I wanted to hold onto up, space of the Rena Rosenwasster, Elevators
All manner of bodies can be seen as physical structures: our bodies are houses, our art is a cathedral, relationships are pieces of architecture buried under layers of miscommunication, missed opportunity and regret. Nowhere is this more clear than in Rena Rosenwasser’s newest collection of poetry, Elevators. In these poems, the narrator is a traveler, a lover, an artist, an archaeologist, expounding on and exploring the physical structures that we have built with our own hands.
The collection is comprised of seven individual poems, often functioning within themselves as separate poems born of the same idea. The very first poem shows us what we might expect, what to look for. The main vehicle for the first poem is art, and the three-paneled painting invoked in the title “Triptych” shows us we will be investigating threes. (The most solid structure in nature is reported to be the triangle, and this triptych certainly harkens back to the pyramids of Egypt, a theme that recurs most often throughout the collection.) But now, the poet wants to draw our attention first and foremost to the structure of a relationship. Can the reader at first glance think of the narrator’s relationship as a solid one when so many words of loss are present?
Not to be undone. Not to be riddled with images. Or lost in compartments. Two floors up or on the ground. Stucco cracks in the middle of night and pieces fall. Sometimes I am sleeping when the falling happens. (Italics mine.)
Each negative word reinforces the idea that something is missing, that the structure in which we are exploring is filled with pitfalls and holes. Yet, ever familiar is the Lover: the one in the cast of characters upon which this entire poetic exploration is hinged. The poet makes clear that there are things we do not know:
The house has the appearance of two floors. At least two inhabitable stories but if I extend myself I can see there is another floor below the two we are situated on. Is there a key somewhere that has eluded me?
What we do not know could be the third person that has entered the relationship, though we do not know if the narrator is the one considering an infidelity, or if it is the Lover:
Two women ride on. They watch distant Umbrian hills fade away. A third woman’s name is on a card that one of the two women has written. I read the name as the card slides back and forth along the narrow roads.
The relationship worries are only one way to read the structure of the narrative. Another commentary could be the ways in which the church and the obviously lesbian lifestyle in the collection are at odds with each other. That is perhaps a more feminist approach than is necessary since relationship concerns are obviously not limited to lesbian relationships. But this viewpoint illustrates one of the things I like the most about Elevators. There are a myriad of ways this work can be read and re-read. Like broken pottery unearthed from an archaeological dig, the pieces can be torn apart and restructured into many different shapes.
Perhaps the solid structure of “Triptych” makes the poems easier to comprehend at the outset. The structure is forty-seven stanzas of three lines each. Further on, the poems become harder to understand syntactically. Here, one must rely on certain keywords and phrases that put the poems in perspective.
“Gurgling in the Monster Depths” has as its most obvious trait, a solid, repetitive structure. The first part of the poem is a structure “riddled with holes” that sits upon a solid foundation of words. The dramatic differences between the sections are its strongest commentary. We are not given exact meaning through syntax in the top section of the units that make up this poem. We are given subject matter. The very first complete statement of this poem, “WORDS TRANSGRESS”, shows us that we cannot count on the actual words to hold up their end of the bargain. They do not comply. They do not do as they are told. Here, the reader is presented with the subject matter of identity, of queerness, of masks presented to the world. (Here also will be our first glimpse into the death masks of the pyramids and the wrappings of mummies: subjects of which Rosenwasser seems to be quite fond.) The sentence structure of the first section of each poem is non-existent. We find subjects missing verbs, adjectives with nothing to modify. Yet, the intention is clear: where identity is concerned, our ideas of self and how that self relates to society are not always clearly defined. What are we to make of words that do not adhere to the places we have given them? What are we to make of words we cannot pigeonhole in order to feel more comfortable with them? But again, the poet gives us a solid foundation for such words. In the bottom section of each poem, we are given sentence structure to counter our feelings of misplacement. Whether or not we understand the actual meaning of a sentence, the fact that it has structure (that verbs follow nouns and that adjectives have objects to modify) makes us feel somewhat centered again. But the poem forces us to investigate our feelings of discomfort when we are confronted with language that defies our expectations.
