Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Are We Not All Animals?: A Review of Gabrielle Calvocoressi's Rocket Fantastic

Rocket Fantastic
by Gabrielle Calvocoressi

By the Numbers:

Persea Books
Hardback, 2017
Paperback 2018
ISBN 978-0-89255-485-0
92 pages

(reviewed by Melva Sue Priddy)

In an effort to be braver in my own writing, I’ve been reading poets who have been brave in theirs. One such poet is Gabrielle Calvocoressi. I’ll be honest, Rocket Fantastic was my introduction to Calvocoressi’s work. Its 92 pages are peopled by deer, falcon, bobcat, fox, horse, grubs, bandleader, hermit, cowboy, dowager, brother, father, sister, lovers, etc. Sometimes one people/animal becomes another, or it’s difficult to tell them apart. And these people find both pleasure and grief in their world. The poet explores tenderness, violence, eroticism, the lyrical and the mundane to bring us to new understandings about, especially, gender and its possibilities.

So, how is Calvocoressi brave? For starters her poems are democratic: every one gets to speak. Every one, also, is allowed to express their gender as on a continuum rather than as binary. In order to blur the distinction between genders, Calvocoressi uses a symbol (the musical segno, denoted by intake of breath when reading), for one character, and makes new use of the word “whose” to resist our usual bent to identify gender. I found an interview online in which Calvocoressi addresses this better than I can. Liz von Klemperer, at full-stop.net, talks with Calvocoressi:

(LvK) The Bandleader is a complicated figure, as whose is intimate but distant. Whose is compared to a Stag, which is not only a male deer but also a term for someone who comes to a social gathering without a partner. At the same time, whose is the narrator’s lover. How did this character come about? How did whose develop?
(GC) I love that you ask about “whose” because nobody has done that yet! And I think that’s been just as important to me as the symbol. In some ways maybe more. So thank you!
Whose most approximates my own feeling of identifying my sex and/or my gender. For me (and I do want to always say this only me speaking for myself…I am an enemy to those who force any manner of identification on bodies other than their own) “whose” is a word and idea that is inherently a question. It connotes looking and searching. But looking or searching for a specific person, so the clarity of the individual with the openness of a question.
I was just looking at the definition and saw this:
Old English hwæs, genitive of hwā ‘who’ and hwæt ‘what.’
Yes. And so like the sound I make when I breathe the symbol. And containing the WHO and the WHAT. Which I think is the closest thing to my poetics and my self. [See full interview—it’s fascinating.]

Calvocoressi’s poetry contains some violent lines, and there isn’t a world without violence, nature is often brutal and we see that in Calvocoressi’s book of poems, but I’ll let you explore those poems on your own. She (I’d use a non-gender pronoun but not sure what would be appropriate) also gives us some memorable lines. “She Ties My Bow Tie” is stunning. It begins: “What you thought was the sound of the deer drinking/at the base of the ravine was not their soft tongues/entering the water but my Love tying my bow tie.” And “It’s easy to mistake her wrists/for the necks of deer.” Just lovely. In a prose poem, "[Out here it’s okay to be nothing. Want nothing. You feel]," Calvocoressi’s speaking character says, “Have you ever had a person say It’s okay, softly to you in the darkness? Keep your eyes shut and say it to yourself and imagine. It’s okay.” What wisdom and tenderness.

It’s striking how Calvocoressi interweaves animal life, nature (malevolent and/or pleasant) and what it means to be human (positive and less positive traits). In “The Sun Got All Over Everything,” Calvocoressi shows how a beautiful day can distract us from our plans, and she touches on truth. Of the sun she writes, “It made a mess of a day/that was supposed to be the worst/and lured me outside so I forgot her [mother’s] death entirely.” The speaker continues: “I wrote: Grieve. Because we are all so busy/aren’t we?” Grief, I believe, is one of the most difficult emotions to hold, deal with and explore, as the character witnesses.

The poem “Who Holds The Stag’s Head Gets to Speak” is a direct address to God. Calvocoressi’s vivid images allow readers see the death as something we can relate to with humor and irony. A stag has been taken and draped over the top of a car. The speaker states,

       When they take him down in the darkness
       he looks like any body. Could you [God] rest the muscle of your breath
       against his neck so he won’t sag? So the man thinks he’s alive
       and quakes in the awful company of the risen.

       You are the Blue Lord I prayed for when I was hunted.
       You came to me through the branches. I could hear you
       in the upper room where I had hidden in the cupboard.

