reviewed by Mark Schoenknecht
Lowly, Alan Felsenthal’s first collection of poems, begins with a parable. In “Two Martyrs,” we’re presented with the story of two friends whose impulse toward self-sacrifice devolves into a competition. When both men end up dying by their own hands and being resurrected again ad infinitum, their repeated acts of martyrdom turn into a commercial attraction, a gimmick that leads people to believe they are “…brothers whose punishment/for misusing fire/[is] to continue misusing it” (13). Throughout Lowly, the essence of “Two Martyrs” is itself resurrected in various ways. There’s a sense of the sacred juxtaposed against the profane; of the ancient coming into contact—and perhaps conflict—with the contemporary. We find noble aspirations curtailed by human failings. And, in places, a touch of wry humor, highlighted by a frequently declarative tone that resists sentimentality and emphasizes the concise musicality of Felsenthal’s verse.
What gives the book its formal coherence is less a specific narrative and more a certain voice or sensibility. While there are numerous examples of “the lowly” one can find in the ideas and characters scattered throughout the collection, a sense of “the lonely” is perhaps even more fundamental to the work’s overarching structure. Indeed, the notion of loneliness is not only echoed in the word lowly, but can also be read in the invocation of “emptiness” in the book’s epigraph:
I’ve given you my emptiness: it may not be unlike your emptiness: in voyages, there are wide reaches of water with no islands: (from A.R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year)
Yet, to identify loneliness as one of the predominant thematics of the collection should also come with the caveat that, in Lowly, this concept is presented in the most robust sense: not the loneliness of boy-wishes-he-had-girl, but the fundamental isolation of the poet from conventional understandings of the world, or—more specifically—from the aspect of himself that’s both implicated in and resistant to the predominant culture Felsenthal refers to as the “cult of personalization” (“Past Life Palinode”).
This sentiment takes a particularly engaging turn in a poem like “My Domestic Poem,” Felsenthal’s elegy to bedbugs. Here, the speaker praises the bedbugs that have invaded his apartment for their ability to break him of his obsessive self-rumination. As the poem states, “When you Google what does a bedbug/look like in pictures, you are not Googling/yourself.” Similarly, in “Past Life Palinode,” Felsenthal declares:
The world-soul is not looking for us, for the world-soul needs no fame. Celebrity is the prayer of capital. I was born under a falciform moon, sickle shaped, and a stupor like a demon makes me say the opposite of what I feel. Keep your chart to yourself. It’s like giving away your last four digits.
In both poems, a numinous energy informs the poet’s perspective, creating a world where the “shadow of the bedbug” becomes “calligraphy from other worlds,/ideograms writ in shit/instead of clay…” (“My Domestic Poem”), and where the poet, waiting in line at the post office, sees:
…the forms of time give rise to human venom in flux like the flow of grains. A man yelling at a woman about his insights into labor. He said: We all work for the city. As though the city were a lotus or water lily giving gods life, an umbel for order. (“Past Life Palinode”)
Yet, the mysticism is never too heavy, whether grounded by a quick transition into tangible details, or curtailed by the humor of a well-placed colloquial expression, as in the “spoiler alert” of “I dipped my finger in the Styx and—/spoiler alert—I don’t understand love” (“Past Life Palinode”).
A similar effect to the mixing of formal and colloquial diction is also produced by Felsenthal’s deft layering of “high” and “low” culture. For example, in “The Mind’s Eloquent Hotel,” which begins with a self-deprecating reference to the poet’s use of language (“So I was told I sound like an 80-year-old”), Felsenthal employs gay slang terminology, writing, “My middle ear is melancholy and/some twink told me I’m sex negative/for not caring more about a starlet,” before transitioning into a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave. This blending of diction and culture might be understood as part of Felsenthal’s larger interest in language-play. While all the poems in Lowly have a certain seriousness about them, they often wade in language’s tactile qualities, displaying an affinity for “the poetic” as such (as opposed to the strictly hermeneutic). “Argo,” for instance, emphasizes the role of language in creating a metaphorical connection between the speaker’s life and the voyage of Jason the Sailor, offering lines like “The half of her you can see/is the present tense./Her wake is words,” and “…each star lifts/its own weight like the letter i.” Likewise, “The Problem with Rhyme” begins by exploring the ambiguity between the sound of “rhyme/rime” and the pronunciation of “Rhine” by the narrator’s grandmother (who speaks with a German accent), foregrounding the generative possibilities of linguistic confusion and the value of language’s non-semantic properties.
Felsenthal’s interest in poetic language also extends to an engagement with the poetic tradition. Several poems in the collection proclaim their form explicitly—for example, Felsenthal’s series of psalms, or his “Past Life Palinode”—while others speak back to or reference canonical poets (Czeslaw Milosz in “If There Is No Milosz,” for instance, or Coleridge in “Ensue” and “‘But the Birds Divided He Not’”). One of the great triumphs of Lowly, then, is that despite its references to “The Tradition,” its explicit interest in language and form, and its use of heightened diction, the collection never feels bookish or academic. Rather, there are always enough twinks, enough bedbug shit and spoiler alerts to maintain a sufficiently balanced perspective. And still, underneath it all, there’s a sadness, the dissonance between a compassionate, poetic vision of the world and a history of violence that concepts such as “order” and “justice” have proven unable to assuage. In poems such as “The Problem with Rhyme” and “Alphabet,” we get glimpses of Felsenthal confronting the legacy of the Holocaust, an atrocity that seems to have had some personal impact on the poet’s family. In these, and other powerful moments throughout the collection, we’re brought back to reality, reminded that:
When everywhere is winter, there is no time to consider freezing, only the harm in not staying warm. (“The Problem with Rhyme”)
No book of poetry could substitute for warmth in such cases. Still, Felsenthal’s collection stands as a gift, a small flame to hold against the cruelty and stupidity plaguing so much of our contemporary world.