Eyes Like Broken Windows by Seth Michelson
reviewed by RODGER LeGRAND

Press 23, 2012
Consider the following lines from “American Cliché”, the opening poem in Seth Michelson’s Eyes Like Broken Windows:

His body skinny but for the horns
of cancer bulging from his chest
like thorns jutting from the trunk
of this older man, a lifelong rose-
lover. So he waters and whispers to them
each morning, his broken body
bent to the earth, joyful duty, as it blooms
into pink white red fireworks.

Tumors transform into roses. The grotesque, the deadly, become symbols of love and beauty. Near the end of the poem:

…he hopes, quietly, for his roses
to be consumed: for a deer or three
to descend the hills, drift
into his backyard, trampling
false limits with soft hooves
as, noses down, they collect fallen petals,
wafers on famished tongues: a god
dissolving into mouths
hungry to taste and see that the earth is good,
even strewn as it is with shards, with
shattered beauty everywhere.

The he in the poem hopes for salvation, to be spared, as he is forced to embrace the duality that embodies living—tumors and roses, earth strewn with shards (a cutting, foreboding word) and earth flecked with rose petals. With this poem Michelson prepares us for Eyes Like Broken Windows, he teaches us how the poems are to be read. Eyes Like Broken Windows is a collection of poems about transformation through opposition.

At times, the collection verges on spiritual. Transformation in this collection is rooted in juxtaposition enacted through metaphor, rhythm, and formal and implied structure. Broken into three parts, Eyes Like Broken Windows is, as a whole, a highly structured work. The two ends of the triptych consist of poems that demonstrate serious craft awareness. Michelson is a poet in love with the sounds words make when carefully considered and put together in the best possible order. He measures his language so that each line carries weight. More than that, he builds poems that deliver their meaning through how they are shaped.

This shaping of poems emerges in layers. The arrangement of the first section circles the idea of self (or trying to find the self when bogged down by the weight absurdity). In “Pater Mio”, for instance, we see Michelson’s dry humor grapple with the paradoxes of religion:

When asked by a Sunday heckler
if Jesus had balls, my friend,
a fearless priest,
replied, He’d better!
He was human wasn’t He?

And we also get in the first section ample moments of Michelson’s skill for crafting beautiful sentences, as illustrated in “Mother Issues” when the speaker of the poem issues a final question regarding his estrangement with his mother:

Will you stare
burning behind your face
in the lock-jawed silence of the past decade,
or emerge in words and gestures
like the warm sun from behind an eclipse?

The poems in the first section of Eyes Like Broken Windows negotiate daily life and seem to question where we fit as individuals cosmologically—what’s the point to our chaotic lives, the poet seems to ask. In “The Daily Grind”, for instance, we see a man mangled in a car accident on the way to work:

…what a sound: the thwack of steel
as it smashed
through glass then bone,
ribs exploding
like a windshield
into thousands of sparkling bits.

Michelson’s dark, relentless humor is illustrated in the comparison of the daily grind with the grinding of bones. At the end of the poem Michelson brings us to the spiritual:

how the man’s green eyes
gaze forever skyward,
how his fingers
still clutch the wheel,
and how his mouth, agape,
forms a perfect circle.

This spiritual image of an awestruck man staring toward the heavens for eternity is followed by “Kaddish for My Unborn Son”. The Kaddish is embedded with a narrative. The speaker of the poem shares the prayer in italics, and then enacts the way his mind races as it attempts to grapple with this loss.

Stillborn at sixteen weeks
you prove we exist
where we’re created. That afternoon
I watched myself
bound away through a snowy field:

 
like a jackrabbit, my legs pumping,
like a jackrabbit, my sparkling

 
tracks. By midnight I was lost,
baffled by the dark,
as I sat in silence
on my couch, miles beyond
my wife beside me, her body
cold, hollowed,
a distant cabin in a snowstorm.

 
May his name grow exalted.

The poem oscillates this way through its end, between the mind running uncontrollably through the baffled dark while standalone lines weave their way through the prayer. We get the quickened pace of “like a jackrabbit, my legs pumping” toward the prayer, “may his name grow exalted”, which is slower, has more room, and seems to expand as the poem progresses. In the poem that follows, “Emergency Medicine”, we see the wife from “Kaddish for My Unborn Son” as an emergency room doctor saving a dying child.

