by Bruce Covey
Noemi Press, 2014
122 pages, $13.34
Reviewed by Laura Carter
This excellent book of poems, Change Machine, by Bruce Covey, is one of many in this author’s oeuvre, and it immediately drew me in, because of its lovely picturesque cover and its many elliptical, slanted and jiving poems that sing with their own music. Of the poems in this collection, the one that stands out is “This Town Has Many One-Way Streets,” which poet Bruce Covey read at Emory for his book release party last spring. The poem is about, well, gossip and the world as we know it. Here’s a tidbit:
So, I know something that I’m not supposed to know, and my best friend knows that something too, but she’s not supposed to tell me that something, which involves me and someone and someone else…. Then the someones begin acting independently, outside me knowing something or my best friend knowing something, or me knowing that my best friend knows or my best friend knowing that I know or suspecting I don’t…. Then my best friend and I talk about the someones, but not about any of the somethings involving those someones—just idle conversation…. One gives the other a gift…. Each of us gives a gift to one of the someones…. I pretend not to be myself around either of the someones…. My best friend no longer wants to grab a drink.
This idle bit of gossip is what Change Machine is all about, and more. The changes and exchanges that we experience as members of our work, school, family, and art communities are what the book is made up of, hence the title. And this is the logic of exchange at its finest. Who would long, as Marx suggested, for pure use, for a virgin forest, when you have this world of exchange around you to keep you warm and company on a cool autumn night as you read and sympathize, or identify even?
Covey uses language, too, to make fine points about the way we use it as a medium of exchange, not unlike Wallace Stevens’s shimmering coin of poetry that is, indeed, well—money. It’s an apt reflection, as in the following poem, “Change/Ex-Change”:
- Ex-acting’s rev-eng-in-e
- Out-spot at the edge of time
- Number one’s first ampersand
- A nipple for a peppermint
- For photos, one’s each element
- Discus’s shadow’s endpoint, an absolute relative
- Out to pasteur
- Mine I’s half scene
- Thinking at the end of the curve, relevancy
These curved poems make their places within language, and I’m reminded of a blog conversation about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as poetry, which ends up meaning lalangue, which ends up being not just an outpost or something to be ridiculed, but a medium to be outwitted, which is what this book does so well. The poems are all over the geographical map, and many are technical, technologized, shimmering with the cyber as Covey’s work always does, in such a good way. They are scientific. They are precise. In “It Might Take a Long Time to Partition Googolplex,” Covey writes:
So for now let’s say the water beneath us is still—
Apart from a couple of bubbles or ice cubes—
& stacking tiles on the middle table substitute for sentences
The way games were used to decide between two abstract variables
Dragons controlling dice from the vertices of the 2-dimensional universe
Did I mention that they’re quirky, mathematical mathesis? Did I mention that they’re made from equal parts language and salt of the earth?
And they’re not not love poems, either. Each scientific rumination leads one to wonder who’s being addressed. There are speakers, but they seem to come from a distinct voice that reminds one of the 2nd-generation (which generation are we up to now?) New York School, a voice that is prescient for having reclaimed the “I” in the face of so many poems that seek to eschew it. All filtered through the gaze of lalangue, or is it guise? Here’s another tidbit, from “Periodic Table”:
Imparted to the spectrum, a carefully wrought red line
Grasped spectrally by forceps, with a glove & a glass
Designed to crack in 10s. A 2nd fold & coupled 3rd
These poems reflect the zinginess of a carefully considered, finely wrought and tightly placed language that knows itself, but not too well. The book is constructed in sections (“Tails” and “Heads,” aptly), but the book is not one that can’t be read one of the best ways to read poetry: one poem at a time. The poems stand alone. One gets the sense that there’s a concept here, in the overarching theme of the book, but overall the poems stand as all good individualized work does. These thoughtful poems reflect moments, but more than that, they show a mature intellect playing with words, clearly enjoying its ability to find the twists and turns of language. In “Clarity,” Covey writes:
If only she’d taken the time to present crisply, clearly, & right.
There’s a monster with one furry hand on the frame, preventing the closing door.
It doesn’t play well, has an opening, slices you open with a paper plane wing.
& what happens in the meantime, days split into mornings & afternoons, each square a scribbled-in disaster?
The vignettes that populate this book are often at an angle, which is how, as Dickinson reminds us, the best poets work. Covey also takes on work of Notley and Breton, Giorno and the Surrealists, mocking and tenderly using “found” forms or concepts to make his own path that surges within the vein of Angel Hair, or some such anthology. This book is full of all the surprises that a good book of poetry is, one of expectation carefully leading to denouement, then in another poem, you may find simply denouement after denouement, deflating the mastery of the made thing and allowing words to become their own source of pleasure.
I leave you with a dialectical twist, in the form of a poem simply called “Sonnet” (so charming!):
I can’t stop thinking about Death.
This is a Surrealist poem.
This is a Confessional poem.
This is a Romantic poem.
This is a New York School poem.
This is a Gurlesque poem.
This is a Conceptual poem.
This is a Hybrid poem.
This is a New Sincerist poem.
This is a Minimalist poem.
This is an Academic poem.
This is a Dadaist poem.
This is a Bratty poem.
This is a Conservative poem.
As you can see, Change Machine contains the gamut—but careful, always with a keen sense of where to let voice in and where to let it leave off, and with a placed technical measure that has not yet been seen in poetry. What will Covey do next?