The opening poems of Alan Felsenthal’s Lowly suggest a collection that will fall squarely within a familiar subgenre of contemporary poetry: newly crafted myths, fables, and parables. Taking up classic modes of speech and story-telling, many poems of this subgenre operate according to a fairly defined mechanic, developing tight, logical sequences that utilize inversion, tautology, and other structural maneuvers to arrive at illuminating surprises—often with a bit of jesting. This mechanic perfectly describes the first poem of Lowly, “Two Martyrs,” which begins:
Two martyrs stalked the earth
so neither knew the other
was capable of competition
until the first martyr sacrificed
his life before the township
by jumping into a fire pit.
Some said the second martyr
inspired by his friend’s decision
faced the pit and lit himself on fire.
The poem continues in this fashion, each martyr out-martyring the other, until the narrator subverts the sequence:
Soon they were no longer
but brothers whose punishment
for misusing fire
was to continue misusing it.
This removed, declarative voice leads us to believe that the thrust of this collection’s innovations will be primarily generic, concerned with how parable as a genre can be reinvigorated with postmodern understandings (for instance, the absurdity of the dialectic or the vacuity of political gestures).
But as we progress we begin to see quickly that Felsenthal is interested in something more complex than the mere crafting of postmodern parables. By the fifth poem, “If You Need a Ride,” it’s clear that we are in a much broader project:
On TV, I watched an owl encircle her nest
with clumps of shit the black beetles then pillaged.
Beetles consumed dried dung, owl chicks ate beetles.
It’s easy to say our inheritance of shit sustains us,
given: your soul’s the latrine you get to clean.
I am rubbing the salt in spirals over my body,
hoping what leaves is worse than what enters.
Turning to salt’s no worse than eating shit. Lot’s wife,
tired of Lot, lost her shoulder as she glanced over it
backward into sky-clad sulfur, from which she heard
the sound tomorrow cannot make.
Here we have left the parable workshop and are now in the poet’s real life, watching TV with him and following his associative mind as the nature documentary reminds him of the Biblical story of Lot’s wife and thereby deep anxieties over cleanliness and righteousness. In this poem (and the remaining collection) we hear the tighter opening parables as a structural echo that helps limn the components—various fragments of mythic or religious stories, as well as general sights and scenes from the ancient world—that comprise a far messier (and more personally meaningful) query.
Felsenthal takes to mythic components like pieces of an erector set that he bends into new shapes with a breathless kind of expertise. In “Alternate Zoo,” we get these delightfully rendered lines:
[. . . ] The King
of Terrors chimes the rusted
keys of Time and swings them as a scythe to harvest the souls of knights
and pharaohs alike, waiting outside a church,
kiosk of Trajan, east of the Nile in Egypt
leaning against lily-topped
columns that echo unfolding
life while two cobras answer with death, above papyrus leaves
for knowledge and rebirth.
Felsenthal clearly has sonic talents, and elsewhere he offers even more ostentatious displays of it. In “Ensue” we get language inversions that echo the logical work of the opening poems:
If reliefs can, relieve.
I can’t relive
that week of funerals. Horizontal
tree, leaf urn, release my friend.
And in many poems—such as “The Lads of Atlantis,” one of my favorites—we get impressive metrical work cascading down nimble lineation:
The young tear away like a river
cannot love a god
Beyond the oak and linden tree
a better world awaits
the world in which the seed of being
A pageant where I love
These examples—all stylistic departures from one another—indicate a strong sense of play, and indeed throughout we see the poet loosely (but skillfully) trying things out. With this play comes a self-amusement that often effects insouciance—even irreverence—a kind of scholarly disposability. The critique is inherent here: one ought to take more care of these sacred and possibly dangerous materials: Egyptian gods, Greek philosophy, Biblical stories, and the like. But the danger of this mishandling is precisely what gives these poems their verve, and as much as Felsenthal seems to casually play with these materials, he is also obsessively present to them. Over time we can see irreverence in the poems as indicative of a complex human quality, not hubris as much as a symptom of a deeper pathos (and very modern condition).
In reviewing the preceding examples, we can see that pathos clearly: martyrdom, punishment, cleansing, rebirth, funerals, vanishing, love. These are poems of loss, and play in them becomes an expression of spiritual longing. At various moments, when Felsenthal returns to his grounded discursive style—such as in the long poem “Past Life Palinode”—this longing expresses itself with arresting power. Here play and pathos meet in a moving distended utterance in a poem that deserves place among the very best long poems by our most celebrated poets. I’ll close with a few lines from it:
It’s night, the trenches are filled with mysterious
friezes of light. I thought I had been here already
in my emotion-time diagram, in my field work,
in the letters I wrote and carried through
the circular river of the underworld, with my
suave mind awaking to life’s errors, a garbled
painting, a painting in which what is whispered
is garbled, is the providence of irreversible
existence. Time’s triads touched the soul as
the thread of life caught our ankles. I ran away.