DANIEL Y. HARRIS Reviews
Sapodilla by Michael Rothenberg
(Éditions du Cygne, Swan World, Paris, 2016)
when it’s ripe
is sweet. Never
the black seeds
on one end, they
can choke you.
In Sapodilla (Éditions du Cygne, Swan World, Paris 2016), Michael Rothenberg is the prophet of the micro, the doom-eager chanteur of our microaggressions, replete with wry comedic charm and acerbic wit. If we do “swallow the black seeds” of his Sapodilla, we will “choke,” but our last breath will be a divine, cherubic breathing in of a purified life before death. To read Sapodilla is to perform a séance on narration, conjuring demons of nostalgia at the end of history.
Be not fooled by brevity, these poetry-pricks to the skin are ripe and sweet. Lines such as “draped in dust and lava/scarves, a fomenting/and celebratory abyss” are incantatory. Let’s google “celebratory abyss.” “No more google,” declares our prophet of the micro. Too late. Those “hooked” black seeds of Sapodilla have been digested and it’s “A rainy day in outer space.” Let’s begin at the beginning, wet and ready to enter the creased page.
Sapodilla is comprised of 52 pages of untitled, exquisitely crafted poetry which wrestles with the canonic brevity and exegetical acumen of e.e.cummings and William Carlos Williams. Each new poem begins with the first letter of the first word highlighted in bold to call attention to the brisure of a title—the untitle of the title, the semblance of an erased first moment. In fine, Sapodilla is one long poem ecstatically sculpted out of couplets hungry for stark imagery.
From the first poem’s “pigmy rattlesnake,” to “a tarpon’s/huge black eyes,” to “gold rotted fig leaves,” to “a pile of squishy shit,” Michael Rothenberg’s Isaiah-like prophecy informs us that “Nothing can be reversed/Nothing is the same,” and with that, that he, the poet/rabbi, as well as we, the readers/congregants are “not ready/for change.” Rothenberg’s acerbic wit, canonic brevity and micro prophecy are perfectly encapsulated in this piece of sharp poesis:
with milk and sugar
I’m not ready
The transmigration of souls takes no prisoners. Sapodilla will change you even if its omniscient eye isn’t ready for that change.
Adjacent to the high wisdom of “I’m not ready/for change,” Rothenberg bestows upon the reader an apex moment in his poetry. He ushers in a Derridean concept of “slipping” as slippage of the signified under the signifier to create an unstable identity in language:
Is it now
or was it
I’m slipping and
I can do about it
Humidity makes me
Derridean nostalgia is a nostalgic voice subjected to a rigorous, self-referential critique, doubling back on itself in order to ironize its own nostalgic longing. The prophet of the micro is slipping into an unstable identity, doubling back on humidity where nostalgia offers its own self-rigor as hazy yellow weather, meandering between “now” and “somewhere?” Further on in Sapodilla, the challenges set forth by its surreal astrocartography are given their epiphany in a bizarre insect calligraphy:
in the murky
Michael Rothenberg is making “cosmic patterns/in the/murky stew,” but he doesn’t “want to be/afraid anymore.” In fact, he invokes God—God as a colloquial expression, but nonetheless God to assuage his dread that he is writing the void, or writing in the void where only the calculous of motion exists:
I don’t want to be
Don’t want to
look so far
By default or by ellipse, Rothenberg invokes the sapodilla tree, minutes before he petitions God:
A block away
from the miraculous
This “miraculous/sapodilla tree” is no mere Tree of Life impresario. Both “sapodilla tree” and the poetry collection Sapodilla are miraculous because they beg our annihilation. We read Sapodilla and become our own ontoteleologic purveyors of wisdom—a wisdom that is both sweet and will make us choke.
As averred, wisdom and annihilation are kindred tropes, each flanked by the loss of memory. Near the end of Sapodilla, Rothenberg mocks himself so as to defray the unbearable radiance of his insight:
about the fact
you call yourself
In this new millennium, the travesty of bad confessional poetry disseminated from the pulpit of language-hating mediocrity, where workshop poets pen the bastard clichés of Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski, Michael Rothenberg asks us to forget and even render null and void our sense that we are poets. The light that Michael Rothenberg speaks of is nothing less than the Yahwic light experienced by Moses, an incendiary and holy device that can burn out the eyes from their sockets and melt your brain. As we’re warned, “Moses in the bulrushes/A rainy day in outer space.” Our prophet of the micro should know as he’s “seen/that unbearable/light before.”
Sapodilla is not for the faint-hearted. It resists categorization. Sapodilla is at once a cautionary tale to “Discontinuate/Yes to no.” Sapodilla summons you like a siren to “Singularize the multi-task/Invite a diffused/proposition,” but we pause to bask in the splendid light of its complexity. A possible coda, were coda even an appropriate trope in a book without closure, might be the lines
Constipation is not tolerated
in the free world
Is it you? Or you?
What’s the imperative form?
The “imperative form” is read Sapodilla. It is our era’s great purgative and Michael Rothenberg is the prophet of the micro, here to unblock our stultifications with a fluidity unconcerned by direction and closure. Great verity is ironic as the following lines convey: “The sapodilla/when ripe/is sweet. Never/swallow/the black seeds.” In this case, don’t heed the warning. Swallow hard.
Daniel Y. Harris is the author of 9 collections of poetry and collaborative writing including The Underworld of Lesser Degrees (NYQ Books, 2015), Esophagus Writ (with Rupert M. Loydell, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2014), Hyperlinks of Anxiety (Červená Barva Press, 2013), The New Arcana (with John Amen, New York Quarterly Books, 2012), and Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue (with Adam Shechter, Červená Barva Press, 2010; picked by The Jewish Forward as one of the 5 most important Jewish poetry books of 2010). Some of his poetry, experimental writing, art, and essays have been published in BlazeVOX, Denver Quarterly, E·ratio, European Judaism, Exquisite Corpse, The New York Quarterly, Notre Dame Review, In Posse Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Poetry Magazine, Poetry Salzburg Review and Stride. He is the Editor-in-Chief of X-Peri, http://x-peri.blogspot.com/.