by John Isles (Estonia 1992–94)
University of Iowa Press,
September 2003
68 pages

    Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)

    AS A POET, JOHN ISLES, like Odysseus, lives by his nerve. He is not head or heart or hand or foot. He is spine. In Ark, his first book, verbal impulses race across the syntax of sentences as if they were re-enacting dendritic processes in nerve cells. In terms of form and content, his poems belong somewhere on the continuum from Wallace Stevens to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. In terms of linguistic texture, they approach the gorgeousness of Keats.
         Ark is a repository of broken things. Its images are like the shards of mirrors in Anselm Kiefer’s works — the more they catch the light, the more loaded they become with the burdens of memory (in Kiefer’s case, with Kristallnacht). Like Kiefer, Isles is preoccupied with the question of how much mythic resonance a fragment of cultural history can carry. He is also obsessed with absence as opposed to presence. The monolithic whiteness in his poems recalls the monolithic greyness in Kiefer’s canvases. Sometimes the whiteness feels bridal. Sometimes it feels monotonous, like the silent equivalent of white noise. Mostly, it feels ghostly. Indeed ghosts serve as a trope in many of the poems. As Isles states in “Carrion Days,” “whitewashed out as it were, the dead/ shape the air with their God-like absence.”
         To a significant extent, paradox drives the poems in Ark. We are in the territory of Robert Frost’s “Directive,” with the poet standing in the ruins of “the house that is no more a house.” As Isles states in “Natural History”: “The dust happens a thousand times/ clouds our eyes till we’re blind with seeing/ nobody.” In too many of the poems in Ark, however, there’s a Houdiniesque quality to the paradox. We escape from real truth into cleverness, riff after riff on nothingness.
         The second section of “How the Dead Kiss,” which pushes off a Currier & Ives sugaring scene, reveals “daylight/ distilling in amber, honeyed essence of…/ I want to say the moment’s soul/ time-being liquefied and oozing between boards.” The strongest poems in Ark do exactly that: distill a moment’s soul in amber. My vote for the best poem in the book goes to “In the Erogenous Zone of the Body Politic.” In that poem, the existential streaming is purposeful. The lines and phrases don’t feel like random dust motes in the stream of sunlight that is the poem. The randomness makes sense. It embodies the whims of history. What we get is the deconstruction of the deconstruction of the Eastern Block. Other favorites include “To a Pretending Leaf,” “Our Daughter” and “Small Traveling Islands.”
         As Montaigne said, “It is easier to write a mediocre poem than to understand a good one.” The poems in Ark are brilliant in a linguistic sense. Each one is like the Frank-Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — a fugue of shimmering surfaces, undulation after undulation of airplane wing flying in the sun. In the end, though, I can’t escape the admission that after trying pretty hard, I don’t understand too many of them. Or at least, I don’t understand them in an integrated sense. My understanding is Heraclitan — the river in which I stand in line 29 is so different from the river in which I stood in line 8 that I might as well just say that I don’t recognize it. This probably says more about me and my limitations than it does about Ark, but it nonetheless needs to be said.
         There’s a rarified feel about Ark. It’s a book written by a guy who studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was chosen by two of his teachers there, Mark Levine and Jorie Graham, to be published by the University of Iowa Press. This kind of incestuousness scares me. Yes, it’s a small poetry world after all, a small, small world. Will this smallness doom the audience for poetry? How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?
         In Ark, the definitive voice is not the captain’s. His voice is weak and solipsistic. It’s the ocean’s. Only the sea which doesn’t say can say. The ravings of ocean prove exquisite. John Isles has set forth impressively, as poet, on his maiden voyage.

    Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the RPCV Readers and Writers Award. She is currently completing a book-length sequence inspired by the Boston busing crisis. Recent work appears in the anthology Snakebird and is upcoming in the Mid-American Review. A professor of Creative Writing at Murray State University, she lives in western Kentucky with her husband and two sons.