CUTBANK REVIEWS: People Are Places Are Places Are People by Jeff Alessandrelli
People Are Places Are Places Are People
by Jeff Alessandrelli
Imaginary Friend Press, 2013
review by Alice Bolin
Jeff Alessandrelli’s chapbook People Are Places Are Places Are People begins with a poem titled “Understanding Marcel Duchamp,” in which the speaker describes how he “beat the shit out of” his neighbor’s bike: “just pummeled and crumpled and wracked and irrevocably dismantled it until what it was couldn’t even be called ‘bike’ anymore; it was something else entirely.” Each part of the bike was “shaped into new and heretofore incalculable realities.”
The poem is stalking something of Duchamp’s aesthetic—the notion of doing violence to and thus transforming every day objects; some of the artist’s audacious crudeness. People Are Places Are Places Are People is populated like a mind is populated: Ezra Pound and Evel Knievel and Elsie Stevens and Alois Alzheimer prowl through the poems like ghosts; in his “Understanding…” poems, Alessandrelli ventriloquizes Duchamp and Mina Loy and Eileen Myles and Anne Carson. Oh, it’s all very well intentioned—one way to understand someone is to impersonate them. A mind appropriates automatically, anyway.
In “Bad Pop Songs Make my Throat Hurt,” Alessandrelli describes comedian Lenny Bruce as “forever/the smartest dumb guy in the room.” A surprising number of writers have spoken out in favor of stupidity. Michael Earl Craig writes in his poem “Bluebirds,” “THE READER/CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY/AND STILL GET MY POEMS.” “Writers are not smart,” Myles writes in her essay collection The Importance of Being Iceland. “They are something else and each writer can fill in a word here, but smart is not what that word is.” Alessandrelli explains that Wallace Stevens’ wife Elsie barely passed the sixth grade: “Unlike her failure of a husband—/his mind betraying himself /to itself—//Elsie suffered/no wanton perversity/of the imagination.//She loved flowers./She tolerated funerals./She laughed and laughed/and laughed//at even funnier jokes.”
Elsie Stevens did not think too hard. Jeff Alessandrelli is not so lucky. “And if I like trains it’s no doubt/because they go faster than funerals,” he writes in “The Undignified Act of Thinking Too Hard in Public,” “faster than the meaning of our mostly round/heads in a mostly round world//and the flat flat ground I today find/myself swiftly running across.” The poet tries to outrun thought, his fate.
It’s only that things are so mixed up; there are different ways of thinking about everything. “I know that the sun is a byproduct/of an infinitude of marigolds/and pure supple honey,/but I don’t believe it,” Alessandrelli writes in “It’s the Things You Know that Are Hardest to Believe.” It’s as if a poetic truth can be believed into being, but once it exists, it no longer relies on the believer. Our lives multiply with events and actualities and memories and fantasies and possibilities and contingencies—it gets so crowded. “Past is past,” New York School poet James Schuyler writes in his first-ever published poem, “Salute.” “And if one/remembers what one meant/to do and never did, is/not to have thought to do/enough?” “Past is past,” Alessandrelli concludes “It’s the Things You Know that Are Hardest to Believe,” “is past/is past…///Is past.”
“These poems are not interested in received history. They make their own epistemology,” poet Elisa Gabbert writes in her introduction to People Are Places Are Places Are People. In epistemology, the branch of philosophy that explores the nature and origins of knowledge, what is known is based on what is believed. One can work backwards in a series of deductions until hitting bedrock—fact, something given, assumed, self-evident, maybe, in any case too obvious to be proved. Well, this can open up the arena of play that is “reality” considerably. “Past is past,” Schuyler concludes “Salute.” “I salute that various field.”
At least that’s how someone explained epistemology to me once. What do I know really. “There is no Other of the Other and anyone who claims to take up this place is an imposter,” Alessandrelli quotes from Jacques Lacan in “Semi-biography.” If I pretended to have anything more than an intuitive understanding of what that quote means, I would be an even bigger fraud than I am now.
