Not Even Then
by Brian Blanchfield
University of California Press, $16.95 (paper)

“Good morning fungibility,” Blanchfield writes in his first collection, a book-length elegy to the lost-and-forever-gone intellectual capacity to make distinctions. Everything is equivalent: Louis Althusser, Scooby-Doo, Hart Crane, and Newfoundland. Despite his often loopy humor (“All God’s squirrels get / darker as you go north”), there is real distress in these poems, albeit spackled over with a shiny layer of hard-won irony. What gets lost when there are no distinctions is, of course, identity, and the poems in Not Even Then proceed like a cortege to the funeral of good old-fashioned subjectivity and selfhood. “Empathy subsists on estimation,” Blanchfield writes, and “In bed the Never architects / pull blueprints up to their chins.” We’re living in a sorry world, says this poet, making his point with dizzying shifts in image and shattered syntax; the poems shudder as vertiginously as disco lights. Thankfully, the helter-skelter congeries of observation and allusion is held together by a controlled, consistent subtlety of tone recalling early Ashbery. But Blanchfield is more exhausted and more importunate than Ashbery ever was: “When I was fifteen in the public library I’d find in greater / metropolitan phonebooks other Brians’ addresses / and write away to them for help, Brian, dear on principle.” What survives here is a wistful faith in romantic love, and Blanchfield’s love poems provide a reprieve from the book’s general aridity. In one poem, Blanchfield imagines two lovers lingering through the morning in bed, drinking glasses of ice water: “The water is perfect in its own way, and your pillow is my pillow.” Blanchfield’s book can be a difficult, sometimes frustrating read, but the baffling, kaleidoscopic quality of the work is an aspect of its meaning. There is very little here that is conventionally beautiful or accessible. But one senses what Blanchfield’s response would be to that complaint: in these very late days, conventional beauty just won’t do.