The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

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NOV 2014 Issue


John Gosslee
(Rain Mountain Press, 2013)

In the winter of 1912, when Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, and Richard Aldington initiated their Imagist movement in Poetry Review, one of their chief objectives was to make every object equal. It was sensation via simplicity, direct treatment of the “thing”—whatever that thing might be. John Gosslee’s second book of poems, Blitzkrieg, espouses this same directness, while at the same time providing a blueprint for a new movement: one that calls on the reader to participate in the creative process in atypical ways. The proposal begins with that blueprint, which straddles the visual and textual by combining poetry, prose, illustration, photography, and painting in one book.

Blitzkrieg is organized into three sections, but an advertisement for a film by director Roberta Hall interrupts the book after part one, inviting the reader to “LISTEN AND WATCH” the film adaptation of the poems, scored by composer Taras Mashtalir, on—the “Blitzkrieg Headquarters” website which also provides access to taped author commentary and question-and-answer sessions with readers. Several pages later, illustrations of Blitzkrieg’s central poem, “Portrait of an Inner Life,” by cartoonist Yumi Sakugawa, announce the final section: “Ephemera,” which includes 25 photographs of the poem posted by street teams in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Charlotte, Nashville, and New York, in addition to photographs of the poem in a bottle, and unnerving, ethereal paintings of the poem by former Magic: The Gathering artist, Scott Kirschner. Blitzkrieg is as much a work in process as it is a work of progress and proposition.

Similarly, Gosslee’s poetry can best be quantified by action and negative space: the tug-of-war between absence and presence, spare language and the possibilities of each word. Consider the simplicity—and the surprise—of the book’s first poem, “Summer”:

a baby crocodile walks up to a dandelion and sneezes
some people watch it and fall in love again

clouds blacken the beach

the reel lets out the kite …

The language here is both straightforward and unexpected, whereas each line evokes constant movement, that flux between the commute of being here and also somewhere else, like the eventual destination of the unfurled kite. If Gosslee is tracing lines from Imagism to Postmodernism, in “Portrait of an Inner Life” he seems to be channeling Breton’s Surrealists, specifically in his desire to open doors (often explicitly) toward a truer reality:

a mansion
inside a hovel

an elephant

trapped in a swallow

the claw at the end

of a roar

a knob

without a door

Elsewhere, Gosslee’s yearning for communion is both immediate and arresting, foreshadowing the arc of Blitzkrieg’s “story”: the relationship between solitude and a yearning for contact that exists in the act of creation. “Silent” begins as one such desperate search that culminates in the anticlimax of an incidental gaze.

I walk the misty streets at 10 P.M.
witness cars parting the spritz

warm lights fog restaurant windows

a woman with a mouthful wipes a man’s chin

no one is expecting me for days

university students in pajamas flash mob the square

I’ve stayed too long in Saint Louis

tuxedos burst out of the Peabody Opera

an old man on the metro train coughs into a beige handkerchief

he is the first person to look at me all night

The 13-poem section (also called “Blitzkrieg”) that begins the book concludes with a poem that rearranges one line from each preceding poem—“Some People Watch it and Fall in Love Again”—re-contextualizing the past to make something new. And just as Gosslee re-imagines his own lines, so, too, does he provide a utopic vision out of the word blitzkrieg, appropriating the noun in the book’s preface as “a surprise artistic assault by massed electronic, air, sea and ground forces under close coordination.” The poems here are prosaic but meditative, allowing the reader to transform ordinary objects into something much stranger, and more visceral. The gradual unpacking of a Matryoshka doll is evoked in the book’s “Epigram”:

Father, deliver me. I am a pelican
that has swallowed the fish

being reeled in by the fisherman.

Later, Gosslee’s Surrealist leanings become more explicit; an overwhelming desire to transform ordinary reality by simply looking, as when new perceptions are born out of a simple shift in perspective.

I felt more frustrated than before and put my hands on the kitchen table and wrinkled nose and mouth into a growl. I turned and stared at the stove, the mineral oiled cutting board, the worn out double sink and faux-oak cupboards above it. I tried to extract something from each of them. I wanted them to reveal some secret simplicity I had never known from them in a way that transcended the room.

Unfortunately, Blitzkrieg is slim on actual lines of poetry. Instead, Gosslee is mainly concerned with the larger revelation of the title, assault-via-art, the blitzkrieg, and his instructions for new-age artists on page 26, amid a lengthy sequence of narrative mixed with correspondences, read not unlike the poems that came before, both in their candor and their desire to transcend any kind of unilateral meaning:

In the middle of October I had the idea of putting the poem into bottles—corking, sealing, and ribboning each one. I removed the labels from 150 green 750 ml bottles, purchased a professional corker, 500 corks, one pound of red sealing wax, one pound of white sealing wax and 150 feet of neon orange grosgrain ribbon. I wanted to create a functional artifact that also served as a whimsical and original objet d’art that anyone who saw it could identify with and see as meaningful.

This kind of cataloging is what comprises the second section of Blitzkrieg, “Migration of Portrait of an Inner Life.” Confessions are the bill of fare for much lyric poetry, but what is refreshing here is the level of vulnerability through which Gosslee divulges. “I needed to feel complete,” he writes on page 20, “because I felt so hollow and alone in the badly lit apartment kitchen. I needed an affirmation that I was indeed in the right place at the right time in my life.” What is refreshing is the transparency through which Gosslee hones his craft, inviting the public into his inner life, as on page 21: “The frame without a door reminded me of the primary experience that artists have of revealing something beyond their selves by outlining it. … The poem didn’t have a title yet and I struggled to understand what I’d written and what it described.” The whole section is a rare glimpse into life-as-a-poet, whether it’s a scene-by-scene description of a run-in with a security guard at a bank lobby that reads like the treatment of a thriller, or a barebones account of the automated replies the author was habitually hit with before breaking through with “Portrait of an Inner Life” for Rattle, everything is on view:

I threw two dozen bottles into the mouth of the bay towards the Pacific. Two people in the area have found bottles. The other 22 are still unaccounted for, which I like because it allows me to muse on where they might appear or where they are in the ocean.

It is this kind of communal exchange that is so important for today’s literature. Now more than ever, readers desire a personal connection to a writer, to his or her process. I first met Gosslee when he invited me to contribute to his Public Poetry Series, a video project which emphasizes community and promotes literary awareness; each poet would read another poet’s published work on video and the objective was to give the often-abstract a personal face. It is not surprising then that Blitzkrieg is poetry for the masses. Gosslee has produced a movement in which readers are encouraged to participate.


Chris Campanioni

CHRIS CAMPANIONI is the author of seven books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James's The American and Gertrude Stein's “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work appears in American Poetry Review, Ambit, Nat. Brut, Poetry International, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and Life Writing, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He teaches at Pace University and Baruch College, and edits PANK and PANK Books. His selected poetry was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was named Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece, “This body's long (& I'm still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. In 2019, he was awarded a CHCI-Mellon Global Humanities Institute fellowship to join the Consortium for the Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

All Issues