary life: “who is she, closing her eyes, four strands of her boy’s hair/combed purposefully aside, allowing the white/of her raincoat to mask him? Mother, wife, coat.” The still frame encapsulates the persona. In “Flywheel with Variable Inertia” one finds the nameplates for Deanna Durbin, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Cary Grant marking their houses: “Like dreamy memento mori/Little photos of each actor float/Above each home in the picture postcards…//We live so strangely, in love with visions…”

Schutt, too, is in love with visions. The book moves from the new frontier to looks back at the Old World. He cinematically attends to juxtapositions, switching from his original work into translations of Italian poets such as Montale and Sanguineti (these comprise the middle section of the book) in one sweeping movement. Original poems such as “Beauty Spot” hinge on thoughts or glances, highlighting transience:

…Roberto sat in the same
spot by the Arno every afternoon for a year with a broken heart.
Later, he met his wife there. So now that place
in his mind is crossed with pain and happiness, which in many
people’s books make beauty. Like staring out
at the gulf of Populonia while feeling the Etruscan necropolis
at your back. It’s lovely to see, anyway: suddenly
lilies where lilies vanish, what house our earnest eyes conceive.

Schutt records what ebbs and flows, always looking for stillness to undercut the constantly moving system. He ends the book with his own version of a poem by Leopardi (“After A Silvia”), pitting hope against the disordered momentum of grief in an address to someone who is gone: “why is it nothing keeps its word?/What’s with all the lights burning in the distance?”

Similarly, Ben Berman writes with an eye toward life shifts in his first collection, Strange Borderlands. In “Seven Pictures” (a series of prose poems chronicling a developing relationship between two colleagues riding across Africa in a bus called Yemama), Berman finds an analogy in a moment of disorder. The metaphor allows for an ungirded moment:

Perspective, in photography, is when parallel lines converge towards a single point, and I wanted to lean across the aisle and tell Teresa that I, too, was once slapped in the face by a stranger. That this was what drew me to poetry—to broken narratives and lines that threaten to collapse underneath their own weight.

The broken narratives lend themselves to intimacy, and provide a framework as language is tamed and exploited:

…She laughed wildly every time I asked the driver, in my broken French, pardonnez moi, missour, but is Yemama a retard?

These poems are almost entirely concerned with Berman’s stint in the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe. In the book, as on the bus, Berman rides out the convergence of languages and their accompanying riptide of culture shock.

In “Interruptions,” a series of poems, Berman takes different approaches toward encapsulating experience. Part of the series follows the death of a dog named Cheetah, and Berman writes, “We tried to clean/what we could, but everything was so tangled”; it is less about the dog than about trying to find, through humor, correspondence, and words, the crux:

….me, perplexed
by this task of finding some comforting, some
explanatory words. Dear Knottenbelts,
How is Canada? How is the weather

and food? Please make sure you tell

your cousins hello
. I’ll let the letter
develop before I write, Cheetah is dead
and the country is falling apart
I won’t mention the crows or how Eric said,
may she rest in pieces. I won’t explain that
a dog doesn’t matter, so many people
dying these days…

Beyond his own wry humor, one of Berman’s poetic strengths is his ability to lace poetry with dialogue (and often to do so successfully even with untranslated African dialect). It is the untranslated speech, similar to what is left unsaid, that heightens the stakes in section ten of “Interruptions,” which, in its early lines, is rich in the kind of story most fiction writers take pages to create:

None of the boys are wearing any shoes.
They heat an old, used, plastic milk bag
over their fire then breathe in the hot glue.
The smallest of them takes one final drag
then stumbles through traffic towards me—
oblivious to cars and fearlessly high.

The boy offers him “a wooden giraffe with three legs,” but the poetic weight that balances everything out is in the conversation:

Two hundred dollars, he tells me. Support
the arts. That’s art? I ask. Fine, he says, fifty.
Chibva, I say, and it’s no longer sport
for either of us. But, Baas, he says, Ndine
nzara. Please, Baas. I take the giraffe
and buy him bread. He thanks me, walks away
to his friends, almost looks back as he laughs.

Laughter is everywhere in the people and in the humor unearthed even from the misery many of these poems describe—it becomes a language of its own. In the poem “Good Grief,” Berman discusses, among other things, how ineffectively we try to separate the comic from the caustic:

If only there weren’t the preconceived
notions—we expect grief to come in stages
and when, instead, a stagecoach arrives

we climb clumsily in and try to triage
the tragi- from the comic. We hurry
this way or that, when all signs point to merge.

With the perspective of the photographer noted in his earlier poem, Berman lets his work converge to a single point where language and meaning take on new meaning, where understanding and its lack thereof finally becomes his forte:


I’d be fluent enough to sling a bird
Out of a tree, contain a fire, line
A grave so water couldn’t leak in.

(“Learning Shona”)

The misjudgments and gaffes that result in the constant battering of Berman in Zimbabwe end up creating a surety, a line of communication, a bulwark against all that threatened to collapse.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the author of To the New World (Salmon Poetry). She is the poetry editor of Salamander and works as a freelance writer and editor. Reviews and poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in the Boston Globe, The Journal, TheCommonOnline, Gulf Coast online, and Poetry Northeast.

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Metamorphoses Song & Error: Poems by Averill Curdy (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013).