The poem begins:

My wife’s hands, small white birds,
flutter over the new arrival:
a child fallen from a rooftop:
blood-filled lungs, a shattered face.

Notice the pacing and rhythm. In the opening line only one of the five syllables is unstressed. The comma’s caesura gives us a breath within the spondees. And that breath is sort of an affirmation of the claim. Then in lines two and three we feel more varied meter—in line two we feel two trochees followed by an iambic foot and then another trochee. The spondees in line one make that line a declaration. My wife’s hands are doves, birds of peace, the speaker seems to exclaim. And in line two we get the falling feeling delivered by the merry-go-round effect created by the trochees and iambic meter. Line three opens with a raising iambic foot (“a child”) and then turns back to a trochee (“fallen”) before hitting two dead syllables (“from a”) and delivering the force of the child’s plunge by signaling both the height and the severity of the fall with a double spondee (“rooftop”). The fourth line almost mirrors line one—five of seven syllables are stressed. And the unstressed syllables enact “a shattered face”.

Michelson’s attention to detail—from line-level to the global level of the collection—makes the transformation (and other such transformations) possible. The poems in this sense demand their own shape. The relationship between their meaning and their shape is intricately linked. When reading the poems in Eyes Like Broken Windows, I’m reminded of Robert Hass’ comment in Twentieth Century Pleasures, “…I’m thinking of the form of a poem, the shape of its understanding. The presence of that shaping constitutes the presence of poetry.” Add to this concept Stephen Dobyns’ ideas in Next Word, Better Word: “A poem’s subject matter is also the manner of its telling—its language and how that language is presented. In the best poems, matter and manner carry equal amounts of information”.  We experience the merger of content and craft, matter and manner, in Michelson’s work.

While the poems in the first section are structured and metered based on their own needs, the second section’s poems have a predetermined form. The second section in the triptych is a crown of sonnets, “A Crown for Sophia”. Sonnets are traditionally love poems. And these sonnets are no different.

They strain at times to be rigidly sonnet-like, strain to find their form and to find love. What they find for certain, though, is aching and longing. In keeping with the collection’s goal of seeking transformation through opposition, “A Crown for Sophia” explores oppositions to love, which in this case isn’t hate, necessarily. Instead, love is juxtaposed with the absolute terror that extends from the history, as Tom Lombardo describes in this collection’s introduction, surrounding “the Disappeared Ones of Argentina, where upwards of 30,000 people were kidnapped, brutally tortured, and murdered from 1976-1983”.

While the form of some of these sonnets change and break free of convention, the circumstances for Sophia are unchanging. The sonnet structure, in a way, makes the intensity of this subject matter manageable. By extension, the language in “A Crown for Sophia” explodes, a defibrillator pressed against Sophia’s chest, as though Michelson might be able to resurrect her somehow, not with the fluttering hands of an angelic ER doctor, but with words:

The sun burns white despite the season,
despite today’s gray, frigid sky,
despite the dead leaves scraping the sidewalk
like the scattered bones of a lost body.
And listless, always listless, the memories
of the disappeared: An old man tells you
of his missing daughter, her gap-toothed
smile, her dark green eyes, how her pretty clothes
hung in her closet until they crumbled,
fell like ash. And how he searched for her: bounced
through churches, barracks, courts, swamps, and prisons,
forever luckless, forever empty,
seeking a ghost, a blank, a cipher.
Everywhere I go, I think I see her.

This is the third sonnet and perhaps the best example of Michelson’s work with the form. Throughout the crown readers will recognize the shape of the sonnet. At times they will feel lines pulling themselves toward iambic pentameter. But they won’t find an example of what might be called a perfect sonnet. And they shouldn’t. “A Crown for Sophia” plays out a tragic narrative that is anything but perfect.

The tragedy in these sonnets is so great that the story could only be told in a crown. Notice the final lines:

seeking a ghost, a blank, a cipher.
Everywhere I go, I think I see her.

