I find the most challenging book reviews to write are the ones on books that are complex and ambitious. Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s third book of poems, Rocket Fantastic, is one of those books. So much is happening on so many levels in these poems that one could write about anything really. But capaciousness is a word that kept coming to mind when thinking about Calvocoressi’s book—in form, in subject matter, in voice, in spirit, and it’s one possible way to shape a stunning and intentionally shapeless book.
At the beginning of Rocket Fantastic, a note to the reader tells us that the musical segno symbol (that looks like a fancy S with a slash through its middle and two dots on either side) “is used as a pronoun...when referring to the figure of the Bandleader.” The note goes on to explain that the segno “represents a confluence of genders in varying degrees, not either/or nor necessarily both in equal measure. It is simultaneously encompassing and fluctuation, pronounced by me with the intake of breath when a body is unlimited in its possibilities.” The Bandleader (through the segno) appears and disappears throughout the book and acts as kind of fluid thread that is at once linking and at once breaking things apart. The poems where the Bandleader appears are often the poems where the lines are the longest as they sprawl across the page, stagger, and have quite a bit of space between them. This form mimics the identity of the Bandleader—fluid, complex, uncertain, and open:
I like it when [segno] touches me there, right about the forehead
with whose whole palm and moves whose
hand along my skull until it rests below my neck,
and sort of holds me there....
Throughout the Bandleader poems, the speaker and the Bandleader and the “whose” often feel like the same person. These “characters” intermix and interact in ways that feel at once separate and together. It’s quite extraordinary how Calvocoressi evokes this feeling of fluidity through form and the language of naming. On the latter, in naming characters “Bandleader” and “whose,” the act of naming becomes a kind of unnaming:
I like to watch whose start to watch the things
[segno] can’t have. How [segno] starts to stare
then smiles like no one’s looking, whose eyes getting black
and wet like a horse.
Calvocoressi’s settings and materials are also capacious—these poems span time, place, subjects—and in their spanning, the poems expand each other in unexpected ways. There are hornets, foxes, falcons, cicadas, skies, bobcats, hills, orchards and more. These poems are bursting with animals and nature and the speaker’s relationship and oneness with the natural is apparent. Many of the lines in these poems are plainly beautiful, as in the ending of this prose poem about falcons:
I looked and saw their heads. I saw their necks. They were thinner there
in the trees. I could hear them settling in the darkening branches. I
could hear them not being afraid of me.
The “not being afraid of me” repeats itself and morphs throughout the poem: “They aren’t scared of me” and “They aren’t afraid of me” appear before this last line: “I/could hear them not being afraid of me.” The speaker’s fluidity with nature continues throughout the poems such as in “I Had a Mane Once” where the speaker “let the hornets make a mockery/of me. I didn’t sweat it./I let them sting and sting.” And later in the same poem: “And yes, I was every inch an animal./But most days I was merciful....” The speaker isn’t thinking about animals or a human looking at animals, but the speaker is an animal and is simply one of the many in a larger world.
Interlaced amongst these expansive natural poems are the occasional skillful intimate poems such as “She Ties My Bow Tie.” This poem still includes animals, but here, the animals are a metaphor for a small and beautiful moment between two people:
What you thought was the sound of the deer drinking
at the base of the ravine was not their soft tongues
entering the water but my Love tying my bow tie.
We were in our little house just up from the ravine.
Forgive yourself. It’s easy to mistake her wrists
for the necks of deer. Her fingers move so deftly....
Calvocoressi can pan outward into the world and beyond, yet also write the finest lyrical love poem such as “She Ties My Bow Tie.” The poems in Rocket Fantastic expand outward and go inward and back and forth like an accordion. The intimate poems expand the expansiveness of the capacious poems and vice versa, creating an interesting tension.
And finally, it would be remiss not to write about the capaciousness of spirit in many of these poems. It makes sense that Calvocoressi’s poem, “Praise House: The New Economy” is written “after and for Ross Gay,” as Calvocoressi’s and Gay’s poems remind me of each other in many ways—their generous spirits that veer toward joy—a tone not often found in contemporary poetry:
The rosemary bush blooming
its unabashed blue. Also dumplings
filled with steam and soup
so my mouth fills and I bubble
over with laughter. Little things.
People kissing on bicycles.
Being able to walk up the stairs
and run back down....All the animals
that talk to me. That I finally let them
talk to me. The blessing of waking
early enough to watch the fox
bathe itself. The suction of a man’s hands
meeting another’s on the street....
Calvocoressi’s generosity in spirit never gives in to cynicism throughout this book. But Calvocoressi’s poems sometimes feel as if they are struggling toward joy and gratitude, a bit of limping toward, compared to a sprinting toward, arguably because of desire—desire for more, desire for what one cannot have or what one isn’t. And that authentic human tension in the end, is ultimately the heart of this beautiful book and what makes this book sing:
Every single person looking up
to see them. Bros, yes. But lovely
in the golden light with brims swung
to the back. I want shoulders like
they have. Want my waist to taper
to an ass built like the David’s. I admit it:
this body’s not enough for me.
Still I love it....
Victoria Chang’s fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. Her third, The Boss (McSweeney’s), won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She also writes children’s books and Is Mommy? (Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Marla Frazee was named a New York Times Notable Book. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. She lives in Southern California and serves as Teaching Faculty at Antioch University’s MFA Program. You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.