WHAT OUR SKY IS LIKE
This was how we spoke to the distant flicker. Our silence hydrated a speaker. Its form came to us in pieces culled from the canopic night. We wore diagnostic dust in a book that believed only in ablutions. We dried slowly. Now what our sky is like is like a hospital for the sun.
Denver, Colorado poet Eric Baus’ latest full-length poetry title is HOW I BECAME A HUM (Portland OR/Denver CO: Octopus Books, 2019). Baus is very much a poet of sentences (a term I have utilized previously referencing the works of Rosmarie Waldrop and Lisa Robertson), and how they accumulate, composing prose poems that occasionally run up against the line of what might be considered a more straightforward prose. It might sound fairly obvious, and even a non-descriptor, but his poems very much are built upon how one sentence follows another and then another.
The author of four previous full-length collections—The To Sound, winner of the Verse Prize (Wave Books, 2004), Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009) [see my review of such here], Scared Text, winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011) [see my review of such here] and The Tranquilized Tongue (City Lights 2014) [see my review of such here]—as well as several chapbooks, Baus remains on the side of the lyric poetic rather than any narrative prose-line. Some have described his work as surreal, but I would also suggest Baus composes far more on the “poem” side of the prose poem line than, say, a writer such as the late Russell Edson; despite being considered one of the greats of the American prose poem, much of what I’ve seen of his work actually wrote more on the side of the postcard story than the lyric. The book is structured in eight sections—“The Rain of the Ice,” “Bad Shadow,” “The Datura Plains,” “Plan for a Lake on the Ceiling of a Cinema,” “Wolfram Frock,” “The Mesmerized Moth,” “Autonomic Mica” and “How I Became a Hum”—the first of which, in the spirit of full disclosure, appeared previously as a chapbook through above/ground press, a section he references in a 2019 interview with Ian Lockaby for NDR:
I have a section and a poem in the book called “The Rain of the Ice,” which is a micro-erasure of the title of the essay “The Grain of the Voice” by Roland Barthes. One of the things I like about Barthes’s essay is how he argues that instead of further developing our critical vocabulary around music (creating more and more descriptive language) we should instead focus on aspects of sound that we unconsciously filter and flatten out. He writes: “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” I like that impulse a lot—to shift the boundaries of the thing being studied as a transformative act. By erasing a few letters in his title, I’m thinking about the fluid state embedded within the solid state—the “rain” that is always part of “ice”—and, in some oblique way, gesturing toward slipping outside of expected ways of talking about the world and about experience.
In the poem “Bad Shadow,” I found a way to graft in language from a blurb I wrote for Richard Froude’s book The Passenger: “Richard Froude was grown from film stills. Above all he was a mirror. Much of his soil was gathered from conversation. Nothing is outside the screen. His house was built entirely of redirected rivers. This caused a book of between, a book of plywood and polymers, a book we are never finished reading.” And I turned it into this passage: “Above all we were was a mirror. Much of our soil was gathered from conversation. Nothing is behind the screen. Our mouth was built entirely of redirected rivers. This caused a book of between, a house of plywood and polymers, a city we were never outside of.” I try to find as many ways as possible of repurposing and re-framing language. I tend not to make references in a conventional way, where I’m signaling the content or ideas of another work directly, and instead I prefer to zero in on some granular aspect, some tonality of the thing that I’m thinking about, and use that to build language structures that take on a character of their own.
The sections in the collection move through both sections as suites of untitled poems in sequence, and sections of stand-alone, individual poems. In certain ways, the differences between sections, structurally, could be seen as both very wide (a section of poems against a section-as-sequence), and very minimal (a sequence of poems with titles against a sequence of untitled poems). Is there a difference? I suspect, and even prefer, that it might not even matter, although the sections sans titles infer a slightly stronger connection between poems than the other sections, but this might exist only in my imagination. Either way, the effect of his poems are stunning, with the lyric inference sweeping up against and away from meaning, allowing the poem to be propelled by tone and language, words set up against further words for remarkable effect, and lines composed with both a lightness and great density.
My brother’s lungs had synthesized a miniature sun. The swollen clouds collated. The blast’s grammar washed through his flickering cells. He bore storming twins. They wore lead.