Showcase Showdown by Christopher Spaide

Playing with polarities in Adrienne Raphel’s What Was It For

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Duking it out on a runaway carousel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, 1951.

What Was It For? asks the title of Adrienne Raphel’s debut poetry collection (Rescue Press, March 2017). Was any poet ever so quick to question the worth of it all? Raphel’s mercurial poems teach you several correct ways to say her title: at a tea party, surmising offhand—Oh, what was it for—or while pulling out your hair, the world falling to pieces—What was it for! Well, what was it for? Everything, or nothing, who knows the difference. In Raphel’s world, a dimension over from Wonderland and Neverland, whimsy rules tyrannically, best intentions veer woozily off, and the divinest sense lies in nonsense. Take “Note from Paradise,” the book’s first poem:

Somewhere in a Spain I think of as France
dozens of geese live in Paradise.
They run at the river,
swaying their sizeable livers,
while on either side I think there are
fields and fields, or one, of lavender,
faced blue toward the sun,
lavender first and by far.
It is late summer, early winter.
That spleenish November, another
idea altogether. It was something like flying.
Well, it was very like something.

On first glance, these quatrains evoke familiar ingredients: nursery rhymes, gone metrically haywire; the color palettes and scrambling shapes of Saturday-morning cartoons; Marx Brothers–grade slapstick and deadpan illogic (“fields and fields, or one”). But disquiet runs through this dashed-off “Note.” It’s a hallucinogenic parody of classical pastorals, an alarmingly unconcerned description of fattened-up, soon-to-be-harvested geese, an SOS from a “Paradise” no longer the least bit idyllic. It’s also a portrait of an artist counteracting severe displacement—in her France-like Spain, her summery, wintry autumn—with all the imagination she can muster. Her presence is slight, decaying, but radioactively charged: “What am I but a half-life,” she wonders at the poem’s close,

what do I do but I have
to do, to face these fields where they are
lavender first and by far.

Raphel plays cartoonish surfaces against implied depths: first you notice the frantic movement and clip-clopping rhyme, later, you tune into her baffled protests against commercialism and sexism, highbrow traditions and lowest-denominator advertising. Like caffeinated kids or hostage negotiators, Raphel keeps the conversation going at any cost: her poems parrot charms, curses, proverbs, baby talk, folk songs, shopping lists, Tin Pan Alley, Ouija-board transmissions, Dickinsonian epigrams, Steinian stutter, and an operetta’s worth of Victorian nonsense: “Haccharine saccharine,” “Agar Agar / Little star,” “Hobson Jobso`n!” Nothing gets taken wholly seriously, not even poetry: if anything earns the title of prophecy, full-throated song, “writing on the wall,” it’s garage-sale finds, pop-cultural flotsam and jetsam:

The middle of America
The malls decay and fall
Big Mouth Billy Bass
Sings on the wall

Raphel’s distinctive creation is an ambivalent, tousled speaker, a great-grand-niece of Carroll’s Alice, wedged between incompatible worlds, prey to vertiginous changes in scale. She might sound ditzy then deadened, pre-adolescent then post-apocalyptic, new to the world then over it. For a poet so lightheaded from being transported (by magic, whimsy, balloons), nothing could be more oppressive than being wrapped up and packaged, like her book’s cast of alliterative, doll-stiff girls, “Lena Listless Lena,” “Henrietta House,” “Buttermilk Barbara.” Perpetually moving and dizzyingly still, Raphel condenses her paradoxes into a “Carousel,” spinning above “Lost worlds,” swirling phonemes all about: “No carousing in the capital. / No crowding on the carousel.” Think of the carousel that closes Catcher in the Rye; think of the climactic carousel of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train; Raphel is these and more, simultaneously the carousel, its horses, the desperate crawler underneath.

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Raphel has engineered a poetics of polarities, with extremes pendulum-swinging to extremes: zaniness and stolidity, terseness and excess, metronome and malfunction. Her least memorable poems gravitate to just one pole; when she calibrates her swings just right, her poetry sounds like nothing else. At her best, Raphel’s collaborators are entropy and constraint: content falls apart while form remains unvarying, resolute, and the more daring—an abecedarian, a Double Dutch of interlocking rhyme schemes—the better.

Even in direness, Raphel is driven towards play: an unforgettable example is “The House on Bayshore,” written after Hurricane Sandy, and governed by a nostalgia doggedly searching for anything to hold onto. For her only prose-poem, Raphel soups up the formal mechanism underneath “This is the house that Jack Built,” or its descendant, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths.” For the poem’s tidal-wave force, you need to read it entire, but excerpts capture its swells. It starts:

This is the house on Bayshore.   This is the bulkhead behind the house on Bayshore.   This is the dock that joins the bulkhead behind the house on Bayshore.   This is the Dalmatian that hates the dock that juts from the bulkhead behind the house on Bayshore.   This is the crusted red sore on the foot of the dog that hates the dock that juts from the bulkhead behind the house on Bayshore.   This is the showcase showdown the sore and the Dalmatian who licks the sore and barks at the dock that gives a Bronx cheer to the bulkhead that keeps out the bay from 2425 Bayshore.

It’s typical of Raphel that the most autobiographical detail in the entire book is an address. Look it up on Google Maps, and you’ll see a familiar, distanced, over-visualized scene of devastation—wreckage, severed tree, bulldozers—that Raphel eludes in her poem. Typical, too, that Raphel approaches loss not head on but aslant, with a tracking shot gradually taking everything in, and an eye for absurdities. When Sandy arrives, it swallows everything, even Raphel’s devastated language, its cobbled-together consolations (“thank god the dog’s dead”) and self-distracting busywork (“who will get the wooden white whale”). Raphel’s book, in its final lines, grounds itself in another address: “I took a rock from Hopkins Pond, / Haddonfield, NJ.” If Raphel’s expeditions take us right back to where we started—the real world, Hopkins Pond, that solid rock—what was it for, really? From the first poem to the last, Raphel gives that question and its answers the circular runaround, a maddened carousel ride.

Christopher Spaide is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University. His essays and reviews have appeared in Boston Review, The New Yorker, and Slate.

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