John Gosslee Book Review
by Steve Henn
John Gosslee. Blitzkrieg, Rain Mountain Press, New York City. 2013. 55 pages.
There is much to enjoy in John Gosslee’s Blitzkrieg, and also much that is, well, a bit much. The strength of the collection is in the 14 surrealistic poems at the front of the book, in which Gosslee unveils fresh metaphor frequently. In “Manhattan in Fall,” “streetlamps hunch over garbage cans” and “bums wind up for a handout.” The first is striking in its suggestion of the defeated human posture of the lamps, and the second, for anyone who’s ever been approached by a panhandler, is an effective comparison to a baseball pitcher preparing to deliver a pitch to yet another target. In another poem, Gosslee notes “the pitted coral reef of her teeth.” Metaphors such as these are worth savoring.
These first fourteen poems often rely on the listing of images, so that even a poem with narrative tendencies feels like a sequence of scenery, the power of the poem depending more upon the freshness of the image than the persona of the poet. Still, touches of persona persist. In “Silent,” for example, Gosslee’s narrator passively notes scenes from a visit to Saint Louis – “University students in pajamas flash mob the square,” he says – but the poet enters the scene himself later, on the metro, where an old man “is the first person to look at me all night.” It’s an effective distillation of what it’s like to walk around, a stranger in an unfamiliar city, literally noting, time and again, how people aren’t looking you in the eye.
There’s a combination of playfulness and gravitas in the poems that isn’t easy to pull off. The often somber tone and the often inventive images combine to create such a sense. While some lines fall flat, and some poems reach too earnestly for otherworldliness, the first section of the book is interesting and worth the read.
The next section? Not so much. It consists of 17 pages of prose bookended by two versions of that prose’s subject matter – the same poem, with one changed word the difference between them. The prose is the exhaustive tale of every instance in the life of the poem – from its conception in an apartment kitchen, to submissions to editors, to publication, to live readings, to sending the poem out in wax sealed bottles in rivers and oceans, to stickering urinals and bridges with copies of the poem, to any critical analysis of the poem, I presume, that happened online or in print. The poem, Gosslee’s “Portrait of an Inner Life,” is remarkable, a tight 4 couplets of striking, imaginative imagery that the reviewers quoted in the prose section describe as suggesting much more beyond the mere 24 words the poem consists of. For the writing of the poem, Gosslee deserves praise. It is excellent work.
Why we would be compelled to read 17 pages of prose recounting every moment in the life of the poem, however, I can’t fathom. I read it – all of it – because I didn’t want to review the book while admitting that I skimmed the story of the poem. To recount that entire history, and to assume that such a detailed biography of a poem is necessary, seems a little . . . self-important? Self-deluded? I kept wondering if Gosslee felt such an experience would never come again – perhaps he’ll never be praised effusively for another great poem, so he’s going to get the whole story of a one hit wonder down for posterity? It’s as if ? and the Mysterians wrote a tome recounting every single performance of “96 Tears.” We get it. It’s a great poem. There’s no need to prove it to us so exhaustively – to do so involves some rather laborious reading I’d rather not have had to do.
The book ends with a pair of illustrated versions of “Portrait of an Inner Life,” and some photographs of the poem-in-a-bottle project described in the prose section. Of these last sections, Scott Kirschner’s illustrated images of the poem stand out as the most interesting collaboration. His images, more so than the other artist, seem to get at the weird pathos of the images of “Portrait.”
I hope Gosslee keeps writing. His poems are interesting, and, at their best, quite capable of sticking in one’s mind as fresh and original writing. I just hope the next great poem he writes doesn’t compel him to complete a whole navel gazing history of it, once again.