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Nervous Forces

Jeffrey Gustavson
Alef Books, $12.00

by Sven Birkerts

Invested as we are in our fundamental appearance/reality distinction, we routinely underestimate the importance of style. Many readers, whether of prose or poetry, can't get over the prejudice that style is adornment, or artful concealment -- in any case something distinct from whatever content they imagine it serves. How readily, by contrast, do we concede value to painterly style. No one would say that Cézanne's apples are just fruits in a bowl -- they are the occasion for a profound anatomy of seeing.

Cézanne may be a back road route to the poems of Jeffrey Gustavson, but the point does not need to be driven home. With certain kinds of poetry it just does not do to separate the style and the thematic content, the stuff of sense. The two are wedded, grown together in such a way that to speak of the how is to speak of the what. The surface is all important; it is the face but also the personality that makes the face cohere into a sign of identity. Style imbeds the sense, revealing it to be, at least in part, a function of syntax, diction -- of lexical structure.
Here, from Nervous Forces, is Gustavson's poem "High School":

On his disorderly desk, a
Violin. Wrinkled white shirts on his
Bedposts and doorknobs. The Rolling Stones' Flowers
On the stereo. My handsomest
Friend was my quietest friend (shyest
Of three shy brothers). On his desk blotter,
Trebly incised with a hawk-quill pen: "I hate
Myself." I was sitting on a stool
Like a puppet sitting on a stool.
He lay flat as a stamp on his bed
Aiming his camera at the ceiling.
Something's breaking inside. Diffidence
Undifferentiable from the breakers
Beyond that surf.

This is not a "typical" Gustavson poem, for he doesn't write any one kind of lyric. He attunes his language to the structure of the occasion and the specific perceptual response. Still, one can make a few observations. First -- quite obviously -- there is no calcified strand of meaning to be abstracted: sense here hugs sound and syntax. Second, the fall of the individual lines -- indeed, the drape of the whole -- resists all rhetorical expectations. Gustavson may not be out to wring the neck of eloquence -- he is too much a lover of language for that -- but the reader looks in vain for the comforts of closure. Gustavson is after the deflation of affect, the sense being that affect has become an inflated currency.

So where's the poetry, the interest? For me it lies in the subtle, but distinct, modulations -- how the poem moves from documentary stillness in the opening lines to a reined-in sort of tenderness ("My handsomest/Friend . . ."), then to that most emblematic image of adolescent anguish ("On his desk blotter . . ."). The stasis and ennui of those years is telegraphed in the simplest, most declarative imagery ("He lay flat as a stamp . . ."), but then the immobility unexpectedly dissolves in the three final lines. Arresting and mysterious, they refuse crisp resolution. It is not clear whether "Something's breaking" is the speaker or his friend. The lovely enjambment ("Diffidence/Undifferentiable") enacts the sense and gives linguistic purchase to the abstraction. And then the dying fall: "Beyond that surf." An ending -- like so many found in Gustavson's poems -- where an undertow of depletion pulls at the sense. The meaning? The meaning is a series of inner vibrations, an experimental complex, a slight shifting of the transparencies layered in the brain-pan.

Gustavson has several longer tours de force that counterbalance his more elliptical short lyrics. "The Scarecrow," a long poem in sections, gives contemplative voice to the cornfield icon, while "Kimble Fugit" adds new dimension to the media archetype. Neither David Janssen nor Harrison Ford have quite tapped these reservoirs of insight:

Whatever else they are people are flasks
Of intelligent chemicals, and no
Interloper with a fiction to sell
Neglects their treasured eccentricites --
Either I was a chemist or I was lost.

Reading Gustavson, I hear faint echoes -- of Tom Lux, of Paul Muldoon, of Peter Klappert. But mostly I hear a music that insists on its own singularity. Many of these poems come on slowly. Read, then read again. After a while you catch their beat -- their wryness and nervy wobble. Gradually they accumulate into luminosity.

Originally published in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of Boston Review

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