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Impulse Patrol: On Albert Mobilio’s Touch Wood

by Kara Candito


Touch Wood by Albert Mobilio. 87 pgs. Black Square Editions & The Brooklyn Rail, 2011.


“The Whole of It is Winged,” the second poem in Albert Mobilio’s elegant fourth collection, Touch Wood, serves as a dictum for approaching the book at large: “the whole of it is winged, this science/ of speaking about large things/ in pocket-size/ you do it by letting likeness creep in,/ makes me resemble you &/ the other way round & it’s goodbye/ to truth, which/ feels quiet at first.” Here, Mobilio offers a disclaimer of sorts: in what follows language will be treated as unstable material. Meaning will be rendered not as a destination but as a disorienting, interrogative process that calls into question not just reality but the words we use to parse and make sense of it.

For a volume that aims at subverting boundaries and expectations, the poems collected here are surprisingly stylized. Mobilio has an affinity for couplets, tercets, and also lengthier short-lined stanzas with jarring, annotative line breaks. Densely musical, packed with consonance and assonance, the poems’ polished surfaces provide a crucial tension against the instability and disjunction they court. Touch Wood sustains this compelling tension between form and content as Mobilio's “pocket-sized” aesthetic offers a mannered container for housing a vast array of forms and occasions that range from ekprhasis, to abecedarians, to rhetorically charged interrogations of normalcy and pastoral space.

Mobilio’s talents are on full display in the nine-part sequence poem “The Spelled Out Spark in Rooms,” an homage to the late minimalist artist Dan Flavin, best known for making sculptures and installations from fluorescent light fixtures. Using mundane industrial objects that generate light, Flavin’s sculptures stress the artificiality of light’s source. The poem suggests an apt affinity between Mobilio's poetic project and Flavin’s installations; both artists fill space—be it an empty industrial building or the linguistic terrain of a poem—with everyday objects and images. And both favor an intentionally manufactured mode of sublimity. Flavin’s light fixtures suggest the radiance of a gothic cathedral, and yet the cords are always exposed in order to stress the work’s construction over its larger affect. Similarly, Mobilio employs highly stylized language to call quotidian experiences and associations into the “light” of our attention. Ultimately, the poems in Touch Wood remind us that all transformations are performative: “Mirrors mirror/ what’s unconcealed: daybreak streaming/ only as far as the cord allows.” The breadth of the sequence form complements Mobilio’s stylistic compression by enabling a gradual enactment of disorientation rather than the more abrupt swerving that occurs in some of the shorter lyric poems.

Mobilio rightfully locates a kindred spirit in Flavin, whose work is equally concerned with ephermerality and chaotic surfaces. The fifth section of “The Spelled Out Spark in Rooms” gets at this by employing synesthesia to distort and overlap the surface qualities of objects and perceptions:

Take hold of useful tools, eggbeaters, mallet
and sling shots—things from cartoons. Things

thin as painted air. Sensation’s cloud
inhaled through blue, green, red straws leaning

in the corner feigning stealth. We’re all
around this campfire singing.

The gorgeously simple closing image offers both poet and reader a genuine moment of identification by stressing the collective experience of art—we are all around the same campfire, watching the same flames, even if the contemporary mind insists that the fire is virtual.

Throughout Touch Wood, violent imagery evokes the dizzying velocity of modern life. Pistols, tourniquets, bruises, “swarming fans,” and hammers stand for the whirling distractions and violations of a world in which experience can be manufactured and dismantled at the click of a button. If life’s pace is such that sense-making becomes impossible, then Mobilio suggests that the poet’s task is to enact rather than repair the gaps in our perceptions. In “Zeroing In,” the final section of the inventive abecedarian “Letters from Mayhem,” Mobilio writes: “My thorny problem: everything is difficult as/ I am driven by purely/ directional noise but cannot match/ sensation with acts.” In this playful, discomfiting long poem, the poet recasts Frost’s dictum: rather than a momentary stay against confusion, the poem is a vehicle for its contortionist documentation.

Indeed, the decreative energy that permeates the volume is more reminiscent of Stevens’ decadent imagination than Frost’s dramatic, universalist vision. Mobilio’s poetics bid “goodbye to truth” by dismantling established barriers between high and low culture, between reality and imagination. His dense, fractured language mirrors and critiques the speed and distraction that characterize modern consciousness.

