Traces of a Fifth Column by Marco Maisto
Inlandia Books, May 2017
110 pages – Amazon
Dissolving artifacts spin throughout Marco Maisto’s enigmatic debut collection, circling like the faded red cassette tape that looks like eyes on Traces of a Fifth Column’s cover. Human attempts to catalogue experiences in notebooks and video tapes unravel as the speaker yearns to locate a time “when we were palimpsests incredulous of grasses and solid obstacles. When we learned how to live two lives at once.” While people—and the realities they create through documentation—become “flickering cyanotypes,” dissolving to a ghostly blue hue, words manifest into physical forms that have the potential to harm: “I feel your words throwing fists in my mouth.” At the pulpy heart of Traces of a Fifth Column is a reverberating yearning for a multiplicity in which worlds double in on themselves like a constantly spinning film reel until “every year is contained // every year is contained // in this nighttime” and “we are on another earth.” Traces of a Fifth Column eradicates our urge to reduce intricate experiences by exposing the wonder of a dis-ordered world.
In the first section, “The Octavo of Human Landscapes,” Maisto questions categorical narration by disrupting chronology in a discovered notebook that jumps from day 1,500,000 to day 33. Even the writer of the notebook confesses, “The idea of me—the hash-marked outline that universally precedes my body by mere moments—writes this to you. It will say everything I need it to, but usually not in the order I want it to.” The notebook’s entries unspool uncontrollably, but instead of chaos, Maisto creates a wonderfully disordered depiction of the lives within the notebook’s pages where anything is possible, even “an ultraviolet crease in the cassette tape spewing from my mouth.” Time becomes “a spectral band, where greys contend with golds and blues” and the speaker questions, “Do I remember the moment I forgot who I was?”
Epistolary-type poems permeate the notebook’s pages in which the speaker addresses an ever-transforming reality. “(Day 105, Instant Island)” opens with a list of inscriptions that refuse hierarchical categorization:
Dear Yellow-Green Cambridge Cotton Fruit, Dear Card Trick, Dear Delicious
Record Climate, Dear Story-About-a-Boy-That-is-a-Story-About-Two-Boys, Dear
Ampersand as Drilled Thing, Dear 13th-Floor-Floating-Plastic-Bag, Dear Warning,
Dear Disclaimer, Proclaimer, Dear Geodesic Honeycomb, Dear Table, Dear Table
Maisto’s list acts as part love letter to the world, part language-portrait for a moment, and part freeze-frame to a strange movie. In fact, the scene is clearly set with all the cinematic pieces: location (Dear Yellow-Green Cambridge), protagonist (Dear Story-About-a-Boy-That-is-a-Story-About-Two-Boys), and drama (Dear Warning). But this constructed reality refuses to spotlight any one thing, leaving us suddenly unsure. Maybe the Ampersand is the protagonist? Or is it the 13th-Floor- Floating-Plastic-Bag? These poems playfully refuse to tell any one story by embracing an abundant host of possibilities. Does the Card Trick matter or the Delicious Record Climate? Profoundly multi-dimensional, the notebook’s pages become spaces of exploration and edifications on how to embrace complexity in a world that prizes extreme accessibility until everything is a diluted version of itself.
A major preoccupation within the notebook is how we choose to depict the world. “(Day 118)” claims to be a distillation of the “Last summer in 118 words or less,” a line which runs in faded gray font like a ghost tagline perpendicular to the actual poem. The poem itself is a musical pile-up of nouns
hot homemade movie
cassette-tape grey orchid
torch party orchid
accented with action and desire
so I can catch you
so I can catch you
who are you not
that returns to the tonality and musicality of language
navy blue halfday
In this adrenalized list, Maisto deconstructs words to a tricked-out metonymic state; each line acts as a substitute of a single summer. The bright and humid days of August become a “torch party orchid” and a “Jurassic-green raincoat.” These phrases act as artifacts from a strange and luminous planet that reject a coherent archive of memories and moments. A few notebook entries later, the speaker admits, “My impression of each place is the sum of my feelings… that bundle of fleeting associations and dissolving pictures that falls to the ground when I shake the word by its trunk.” It is significant that the speaker provides this offering only after we’ve grappled with how “(Day 118)” reflects the heat and desire of summer. By withholding the explanation, the speaker insists that we radically rethink categories and names, shattering the possibility of perfectly framed photographs.
