A carefully structured collection of abstract and conceptual poetry concerned with the nature of reality and relationships.
Raben’s first book-length offering may better be termed a project than a collection, and an ambitious one at that. Composed of 10 thematically distinct chapters, the volume offers a complex, nonlinear structure in which tightly entwined images, phrases and themes from each of the seemingly self-contained chapters shoot out tendrils that loop and coil themselves around the stalks of neighboring chapters. Insistently recursive and nonnarrative, the poems, taken together, read not unlike an untended villanelle gone to seed. There may not be a story, but there’s rhythm and a message. Amid it all, Raben’s voice is eminently postmodern; in addition to recursion and fragmentation, she employs highly irregular, subtle rhyme and meter, while working with short but richly syllable-dense lines. Her characters and perspectives shift frequently, exploring the same question from first-, second- and third-person, sometimes in a matter of a few lines. Time, her narrators understand, is relative—“for a moment we were the same / as we had always been / then the hours became shorter / and the second loses time”—but so too are constructed identities: “I allowed my eyes / to be painted on / chiseled and chipped / it’s harder to undo a life / made from stone.” In her most direct philosophical statements, Raben strikes a Whitmanesque chord: “We are the paint that / makes the painting / not the mind / and not the hand / we are the very stuff of life / together on the sand.” While sharing some philosophical ground with Whitman (though Raben ultimately evinces more pessimism), she evokes Alice Fulton in her abstractions and, at times, calls to mind Charles Simic’s surrealism. Occasionally, the abstractness crosses over into abstruseness, and despite the many elements of its larger structure, the collection feels incomplete. Still, Raben has a solidly crafted, enjoyable and appropriately challenging debut.
A bold, exhausting but highly rewarding experiment in stripping away the illusory world in search of only the most essential qualities of the human experience.