Book Review: Absence has a weight of its own (Daniel Sluman)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

Daniel Sluman's first book arrives with the somewhat Keatsian title Absence has a weight of its own. This is a young poet concerned with the frangibility of the world—mortality, illness, the rush of love, the cynical uselessness of so much we call "living," how precarious life is, and how to waste or not waste it. He is also concerned like many poets with how the unseen, the absent, the ideal can inform the real. We see this in the first poem titled "Absence," where personifying the notion of non being, Sluman says of absence itself:

Unlike the gold rush of cancer
it entered slowly, grew fat
in my pulse—the tick in my wrist
as I slid through a classroom,
its face swept in hair
that bled to the floor.

As this verse suggests, one of the themes of the book is precisely how the dark side of experience informs or heightens what we see as "good" or "ordinary" life. The speaker has faced and survived some form of cancer—a tumor, which he describes as "a greasy bundle of fireworks,/nature's atom bomb," and now lives hyper-aware of "the entropy/in everything, the date printed in my blood."

Yet the experience has not entirely rendered him more fragile. While robbing from him a sense of surety or coherence, it has also heightened his feeling for or sense of what it is to be alive. This notion is repeated multiple times through the book, though perhaps most compellingly in "Letter," where Sluman says of his speaker post-surgery: "You will never feel more alive than now;/someone else's blood sizzling/under your skin." Throughout the book there is a sense of examining as if under a microscope what makes up the sensations or experience of this life the speaker has been returned to.

As the book progresses, writing or the task of crafting a poem or poetry becomes a kind of correlative for surgery—with the poet exploring, excising, reconstructing—or seeking to—his experiences in much the way he sees the surgeons and doctors as having reconstructed "unmade" and "remade" him in order to excise his tumor. In this way, the cancer the speaker has faced becomes a kind of metaphor for other sicknesses of living—which in this poet's lexicon appear to include numbness, detachment, absence, a failure to sufficiently engage with life. We see this motif in lines like "we sit on a bench & plane my week/into neat couplets," ("Love Song to a Notebook") and "I construct truth/from the bottom/of a glass as she clamps down on a straw" ("Scenes from a Film"). Many of these references seem to turn the act of writing into a physical act of construction or deconstruction. For instance, the speaker says, of a fellow writer at a café, "She tears at the sheets/of her loose-bound notebook/but means to unravel/herself." ("Portrait at a Café"). Later, he proclaims "I have pulled apart/ the machinery of that night/for the last ten years," ("Scenes from a Film") implying the way in which writing provides a means of excavating memory, rebuilding and recovering a connection to lived experience.

The speaker appears, further, convinced of the power of art or writing—that act of remaking—as one which allows for a kind of transcendence or synthesis of the central polarities around which the book revolves—namely, the brutal fact of mortality as laid against the ongoing problem—at least for this speaker—that most of us in life do not experience life clearly or forcefully enough. Writing thus becomes a means through or a way of transcending the persistent absence of what we would like to feel, or of attaining the intensity we do experience at our most connected moments as in these lines from a poem titled "Ambition and Individual Talent":

You stare until the letters tremble
like needles on a pine tree.
You can taste god in a line-break,
taste a heart attack in italics

Later in the book the black screen of a computer becomes a kind of momento mori, a trope for death and absence and simultaneously seems to offer the promise of creation and/or rebirth:

The Black Screen

coughes a clutch of pixels that dance

like cancer. Flickers ripple
into synthesis, the angle shifts.

The jury catch the red, steaming
like a party-popper, as shadows

become legs.

As these quotes suggest, Absence has a weight of its own is deeply romantic (as in Keats Romantic, with a capital r) in its concerns and strategies. We see this not only in the focus on illness, mortality, life and love, but also in the characters and landscapes developed. Many poems are set in London bohemia—an urban landscape of nightclubs and park benches, long nights out and gritty mornings after. This is perhaps a terrain almost overly familiar to anyone who has lived through adolescence—a landscape of bars and girls, cocaine and strangers.

The poet's guide through this is the ambiguous Roman, who sometimes appears as a kind of dissolute father or older brother, sometimes almost an alter-ego of the poet himself. Roman is seamless in his ability to be absent, in his ability to be "too cool for school" and the poet's simultaneous attraction and repulsion to this figure is one of the more ambitious though perhaps least developed strands in this dense first book. Roman is both what the poet wants to be and fears being; he encapsulates the sense of "living in the moment" but also the difficulties or waste inherent in living through the moment without the mediation of self-consciousness, the filter of art.

Roman, in short, appears at once what the poet wishes he were and also what he needs most to shed—an argument that appears to be reinforced by the arc of the book which moves from a focus on illness and the consequences of illness to concluding poems which focus more pointedly on the experience and promise of love as in this poem titled simply "E":

our pupils swell
as serotonin explodes
in the cradle of our stomachs.

We present in the darkness;
two continents measuring

our borders, dazzled
at each other's fault lines.

Here, even the frangibility of the body has become a site for dazzling possibility, a reversal that is especially moving in light of all the poems of illness, loss, and sheer absence that have preceded it.

In our self-ironizing age, it is refreshing to find in Daniel Sluman's debut volume a combination of intelligence and sincerity. Here is a poet committed to taking on large topics and not afraid to risk the appearance of sentimentality in doing so. As I read, I found myself admiring not only the largeness of the task he had set himself, but also the unobtrustive craft of the book—the plentiful slant rhymes, strong attention to sound, the deft line breaks, the construction of coherent metaphorical systems. At the same time, I often found myself thinking that this was a poet who still needed to gain a hair more confidence, a hair more specificity--or even looseness--in painting a world that is not quite so resonant of "Poetry World" (with a capital P) but more of lived or actual experience—a writing that is slightly more relaxed and individuated in developing its themes. Put another way, too many of these poems feel, if anything, a little too tightly managed—going full-out to make an impact and thus perhaps not quite achieving as varied a palette as one might wish.

To Sluman's credit, however, I feel no doubt that he will develop greater authority in the future. He has in this first book achieved an impressive command of the architecture of poetry—the requisite underpinnings in terms of content and craft to forge important poems. What he needs to work on perhaps is that elusive quality called "tone." In his enviably lucid how-to of poetry Best Words, Best Order, Stephen Dobyns defines tone crisply as "the poet's emotional distance from her subject." In his essay "Sad Anthropologists," Tony Hoagland goes further, describing tone as follows:

…..tone shows the how of attachment: how the writer is connected to the words; how the words are connected to the world. Moreover, tone is the agent by which we sense the stakes of an engagement, and not just that, but also the complex system of detachments in a relationship. When a poem has good tone, we feel that it breathes, that the speaker has constructed a space for inhalation and exhalation. Tone is like that layer of air between your body and your clothes and keeps you warm and gives you room to move….

It is the way tone can complicate or give nuance to the agenda of a poem that makes it so vital—and allows tone to encompass such a range of expressive possibility. Tone is also the means by which a writer charts his or her unique perspective. Judging by his first collection, Daniel Sluman has experience enough for a lifetime of great poems. And in those poems where his tone is most present such as the marvelously tonally alert "Dear Samaritans, I'm Writing This to Let You Know that Everything's Okay Now" (published in this issue of Wordgathering) with its complex patterning of attachment and detachment, cri de coeur and wit, we see glimpses of the extraordinary poet he might become.