Sandy Florian, Telescope, Action Books, 2006

Reviewed by Matt Dube

[Review Guidelines]

Sandy Florian's Telescope is a strange book, made up of fifty-three formally similar pieces that aren't narrative and aren't, necessarily, poems either. But if we need to decide, let's call them poems for the way Florian's texts foreground language in its struggle to get a handle on some material thing. Each poem presents a common object—a clock, a vacuum, the telescope of the title—and sets out to render in a page of unlineated prose the what-ness of the thing. What is maybe most surprising is the degree to which Florian develops the real characteristics of the objects she describes: it's true, there are always moments of linguistic play in her description, like the way she breaks "Lighthouse" into its component, shorter nouns (31). But to a startling degree for poetry so formally experimental and attenuated, Florian shares a passion for solid physical things as well. If the resulting poems share certain characteristics with that other catalogue of household objects, Tender Buttons, there are as many differences in the two collections as there are similarities.
      If the purpose of Tender Buttons was to mystify perception, Florian seems interested here in something different: she takes less liberties with the objects she writes about than Stein did, and her language is almost mechanical, nearly atomistic. In place of the self-regarding fluidity of Stein's sentences, Florian's writing is regulated by grammatical and syntactical functions: if you see a conjunction, stop and start a new sentence ("Birdcage of the Muses. Or. Boundlessness of Universe," from "Museum" (36)). If you see a preposition, stop and start a new sentence ("You have the advantage. For. Wherever there is likely to be Friction, you are playing the game with me," from "Roulette" (46)). Florian's poems thereby stress the instrumental quality of syntax to do certain work for us, but they also press against these syntactic limits to show the (relative) failure of our received language to accurately render the things of the world.
      It's Florian's hunger for fidelity to the world as it is that is most odd, wonderful, and ultimately challenging. If Florian finds and exploits faults in our language, they are fissures set to sunder sense, not sound. There are poems that tackle this problem of the insufficiency of language more or less directly (for example, "Noun"), but it's even present in the segmented syntax of poems that seem to have other agendas. Note the way the breaks disrupt the attempt of the title poem to fully capture the reality of telescopes: "If the instrument can render seeable to unseeable. Obvious the imperceptible. You out the balloon to your right eye and number the moons of Jupiter" (54). The gaps between Florian's fragments bear witness to those gaps between what we know of the world and what we can manage to say about it, as each break-point opens up another cascading linguistic possibility, and our inability to choose one signifies a solipsist's paradox. The work of the sentence diagrammer is romantic, after all, driven via a desire to hold language in suspense, to dangle it like a mobile that would make Alexander Calder proud. It's incredibly appealing and daring at the same time for Florian to write poems so committed to the world of things which also wrestle with the challenge of communication.
      There's a lot to like in this book, whether it's Florian's strikingly crisp observations or the way she repurposes what feels like unusually self-conscious boilerplate language to devastating effect (consider this passage, from "Orhcestra": "A semi-circular section in front of a proscenium. Elegant and commodious. And. Reserved for the seats of senators. As. The Noblest Seats of Heaven" (38) for the way it sounds like an actual definition of the word from some less creative source, but achieves the status of elevated, crafted language, especially in the last phrase and its attention-drawing capital letters). If I read three or four of these poems in a magazine, I would love them and might think they were the best things in the journal. En masse, though, they are somehow less charming than they might be individually. It's not just that Florian's love for the things of the world is a little catholic, though there's that. It's more that the act of collecting them together should present opportunities for something larger to emerge, but at least in my reading of this book, that doesn't happen.
      There are a lot of these poems collected together, but I read them without an increasing sense of what makes them fit together as a manuscript. It's true, they share a common approach to the world, share a method. Their language is distinctive, sharp and fresh enough to quicken and reawaken this reader's relationship to the world. But without a larger project to justify their composition, the poems risk making language a mechanical function or algorithm; at times I found myself reading the poems for the pattern, not for shape they revealed. For me, that's a bit of a disappointment, given the crisp specificity of engagement with the world I glimpsed in the best of these poems.