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Helen Arms

Robert Elstein

Green Zone Editions, 2013

Review by John Ashbery



               I’ve been waiting six years for a sequel to Robert Elstein’s slim volume, “The Hollandaise,” whose manic vocabulary knocked me out of my chair the first time I read it. Sometimes his language then was downright chewy, as when he wrote, “restraint’s not my bread and butter,” following this with “Why not meet me after après ski/ I’ll be working on a Topfenpalatschinken/ at the only decent Stube in Mürzzuschlag.” More often, it breathes a kind of diurnal ventilatedness, as in “The wife of a Tampa podiatrist,/ who operates the government’s spy satellites,/ telephoned me by accident./ ‘Joe’s Garage,’ I answered.” My favorite line, however, was in the poem, “Hermes Holding an Orange”: after “you’re leaving?” he writes, “I’d shake hands, but I left my mittens in the cafeteria.”


               Why is this line so unforgettable? Or rather, why do I think it’s unforgettable? I suppose because it holds the fabric of daily life up to a light bulb. Elstein reminds me of the graphic novelist Ben Katchor, whose bizarre urban comic strips take us to a place other than the one their balloons seem anchored in. The ambiguities are multifarious. Why would forgetting mittens preclude a handshake? Surely, it would be rude to shake someone’s hand with a scratchy mitten on yours. And why were they left in the cafeteria? It sounds like they were left on purpose, but if so, what could that be? Is it part of some anarchist plot or meant, perhaps, to ease things for the next customer? But one mustn’t break butterflies on wheels. The butterflies will do just fine for themselves.


               Elstein’s new poems are lighter and tougher than the earlier ones, perhaps less anecdotal and more philosophical. There’s certainly less punctuation, no periods as far as I can see, though question marks and exclamation points are occasionally given houseroom. He even touches on religion — sort of — when he writes, “The body must be buried soon after drowning/ You think that’s funny?/ Then you can’t be much of a Jew” (“Visionary Progress”). Urban life continues to intrude: “...standing stock-still on the sidewalk/ Listening to a woman scream at a man/ On the third floor of a mysterious building” (“Five Departures”); “Two trombones/ Practicing in two houses/ In two adjoining neighborhoods/ At the same hour” (“Lines”).


               Elstein’s poetry repeatedly returns us to a central question: What are we doing here and why do we enjoy it so much? The title of one poem, “Anything Will Do,” is a clue; as is the last line of another, “Best to be insincere I mean sincere!” Between these vectors, time moves — “time better spent training for the classics or hyperventilating” (“Poet and Pediatrician Overture”) toward further alternatives that define the space that, for lack of a more precise term, we call life.


from The Poetry Project Newsletter

(No. 236, October/November 2013)

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