The Mystery of Systems, Poems by Carl Rosenstock

Reviewed by Dean Kostos

CW Books, 2017, 102 pages, $19.00
ISBN: 9781625492197, ISBN-10: 1625492197, paper

The first poem in Carl Rosenstock’s soaring new collection is “For the Audience.” This poem alerts the reader to the shadowy scrim between art and artifice, life and performance, dialog and soliloquy. In many of these poems, the speaker addresses an unnamed “you.” This structure of direct address focuses the poems. While the “you” suggests a beloved, it also makes an apostrophe to the “audience,” which happens to be the reader. In addition, we are drawn in to the musical references and to the sonic qualities of the poems themselves:  “You’re the ballerina; I’m the orchestra …”

Another trope that summons the memory of a beloved is that of photographs: “This photograph of you has no memory, no sense / Of how the contrasts of summer offer / Little weight against the slate sky.” In keeping with a mournful tone, the photographs (which the reader might imagine in black and white) are seen through reminiscence.

Finally, an implied “we” emerges, like an analog photograph coming into focus in its chemical bath. As specters swirl from the past, the poems increasingly take on an elegiac air: “A fool, I await an order that would impose / Meaning on memories the moment I stand / At your door.” To be sure, remembrance drives a kind of obsessive movement.

Other voices from the past engage these pages: Rosenstock includes a suite of his seamless translations from Russian. These “Englished” voices play a part among the elegiac portraits in this book. Reading his poems and his translations, the reader lingers, as if looking wistfully through a photo album.

The etymology of the word photograph means “to write with light.” The poet writes, “The apprehension of reality through / Depiction of selected phenomena: / Writing with light.” That’s what Rosenstock is doing—writing, as if with a welder’s torch, white-hot lines and recollections that dissolve into each other as a narrative develops. Yet the poet pulls off the legerdemain of encompassing both narrative and lyric modes. Somehow, time simultaneously exists and transcends itself.

In this regard, Rosenstock takes a signal from the visual arts. His separate poems, read as a whole, become like Eadweard Muybridge’s freeze frames. They were individual photographs that, when seen in a sequence, depicted a trajectory. As Muybridge dissected locomotion, Rosenstock dissects and examines emotional transitions. The “you” with its joy and regret, with its tenderness and pain, also address the reader.

I would polish that
Adamantine dark into
Beads — pierced and laced
To grace your neck.

While a haunting ache rises from these poems in the form of a story (what happened, what failed to happen), there’s also a subtle attention to language. This is a poet who knows that a poem is, ultimately, about language, as much as it’s about the concerns that occupy a poet’s psyche. In the passage above, notice the consonance of the “s” sound in “pierced,” “laced,” and “grace.” These sounds include the assonance of the long “a” in “laced” and “grace.” Effortlessly, this lovely passage, like many others, achieves an Auden-esque analyzed rhyme. That is one of the elements that crescendos throughout this poignant collection. The reader is compelled to go along, even as the poems grow darker:

There is no time here,
No rot, just dust, bones,
No fire.  Here, there is
A river of words.

On this planet, I must
Hide among the dead, their
Ashes, their smoke.  Bones
Out of joint, tongue in throat …

To borrow from novelistic nomenclature, these poems progress towards the crisis/climax moment—towards loss, terror, even rage. The dramatic speaker sees himself as an outcast, disjointed, wounded. A darkening of tone and imagery suggests a horrific history—the Holocaust. Because we have become so invested in the poet’s plaintive “I,” we follow him, unable to look away. His suffering becomes our own. As we are ushered into the speaker’s reality, we ponder our place in a broken world, and ultimately, our place beyond the body’s demise.

Sounds skirr along the air as fingers skitter
Over argentine strings against ebony;
Swooning women rake their breasts; notes spiral
Higher, still higher — then twisting downward
With demonic turns, they carom.

As in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets,” which charted his depression, the language in Rosenstock’s despairing poems becomes paradoxically ecstatic (life-affirming?). This quality is achieved by the poet’s attention to sound for the emotive qualities it enacts. However, his sound play is never decorative or trite. Instead, the poet’s vulnerability is expressed through the rigor and stringency of language. As readers, we come to trust his voice—poem by poem—throbbing from the page.

Returning to an audience of ghosts, this collection ends with a poem entitled “Paganini’s Strings.” Stripped bare of anything inauthentic, the poet sacrifices himself—flayed, revealed with exquisite pain, nonetheless making “the dark wood sing.”

Dean Kostos’s recent collection—Pierced by Night-Colored Threads—was released in September of 2017. His previous books include This Is Not a Skyscraper (recipient of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, selected by Mark Doty), Rivering, Last Supper of the Senses, The Sentence That Ends with a Comma, and the chapbook Celestial Rust. He edited Mama’s Boy (a Lambda Book Award finalist) and edited Pomegranate Seeds (its debut reading was held at the United Nations). His poems and essays have appeared in over 300 journals and anthologies, such as Boulevard, Chelsea, Cimarron Review, Mediterranean Poetry (Sweden), Southwest Review, Stand Magazine (UK), Western Humanities Review, and on Oprah Winfrey’s website His choral text, Dialogue: Angel of War, Angel of Peace, was set to music by James Bassi and performed by Voices of Ascension. His literary criticism has appeared on the Harvard UP website and elsewhere. A multiple Pushcart-Prize nominee, he served as literary judge for Columbia University’s Gold Crown Awards and received a Yaddo fellowship. He has taught at Wesleyan, The Gallatin School of NYU, and The City University of New York. His poem “Subway Silk” was translated into a film by Jill Clark and screened at Tribeca and at the San Francisco Indiefest. He presented his paper “Schemes and Schemata: Endless Play” and read his poems at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center.