Friday, March 20, 2009

Sojourner, So To Speak

Joseph Somoza's "Sojourner, So to Speak"
By Blake de Pastino

NOVEMBER 17, 1997: No one has ever written about Joseph Somoza's poetry without quoting it at length. This is because--for all practical pur-poses--it defies description. It is the kind of writing that shrugs off any attempt to define it, too unique to fit any paraphrase. Kind of like when you look up a word in the dictionary, and all you find is more of the same word. Obfuscatory: Of or relating to obfuscation. Causing to obfuscate. Some things are just so hostile to interpretation that they cannot be restated. They can only be demonstrated. Or, in the case of poetry, quoted at length. They simply are.

So Joe Somoza's work is slippery, it's true; but that does not mean that it is somehow unclear or dense. On the contrary, it has been known to be uncommonly vivid, succinct and accessible. One critic has even described it as "factual." It has been called many things all right, but none of the adjectives seem sufficient on their own. In the end, the best way to understand the many hard-to-describe virtues of Somoza's work is to pick up his latest collection, Sojourner, So To Speak.

The fifth outing by this Las Cruces poet, Sojourner is enough of a success to make one wonder why Somoza isn't better known. But it is also just challenging enough to suggest precisely why. Over the course of 57 poems, Somoza creates a complexly devastating portrayal of what a man looks like--instant by instant--as he commits an act of poetry. Written in a style that can best be described as chatty, his verses are colored with conversational asides, tangential remarks and word associations that seem (at first) to be utterly random. It might be to poetry what Abstract Expressionism was to painting--Action Poetry, difficult to tell whether it was created in one sitting or slaved over for days.

Either way, the result of this approach is an uncommon intimacy. Somoza's poems are deeply personal musings, and it's refreshing how unapologetic he is about that. Often his poems will begin with the here and now, the concrete, as he sits in his backyard and meditates on lawn chairs and cinderblock walls ("it's/brighter now," he writes in "First Flight," "The sky bluer./The cinderblocks grainier.") And soon his mind begins to meander ("The sky--if you hadn't noticed--/also meanders"), and suddenly he is thinking of his wife, or remembering some landscape from his past, or skating on some metaphysical horizon. It is all very friendly, nonlinear and completely without fixity. Somoza seems to like everything that way.

Including his language. While he's sitting in his aluminum chair, unlimbering his mind so it can move through time and space, Somoza takes great and apparent joy in his own prose. Occasion-ally, he explores the meaning of each word while you're watching. Like in his description of his mother's face, "formed by underlying/cheek bones/('underlying' in the sense of .../'lurking')." Or in his vision of something "fabulous, exotic, which/makes me think "unrooted"--/or uprooted--therefore/ frivolous?" But in other places, Somoza is more than willing to let the words define themselves, rollicking in their utter simplicity: "I can see/a piece of my nose if I look/noseward. I can see/my t-shirt mirrored in the mirror." Sometimes, like in the dictionary, words just seem to reflect themselves.

What's most fortunate about Somoza's style, though, is that the mechanics of language never drown out the poet's sensitive, pensive voice. "Words,/don't start/rhyming on me now!" he warns at one point, "when what I need/is slow/deliberation." How true. Because that tender deliberation is--in the end--exactly the elusive, unnamable thing that many of Somoza's admirers find so hard to describe. Hard, maybe, because it's pulled off with such subtle sophistication--turned out moment by moment, line by line, never quite sure where the next word will take you. No wonder we find it easier to quote Somoza than to describe him. After all, as he writes near the end of Sojourner, So To Speak, his aim is to "Give words/to the myster-ious./What poems should do." (La Alameda Press, paper, $12)

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