People Are Places Are Places Are People multiplies with Others of the Other, imposters, personae, alter egos, past versions. Alessandrelli plays imposter openly in his “Understanding…” poems; he writes with Myles’ hybrid of vulnerability and swagger and adopts the strange, ambivalent God from Carson’s series “The Truth About God.”
A number of poems in the collection explore a mysterious character named Jeffrey Roberts who “has two jobs, maybe three, sometimes three;” who “claims/to have found/the Fountain of Youth/using Google Maps;” who is at once an animal, a child, and a man. Alessandrelli describes Jeffrey Roberts as “my most imaginary friend,” and his only notable quality is his absolute indeterminacy. It might be a coincidence that Jeffrey Roberts and his author share a first name, but I don’t think so.
Self encounters self. As “the wind hears nothing//but its own rustle,” in Alessandrelli’s “My Ezra Pound.” Self evades self. “Believing Evel Knievel” includes conversations between Alois Alzheimer and Auguste Deter, the woman who suffered from the first published case of Alzheimer’s Disease. In these conversations, Deter’s self seems to be expanding rapidly. Alzheimer asks where she is, and Deter responds, “Here and everywhere, here and now, you must not think badly of me.” She reports that her first name, her last name, and her husband’s name are all “Auguste”; when asked to write the number eight, she writes “Auguste.” But as she is writing she says, “It’s like I have lost myself.”
One of the important modes of People Are Places Are Places Are People is an ambivalent romanticism: there is both grief and exaltation as the self expands and is sublimated into the abundant everything. Many of these poems are baldly nostalgic, their sadness related to all the surrendered identities one leaves on the road away from childhood. “I’m a different person now you say//to yourself,” Alessandrelli writes. As William Wordsworth said in his famous nostalgic poem written above Tintern Abbey, “I cannot paint/What then I was.”
At times Alessandrelli’s poems take on the romantic, the pastoral, and the rhapsodic self-consciously, making frequent use of exclamation points and the old-timey modifier “verily” to construct a goofy-ecstatic persona. “You can see the stars tonight!” the speaker of “With an Old Soul Song Stuck in your Head” cries out. “Shining and Bright!”
“Sometimes I read/the approaching landscape/wrong, the way I/once did as a child,” Alessandrelli writes in “Bad Pop Songs Make my Throat Hurt.” Childhood seems key to Alessandrelli’s wonky romanticism, how most of the overtly pastoral moments in these poems ring a little off-key. The speakers in these poems still encounter the natural world with the freedom and confusion they did when they were very young. “Open the refrigerator door to stare/into the sunset,” Alessandrelli writes in “The Days of Wine & Roses.” “Sometimes I wake up/in the morning/and install the flowers wrong,” says the speaker of “Bad Pop Songs Make my Throat Hurt,” “and later they’re still shining/and resonating/in the sun anyway.”
In “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth describes his boyhood devotion to nature: “the tall rock,/The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,/Their colours and their forms, were then to me/An appetite: a feeling and a love.” My copy of Wordsworth’s collected poems is bound upside down and backwards, which seems like it could be relevant here.
The romantic ethic is about an ideal of wholeness, a paradise lost, a pleasure viewed from a distance. This is complicated in People Are Places Are Places Are People because the past and the self are both such “various fields”—in a version of romanticism that eschews the linear, the singular, wholeness might be achieved, a perfect circle. What if the childhood self is not lost, only running on a parallel track, available to be reclaimed and re-inhabited? “The world is perfect//and that’s the problem,” Alessandrelli writes in “This Last Time Will Be the First” of his frustrated romantic project, his inability to look back simply at an idealized past. “You can’t discover//the lost treasure//if the ship didn’t sink.//This last time//will be the first.”
Jeff Alessandrelli lives in Portland, OR and is the author of the little book Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound (Ravenna Press) and three chapbooks, including Don’t Let Me Forget To Feed the Sharks (Poor Claudia). Work by him has appeared in, among others, Pleiades, Salt Hill, Gulf Coast, Boston Review,
Alice Bolin’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, FIELD, Guernica, Blackbird, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Washington Square, among other journals. Her nonfiction is featured regularly on the arts and culture website This Recording, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere around the internet. She lives in Missoula, Montana.