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Taking Measurements of Will and Circumstance

Fred Muratori

Psychological Corporations
Garrett Kalleberg
Spuyten Duyvil, $7.99 (paper)

Some Mantic Daemons
Garrett Kalleberg
Futurepoem Books, $12 (paper)

8With only a chapbook and two modestly sized full collections to his credit, Garrett Kalleberg already seems on the way to establishing a unique presence among the more idiosyncratic voices in contemporary poetry. “Write words,” he observes in a poem that derives its impetus from—among other sources—the cold but exacting language of computer operating systems, “and this other stuff happens.” This other stuff, in Kalleberg’s case, is a dense synthesis of textual echoes—from procedural manuals to spiritual reverie—that achieve a compelling if unstable focus when channeled through the poet’s nearly obsessive state of hyperconsciousness. Packed with rhetorical, sometimes self-defeating questions (“What good is a skiff / on the lake of fire?”) on the one hand, and epiphanic delusions (“I come and go in a semblance acquired / in perfection’s technics”) on the other, Kalleberg does Kafka as dinner theater for the local Mensa chapter out on the town.

His Psychological Corporations is a darkly interrogative exploration of human volition and free will, or more accurately of the lack thereof. It has the feel of deeply shadowed European alleys, of grim, sparsely furnished pensions in which desperate, paranoid individuals vainly wait under bare bulbs for their lives to change, or end:

. . . Never mind the historical questions: we were made
to go this way and that all along
remember the details
it is impossible to forget, maybe
that’s the way out—try the gate, but
don’t answer the phone.
Where’d they get your number?
Somewhere there’s a list
kept in a book and
Answer the phone!—if not, they will
say He was
and She was and they
were used, these are the details.

As in a David Lynch film, you can almost hear the throbbing white noise that passes for silence in the subject’s troubled mind, sense the inevitability of repetition that comes with each attempt to start over:

Funny, I always know how this will end
then write a new beginning. And it all works
like clock work.
Next line:

Repetition is an integral component of Kalleberg’s technique as well. His poems spiral inward and outward in cycles marked by repeated sentences and other reiterative schemas, or else they shamble forward through layers of reworked propositions that mimic the appearance of logic while contradicting its substance. Kalleberg’s is not a logic that you follow, but one you observe, as you might watch—either in wonderment or in horror—a passenger jet careening off a runway, one dangerously tilted wing sparking against the tarmac:

The seed is in the earth
as its fruit, the tree is in the seed
as its fruit, the boat
is in the tree as its fruit.
Now I have killed the tree, root, egregious

indexical. And at night, I can hear the fire
that consumes all things—Death
is in the fear of death as the fruit
of fear—“what are you doing here?
You ought to go photograph the fire too.”

For all the poet’s formal and informal rhetorical feints, you never know where the poem will land. As the passage above illustrates, notions of inside and outside become interchangeable, potential and its realization coexist, and at any time the recitative mind can veer off, change pitch, assume another perspective. Often the poet seems about to home in on his objective, when some sudden, oblique notion propels his attention not away from but beyond it.

In “Agoraphobia” Kalleberg notes, “There’s no escaping analysis. / But why not try?” This could be the question at the center of his enterprise. Psychological Corporations can be read as a battery of tests and experiments, the human consciousness an instrument for measuring a world which, as a result of our inescapably anthropomorphic bias, itself appears “. . . Human in almost / every abstract.” While analysis—the often flawed process of observation and measurement—is the surest means we have for imposing some degree of order on the world, its predictive intent may bring the kind of spiritual and emotional letdown that comes with living in a completely predictable, mechanical universe. At the same time we seek answers, we may secretly hope our instruments will fail, wish to embrace the mystery and be taken up by it, “. . . Until commanded // to be thrown: // until an outer limit is reached and the whole / implodes in a sharp blow / to the back of the head—can we all live / eternally in such marvellous ecstasy / or in such ecstatic mystery // and at this frequency?” It’s that old-time religion (“An unexpected error with no useful information”), rearing up again among the spectrometers and calipers, and our metaphorical rebirth is like that of the boy shocked by a power line, who “walked home, complained / of some pain, took off / his clothes and with it / his skin,” literally transformed by a transformer.

