All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts
by Dana Roeser
Two Sylvias Press, 2019.
Dana Roeser’s All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts is a book of long, narrow poems that move lightly and deftly from one strand of experience to another, in the hope that such leaps will reveal a single underlying pattern of experience. This hope is fulfilled poem after poem, with the work never feeling overdetermined. Instead, I found myself reeling from Roeser’s delightfully individual and at times idiosyncratic associations.
A poem that leaps frequently from one strand of experience to a seemingly disconnected one is “Flying Change,” which features two appearances of the word “leap” on its first page (15). The poem incorporates the speaker’s memories of her overly eager guard dog, Sally, who needs to be put down, news event in which an errant pilot needs to be tackled by the passengers, and memories of her psychologically struggling daughter. But then the poem ends astonishingly on Louis C.K.’s pre-me-too piece about flying on an airplane:
on every plane
going, “Oh my God.
in a chair
in the sky! (italics original, p. 25).
Ending here on the subject of wonder raises the question of what the experience of awe has to do with the feeling of being uncontrolled or frantic. To be fully aware of flying is to be aware of “sitting” (hence the italics). To feel overpowering awe is to be frozen by emotion, to be helpless in the face of a sensory overload that is a kind of panic. It is not uncommon for the end of Roeser’s poems to introduce a new element in this way, revealing that the underlying experience the whole poem reflects on is more expansive, even, than one would have imagined.
One pattern shared by many of the poems, especially in the first half of the collection, is the alternation of left-margined and right-indented short lines, as can be seen in the quoted excerpt above. The first half of the book can be seen as an exploration of the capacities of this poetic form, and I found that close-reading the poems often suggested different symbols that evoke these capacities. Perhaps each right-indentation registers the karate-chopping motion of a masseuse. Perhaps the spatially alternating lines embody the movement of the multi-tasking mind. Perhaps the two left-indented lines make a hole into which the right-indented lines fit like pegs; perhaps the left-indented margin is like the trunk of a maple from which the right-indented red leaves flap in the wind.
The comparison of the right-margin to the grounding force of the maple tree trunk that bears the red leaves is suggested by the poem from which the collection derives its title: “Transparent Things, God-Sized Hole.” Thundershirts, the poem makes clear, are the “special / wraparound shirts” that small dogs wear to wait out storms. The poem suggests that the transparent thing that needs the thundershirt is not just the little dog or the speaker herself, the wind:
The wind is its own
kind of chaos,
sometimes like a sheet
of itself tangled
on a celestial
clothesline. It needs
a weighted blanket.
Little red flags
on the maple (p. 27-28).
The wind, which is the breath that animates language, is also the spirit, which would be in chaos were it not weighed down by the language that the assonance of “chaos,” “tangled,” “weighted,” “blanket,” and “maple” draws attention to. The cascading visual form of these poems is of course also a visual embodiment of wind, which enables it to be tethered to a page. The fact that thundershirts are for storms suggests that poetry protects the soul against the elements in the world that are perilous to it. Storms are not as perilous to the soul, Roeser’s poems suggest, as the blur of routine that might lead us to lose track of the particularity of our encounters with the world and with each other.
The first part of the book thus consists entirely of poems of alternating indentation, which share an investment in the moments when the speaker is most connected to herself and others, and in using language in the way that is most emotionally honest. The second half of the book opens with a poem called “Crush,” which features all left-indented lines, as if the right indentations have been smooshed in. Thematically, the poem addresses crushed up food and thinks about how beauty crushes us and makes us indistinguishable from each other and from our past selves. Then, after the crushing to the left margin, there are two poems in which there is a farther right-indented line, a left-margined line and then a shorter right-indented line. Both poems are about striving and falling short of a desired form (one involves a slightly botched haircut). The indentation of lines kept being something that I thought about throughout the collection up until the last poem “Pool,” in which there are three-line stanzas, increasingly right-indented, which mirrors the speaker’s motion of going back and forth in the pool. The temporarily progressive but ultimately back-and-forth movement of this mind in a world that is a pool persists until the whistle of the lifeguard blows that makes it stop—the lifeguard that is God and the whistle that is death.
What stays with me most in Dana Roeser’s remarkable collection is how faithfully the speaker stays with the movement of the mind— the quality of that motion elicited in the reader by the distinct spatial movements of the eyes down and across the page. An awareness of the repetition does not dull, but somehow throws into relief the variation of the line breaks and transitions from one strand of experience to another, which could make me feel as if I were flung into outer space. In other words, these poems furnished both the thundershirts and the storms that make creatures need them.