THE USUAL SUSPECTS
A Place Beyond Luck
A Chapbook by Jan Bottiglieri
Moon Journal Press
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
Jan Bottiglieri owns a mental zoom lens and she uses it with the skill of a seasoned artist. The overall theme in this book (of the tightrope walker) is an appropriate one. As we read the poetry in this book, it is as if we are looking up, and the thousands of people around us vanish, and the entire stadium vanishes, and all we can see is that dot of a person up there on the string. We see him clearly, and flinch at his every gesture. Bottiglieri has the uncanny ability to focus in like that, magnifying the details of her dreamy images ("milky chips falling, little hailstones") and clearly relating what she sees with a minimum of words. One of the ways she accomplishes this sleight of mind is by commanding a strong sense of point of view. Notice in the following example, how Bottiglieri gracefully skates from the point of view of Death right into the point of view of a crow:
Through the fine, floating hair
of his ash-white children Death
sees the black crow
eye its own reflection, too perfect,
too happy, utterly, to speak.
(from "Death's House Has Good Bones")
The result is a startling, vivid image of what the crow sees. It's as if Bottiglieri's camera pans through the dream image, moves in on the eye of the crow, and focuses in on the blackness of it so closely that we can see in it the reflection of the reflection of the bird bath.
Here is another example, this one also taking advantage of the scary black bird eye image:
One day I discovered a
ragged hole pecked into its pearly side.
How exciting! But improbable—
until I saw, or imagined I saw,
the black proto-eye peeking
from within the hollow ruin,
so curious, so lovely
In this case, it is the similarity in the shape of the objects that acts as the catalyst for her awesome clarity of image. Earlier in the poem, at a distance, we see the round, white shape of the egg. As Bottiglieri zooms in, we see a "ragged hole" in the egg shape. Upon closer observation, we see the round, black eye of a bird, and finally we zoom in so closely that the fact that the eye is "unblinking" is noticed. It is the contrast of the white egg shape to the similarly shaped black eye that acts like a warm and a cold front colliding, producing lightning. These two opposite colors crash together in our mind and produce a sense of place so rapidly that we don't know what hit us. All we know is that the author accomplishes something very rare.
Bottiglieri often sets us up in advance for the internal firework display she has in store for us. Notice in the following lines how she sneaks to the goal of making us not only see, but feel and smell her object as well:
and put it between these two . . ."
(because I always got my own special pizza)
". . . pizza boxes to warm
and here it is. Are
And I was—
And I slipped on that sweatshirt
all box-warm and smelling good,
(from "Poem I Would Want My Son To Write")
It's a wonderful pitch, resulting in a grand slam of a literary miracle. By offering just the slightest bit of personal information, the description of the sweatshirt as "box-warm and smelling good" effortlessly comes to life for us.
Through very original personification combined with the use of gestures, Bottliglieri continues to bombard the reader with her happy bombs:
The parking lot geese
They stand in the road
splayed feet planted,
(from "The Parking Lot Geese")
just crouches in its glassine cathedral
on knobby, white-knuckle knees . . .
(from "My Son's Tooth Under Glass")
Though much of Bottiglieri's imagery incites folly, as in the poem "Night Shift At The Spider Factory", the overall tone of A Place Beyond Luck is more troubling. As the poems merge together to form a complete work, it is slyly suggested that there must be something wrong with the tightrope walker, for him to be putting his own life at risk in the first place, and we are often reminded that he may at any moment plunge to his death:
It's some other ache entirely
that sounds like a quarter in a slot,
a record dropping;
and this moonlight is the needle
scratching into black night's groove
(from "Moon Song")
I can only say
that I have also been
sick and lonely in
the usual ways,
counting out days like pills.
(from "I Have Heard A Stranger")
What at first comes across as the narrator's keen ability to find humor in the darkest parts of life, transforms, as the poems work together, into something unsettling. The folly is at some point recognized as an escape from something more dangerous. The frailty of the tightrope walker's situation is suddenly realized. Combined together like a stew, all the poems cook into a disturbing metaphor, a metaphor illustrating the effects of mental anguish:
The children need breakfast.
You may have dreamed
now, it is time
to crack real eggs,
get the pans dirty.
Integral to nothing
is your certainty that things will fail,
are rapturously failing
around you. Choke back
Stop feeling faint
from all that blood; there is
no gash in your dripping hand,
no broken dish. See?
They're fine, the dishes,
warm from the womb
of the white sink, licked clean
by the dishrag you still hold
with no small suspicion.)
to the whine of the bombs as they
drop, bloom like flowers,
spill like petals
across the concrete walk.
That's just the way spring works here.
The robin in the year—
watch him in the sun deep hours,
hophop, head cocked
like a live trigger. Stop
thinking that he's thinking
of you, specifically, as he
thrusts his beak between
those greygreen blades.
what parts of yourself you can.
It's not you
that makes dirt black,
makes it rumble beneath the
robin's quick head; not you
bleeding out in a clean space,
every consequence of what you do
corrupt. Face it:
Maybe you'd even like it
to be you, but it's not.
The tightrope that we carefully maneuver over this abyss called life, the slender string that saves us, day by day, from falling out of the nest, is a mystery Bottiglieri allows her readers to solve for themselves:
Tonight, everyone is in love.
Look at the night's blazing buckle of moon
and try telling
the desperate stars otherwise.
(from "Tonight, Everyone Is In Love")
--C. J. Laity
For information about this and other Moon Journal Press titles, write to Moon Journal Press, 2015 Woodland Lane, Arlington Heights, IL 60004.
Go back to the investigation.
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Note: Jan Bottiglieri owns a mental zoom lens and she uses it with the skill of a seasoned artist.