*  *  *

Compared to Kalleberg’s Some Mantic Daemons, the earlier Psychological Corporations seems spare and straightforward. Structural devices—the anaphoric constructions, quasi-Socratic questioning, incremental and slantwise logic—still obtain, but the pitch is higher, the poems somehow more expansive and culturally allusive even as they suggest the claustrophobic atmosphere of a consciousness surrounded, besieged. The demons of the book’s title—renegade manifestations of emotional or sexual impulse—had been little more than undercurrents, but now, acknowledged, they assemble in the human psyche: “I’m of one self and many daemons and like you / I avert my eyes.” Not only that, they inspire vatic passages as close to prayer as Kalleberg gets:

O lyrical daemons flying
with abandon into a throat burnt
with smoke from sacrificial fires strangled
in the tar-coated cavity of interiority
soon to be turned inside out into the flowing
waters of an otherwise lovely evening
in a long emetic kiss with the fluid
body of the other—pure, reckless, heretic—
into which fall my bones. I’m projecting:
on each cell is drawn a nervous iteration.
An other, an object appears
to emerge but is not present
as such until acquired.

Still, as the thick accretion of details indicates, this is delirium experienced with one eye wide open; the poet’s complete “escape from analysis” does not succeed. Like the vampire who cannot enter a home without being invited in (according to Buffy lore, anyway), the “other” cannot cross into the subject’s consciousness without being “acquired.” Kalleberg’s use of the word “projecting” implies that a thing must be actively imagined before it has any claim to presence, an idea that hearkens back to a section from his 1997 chapbook Limbic Odes (available on the web via the Electronic Poetry Center at containing the lines: “To see / I made this eye / to see what is not seen / not things / but what holds them.” Shades of Plato’s Theory of Forms.

As you might expect, poetry this philosophical teems with dialectics: “binary opposition / and the energy generated / by their nervous oscillations,” paradoxes that thrash and squirm against themselves (“. . . could have had everything you wanted / if you’d simply cease wanting it”), or that sometimes let the other side win (“Go with the flow, collaborate / with circumstances, he said / to the subject. / An object is a thing that responds to commands.”) Abrasive questions drive the matter forward, most dramatically in a pair of prose poems, “Kubark, the Light” and “Kubark, the Healer,” which depict scenes of relentless self-inquisition worthy of Orwell. Triggered, we are told, by procedures described in a 1963 CIA manual, the subject asks himself questions he cannot possibly answer in a sadomasochistic, solitary game of intimidation: “. . . is there a God, in the universe, or in this universe, or is there a God, in existence outside the universe, in a space or time of God outside the universe as we know it, answer me, but I did not answer, because I didn’t know the answer, and pushed the lamp in closer, is there a God. . . .” The original intent of the technique was to unnerve the captive to the point where he confessed lesser but desired details, which for Kalleberg results in an admission—not of God’s existence, but of the subject’s pride in conceiving himself as “something unique, different, particular and unlike anyone else.”

One strong current of thought moving throughout Some Mantic Daemons is the tension between acquiescence to inevitability and the hubris to believe that our fates can be altered. As we face a questionable war with Iraq, the first line of a poem titled “Acquiring Presence” bears a special weight: “Sometimes the presence of a target is enough / for the gun to go off.” Are human events triggered by the ineluctable mechanisms of systems—whether geopolitical or genetic—that are beyond our agency? Or do they play themselves out because we strike a “collaboration with circumstances,” our will to change deadened by the morally indeterminate “world of infinite & adequate grays” we inhabit?

It takes time—and no small degree of collaboration—to catch Kalleberg’s feverishly mantic drift, accept his abridgements and turnarounds, his rattling metaphorical contraptions (try picturing a “a stylus-cantilever probe / attached to the probe stage”) and nuanced continuities, and learn to immerse oneself in this admitted “theater of tricks.” Sometimes the work seems like an acutely cerebral species of slam poetry, at other times like pastiche executed by an eccentric welder. But there is no denying the gravity of its intent or the brilliance of its invention. <

Fred Muratori’s most recent book of poems is Despite Repeated Warnings. He is bibliographer for Anglo-American and comparative literature at the Cornell University Library.

Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review

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