Reviewed by Joshua Jones
Michael Bazzett’s second collection of poems, Our Lands Are Not So Different, pokes fun at thought in order to raise the stakes for the way we think about the world. It can be hard to laugh given the current state of public discourse—harder still to laugh about epistemology, which was never very funny to begin with—but laughter reminds us that the ridiculous is actually ridiculous no matter how powerful or pervasive. Bazzett’s poems, therefore, do the necessary and paradoxical work of making us laugh at our terrors and shudder at our joys.Reading through the poems of this collection, it’s hard not to make a connection between Bazzett’s interrogation of the way we know and the “post-truth” world we’ve stumbled into. For instance, in “Nine Possible Observations to Consider,” Bazzett writes that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that absolutes are not to be trusted. Fortunately, plans are underway to etch this into the cornerstones of public buildings.” But while this poem and so many others in the book are politically invested, it would be hasty to lump them in with a great deal of contemporary political poetry criticizing the current administration. Instead, Bazzett’s book is better read as a prescient cure to a sickness we’ve only recently seen the real symptoms of rather than as a direct commentary on current events.
Forgoing an identifiable narrative arc, Our Lands Are Not So Different falls into three sections that narrow from the more abstract or universal to the particular and personal. The first section revels in the play of thought without much consideration of that thought’s lived experience. In an early poem, “The Problem of Measurement,” Bazzett imagines a society which has taken Zeno’s paradox to heart and made a religion of “cut[ting] everything in half.” The speaker assumes the cool distance of a documentary narrator rather than an indwelled experience of the characters in the poem. In the second section, the speaker generally moves into the poems, living the thought experiments instead of describing them at a distance—he sits across from the menacing “Doppelgängster” and actually chats with him. The final section takes a turn into the personal and biographical, focusing on characters who are presented as real people confronting situations both actual and impossible.
Bazzett indulges in a wry joy that some might feel disquieting but that I find refreshing. “The Ottoman” with its portrayal of furniture “hump[ing] along like a sea lion,” left me laughing far longer than I feel comfortable admitting. But Bazzett doesn’t dwell on the mad “scuttling” of the furniture-turned-aquatic-mammal; he steers the dream toward mortality as he realizes that the ottoman is running from a “long-necked polar bear” who devours him at the poem’s conclusion. His sense of comic timing pushes the poem beyond the silly. Deadpan phrases like, “‘Ahh,”’ / I said, ‘this now makes perfect sense,’” show Bazzett at his best, leveraging thought against the line.
There are moments however, when the playful surreality of these poems gives way to sober contemplation of tragedy and trauma. Poems in the third section like “Odds” bring these stark realities into view. The conceit of the poem relies on the observation that, “I’ve been alive for sixteen thousand and ninety days / which means that in sixteen thousand and eighty-nine / of those days I have not been in an accident…” The poem reads like a panic attack, the memory of a car wreck rushing in on the speaker in a flurry of images that bleed into memories of things as disparate as “los[ing] my virginity in anxious sweat” and “put[ting] my dog / down.” The speaker can’t escape the absurdity of the logic he’s trapped himself in—that although the odds any given thing might happen are infinitesimally small, things keep happening. Bazzett shows us the twin nature of the absurd which makes us laugh one moment and paralyzes us with anxiety the next.
If Bazzett leaves anything to be desired, it might be music. While the poems deploy comedic and poetic timing, there were too few lines I found myself rolling around in my mouth for the pleasure. But that aural plainness emphasizes the musicality of Bazzett’s thought as it wrestles with line. He’s a master of what James Longenbach calls an “annotating line”—one that uses its ending to create more meaning than syntax alone could allow. In “The Choice,” for example, he begins with the lines, “Pascal might be correct about the agony of human history / resulting from our inability to sit contented in a room alone.” The break makes us double back to question our assumptions about the syntax of the sentence and the relationship between Pascal and the title, creating a restlessness that mirrors the “inability to sit.” Moments like these would get eclipsed under a more dominant music that Bazzett wisely avoids.
This is, unapologetically, poetry for poets. Calling a writer a “poet’s poet” can be a backhanded way of calling poems self-gratifying. While I think Bazzett certainly deserves the title, he in no way deserves the insult. His poems often stray into meta-poetical territory, referring to themselves and the way the writer crafted them. As an example, in “Solitude” he begins the poem as a conventional meditation on a song:
The notes murmur and stir,
moving like a bag blown across a field, touching
down only between gusts
and if you looked through the doorway and saw the girl on the bench,
you’d probably be surprised that she
is the one drawing such sounds from the piano in the front room…
But in his relatively simple language he slips in the phrase “as inconfundible as the music.” At first, the poem continues, allowing the word to vary the diction, much as you might hear praised in any poetry workshop. Then he makes a move against the reader and her expectations:
I know exactly how the cat feels,
lying there in the shaded room as it grows warmer outside,
but I’m not sure you do–
which is a problem, frankly.
You’re probably still hung up on inconfundible…
Here the poem takes a hard turn into the meta-poetical, criticizing the reader and her unfamiliarity with Spanish which will inhibit the reading of the poem. In the end the speaker becomes some sort of poet-god, disdaining the needy masses and quibbling about the unnecessary use of italics. He earns these moments of commentary on the craft by ambushing the reader with delight couched in playful antagonism. Readers would be wise to subject themselves to Bazzett’s brand of ribbing, which we may have never needed more.