Jeff Alessandrelli’s Fur Not Light—a title borrowed from Russian Absurdist Daanil Kharms—contains, generally speaking, two types of poems, as well as some notable stylistic choices with titling.
There are lineated pieces written more lyrically; and there are prose poems which tend toward a more fully-fleshed anecdote or character study. Most of the poems in the collection are encapsulated within one page and all—save for the opening and closing poems—lack unique titles, bearing only an asterisk or the name of the section they occupy; this effect makes the poems more thematically unified and implies each section as a sort of epic poem.
All of the poems, prose or lineated, approach the same themes: existential crises, the perceived ephemerality of hope, and the difference between acceptance and surrender.
Consider the following excerpt from a lineated poem in the section “Be Yer Own Hitman (Deathsounds/Lovesongs)”:
I could put a bullet
In my heart
Or a sunflower
In my hand
And today all is a battlefield
Battlefield able to shout
Without having a mouth.
When did I forget
How to fly?
I didn’t I didn’t, I won’t.
The first stanza sets the extremes of human response: Violent Action from “bullet / In my hand” versus Peaceful Thought from “sunflower / In my heart.”
In the second stanza, “today all is a battlefield” brings an overtly existential context: the idea that each new day is a struggle or “battlefield,” an image which also ties back to “bullet.”
The hard line break between “battlefield” and “of sunflowers” evokes again that theme of Violent Action versus Peaceful Thought. The phrase “A battlefield of sunflowers” also implies a chaos or subjectivity within Peaceful Thought, as a “battlefield” implies more than one side, one voice. This subjectivity is reinforced further by the battlefield of sunflowers “being able to shout / without having a mouth.” Another read is that while a battlefield has no physical mouth, it is a setting where many different mouths congregate.
The third stanza asks a question that reveals what the author is really looking for behind the existential struggle: “When did I forget / how to fly?”
This question is not unique to Alessandrelli; it cries out to the opening line of James Grabill’s Through The Green Fire, and to countless other works. Grabill says “Part of us wants to fly, so there are birds.” At the core of the human condition there is an inseparability of imagination and hope. The desire to fly is the fundamental desire for ascension, elevation beyond the limits of our own human condition.
The author asks, in response to the existential struggle of his first stanzas, “When did I forget,” as if to imply that the forgetting came in his focus on the struggle itself. His subsequent answer “I didn’t I didn’t, I won’t” has the feeling of denial, resolution. One read is that the repeated “I didn’t” each speak to the “I could put a bullet / sunflower” options from the first stanza; and the “I won’t” speaks to “When did I forget.” The author is denying themselves rumination on the existential struggle, and reaffirming their imagination and hope. They are saying “I won’t forget how to fly.”
The existential crisis is everywhere. Another lineated excerpt from “Be Yer Own Hitman…”:
It’s easy to predict the future:
Death is hidden
In every watch
I’ve stared at, slowly
The first and last lines of this stanza are the significant ones: “easy to predict” and “I’ve stared at, slowly” highlight the author’s complicity in the fugue produced by awareness of mortality. “Death is hidden / in every watch,” which is to say: not at all hidden.
Fur Not Light’s other type of poem, the prose poem, errs toward character studies—both of proper named characters like “Alan” or “Penelope” and of character types such as “The Writer” or “The Politician” or “The Arsonist” and so forth. Again, the struggles experienced by these characters or types tend toward the same existential crises with which the first-person narrator engages.
Take for example the below excerpt from a poem in the “Resignation Modes” section which, like many of the poems in its section, is a parable about surrender: the various types or “modes” of “resignation”:
At the start of his career the politician resigns himself to the fact that
progress is a great ship that only incrementally makes headway through
the vast and turbulent waters. This lack soothes him, enforces the notion
that he is a mere cog in a machine, that nothing is much expected of him
other than his ability to get re-elected. Surprising himself most of all,
by the end of his career he has done so much good for so many people.
Still, he believes in little—
The politician surrenders, “resigns himself,” and this is reinforced by “At the start of his career…incrementally…lack soothes…enforces…mere cog…nothing much expected…other than…” all of which evoke an atrophy to the concept of surrender, a slow embracing.
Then, later in life, he experiences a victory, “surprising himself…by the end…he has done so much good…Still, he believes in little—” The phrase “surprising himself” coupled with “Still, he believes in little—” implies that this character lost the concept of success ever since he approached his career as something that “only incrementally makes headway.”
The politician’s titular “Resignation Mode” is the parable of unhealthy response to existential fugue, its morale being that resignation is not the same as acceptance: rather, it is a less functional version that damages the spirit.
Fur Not Light navigates with good humor existential topics that can be heavy on the page. There is a sense of silliness throughout the collection: alliterative humor such as “Fish with feet. Farting with your mouth,” cleverly designed near-repetitions and other syntactic rearrangements. The collection is not Absurdist on the whole—the writing is a bit too emotionally coherent for that—but it contains plenty of Absurdist flavor.
Toward the end of the collection the author does take some more experimental risks, with varying degrees of success. Consider the following excerpt from a poem in“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”:
Certain [b&w stick figure emoji] are places you love because you’ve forever lost the lease
The selfie emoji is, while a bit startling at first, generally effective. It shows up fewer than a dozen times total, and all within a section that focuses on the first person. On the page, the b&w stick-figure blends in fairly well with the b&w text. It could be argued that the word “selfie” would have sufficed, but there is some precedent for using the emoji: moments of technocultural noise such as “skateboarding down the street / While dribbling a basketball / While listening on your phone / To a Ted Talk.” This technocultural noise, along with the author’s simultaneously accepting and ironic tone toward said noise, acts as a primer for the emoji, reflecting its pervasiveness in modern speech.
Toward the end there are also a few instances of cyrillic and other foreign text. A couple of the words, when translated, reveal themselves as Russian and Turkish cities, but the greater purpose of mentioning these cities—and in their foreign script—is harder to discern. Although foreign text is used only a few times, each use feels a bit removed from the collection’s continuity.
The last poem, “Hope,” also elicits mixed feelings. Nearly all of its lines are crosshatched, though still legible. This device creates three poems within one: the crosshatched lines, the normal lines, and the unified whole. The content of these variant reads isn’t unappealing—in a way, it fits perfectly with the narrator’s existential conflict throughout the collection and with their ultimate argument for optimism. However, the lack of precedent for crosshatching does make its sudden appearance in the last poem quite jarring, enough so that some readers may not feel sufficiently prepared for the device and may be distracted by it as much as uplifted.
The above devices are interesting particularly because most of the collection doesn’t rely on them—and yet, the collection’s aesthetic does seem to loosen toward the end. Even the voice starts to slip more into stream of consciousness as opposed to short controlled blips and vignettes. This overall “loosening” feels intentional, aligning on some tonal level with the slow dissolution of functionality before existential turmoil.
Fur Not Light doesn’t lose its cohesion by taking a few experimental risks—the content is strong enough by itself that the devices, when they do show up, demand an extra close lens.
Vladislav Frederick earned his BA in English from Drake University in 2012 and earned his MFA in Poetry from Eastern Washington University in 2016. Vlad’s work has been featured by Midway Journal and Zaum Press. Vlad currently lives in Missoula, Montana, works exclusively odd jobs, and has developed an unhealthy relationship with espresso.