In an era when contemporary poetry sometimes means earnest essays with jagged line margins, Aaron Anstett’s latest collection, Morever, brings a welcome mix of longing and gladness, leavened by wonder. He is also not afraid to be entertaining.
Entertaining, yes, but that term does not mean unserious. Rather, Morever seems to be part of a larger project to address what, for lack of a better paraphrase, I would call the unruly immensity of experience. Putting a frame on that is ambitious, to say the least, but fortunately, in this collection, it’s not hamstrung by an overweening attitude or an “aren’t-I-right?” ideology. The speakers in these poems readily acknowledge perplexity, or the ways in which they fall short.
For instance, in “Partial Concordance,” Anstett alludes to “Sensation’s ability to resist description” even as his poetry is at pains to render a variety of sensations. Consider the excerpt below from one of the several poems sharing the title, “Moreover”:
Do we long again to stay
up late recounting scars’
jobs, arguing yes
or no a God
as across the planet
sunlight picks out
scenarios from which
we’re mostly absent,
and then the birds
commence their racket?
Here we find Anstett’s strengths: a wide range of imagery and interiority in a concentrated space; a sense of rhythm cued by enjambment as much by syllabic stress; subtle slant rhymes; and a puncturing of human preoccupations in the service of a larger vision. The human position in nature, without claiming any inherited mastery over nature, informs Moreover. Sometimes this view is made explicit, as in “Lines Written in the Anthropocene” or “Big Statement,” which notes “we’re in the world / like a building in flames.” Usually, though, such concerns are implied.
Though some of these pieces definitely seem on the “green” side, the collection as a whole is hard to pin down or label; it is eclectic and full of twisting mental corridors. At first reading I found the poems appealing but the title, Moreover, struck me as atypically flat or prosaic. Surely this writer was capable of devising something catchier?
But with further reading the choice began to make sense, because of the book’s emphasis on the unruly immensity of experience. Don’t think you have things figured out, it implicitly cautions, because there is always something else…moreover… The result is less an argument than an amplitude.
Some poems are playful, like “Always Go to Other People’s Funerals, Otherwise They Won’t Come to Yours,” which appears to be composed of quips attributed to Yogi Berra. Other poems have a distinct surrealistic flavor, as in “The Bargain,” where the speaker proofreads footnotes for “Proceedings of the International / Congress for Ennui” and refers to a passage:
In lieu of pleasant childhood
recollections please accept this
photograph of vintage rainfall
the dead move through, unspeakably sooty.
Implicit here and in other weird moments is a sense of what one might call “moreover-ness”: that this “something else” which appears “in lieu of” constitutes much of experience, much of the awareness of being alive. One would be less alive if it were left out.
Philip Larkin once observed that “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.” On the surface, at least, Larkin is a very different poet from Anstett: a Tory Englishman from another generation. Anstett, according to the book blurb, lives in Colorado and has received the Nebraska Book Award and the Backwater Press Prize.
But, despite obvious differences, Moreover does seem animated by an “impulse to preserve” and it displays a fascination for what others might overlook. Anstett notices, and these poems demonstrate how much a poet’s job is to be a “noticer.” Consider the final stanza of “The Historical Record”:
…every language has a name
for weeping if not for when
our insides feel weather-swept.
Anstett undertakes the project of finding the language for this “weather-swept” feeling inside. It is a difficult, ultimately impossible task, but it is one that the poet embraces. “Moreover…”