Judith Roitman & Stanley Lombardo read in Portland on Thursday, their first time together and not in a marathon of stars. Roitman read mostly from No Face, her “new new and selected” as David Abel put it, with title and some of the poems inside inspired by the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I don’t know Miyazaki’s films, so couldn’t trace their affinities to Roitman’s compelling abstractions, direct enough in diction and syntax, and engaged with recognizably “poetic” subjects like love and sex and the phases of the moon, but made strange by a peculiar distance—an interest in features assumed to be present, but not able to be seen—that operates not unlike the image on the book’s cover: a “No Face” that’s clearly got one, but that we only intuit through its opposite, presuming a front from the back.
The lines swept by in clusters too tight for me to follow closely, but the ones I picked out most often mentioned distance or occlusion: “as if distance without mechanism”; “the distance must be kept around them”; “your heart tremble is unknown to the observer”; “you enter into it but it’s somewhere else”; “this would be our lifeblood if we could find it.” This insistence on the virtues of detachment, observation, and precision achieved through abstraction, like math I guess, or Zen (Roitman’s a veteran practitioner of both), contrasted with the nature of the subjects under scrutiny, “the body,” or sex (especially in the sequence Under Mollusk), or death: intensities not so easy to detach from. The paradox driving the poems, or the sense of reality they expressed, was the way the things of this world have of becoming more elusive the more we scrutinize them: analysis as Entfremdung, which is maybe poetry’s best claim to being a species of knowledge.
Roitman closed with the best intro to a closing poem ever: she simply announced it’s the favorite of all her poems. “Past Muster,” which I heard as “passed muster,” followed like a rim shot—the idea that the favorite of all your poems, after a lifetime of writing, would just “pass muster,” tickled me, and seemed typical of the clear-eyed exactitude I’d gleaned from her reading. But it was “past muster,” and lovely, and a wry meditation I think on death but I can’t find it online to be sure.
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