|That Our Eyes Be Rigged
Poems by Kristi Maxwell
|Saturnalia Books, 2014
reviewed by Dakota Garilli
I always want to say falsetto to sing it true in falsetto.
– “My Cost”
Following its desire to play with and harness the strange power of words, Kristi Maxwell’s That Our Eyes Be Rigged seems to be a meditation on the nature of memory and moments shared. From its opening poem, “In Which We Ask, Exist,” small fragments come to light piece by piece and allow the speaker to create small worlds:
Light chews on the patio
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
Enter our star player in unpunctuated lines, the breaks and creatively-chosen words of which displace typical language into an ever-shifting quicksand of images and moods. This collection is not for syntactical purists – in fact, it’s frustrating. It begs the reader to give painstaking attention to each new turn while simultaneously allowing whole trains of thought to break down in a manner somewhat akin to a Gertrude Stein poem. But for the reader who sticks around, there are some sweet nuggets. The surprises of the opening poem, “My Cost,” “[When I/ said deliver],” “Mined,” and the “Every Time I Want to Write You…” series may not be enough to sustain us, but they offer treasured moments of understanding amidst a stifling maze of words.
The most disconcerting element of Maxwell’s collection is that we know the meaning of each word it includes, or could at least look them up—and yet these same words, stripped to their bare sounds and played out to the thinnest representations of themselves, quickly become incomprehensible to us. Not surprising, as we come to realize that many of these poems are about a breakdown of communication.
“Of Them,” a retelling of moments shared by a couple no longer together, showcases some of Maxwell’s strongest moments in this linguistic experiment. Her lover’s hands are, unexpectedly, “a flesh chapel hid behind the scaffolding of open-fingered gloves,” and a mirror becomes “a park where light picnics.” Trips to the (actual) park are named by what makes them memorable, like “The First Below Zero Night.” While Maxwell’s plunging into the chill of these splintered memories may not suit her purpose —“To write about parks the way he walks through them” —the poem ambles to a wonderfully poignant close:
Snow erases mud our feet rewrite.
Snow and mud and our feet plunged and our feet plugged into our shoes and snow and mud a feat to plough through and we do.
Slipping, we separate and our separating is a colon between us.
We who number who digital clock and set ourselves for the occasion.
By the poem’s end, any trace of these lovers has already disappeared under fresh snow. Their inevitable separation manifests and, like the numbers on a digital clock, they blink slowly out of our sight.
Not all of Maxwell’s poems are so easy to track. It’s clear she sees language as a series of, as one poem is titled, “Tiny Wires Touching the Right Way.” That poem’s epigraph might be Maxwell’s plea for better readers: “Where is the body that is prepared to receive language?” Answer: Only in the space where one is willing to be lost, to be astonished by the flexibility of words and reminded of the utter meaningless of language when attempting to articulate those emotions and questions that sometimes feel incommunicable.
Her speaker seems to realize the growing futility of this attempt at connection. Her irritation becomes apparent in “[My soul’s in your head],” printed here in its entirety:
My soul’s in your head
if anywhere. The song
said so or something
like it. I fold my voice
to fit your ear. I fold it
and store it. Stalled
after all. What horse
is this—that carries us
one at a time?
The horse, of course, is language. Maybe better put, meaning. Because Maxwell’s soul is never truly in our head, no matter how carefully her words are chosen for shape and shade or how compactly they’re folded. We are filtering her words as much as she filters her world, and somewhere in between we either find meaning or don’t. In poetry, an art where so much time is spent perfecting and so little at play, that’s perhaps a useful reminder.