Alan Felsenthal
Ugly Duckling Presse, $15 (paper)

With its dreamlike fables and quasi-parables, Lowly (2017), Alan Felsenhal’s striking debut collection, bypasses many of contemporary poetry’s usual movements, feints, and sources—or else, it partly transmutes them—in its achievement of something more like the early modern surrealism of Bruegel or Bosch. A panorama of saints and odd, attendant spirits (say, Pluto riding a unicorn) cycles through these by turns earnest, fanciful, and disquieting meditations, many of which ring an unmistakable moral note, as in the opening poem, “Two Martyrs.” This poem begins:

Two martyrs stalked the earth
almsgiving equally
so neither knew the other
was capable of competition
until the first martyr sacrificed
his life before the township
by jumping into a fire pit.

After the second martyr performs his own, slightly more dramatic self-immolation, the first, indignant at being outdone, is “immediately resurrected”—initiating a “cycle of sacrifice” in which their ongoing, apparently eternal self-destructive acts eventually make them a tourist attraction. By the end of this parable, these would-be saints, ruined by a latent competitive streak, have become a warning to us all:

Soon they were no longer
considered martyrs
but brothers whose punishment
for misusing fire
was to continue misusing it.

Although surprising in its particulars (was misuse of fire their primary offense?), “Two Martyrs” concludes with a direct moral assertion, presenting the brothers as exemplars of foolishness and pride, and demonstrating how early modern materials and sensibility are not merely surface effects but indications toward the heart of the matter. The brothers attain the fame they desire, yet not on their own terms. Rather than first among saints, each becomes instead one half of an absurdist, sadomasochistic spectacle, an indifferent entertainment, each bound to the other, as to the audience they craved. Vanity, audience dependency, lust for fame—such a constellation may imply that our own celebrity culture, as a phenomenon, is in all likelihood a technological update on a much older, if not timeless, human drive.

The title of Lowly, itself suggestive of moral concerns, comes from an otherworldly passage near the middle of the book:

The earth splits and I go
to its part to speak to the ex-gods
who hold up the tottering earth
with horns, unmusical horns,
with lowly names,
which each resemble stars
though they reside underground.

The reader senses here, and throughout the poems, a general emphasis on the transforming power of small sympathies and a resistance to the distractions of an habitual present. The poems claim this ground in good measure through their use of historical references, from the Renaissance back through the Middle Ages and into the ancient worlds of Israel, Greece, and Rome. In reading “Malvolio,” for instance, one gets the impression that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has only just recently premiered. Taking up the play’s concluding lines (“But that’s all one, our play is done, / And we’ll strive to please you every day”) Felsenthal’s speaker objects—or, rather, finds fault with, rather, an audience that would demand such exertions for its entertainment:

                                      To want
to be pleased each day is greed.
’Tis’ true, ’tis true.

Such a clear-eyed rebuke of our pleasure-centric age, by way of Shakespeare, is certainly unexpected. Temporality, a central theme throughout the book, is further bent and warped, intermingled like “knights and pharaohs,” to imply a vista of hidden connections.

Occasionally Felsenthal takes up modern subjects more directly, as in “My Domestic Poem,” where he considers the tiny scourge of city life:

The remedy for your ruminations is bedbugs.
When you acquire bedbugs
you are blessed
for you only have one problem,
like when you’re addicted to drugs.

The sound patterning here drives the argument forward, namely that a generalized existential dread may in fact be remedied by a more specific crisis. The poem goes on to describe the circumstance that occasioned it:

Amanda asked me to write this poem.
She said, write about something
you do every day, something domestic.

The particular act, or “rite,” he selects is the practice of storing clothes in the freezer, to kill bedbugs, a choice resonant with suffering, private exertion, and subtle humor: “Once I brought a bedbug home. / The proportion of its body to mine was nothing / compared to its power upon my thoughts.”

Lowly bypasses or partly transmutes many of contemporary poetry’s usual movements, feints, and sources.

“Alternate Zoo” begins with the marvelously iconic image of a crane perched on an aboveground crypt, one leg held aloft and clutching a bee—a bee “which never stings the silent / / crane, because it doesn’t judge him for holding it close / so long.” After hearing that “family / excursions to the cemetery were popular” we are given a family portrait, of sorts, through a charming series of different birds:

is the woodpecker, an able storm-predictor, who would
not help God make trenches for rivers and lakes. Now
he is a headbanger, though Romulus and Remus
needed his food delivery services

An achievement of special note is how deftly several of these poems integrate themes of Jewish history and identity, a quietly confident treatment that brings out subtle textures, as in “If You Need a Ride”:

                                                  Lot’s wife,
tired of Lot, lost her shoulder as she glanced over it

backward into sky-clad sulfur, from which she heard
the sound tomorrow cannot make.