Vanishing artifacts continue in the book’s second section, “Tape.” A found object with a “smudged date” that aurally records “Fall-time & the Seduction of Dusks,” the Tape continues past summer’s bright exuberance to “the dissolvable things we take for granted, even though they’re more precious than anything on earth.” Maisto immediately attunes our attention to the spaces between big events, the quiet and easily forgettable ephemeral tendrils we might otherwise overlook. These dissipating precious things are “wispy, zero-dimensional…memories of glances, plumes of freezing breath” and “unholdable…like the tiny parts of speech we can’t picture—things behind things.” Once again, we’re reminded that it’s not the filtered photograph but the feeling behind the frame that matters most: a shifting shadow against a yellow wall, a silvery breath on the first night of fall.
The poems throughout “Tape” are interested in the plurality of stories, desire, language, and a mutating self. Both intimate, evoking a domestic reality, and wildly experimental, Maisto’s poems push us to question what constitutes reality and what is possible: “Add stories to its story: The Night We Coded Dusk Into the Street.” In this moment, the speaker palpably displays those “dissipating precious things” through converting dusk’s message into a secret script. Again, the poem isn’t interested in dusk as a time of day or spectrum of color, but the secrets that reside within—the dusk behind dusk, the unseen spectral. This system of unearthing the essence of a moment occurs several more times where the silences and white spaces between become imperative. On one page the speaker openly declares,
to wear the heart’s face
between this blizzard and that blizzard.
Here, Maisto’s linguistic minimalism pressurizes the search for twinned worlds, placing it into sharp focus. “This blizzard and that blizzard” occur simultaneously; the white space between acts as a blurry breath that embodies the “unholdable.” Probably the most acute pronouncement of doubling arrives when the speaker confesses, “This story is an event horizon that only days ago engulfed another version of myself whole and entire.” Evoking the multiplicity found in the notebook’s pages, Maisto’s doubling acts as another poignant reminder of the error of simplistic and reductive renditions of our lives.
In between these meditations on doubling selves and stories are tickertape-type poems, single lines appearing in the middle of blank pages. Reading them feels like finding a coded compulsion to name the objects that constitute a life. Here are a few of these poems: “coffee sugar succulent sunrise handgrenade,” “red house watertower paperback birthday fuck,” and “last call zen center strange bed short hair neutron bomb.” Evoking Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Maisto’s words compose a reality both alien and everyday. Delight and danger take up residence in the same small space, as most of the lists end with objects of destruction—bombs, avalanches, guns. These brief moments feel like admittances of the danger and tenuousness of being alive, at taking things for granted is a form of destruction too.
Traces of a Fifth Column begins and ends with two versions of the same concrete poem:
On these two pages words literally become an architectural artifact of syntax and meaning. “Slow down so I can catch you” could just as easily be “slo socatch Ican t you.” Physically reordering the poem’s words in this way both echoes the book’s pulsing complexity and enacts its ever-doubling realities. The first version evokes a yearning for connection while the second version admits its impossibility—two radically different realities exist in a single moment. Reading this first and last poem makes one think of Aram Saroyan and how language placed in strangeness has the capacity to slow our thinking down to the level of individual letters. As Maisto writes, “I homecome more complicated. / This will take time.”
Carrie Bennett is a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellow and author of biography of water, The Land Is a Painted Thing, and several chapbooks from dancing girl press: The Quiet Winter, Animals in Pretty Cages, and The Affair Fragments. Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, Caketrain, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, among others. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches writing at Boston University.