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Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

Issue 5: Phoenix

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Valarie Duff

Jim Behrle

Fred Marchant

Jacob Strautmann

Vera Kroms

Henry Israeli

Daniel Gutstein

Joyelle McSweeney

David Dodd Lee

Daniel Bosch

Michael Perrow

Luljeta Lleshanaku

Miklós Radnóti

Nikolai Baitov

Drago Stambuk

Zafer Senocak

Death by Repetition

Black Series
by Laurie Sheck  

100 pages. Knopf

by Adam L. Dressler

It really is a shame. Would that her editor had taken Ms. Sheck aside and said, “Not every poem can contain the word ‘light.’” In fact, of the 39 poems that comprise Ms. Sheck’s “Black Series,” 30 contain the word, and many more than one instance. Other popular terms include “wind” (appearing in 22 poems), “air” (19) and, of course, “dark” (21). What begins as a book of magnetic poems, in which the soul is pitted against the world of technology, ends up feeling like a magnetic poetry set.

Before the repetition grows boring, almost self-mocking, there are worthwhile moments. The book’s opening poem, “The Store Windows Glitter,” showcases Sheck’s talented use of line-breaks and enjambment:

    Even the mannequins change
    as the headlights pass over them, swathing them
    in strangeness. A face briefly lit, magnetized by
    street light.

But the poem also contains weaker moments, of the sort that ultimately ruin the book. Take, for example, the third stanza:

    If there be abundant sand left (there is not)
    If there be certainty and stillness (there is not)
    If there be stalled brilliancies and volatile undoings
    If there be fraught silence
    trackless night —

What meaning are we meant to take away from these lines? Firstly, what meaning inheres to them, and secondly, how do they advance the issue of the blurred line between man and mannequin that serves as the poem’s primary theme? Even within a single line, what is the significance of the sand, or the lack thereof? Unfortunately, these disconnected references to vague images only multiply as the book proceeds.

As if the limited vocabulary of the book were not trying enough, even the themes repeat. For example, the sixth poem, “The Mannequins,” takes up the topic of the first poem. In and of itself, this presents little problem, especially in the context of a series. But the second poem does not distinguish itself sufficiently from the first. The issue of man vs. mannequin is still the prevalent theme, although the treatment of the issue differs slightly between the two. For example, toward the end of the first poem, we find the lines:

                                              Then flashing sirens —
    the mannequins putting on color as red lights twist past their windows
    giving them red wings, red wings growing out of each shoulder, rippling
                                                                                                    and lifting

    over the envious
    silver, poisoned glass

While these lines appear toward the end of the sixth poem:
    while the smooth unstartled mannequins stand whitely in their windows
    that shine like computer screens, incarnate and withheld.

The former’s image is one of liberation, the latter's of containment. Red has been exchanged for white. But more significant differences are not to be found. Moreover, other references to these same mannequins pop up throughout the book. The eighth poem, “Bridal Veil,” includes the line, “Far from the rigidity of mannequins,” while the poem, “Wall Writing,” includes, “I pass the store windows, mannequins and flashy glass.” Rather than adding a sense of cohesion or unity to the book, these repeated references to an unaltered, singularly interpreted object give the book a disconnected and ultimately dull feeling.

There are several other topics, repeated in various poems, throughout the book: Medusa, caves, computer screens, and so on. But as in the case of the mannequins, it is unclear as to why the poems are placed so sporadically throughout the book. Even if no paring down were possible, why not simply have the poems serve as various parts of one long poem?

One answer might lie in the overall structure of the book. Perhaps there is a progression, a clear direction from one theme to another, that requires the use of repetition and reminder. But unfortunately, no structure is apparent, let alone one that would justify this placement of identical topics at various points in the book. I suppose an argument exists for this kind of randomness; perhaps it is supposed to mirror the sensation of displacement and directionlessness felt by the human soul in a world overrun by technology. But even if such an argument were credible, it would only lend reason to the structure/non-structure of the book, not merit.

Another problem that plagues this book is how it over-extends itself. For example, in the poem “Driving Home,” we encounter the line, “Once the night was medicinal. Doctorly, it leaned.” If only the metaphor had stopped here, had been allowed to resonate, to gain power from its understated declaration. But the metaphor is carried on in the lines that follow:

I felt its starched coat against my cheek, its stethoscope
measuring. The heartbeats came steadily...

By spelling things out, by calling on the expectable vocabulary of the medical profession, (“starched coat,” “stethoscope”), these lines dilute to the point of negation whatever influence the first line may have otherwise had.

As the book progresses, or, more precisely, as the page numbers increase, these problems of over-extension, lack of structure, and repetition combine, and to such a noticeable degree, that one (even a reviewer) is strongly tempted to simply put the book down. Take, for example, the following stanza from the poem “Dark Lullaby,” which occurs about three-quarters of the way through the book:

    And in the morning suddenly a lot of room. Overnight and in the morning count-
    less. The universe lost, a center yet none. Regarded rooms. Morning, night,
    countless and yet none. A countless number then suddenly. The center lost.
    Each one regarded yet none is. A lot of centers, each one a morning lost. Lost
    numbers overnight and in the morning. Sudden countless room.

You may well wonder, as I did, if there is anything to be gained by reading further. Sadly, the answer is no. No great truth, no moments occur that are elucidating enough to explain what has come before or why. The ultimate irony is that the poems of this book, which decry the advancement of technology and ignorance, resemble the output of a computer whose vocabulary and sense of purpose verge on nil.


Reviewer's Bio Note

    Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has ridden the economic wave from dot come to dot gone, and has recently applied to several MFA programs in poetry.


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