V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Lance Larsen's Book of Poetry



Almost every poem in the collection bears evidence
of Larsen's singular knack for compact
and powerful lyric expression.  Lines lodge
in the mind with epigrammatic incisiveness.

        There is another world,
        but it is in this one.
                    —Paul Eluard

Lance Larsen is one of those writers who clings to a quaintly Romantic notion that mortality and love and soul are the abiding themes of life and art.  So much to the good.  While we live in a culture abounding in references to God, precious little notice is given to the myriad wonders and mysteries of this life.  Poetry has often had a recuperative function in this regard.  Though not much in fashion of late, the imaginative impulse to seek out a world of spiritual incandescence in the midst of our too-familiar world goes to the heart of both an eastern and western lyric tradition.  In his second collection, In All Their Animal Brilliance, Larsen maps the hallowed ground we tread daily, if only to show how we might know it as such.        
    Early on in the book, Larsen makes his allegiances clear.  In "This World, Not the Next," the poet gives us Adam and Eve learning to love "this world, with its tides and machinery / of sweet decay."  After the Fall, "God blessed / their bounty to be infinite, but left them / ten crooked fingers to count with" (the last line break is particularly felicitous in context).  Still, divinity lingers, residual, often hidden, but pervasive in the ways of the world. 
    And the byways.  In the very next poem, "Winter Takeout," the poet is out driving alone in a blinding snowstorm.  "Yes to snow heavy as Ecclesiastes," he declares, acknowledging how sometimes acceptance and even affirmation become the fruits of adversity.  Seeking refuge at a roadside truck stop, the poet happens to brush up against a harried waitress.  This fleeting instant of human contact sets off small erotic and spiritual fires:

                            Silly to call
        that incident holy.  Her hands didn't linger.
        Her minced steps and the pout of her body
        were only fatigue.  But so what?  I needed to be touched.       

    Almost every poem in the collection bears evidence of Larsen's singular knack for compact and powerful lyric expression.  Lines lodge in the mind with epigrammatic incisiveness.  Witness these three references to the local fauna:

        Settle on nothing, but bring enough praying
        mantises to green up the day.  

        The cricket in the tarantula's cage
        chirrs the next world. 
                            ["Want Song"]
        At the slaughterhouse, trotters went in whole
        and came out viscera tossed into a pickup.  
                            ["Santiago Commute"]

As the last quoted lines suggest, the metamorphic translation of beings from one mode of existence to another is the dominant motif of the collection.  Beginning with the line, "You enter as a mother on a bus, exit a blade of grass," the poem "Black Box" imagines a negative, black space of seemingly infinite transformative possibilities.  This reviewer would have been awfully tempted to title the poem "Phone Booth," alluding thereby to Superman's favorite transformative haunt; but, alas, Larsen's poem rightly cautions us that "Transformation is not a place." 
    Transformation does, however, often suggest a direction, and the poems point to different available trajectories of transcendence.  Sometimes the movement is up, as in "Platonic," in which the poet describes his childhood faith in the talismanic power of talons worn around the neck.  The poem ends:

        And when the talons gripped my finger
        till it purpled I felt
        great wings feather the air,
        straining to pull me out of my body.
If this poem is reminiscent of Robinson Jeffers in his quest for a home-brewed apotheosis, we get flashes also of another twentieth-century devotee of nature, Theodore Roethke.  In "Salamander," the poet shifts his gaze downward, and discovers an amphibious agent of transfiguration in the murky "underlife" of the marshes:

            If I lifted you in my palm, like a compass,
          carried you in my mouth, the way
        our first parents did, would your poisons sweeten
          my desire, could I slide through backyard
            pools, like water before it was water?
The lyrical heft of passages such as those quoted above are judiciously balanced by dashes of humor — "Your mouth is a study in late food poisoning / or early voodoo" ("To a Souvenir Mermaid") — and a wry, self-ironizing wit that views the outworn self "through a funhouse mirror," as he puts it in the wise and funny poem, "To My Old Clothes." 
    Perhaps the signature virtue of In All Their Animal Brilliance is the collection's luminous clarity.  This is not to say that the work is transparent, but rather that it is welcoming.  Notably, these are not lopsided poems, all head or all heart, but poems that invite and engage the intellect and the emotions simultaneously, so that the distinction seems hardly to matter.  The tenor of the poems is performative, but quietly so, without the least taint of showiness or bravado.  William Matthews and Larry Levis come to mind as two late great exemplars in this poetic mode.                     
    My only gripe — on the order of a trifle — concerns Larsen's frequent resort to language tropes.  On some level, of course, it is only natural for a poet to experience the world flush with language, all the more so in a collection devoted to translation, in all its connotative guises.  But postmodernist-inflected phrases such as "a grammar of waiting" or "grammar of whiteness" are vague and gestural rather than evocative.  How much more vivid and memorable is the description of "a catcher's mitt / of a cinnamon roll slathered in icing" ("Winter Takeout").  Happily, In All Their Animal Brilliance offers many such familiar delicacies.  This is our world, after all, to which the poet has lovingly returned us.        

Larsen, Lance. In All Their Animal Brilliance. Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press, 2005. ISBN: 1879852322  $12.00


© by Mike White

Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]