And now, perhaps, is a chance for us to rest. The most incomprehensible poem in the collection is also the shortest. Yet, it is most clear in this poem that there are many things we do not know. There is an internal life in this poem that is hidden from us. The poem resides in the liminal space between sleeping and waking:
drift sleep’s sheeted sounds starched perimeter motion the bed round Father…
The poet drives us to sleep immediately, thus obtaining a license to speak less than coherently about this liminal dream space. We know that “Father” is involved, but the ellipsis hides his emotional import from us. The very existence of the poem is fragmented. As the title of the poem suggests, there is no narrative. No clarity. No closure. This poem also signals a shift in the arc of the collection. No longer will the poet make the ideas contained within easy for us to understand. The hand-holding is finished. The Traveler persona adapted by the narrator for the previous poems shifts now to the Archaeologist, signaling that the reader must now do the work.
What better place for us to truly begin than with “Real Mummies Wait Out the Hours?” Setting: Egypt. Lore: Egyptian mythology. The reader must begin by understanding the purpose of the gods the poet has chosen to punctuate the story. The significance of Shu, translated literally as “he who rises up”, is the personification of the title “Elevators.” The elevator’s primary job, as its name suggests, is to rise up, so Shu is the obvious choice as a vehicle for the poems that follow. Here, also, is the idea of collapse. If Meidum is a collapsed pyramid, the structure of the poem also mimics collapse. The stanzas appear to the eyes as inverted pyramids, the lines becoming smaller and smaller as they proceed down the page. The footnotes also direct us to the “breaking apart” of sections of the mummies in order to find the artist’s color mommia brown. (A reader may also spend time considering and re-reading the idea that mommia brown was used to make shadows on canvas and how the dead have long been considered shadows of their former selves. The poet’s preoccupation with mummies lends credence to this view.) The Archaeologist will visit Luxor, the necropolis and will read The Coffin Text. The reader, as Archaeologist, will consider the many allusions to death and the difference between the physical body (Ba) and the soul (Ka). The spacing inherent within the poems is reminiscent of an archaeological dig: pieces of pottery, the remains of a hearth, bones. It is our job as readers to piece together the meaning in these objects—if indeed there is any—based on what we know of the lore of the people whose artifacts we unearth.
“Structure Breaks” brings on a replay of the structure of the previous poem, “Gurgling in the Monster Depths.” In this poem, the bottom stanza has become larger (seemingly creating an engorged foundation) and the upper stanza has shrunk. Does this indicate that the reader should now be becoming more comfortable with the idea that language (and perhaps relationships) do not always behave in the ways we expect? Have we grown more comfortable with transgression?
The book’s title indicates that we should find a certain kind of closure in the final poem. What does the elevator have to do with the book’s overall vision? What, if anything, are we supposed to glean? In this way, the final poem is perhaps the most daunting for the reader. If one is expecting a swift, final act of closure, one will not be granted. This act of defiance could be the aim of all language poetry: to resist the “natural” inclination towards closure. The human eye depends on closure: a filling in of missing information based on patterns. While Elevators is full of patterns, it does not deliver the succinct ending a more traditional reader may be expecting. The setting of this final poem is obviously New York; but it is the poet’s New York. Buildings rise without actual structure. Whereas the poems make the structural objects feel tall, there is distinctly little detail about them:
Skyscraper fire-resistant steel How I spent the afternoon turning Eiffel’s bridge vertical Possible plumb-
We are given no walls, no foundations. Our reading of this final poem is fragmented. Does it give us the idea of how little we actually know about the United States’ most iconic city? Does it impart us with some understanding of how structurally unsound is our knowledge of the world? Only the reader can decide this for herself. But through this decision-making process, she becomes a character inside the unfolding drama. She is New York. But something else also happens: we see the pull of the elevator. If we look closely, we understand that the purpose of the elevator is to test our view of the world in which we exist. Stepping into the elevator takes faith. It also requires a certain amount of optimism. There is a joy in leaping to the top floor of our existence, of embarking into the unknown. Essentially, the poet gives us a choice. Stay on the ground floor, with all of its seeming certainty, or brave the elevator, allowing ourselves to be lifted out of the mundane, the accepted, the normal. The poet gives us her choice, even though she allows us to decide for ourselves:
When we roam our own Nouveau
York join me
let the platforms rise