The poems’ fidelity to ideas over the particulars of experience often collide with social and historical realities. One such example is the reoccurring motif of female figures as either agents of the exclusionary violence of language, or abstracted beings that exist outside of the poetic process. “This Pretty Pledge,” for instance, interrogates the struggle between beauty and art through the poet’s encounter with an actress/seductress who “sits onstage/ so tiltingly wry,/ shudders sent/ up and down/ the aisle from here/ to over there.” Does this figuration of a woman as a coy, ironic muse run the risk of repeating, with postmodern emphasis, the old-fashioned notion of poetry as a man’s vocation and women as either obstacles or inspirations? Or is it unfair to inflict the history of gender roles onto a poem in a collection obviously concerned with concepts rather than situations? “The Pretty Pledge” recalls Wallace Stevens’ “A High Toned Christian Woman,” in which Stevens’ decision to make a woman a personification of the rigid morality he located in religious systems is rooted in a deeper, sexist view of women as incapable of appreciating or creating the complex fictions real literature demands. Ironically, of course, Stevens’ rhetoric is as didactic as the poem’s figurative woman. This is not the case with Mobilio’s “This Pretty Pledge.” It is impossible to say if the poet symbolizes art and the actress beauty. As in the rest of the collection, the tropes—busty muse and tortured poet—are violently destabilized, as are the exact associations between the poet and the surrounding world.

We encounter a similarly unsettling and also ambiguous treatment of the female form in “We Hold Our Heads High,” which opens with an imperative: “Pretend if you can/ that it’s last August’s fairground,/ your conquest amazing/ the guys in their work boots.” As in “This Pretty Pledge,” the hyperbolically feminine woman is a seductive source of distraction from or resistance to the creative task. Her entrance into the poem triggers the self-conscious drama through which the speaker articulates his failures and limitations:

I wanted to join the impulse
Patrol & ride
The sensation of being allowed,
But I’m hearing her sway
In her best-dressed
Evasion—I’m over
A barrel and bobbing in vain.

A play on impulse control, “impulse/ patrol” suggests that even the noncritical realm of sensation is now subject to self-censorship and evasion. What happens when even regret and longing become suspect? The poet’s task becomes absurd. The poem’s final line leaves us with a wry, witty image of the speaker standing over a barrel of apples, “bobbing in vain” for meaning.

The poems’ complex rejection of fixed meanings seems related to the objectification with which they treat people. Like the language Mobilio so dexterously reinvents, the people in his poems resonate as intentionally depthless surfaces to be layered, broken open, and recasted. When viewed as part of the poetic landscape, these figures are vehicles for exposing and critiquing the generic performativity of human relationships. The hilariously cynical “Kin,” in which the poet describes an imaginary brother, is a highly successful example of this objectifying mode. At first, the poet describes his nonexistent brother in terms of cleverly worded biographical details: “he did physics, investigating/ shoe scuffs.” Later in the poem, the brother is recalled in terms of darkly funny, violent metaphors that get at something about the nihilistic violence of modern masculinity: “That panzer couch commander/ I talked so much about—Orville/ to my Wilbur.”

Just when we know what to expect, Touch Wood swerves in a radically new direction. “Rounding Off to the Nearest Zero,” a narrative prose poem appearing last in the collection, demonstrates that even Mobilio’s established style is subject to violent revision. There is something truly refreshing and satisfying about a collection that dares to end by complicating, or even contradicting, its own aesthetic tendencies. In light of the instabilities Mobilio has thus far cultivated, “Rounding Off to the Nearest Zero” is a sublime example of a poet practicing his own philosophy. The piece opens as the poet receives news that an anonymous friend or relative has died:

The day he died turned out to be a convenient time for that sort of thing. When someone dies, there’s much to do; many details to look after. This takes up an awful lot of time so if he died a few weeks before or a few weeks after that day, I would have been sorely pressed. But, like I said, he died rather neatly schedule-wise.

Compared with the terse, stylized lyrics that dominate the rest of the collection, this language is positively wordy and anti-poetic. Colloquial and hokey, the phrase “sorely pressed” establishes the poet’s mindset with brutal, casual immediacy. “Rounding Off to the Nearest Zero” also explores the objectifying mode on a radically new and equally disconcerting level by providing a window into a first-person poet’s psychological processes. Mobilio is a master of implication and suggestion. Rather than talk about the deceased, the poet describes the car he’s rented as “mid-size, with electric adjustable seats.” The voice’s understatement and mechanical resistance to emotion is reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s. Driving several hours to the home of the deceased, the poet pulls over to calculate the length of the drive. He cracks the window “enough to hear that tearing sound you hear in a fast moving car.” The poem ends with the poet’s detached, disconcerting prediction: “I would be getting there with time to spare, one way or another.” In a car on the way to a funeral with the arrival time already determined and the violent swirl of air rushing in your ears: What better way to end such an uncomfortably truthful exploration of the contemporary mind?

 

Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. She is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville. (8/2011)


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