On a more personal level, the grandparents mentioned in several poems come from an Old World steeped in pain and redolent with death; in a twist on Heraclitus’s ever-changing river, we are told, “The problem with Rhine / is no river here stays / worthy of drowning.” That the Holocaust is not invoked by name makes its shadow over modernity loom all the more. It is also fitting, given Felsenthal’s fascination with history in both its mystic and ordinary proportions, that we meet a figuration for the unspeakable elsewhere, with a reference to the oven at Neisse, a seventeenth-century mass-execution furnace in which “the poorest women / burned inside,” a precursor to subsequent horrors.

Such a clear-eyed rebuke of our pleasure-centric age, by way of Shakespeare, is certainly unexpected.

When Felsenthal punctuates his archaic materials with glimpses of the present day, each side of this counterpointing can be read in conversation with other recent works. The commitment to an antiquated world brings to mind Honest James (2015) by Christian Schlegel, a book that Felsenthal himself published with Ben Estes through the small press they run together, The Song Cave. Fittingly the cover of Honest James depicts a Bruegel print, and a surrealist-tinged one, of a beekeeper wearing a round, thatched mask that makes his face look like a tree stump. Schlegel includes more frequent references to Romanticism (with a title from Wordsworth, and an extended treatment of Goethe) than Felsenthal. Romanticism is known for, among other things, a reevaluation of the ballad form, and we hear something of this old music from Schlegel’s first stanza:

Come gather round me, goodmen ten,
as dims the pale I’ve ambled through.
I store mine eyes in a baking tin
and shelve it skew.

Schlegel uses an intentionally antiquated diction and style, and the rigor of this choice, over the course of that book, becomes almost a conceptual device; (another poet who reaches back even further is Caroline Bergvall, as in her 2010 book Meddle English).

Felsenthal, in contrast, mixes his antiquated references with disjunctures, and occasionally breaks the fourth wall to reveal a contemporary context; such moments—with their “drone operators,” “cars,” “Google,” “Wifi”—can be seen as in conversation with Ben Fama’s Fantasy (2015). Genuinely, if ironically, Fama enjoys the glittering veneer of our pop-and-media-saturated world, and even embraces its insufficiencies in an apparently aloof yet in fact calmly rapt brand of pop-sensual ennui:

I think I’m in love with the world of billboards and magazines
It is so intrepidly based in fantasy
Like things online
And literature, all the immaterial world
I mean the actual world we live in all the time
Like mp3’s and visual art
That replaced painting
I dunno

Though both poets perceive the same cultural fantasy, the same bright ephemera, the insouciant flare that Fama gathers from this is very different from Felsenthal’s mostly implicit social critique. While Fama is intrigued by the power and reach of the cultural image, and by the way anyone can claim it and make it their own, he shows no signs of being overly troubled by its more negative implications. Felsenthal, turning away from the contemporary and instead cultivating his own inner fantasia, suggests an aversion. In this way Lowly has resonances with fantasy as a genre, and, as in any good fantasy story, the underlying mundane, perhaps profane, reality peeks through in places—the same reality these parables and imaginative constructions ultimately critique.

In the opening to “The Mind’s Eloquent Hotel” we read:

So I was told I sound like an 80-year-old. . . .
My middle ear is melancholy and
some twink told me I’m sex negative
for not caring more about a starlet.                 

The density of contemporary reference in these lines is both rare and revealing, and throws a blinding light on the surroundings—conveying a wry fatigue for the vacuity of modern life, the interchangeables of its big-studio conglomerates, yet more poignantly for the ways we propagate, among ourselves, a jumble of buzzwords, labels, and memes. Such moments give Alan Felsenthal’s debut its distinct contemporary mark not because they voice contemporary concerns, but because they frame a particular response to a world by way of largely omitting it. In Lowly’s quiet resistance, and in the pluck of its moral and spiritual quest, Felsenthal has cultivated this response, at once lush and ascetic, like a cloistered garden whose mystic passageways are ultimately the working out of a philosophy of life. As he writes:  

I hope to clearly say without 
riddles, riddles of riddles, how it felt to live.