On Tact, and the Made Up World
by Michele Glazer
Reviewed by Fred Muratori
The elliptical, Carveresque title of Michele Glazer's first poetry collection, 1997's It Is Hard to Look at What We Came to Think We'd Come to See, would be equally appropriate for her latest, On Tact, and the Made Up World. Both titles acknowledge a sense of indeterminacy, the postmodern mistrust of sensory perception, and the apprehension of reality as a constructed, interpretative condition. Glazer's "made up world" is a landscape of detritus, of things so common and overlooked -- a dead bird, soil, worms, fungus, a path "made of things cast off" -- that their foregrounding lends them an almost surreal, conceptual presence. Proceeding from Wallace Stevens's observation that the imagination "makes use of the familiar to produce the unfamiliar," Glazer presents the reader with mundane objects transformed by the subjective consciousness in ways that both de-familiarize them and endow them with additional, unforeseen dimensions.
In "Trace," for example, a drainage ditch glimpsed in childhood is recreated in adult memory, accreting archival detail:
the flows meet here
and blown seeds from the road's
eithersides and field margins,
the undigestibles birds passing drop
and trash passersby
flip out of their rushing side-windows
The image also attains an epiphanic significance in the life of the poet: "The cattails gave birth / in you to the feeling of loss / before loss happens. // Gave you thus: / the beginnings of a romantic imagination." Long-lost things are returned to us in language, which in effect defines the form for a new object or, as Glazer writes in "Say the Unseen," a "body in the world" itself now textually embodied as a poem. The price of the new object, though, is the virtual obliteration of the poet's original, assumed perception of it. Evoking Stevens's "Study of Two Pears" and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Glazer realizes that when "what is looked at is changed / what is looked for is gone."
If what we see (and what we think about what we see) is what we make, then our distance from the seen is a crucial element in the ongoing negotiation between subject and object. Even so, the results are not predictable. In one poem, Glazer says of a horse, "the further away it runs / the more abstract," while in another she notes of an animal-shaped hedge, "the closer you get the more abstract." Add time to the equation, the instant during which the angle of observation is altered, and the interpretation of a given scene changes yet again:
Once in a foreign city
I mistook for a line
of men pissing against a wall at night a line
of men praying against the wall.
Here Glazer even takes pains to reverse the chronology of the two images; she relates the misperception after the correct one, creating a parallel complication in the reader's mental recreation of the poet's memory.
Despite her interest in the unstable physics of perception, Glazer allows herself a clear poetic image or two, as when a robin in a birdbath "shimmies water down its wings," or an unwanted rare steak "swags off the plate on either side like a holiday / wreath on a white door." But the most vividly realized poem in the book may be "bright things," in which a dying man remembers inserting a pin in his mouth as a child ("because his mouth / was how he knew bright things") and how that impulsive act introduces him not only to the pain of existence and the treachery of appearances but to the simultaneous experience of the present ("the moment / tastes like something to be gotten rid of"). The pin literally becomes a Barthesianpunctum
-- the small "piercing object" that overwhelms the narrative of the whole with its immediacy.
The poems in On Tact, and the Made Up World
, for all their apparent rumination, seem urgent and concise, their syntax and lineation just off-kilter enough to make us question what we've read in the same way the poet questions what she makes of her world. In the collection's title poem, a meditation on glass flowers, Glazer writes, "Against the made-thing imagination scrapes its cheek, / for the beauty // is made poignant." Whether or not one might imagine Stevens writing that line, he would have found himself at home in Glazer's theater of the mind's eye, where "the show you're watching is not the show / you sit down for."