Knowing the Terrain

Emily Jaeger
| Reviews

In Little Dorrit, the connections between London and Rome and the rhetoric of decay seem to reflect Dickens’s anxieties about the downfall of the British Empire. He interprets Rome as London’s economic and political predecessor and its destruction as prophetic. While Blair’s crumbling billboards perhaps point to a deeper meditation on the destructive effects of capitalism, much of the rundown urban landscape he de-scribes—whether in New England or Italy—serves as a backdrop for his central reckoning with mortality. The landscape mirrors Blair’s constant acknowledgment of the ephemerality of life:

In the universal masquerades
mostly we are barely initiates
into these or any other mysteries—
even the most blissful and fortunate
bodies good as short term rentals,
and so there are these gas stations ablaze
at night where the longer you drive,
the more you have to get back home.

Part of the joy of Blair’s ability to notice moments that are often missed or forgotten—naked neighbors in the window, an accidental day of summer—is his ability to extend their lifespan. His attention to decay is also a nod to the reality of contemporary life where we are constantly bombarded with material culture ranging from the historical to the vernacular.
Arsonville has no section breaks, lending the book the feeling of a single project that, like life, is lumbering toward the reader at a paradoxically breakneck speed. Blair does allow for some mini-breaks with scattered short poems, such as “True Figures,” which is only one line in length. However, where his longer poems delight in the adventure of wild associations on the sentence level, the shorter poems don’t always hold up: a single-line poem doesn’t pack enough punch and another poem with a couple of lines seems to be missing some connective tissue. I wanted all the shorter poems to zing with the harshly honest and provocative humor of “Peacefulness”:

In peacefulness, true. They were getting along,
just like the two Koreas. Denying each other
foodstuffs once in a while, every once in a while
moving some stuff around, shooting some stuff.

With its laugh-out-loud humor and adventurous imagery, Blair’s poetry invites the reader to pay attention and not allow the details of daily life to pass unnoticed. These are the moments permeated with revelation and the stuff of life:

I couldn’t tell you what I really think
about nature and change, but I will
hold the bottom of your silk undershirt
while you pull off your thin sweater.


Emily Jaeger is the author of the chapbook The Evolution of Parasites (Sibling Rivalry Press) illustrated by Robin Levine. Her poems have appeared in Four Way ReviewTriQuarterly, and The Offing among others. After completing her MFA at UMass Boston, Emily will be the 2017/2018 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Poetry at Colgate University. She has also received fellowships from Literary Lambda, TENT, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize.

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