Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews


Jessica Piazza.
Red Hen Press. 2013. 69 pp.
ISBN 978-1-59709-722-2.

Review by Maryann Corbett

Buy now from Amazon! Most poetry is made out of the poet's life, and most readers of poetry like it that way. Ekphrasis and historical exploration add color and variety to a body of work, but usually we grow to love the poets whose heads we believe—rightly or wrongly—we can somehow get inside. So the oddest and most intriguing quality of Jessica Piazza's Interrobang is that we are allowed so fully inside a head, yet we may come away feeling we know little about the writer but more about ourselves.

What we can know immediately is that this book is a formal and metrical tour de force. Its cataloging information classifies it as "sonnets," but it also uses the tanka stanza, the ghazal, the sapphic stanza, rhymed dimeter and tetrameter and hexameter, and a bit of free verse. And while the meter is tight as a drumhead, it's never, ever constricted, pinched, or predictable. These poems do not lull; they poke, prod, provoke. They do this principally by means of sonics and word play, with additional jolts of extreme enjambment:

My tired love sleeps. His eyes alive with movement:
flicker, flicker, mimicking trains and halfway
open. Tragic: one should be blind when sleeping:
waking's already

hardship, overload of the heart. Awake, the
body blinks, incredulous: stunned and working.
Mornings waking, swept by the moving world, he
whispers of seeing...

The back-cover blurbs note the influence of Hopkins and Heather McHugh. An influence they don't mention, but one confirmed in the book's acknowledgments, is Jill Alexander Essbaum, another metrical and sonic delver into the deeps of obsessive emotion.

Obsessions, compulsions, and assorted phobias and philias are the book's organizing scheme, and they produce a remarkably cohesive first book. Another element in that cohesion is that 21 of the 38 titles treat some facet of erotic/romantic love, mostly in its painful and terrible aspect:

It isn't whether. No. Only: how long until
how bad it gets. So quick, our clutch. Sluggish, our rift.
How costly this, a wished subletting of the heart.
Not mine to squat in; he's not mine (it's fine). But still:
That sock-to-the-stomach, sudden hollow Ugh! You see
the ante? I'm already un and raveling...

In that sense the book "reads young," and a repetend line in one of the sonnet crowns reads "I'm not a girl who has epiphanies," a good summary of the book's own obsession with the liminal world of young adulthood.

Exactly where that world is, on the physical earth, is never clear. Externals are hard to come by in the poems, though they yield to close reading. There seems to be more of New York in the book, and more of Brooklyn in particular, than of other places:

                                          ...Two weeks ago a row
of stubborn Brooklyn brownstones doffed their lids
to twisters, skylighting the highlit glow
of streetlamps bending at the waist from winds...

There are also occasional appearances by Rhode Island, Texas, Prague, and highways that might be anywhere in America. But the place most fully inhabited in the book is the inside of the skull. Is this just one skull, daringly explored, or a whole psychotherapist's datebook? It's a question not answered by the shifting first, second, and third person viewpoints in the poems, although the book's acknowledgments mention that certain of the phobia/philia pieces are "for" specific people. However many minds are being mined here, the poems work past the remoteness of titles like "Eremophobia" (fear of loneliness or of being oneself) to get into the pained cranial spaces every reader might inhabit:

Hi I. Hi me, on this, a birthday. Hi,
internal eye of this year's storm. Hello
you: point without an exclamation. Wave
a single hand, then wave the other; pair
them off. A sacrifice concise as this:
pity your pity today and let it lie.
An alibi for a scoffing enemy:
Myself, and my most toxic company...

These are troubled explorations, and I confess that the poems I like best in the book are the ones that place the narrator bodily in a setting we can inhabit with her. One of those is the sonnet crown "What I Hold," which is the book's closing poem. Interestingly, it's a more formally calm poem than many of the others, with more true rhyme and more end-stopped lines:

A glint—an intimation of what gleams.
Just simple incidentals, nothing grand
in pomegranates, Coney Island, reams
of new newspapers hitting dawn-dark stands...

With just enough specifics to place us outside the narrator's vexed head, it sets out the hope of getting, at last, beyond the obsessions and into the world. It offers a kind of resolution of the book's many tensions, and a suggestion that there's a future out there, "a minute's inkling of what gleams."


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