Book Review: ICONOSCOPE by Peter Oresick

9780822963806 Iconoscope: New and Selected Poems 
by Peter Oresick
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016
$16.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli 

It’s rare to find a poet with such a laser focus on creating a lifelong legacy. From Definitions in 1990 to Warhol-o-rama (2008) and anthologies like For a Living (1995), Oresick devoted his life’s work to making, fostering, inspiring, and highlighting art for, by, and about the working class. To read the sequence of his latest collection is to appreciate and be captivated by a project more than 25 years in the making: the democratization of poetry and a true, beautiful expression of the working class experience in America.

No other poem in the collection so perfectly captures Oresick’s essence as “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair,” from Definitions. Covering a sweeping chunk of history from the 1300s to the late 20th century, the poem betrays the immense depth of research and intent Oresick brought to his craft. With pitch-perfect imagery, he transports us into a childhood of “the Kwik-Mart on the corner… mother’s footsteps, / the tonk of bottles, / the scraping of plates,” where grandfathers and machinery sputter simultaneously. As its narrative threads come together, the poem’s core rises, gleaming, into sight. For the children of immigrants and tradesmen, the inborn need to build something of meaning—something that will outlast us—is inescapable.

Oresick, of course, built worlds with words. And, from his explorations of a blue-collar upbringing to meditations on his “Rusyn brother” Andy Warhol, there has always been a commitment to keeping things intelligible. His poems glitter like ornate glass drinking bottles—beautiful, yes, but equally aware of their utility. Difficult emotions must be expressed simply; images must be reliably understandable to readers of all backgrounds. These poems defy the canonical tendency toward opaqueness and ethereality. Take, for instance, these lines from “Morning, Allegheny River.”

Silence. No moon in the heavens.
Stars that spin and pivot, nuanced,

never resting. Again a longing—
forget it. Suddenly, everything is dimly

visible, not yet flushed by dawn.
The bushes dewy, the cinders slick,

the train rails glow light & cold
& bluish. I piss & spit. A breeze

flutters; my body responds with a
shudder of delight. The dog smiles.

Twice the poem seems to catch itself becoming too lofty. That longing is inexpressible? Forget it. We’re lingering on the color of train rails? Enter piss. But the eye still catches the beauty we can all recognize in a quiet morning; our bodies all respond with a shudder of delight.

This seems to be Oresick’s great message, and I am grateful for it: that we all live a life that is capable of rising to the status of art. My father has been a delivery man all his life, my mother a secretary and a bartender and a government employee. The people in Oresick’s poems are my people, too, and their lives do have beauty and meaning and lessons to teach. Which is not to say they’re idyllic—there’s still piss and spit and layoffs and drinking. But isn’t that the point? We take it all together and wake up in the morning to do it again, forever, as our parents did and our children will as well. And hopefully, when we’re gone, we’ve left something to remember us by. Or, as Oresick says, in lines that ring true of his own legacy—

No endings. The pure
notes of a car horn ascending.


Specs of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

One might think the title is a typo, that I meant “Specks of Dust.”  Speck, from the Middle English “specke” and deeper still to Old English, “specca,” meaning “a small spot, mark, or discolorization” (American Heritage Dictionary).  But it’s no typo. In this case I’m referencing the Latinate “specere”—to look at, to see. As poets, our job is to see but also to present in such a way so that others can see.

I’ve put my spectacles on for this. I’m near sighted with an astigmatism, so they help me see. Seeing (along with the other four senses) is one of the most powerful tools for a writer; furthermore, the poem itself functions as a presentation of those images—literally they help readers imagine. In this way the poem itself functions as a kind of pair of spectacles to help the reader see what the writer saw—literally or in the imagination. What we see then, what we ask others to see with us, must be vibrant and vital, must be endowed with life.  We are asked then to pay attention.  As writers watching, it’s not what’s familiar that catches our eye, but what’s unfamiliar. As the City of New York used to say in its ads after 9/11: “if you see something, say something.”

In that regard then, the poet is spectator, a kind of witness. The spectators at a baseball game spend a lot of time watching nothing happen waiting for a homerun or a dramatic diving catch or a play at the plate. Ditto, the spectator of the world watches the mundane waiting for the world to deliver something worth reporting on. If we’re distracted, we might not notice something, might find ourselves not bringing it to life in a way that captures the imagination.  More importantly, what we see needs to be something that captures our imagination, it needs to find its language within us so that we can bring it to life for the reader.

In this regard, then, we become speculators in both senses of the word.  First off, in our writing, we are making new thoughts. We are considering the importance of our images, and thus we are speculating, and by that I mean “to engage in a course of reasoning often based on inconclusive evidence; conjecture or theorize.” The best poems think through images, engage the material in creative ways. The best poems provide the reader with this new thinking. In that way, the poem is an act of commerce, an exchange of time and energy for the linguistic experience found in the poem. In this regards, the poet is a speculator in another way, too, “engag[ing] in the buying or selling of a commodity with an element of risk on the chance of profit.” Each image chosen, each word chosen to bring this image to life, is a commodity brought into the poem, and with it comes the possibility of a successful poem. Ditto, the possibility of failure.

All writing in some way is about what’s on our spectrum, in this case meaning the “band of colors produced when the wavelengths making up white light are separated, as when light passes through a prism or strikes drops of water”—in other words, what’s visible to the eye. We train our writer’s eye to see things, but often what we see says more about what our filters, our unconscious thinking, our obsessions, than the world as it actually is. Consider the infrared and ultraviolet frequencies of the seeing self. Ask a group of spectators what they saw in a particular moment, and they’ll give you an equal number of narratives because what they see says as much about their interior world as it does about our shared exterior world.

We are asked, then, to speculate, to wonder. To ask questions not only about what we see, but to also ask why we see it.

For those of who find in our present world the nostalgia for the lost world, the past that is gone and yet remains, for those of us who, as Stanley Kunitz put it “Anyone who has lived to the age of five has enough for a life time of poetry” we are dealing constantly with specters, those “ghostly apparition[s]” of a life we can’t shed. Memories are a kind of thinking. Ditto the imagination. By working with both, we create specters for our readers, the best poems become part of their memories if we get the language right, the music right.

Because the poem reflects its writer’s obsessions for the reader, because if reflects the world seen by the poet and not the world as such, the poem functions, then, as a kind of speculum.

Our language exists on a spectrum; the more we read and write, the more we experiment with the elasticity of the language, the more we go searching for Coleridge’s “best word” the broader our spectrum of possible words get. Ditto our craft skills exist in a spectrum. We grow as poets engaging in what’s possible and needing to expand that field of possibility we broaden the spectrum of our prosody.

Spectacle is the name of the quarterly journal of the circus arts, from the second American Heritage definition: “A public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale.” I like to think of the poem as spectacle, too, though more akin to the first definition: “Something that can be seen or viewed, especially something of a remarkable or impressive nature.” At least, a poem should. Each line crafted from the best words, the images, the musicality of the language.

The poem should be spectacular.