The Scales by Adam Stutz
White Stag Publishing, April 2018
88 pages / White Stag
It is unsurprising that “The Ruins,” the opening poem in Adam Stutz’s debut collection The Scales, explores the politics of life along the US-Mexican border. “These broken / gasoline environs / temples + / boiled down / strangers’ heartbreaks / end in / a border a projection a tilted tide,” Stutz begins. As a San Diegan poet, what would be more unusual is if he weren’t exploring the human and environmental facets of border poetics in a city that is drenched with both. But what is unique—and what will be difficult for any review to capture—is the way that the page itself replicates the fractured nature of border living. The opening lines become a patchwork:
and each subsequent stanza follows suit, so that it’s often unclear if phrases are best read horizontally, or vertically, or neither—if perhaps the poem’s best hope is to lay on the page, words broken in pieces, as separate from one another as the “strangers” and “environs” described within.
Throughout The Scales, form both defines and distorts function, stretching the cohesion of each line to its breaking point. In “The Happy Vertigo,” a twenty-page phantasmagoric epic, the narrator begins at “the footpath of distractions / built near the house of reruns” before literally falling down the page while “sleep / resides / in / the / eyelids / tipping night.” As one of the collection’s earliest pieces, it’s a very clear move to drop the reader into the abyss—and also perhaps the closest the book comes to something resembling concrete poetry.
Though none of the poems that follow make such literal attempts, the impact of visual layout informs the reading experience throughout. But unlike “The Happy Vertigo,” in which lines are broken with a seeming random violence, the rest of The Scales is obsessed with pattern. While the book’s title poem imagines the narrator fit for (or trapped in) an armor of “lacquered scales,” a piece like “Automaton’s Mid-Week Incantation” is purposefully broken into a spreadsheet-like grid that betrays the monotony of working life, suggesting “Some Tuesdays / feel like a recitation / of inequities,” with this final exclamation: “a fucking rash / it’s how you break.”
Whether exploring the fantastic, the mundane, or parts in between, the common thread running through Stutz’s work is muted anxiety and disassociation that washes over each poem. In “404 Error,” children become “operating systems” that “come apart / loving blindly,” while in “The Newsman’s Pall” he envisions an “era [of] industry” ending in “deceit+rot.” But as with “The Ruins,” the unique quality of The Scales is not the content of the poet’s concerns, but the ongoing pattern of phrases being split and disjointed across the page. Like an armor of scales—or a chain link fence across a border—there is a veil that separates the reader, the poet, and the line from one another. From “Frame”:
I want the contract of unfettered
but the body reveals limits
becomes the shape
it fails to repel
It’s this feeling of buffering and distance that keeps the poems from slipping into complete despair, but also prevents them from anything resembling true release. “Build a should,” Stutz suggests in “The Acceptance,” the book’s closing poem: “Build no/future.”
Unlike many debut collections, The Scales is neither a call to arms, a gauntlet thrown, nor a wry commentary on our times. Instead it is almost an act of penance—an observation of modern life through the fence, and inside the armor, and behind the spreadsheet, of the paralyzed American psyche. It is a snapshot not only of Stutz’s anxieties, but of our own as well.