Sunday, January 27, 2008

As Cool as Hot Jazz: April Ossmann, ANXIOUS MUSIC

So much poetry passes through April Ossmann's hands each month. She's executive director of Alice James Books, and also has taught at the University of Maine in Farmington, as well as at Lebanon College. She says it makes her more serious, more determined in her own work.

Four Way Books just brought out Ossmann's first full-length collection, ANXIOUS MUSIC. The details of place that emerge in the poems are surely New England's: the raw wintry challenge of Maine, the long late drives through New Hampshire and Vermont. But mostly the setting is more interior: the room of lovers moving toward and away from each other, now clinging, now flinging. It's a dance, and Ossman evokes its music. Then she presses the forms on the page into two-steps, or the precise acrobatics of well-danced swing.

But all of her explorations are laid out in a clear light of intellect and appraisal. Although heartache and comfort take turns, they're marshaled into simile, neatness, precise clips of language that compel multiple readings. Here's a segment from "Y":

The more you know, the less you comprehend. Is this
where apprehension begins?

Today, we think we've found an answer
to this dreadful unending line, curve it

into a circle, stopping at this mountaintop
where we began our romance.

A perfect movie finish, at last, a tiny end
to all our questions. But near the hike's mid-point,

we've changed our mind about circles:
no further attempts at friendship.

Forty feet from the summit, we part,
tracing a "Y" on the mountain's furrowed brow.

There's a taste in this of Linda Pastan's philosophizing (Carnival Evening), and something too of the careful geometry that James Richardson framed in his Second Guesses. And though the terrain of the poems is riven with questions, Ossmann is the first to describe herself in them as always sure, always certain. When a poem drifts into a dream world of symbols, as in "Over My Head," Ossmann becomes also the mind that backs away for more perspective:

Falling, or flying?
I am still nor sure, not
like my waking self.

Then the tangles of passion embedded among these very cerebral poems erupt more musically and with texture. I especially like "Fog," a poem ostensibly discussing forgetting -- it opens and closes with the need for the brain to forget -- but also layered with sensory memory, like "the exact flavor of the canard a l'orange" or "the rough wings of your eyebrows under my lips," quickly moving toward "the café where I dined with a friend last summer-- / let me forget how she died; / let the curtain descend on that scene."

Ossmann uses the patterns of short lines and regular stanzas to weave insistent speculation into the scenes she sketches, too -- in "Red Glove," there's a glove in the morning in the road, then later, picked up perhaps by a passerby, it's hanging in a tree. It's a hand in a wave from a friend who has just died, while also turning absence into a question of "particle or wave."

If physics are right, you've
only been changed, not lost, if
we're whole in every part,

and all part of the whole--
you're everywhere.

So much of this poet's language is new and inquiring that I found myself reading often two or three times through a poem before turning the page. I loved comparison of explosive sudden death to being able to avoid the "gloved // hands, sex reduced to a dry rubbing, the indignant squeak / of new sneakers on tiled floor." Repeated appearance of a commitment-phobic lover leads into trying to be grateful for what is, instead of groaning over what's missing, but with a twist in "Satisfaction": "So you're grateful, / even if what you don't have // is more real / than what you do."

My favorite shapes in this collection turned out to be the two-line stanzas where each second line is tucked under, indented, like a second dance step that swings the body back into position. "A Kind of Music" pulls into this shape, opening with "Name the things / the body does fast naturally--" and wrapping up with "is a kind of music-- / the music we most desire // to dance to-- dance, dance / until our feet shall fail." Although the lines themselves wouldn't lie across each other snugly, the rhythms resonated for me like many of the poems in Mark Doty's School of the Arts -- narratives dancing through "first," "and then," "at last," but all the time stitching back toward the initial daring questions.

And as the collection reaches a crescendo in "Fusion," Ossmann offers a jazz riff that plays on words themselves, words like "solo" and "soul" -- "music in the shape / of a solo, solo, / the shape of a soul --" so that every question is the start of an unexpected and delicious answer.

I'll be reading this collection again. And again.

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