We need the end rhyme. We need structure. I remember a teacher once saying that we shouldn’t write about chaos chaotically. Michelson’s sonnets show us the real meaning of that sentence—if you are going to address the chaos, such as that of Argentina in the 1970s, then help to make sense of it by bringing order to the world. Sonnets give us that order. The end rhyme “a cipher” and “I see her” help to both deliver the crushing blow of feeling haunted by a victim of the dictatorship’s atrocities while helping to give shape to the emotion for the reader. Again, sonnets are love poems. And these poems are about love. Still, words can’t reverse history. There isn’t enough love in the world to undo these atrocities. The best the poet can do is to create this crown for Sophia.

I get the sense that the speaker in these sonnets would place the crown on Sophia’s head and kneel at her feet if he could. But when the final sonnet plays out, Sophia isn’t resurrected. The reality is that she was murdered decades ago. What we see instead is the speaker in the poem attempting to find a reason to be proud of himself given the despicable act he inadvertently commits while learning about Sophia’s murder. I won’t paraphrase extensively for fear of spoiling the story for you. This is absolutely a story you should read for yourself. I’ll only add that while still searching for the self, contrary to parts one and three, “A Crown for Sophia” is about realizing that sometimes the self, the individual, entangled by dualities—love and fear, speaking and remaining silent, being hopeful and accepting loss—can dissolve into nothingness.

By extension, the poems that open the third section seem to have lost confidence in the humane. The first poem in this section, “El Chanco” features a speaker who succumbs to outside pressure as he consumes a pig, an animal he developed a relationship with prior to it being slaughtered. And the pig becomes transformed in the next poem, elevated from being a grunting hog doomed to slaughter, to being transformed into a paradox of brutish elegance in “Mistislav Rostropovich Plays Bach’s First Cello Suite”:

You punctuate the music’s phrases—snort!—
with nasal inhalations: snort!,
a trait that many hate.
Boorish, the hiss, just tragic.
But I love you, Mstislav,
because of those gasps.
After all they embody man: a hog
rolling in his much, play
studded with grunts of rage—snort!, snort!

When we reach “Lost in Thought”, the poet shifts from keeping time in music (snort!) to contemplating

the nature of time and space. With this shift the poet moves us from seeking the self in the first section, to seeking Sophia (and losing the self along the way) in the second section, to attempting to understand the self in the third section. “Lost in Thought” questions who we are and where we come from:

So what use is it to study,
to work, to play piano
when always you’re at least
ankle-deep in time’s cold ocean?

The poem closes by ruminating about our origins:

…the stars will blink
cold and mute
as our most distant ancestors,
who once walked this Earth
lost in thought, too?”

The third part of Eyes Like Broken Windows turns to the physical in poems like “My Teeth in the Mirror” and “The Shower”. The logic is that in the end we are mortal. For all of our searching, we live and will one day die.

Our first glimpse of the matter of fact results of the poet’s searching is in the title. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the Eyes Like Broken Windows show us for who we really are—battered, tired, and imperfect. The spiritual and the physical begin to merge. Some people spend their lives playing out mother issues. Others end up dead in a car wreck on the way to work. And still others find themselves, for no good reason and in many different ways, disappeared. What we are left with after factoring in the unavoidable degradation of our bodies is how hard we are willing to work at showing the people in our lives how much we love them.

In fact, barring the gritty pragmatism in many of these poems, most of the poems in this collection have at their core an acknowledgement of love—a love of family, love of language and poetry, love of music and nature. And it is through love that perhaps we can find the strength to face the greatest fears that lie ahead. As Michelson writes in “Facing Facts”: “So much indignity in death, the great/ backward slide to dust,/ lovers’ bodies, once wet with lust,/ now a scattering of bitter motes.” Yet at every turn in this collection, as in life, no matter how stark it gets we’re never really alone. We always have each other—our “ragged lives” are somehow “entwined”.
RODGER LeGRAND has three short collections of poems, Hope & Compulsion (Big Table Publishing), Waking Up On a Sinking Boat (Pudding House Press) and Various Ways of Thinking About the Universe (Finishing Line Press). He currently lives in Philadelphia and is the Associate Director of Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.