One of many rings of truth in this book is in the middle of “Praise House: The New Economy,” a poem written after Ross Gay’s praise poem. “I admit it:/this body’s not enough for me.” Indeed, most of us desire more life than what this one, often times limited, body can give us.

After searching the internet for an angle into Calvocoressi’s book that hadn’t been taken, I settled on the poem “The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad” because I relate to one of the subjects in the poem, struggling with seasonal affective disorder. It may be sad to consider, “Got No Chance,” but Calvocoressi uses exaggeration, humor and irony to make fun of our propensity to dislike bad luck and winter’s cold darkness. The poem in full:

The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad

In the face of the azalea breaking open
or in the case of the face being broken
open. He’s got no chance. None at all.

Take your average person at the start
of spring. Winter’s gone on forever.
Dear God you’re sick of every patch of ice:

you fell at the top of the hill and punched
the ground until your knuckles bled
right through your gloves. Who cares

what kind of child you looked like?
The economy of winter’d worn you down.
You couldn’t stand a single moment more,

not one. You’d tried: Optimistic as a dachshund
you made your way to work, the clouds
like mashed potatoes on a plate!

You didn’t let the market get you down.
Let it dip. Let it crash into the gullies (so you said).
In the face of empty bank accounts

you bought the world a sandwich.
The last apple in the larder. Fool.
What did the fox whisper

when you walked into the darkness?
They’ll eat your heart for breakfast.
Did you think it was a dream.

"The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad," © Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (Persea 2018)

I enjoy the leap of one image, the azalea breaking open, to another, the face being broken open, which startles. Isn’t that the way of luck for a person who has no chance. We are all “the average person” and luck is democratic, especially bad luck. Webster’s dictionary defines ‘luck’ as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity.” And we find plenty of both in this book of poems. While it isn’t funny to be the one to fall at the top of the hill and punch “the ground until your knuckles bled / right through your gloves,” it is often slapstick funny to laugh at the other person who falls. Or to laugh at ourselves in a later retelling.

“Optimistic as a dachshund” is too humorous to overlook. Being optimistic has its rewards, but it often doesn’t get one through something as bleak as the short days and long darknesses of winter. Those of us with SAD know it’s no laughing matter. But we’ll laugh when we can.

The fox who speaks in the last stanza is one of many who appear in this book. In “Praise House” Calvocoressi praises

                                              All the animals
          that talk to me. That I finally let them
          talk to me. The blessing of waking
          early enough to watch the fox
          bathe itself.

Foxes with varying temperaments show up in eleven pages of this book. In Native American stories, the symbolism of the fox falls into two camps (similar to ‘luck’): In mainly Northern tribes the fox is a wise, noble messenger, while mainly Plains tribes view the fox as a trickster playing pranks, luring one into trouble. In the last stanza of “The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad,” the fox who speaks brings nature’s brutal inclination into not just the winter but also to the optimist. Nobody cares what you looked like as a child! Good looks, cute looks, they no longer matter and never mattered to bad luck. What did you think, spending money you didn’t have, after the decline in the stock market, on a sandwich to feed the world!

       "What did the fox whisper

       when you walked into the darkness?
       They’ll eat your heart for breakfast.
       Did you think it was a dream."

This fox may not have lured us into the darkness, but it knows our fate if we read it as merely a dream. We are so often lured into reading the surreal parts of Calvocoressi’s poems as dreamlike, and they are in the way people and animals morph into and out of each other. But she also shows us how animal-like human beings are, and how intimate and forgiving life/gender/love can be. I read a non-fiction book recently that shed more light on Calvocoressi’s poems. In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger proposes that humans are still trying to live in community, as humans did for thousands of years, until modern life separated clans, tribes, and families into single family dwellings. That we are not still living in community as we once did, he is saying, is the very thing that creates much of the grief and hardships we have. Giving Calvocoressi a close reading reveals a world where humans and animals coexist, not in paradise but in a real world with greater understanding of our possibilities and responsibilities if we are to be fully human and open to all our possibilities. This book, Rocket Fantastic, is worth every read you can give it.

Melva Sue Priddy, a native Kentuckian, earned degrees in English/Education from Berea College and The University of Kentucky, before earning an MFA. Her poems witness survivance and growth, bringing to light truths that arise out of felt experience. In addition to poems, she creates gardens, quilts, and some rustic woodwork. Her poetry can be found in ABZ, Accents Publishing’s LexPoMo, Blood Lotus, The Louisville Review, Poet Lore, Motif Anthologies, The Single Hound, and Still.