Journey to the Lost City
by Jonathan Aaron
Ausable Press, $14 (paper)

“Dreaming is after all a kind of thinking,” Jonathan Aaron writes in this new volume, his third in almost 25 years, and it’s hard to imagine a more succinct statement of his poetic method. Aaron has always used the peculiar instability of poems to his advantage: he builds tension from a poem’s ability to slip on no more than a phrase from the real to the symbolic, from the hypothetical to the unalterable. As he writes in “Black Ice,” “You never see it. / You only know it by the weightlessness you feel / as the scenery picks up speed or starts to spin.” Of course, if this swerving into the uncanny grows habitual, it can become the equivalent of dry ice in a music video: mystery deflates to camp. Some of these poems do feel attenuated and vague, like a friend’s dream recounted over coffee the next morning. But on the whole Aaron carefully controls the book’s themes, and his strange, free-floating moods often acquire real gravity, especially when episodes from World War II, the Middle Ages, the classical world, and film noir anchor the more ambiguous passages. Some of the wittiest poems evoke the golden age of Hollywood, another kind of non-reality, when “Republic Pictures’ version of the Eiffel Tower / constantly emitted little bolts of lightning,” and “Nostalgia was no more / than somebody else’s chronic fear of mice.” Many of the poems take place by the ocean or convey the “kind of dread, ready for wreck and erasure,” that the sea inspires, and this too seems appropriate to a collection that explores the seam between solid reality and the drift of dreams. For Aaron, the ocean is “a restless waste empty of everything / but its own incessant, ravenous expectancy.” In this book he makes one feel that such menace—ultimately, the reality of death—is pervasive, to be found on the underside of most ordinary experiences, memories, and histories.