The Muscular Song

by Jessica Piazza
Red Hen Press, 2013

“Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself,” concludes the first poem in Jessica Piazza’s Interrobang, winner of the 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. “Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.” It is ironic that a book written in musically obsessive poetic forms—a book so unafraid of music—should begin with the poem “Melophobia,” which means “fear of music.” While many young poets shy away from formal verse, not because they dislike it but because they are scared of failing—perhaps used to failing—at writing it, Interrobang embraces meter and rhyme with generosity and love, and the reward is a book of beautiful echoing and linguistic transformations. Piazza is clearly a student of the sonic masters Hopkins and Donne, as evidenced in her consistent working and torquing of the language; like the former’s “Pied Beauty” or the latter’s “Batter my Heart, Three Person’d God,” the lines and rhymes punch their way forward with an unapologetic and muscular passion, as if language itself is a god to revere.

The majority of the poems in Interrobang are sonnets titled after philias and phobias (that is, fixations or “sicknesses” rooted in fear and love), and in their litanies born of obsessive repetitions and sonic refigurings, they are prayers dedicated to their subjects, rather than clinical examinations or essays about them; the point of this work is not argumentation but meditation. The poems often evoke devotionals, the sonnets in particular arriving as little rituals that collect moments of human connection and disconnection. In “Atephilia” (love of ruin), one of the strongest and saddest sonnets in the collection, Piazza lists a series of “ruinings” that mark the impending end of a relationship:

The thirsty wanderer endures the same

fateful mirage: eats sand and tastes champagne.

You seem so whole; I’m left no room to mourn

the rubble we’ve become. The pilgrimage

we make each day; our devastated bed

beguiles. We are the sights to see. Engaged

by graveyard days, I rest against your head-

stone chest like flowers, so you’ll understand

what wilting is. One kiss with ravaged lips.

Consider here how corporeal this dissolution of love becomes; these lines do not so much depict a crumbling relationship, but a crumbling body—a head of wilting flowers, ravaged lips—in the midst of it, demonstrating how over time we begin to cherish and protect the pains a difficult love brings, and how impossible it becomes to separate ourselves from that ruining. “Aerophobia” (fear of drafts or airborne noxious substances) similarly melds a deep fear and identity, ending with the revelation, “If what you fear is true/ the poison in the atmosphere is you”; in “Antlophobia” (fear of floods), the woman “ebbs to such excess.” Again and again Interrobang suggests that what we fear and what we love define us.

Many poems insightfully—powerfully—explore this idea, illustrating the ways in which fear and love are not abstract emotional states but transformative processes of physical and psychological becoming. Yet even this theory of identity is sometimes challenged. Piazza loves paradoxes and complications; after all, the punctuation mark invoked by the book’s title is the one that signifies a question and exclamation at once. “Asymmetriphobia” (fear of asymmetrical things), for example, defies the very fear of asymmetry through its imbalanced structure:

Here’s the torment only the warped heart knows:

One side withers. The other grows. And grows.

Look, see, there is nothing to fear here, the poem announces in its asymmetries; the world here is not so deterministic, and the self is never a fixed point on a map. Perhaps the most poignant iteration of this notion occurs in the collection’s final poem, a sonnet in the sequence titled “What I Hold,” wherein the speaker confesses a moment of her own self-perceived callousness—a moment of moral weakness—that arose out of her fear of other human beings. She remembers: she sat alone in her car, waiting at a stop light, when an elderly woman tapped at her window. “My feet,” the woman said, “I can’t get home.” The speaker declined to help, and so the woman

went down the street,

the queue of cars. . .they all said no, and no

and no. I knew this damage was my own;

I had been taught such fears. I knew. And so?

Perhaps I changed my mind and drove her home.

This fear is one most of us can understand: alone in a car at night, who among us would invite a stranger inside? Many of us would hesitate to say “Yes.” Many have already said “No,” have rejected or broken a potential connection with another human being only because we were afraid. This moment of vulnerability concludes the litany of philias and phobias featured in Interrobang, implying that our fear of each other—of the Other, or of the stranger—is as irrational as any other addressed phobia (e.g. fear of dolls, fear of clouds). The book’s faith ultimately lies in the progressively transformative power of connectivity, in that each connection births another. Through Piazza’s technical prowess, language, like the human being, is fundamentally transformed through its etymological and sonic relationships—the word hallow becomes hollow, pray becomes prey becomes pry—as if to say to the reader: your sound, too, echoes on.


Sara Eliza Johnson's first book, Bone Map, was selected for the 2013 National Poetry Series and will be published by Milkweed Editions in Fall 2014. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.
tags: Books, Culture, Poetry   
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