All That Can Be Known: A Review of Aaron Belz’s Glitter Bomb and Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows
Glitter Bomb, by Aaron Belz, Persea Books, 2014, 96 pages, ISBN: 978-0892554317
Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, by Bianca Stone, Tin House Books, 2014, 88 pages, ISBN: 978-1935639749
At first glance, Aaron Belz and Bianca Stone might seem to have little in common beyond both having released books of poetry in the past few months. Belz authored two collections before publishing Glitter Bomb, but is better known to some for his social media activities, including offering his services as a “poet for hire” on Craigslist, and his role in the bizarre Twitter dustup between comedian Patton Oswalt (and his legions of followers) and notorious joke-stealer Sammy Rhodes. Stone, on the other hand, is the granddaughter of the decorated poet Ruth Stone, giving her first volume of poems, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, some serious old media cred.
It’s easy to extend this study-in-contrasts motif to the poems in Glitter Bomb and Someone Else’s Wedding Vows as well. Belz’s are ironic, aphoristic, economical, and at times reminiscent of the unsettlingly heavy light verse of Richard Brautigan and Bill Knott. Stone’s poems are rangier, with very few fitting on a single page. This ranginess extends beyond the physicality of the pieces. We drift through Stone’s poems in ways Belz’s don’t allow us to. The images and metaphors build upon one another and make it easy to look up from the page mid-poem and go off on personal reveries, only to return a few minutes later unsure of where we’ve been and why we went there.
However, the different approaches Belz and Stone take mask a shared core that has something important to tell us about contemporary lyric poetry. Whether kept at an ironic distance, dazzled by language games, or washed over by waves of arresting imagery, the reader is kept off-balance, and is rarely given a sense of closure these days. As Marjorie Perloff has persuasively argued in 21st-Century Modernisms, our neat cleavage between avant-garde modernism and postmodernism is largely an illusion. Both reflect an understanding that the allegedly stable contract between writer and reader so central to literary realism is, like any other relationship, far more complicated. The writer knows that while the reader is under no obligation to keep reading, she’s liable to want to finish what she started. This gives writers tremendous power to play with how they say things and, most importantly, to decide whether to say certain things at all. Belz and Stone, each in their own way, exemplify this tradition that has come to dominate our current poetic moment.
Some of the poems in Glitter Bomb are only two or three lines, sounding more like fortune cookies or advertising copy than even haikus. “Starbucks” takes this anti-poetic diction even further:
I love people
and what working at Starbucks has allowed me to do
is get involved in people’s lives.
The flatness of the presentation is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in an internal company video, or during testimony in a lawsuit. When compared to some of the collection’s other short poems (“Michael Jashbery,” for instance, which mashes up ideas from Michael Jackson and John Ashbery), “Starbucks” is the least funny, and we can’t be sure whether it’s earnest or ironic. If read one way, it critiques an economy that has reduced all human relations to the corporate cash nexus. That corporations “allow” us to do anything should terrify readers. If read another way though, “Starbucks” critiques the hipster fetishization of the artisanal and “authentic.” If what we want is genuine human connections, they can be found in places selling Michael Bolton Christmas albums and coffee that isn’t free-range. Yet a third reading is that it isn’t critiquing either, but simply stating something that millions of people might earnestly write in a Tweet or Yelp review.
What makes Glitter Bomb both fun and frustrating is that it doesn’t provide us with a set of clues to definitively figure out how to read it. There are playful poems and Steinian language games throughout the collection, but the distance between reverent pop culture references and sly snarking is slight, and the reader is left wondering if he or she is in on the joke, the butt of the joke, or if there’s even a joke being told. It’s fitting, then, that Belz’s Twitter fame came as part of a discussion about the responsibilities of humor and humorists. Glitter Bomb is a delightfully ambiguous extension of this conversation, freeing Belz from the call and response madness of new media, which in turn cleverly places much of the onus on the reader.
Someone Else’s Wedding Vows is not a book exploring the limits of irony, but it still demands that its reader is, as Keats once wrote, “capable of being in uncertainties.” Where Belz uses a flat tone that gives equal importance to the silly, the mundane, and the devastating, Stone uses the accretion of images to create what the reader knows must be larger narratives without giving us the structural, novelistic details that would lock everything into place. One gets the feeling in some of her poems, particularly the excellent “Monsieur” and “Practicing Vigilance” that comprise much of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows third section, that Stone would actually prefer that the reader feel out of control, and perhaps even a little concerned that the poet might not know where we’re heading.
The poem “Because You Love You Come Apart,” which Stone dedicates to some of her friends, begins:
Your hair is wonderful today
This is a microscopic caress at a party.
This is the dead fathoming.
This is coming home
with your gorilla heart all disordered.
This is feeling like a steamboat
swaying at the wharf at midnight.
What any of these ideas have to do with one another is hard for the reader to really know even after the poem ends. We get flashes of characters, bits of scenes of conviviality, absurdity, and heartache, but the only the thing really structuring the poem is the occasional repetition of the word “This” to begin sentences. When the Strokes named their debut album Is This It?, their carefully crafted image led us to conclude that “this” was the trappings of being young and pretty in pre-9/11 New York. The beauty of this “This” though was that we didn’t have to be impossibly hip and living in Brooklyn before it was Brooklyn to apply the question to our own lives.
The fact that Stone takes “this,” the signifier meant to indicate particularity, to its absolute limit is why Someone Else’s Wedding Vows is worth reading, and why it’s the other side of Glitter Bomb’s coin. The images in “Because You Love You Come Apart” are so specific that our access to them is limited, but more than that, our lack of access to what “this” means demands that we embrace our negative capability, the knowledge that we don’t know enough to know everything, and that we never will. This was the genius of the “confessional” turn in the mid-twentieth century, but poets like Belz and Stone ask even more of us that Lowell or Plath ever did. Where we once got full scenes, we now get snippets. Where we once got objective correlatives, we now get open signifiers. It’s up to us as readers to put the pieces together where we can, and to do our best with the bits that won’t line up.