North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2011. 62 pages. $16.95.
Daniel Khalastchi’s debut collection of poetry, Manoleria (winner of the 2011 Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Award), was written over the winter of 2006-2007 at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Finding its genesis in NPR’s Marketplace, the hour-long financial news report, Manoleria investigates the toll that political, social, and economic unrest in the U.S. and abroad has on its citizenry. Through a sequence of first-person narratives, our “hero” must find his way out of tortuous (if not absurd) states of incarceration while the world haplessly stays its course. In “Relative Fortune:” the narrator is handcuffed to the steering wheel of a car he is directed to drive off a pier. In “Actual Draw Weight:” he finds himself on a mysterious pilgrimage: “Al- / though it is difficult, I try not / to look at the arrow in my / stomach, or the rope at its / end that is pulled when I / faint.”
As these torture narratives unfold, the protagonist’s body increasingly becomes the focus of abuse, and the unnamed antagonist grows all the more maniacal—his/her/its desire to test our hero’s will seems insatiable. In “Audible Retraction:,” for example, any sense of hope in the speaker is dashed by the accumulation of deformity:
In the hayloft of a neighbor’s
barn, I am just a
torso. Propped up against the
bailing doors, I stare at four
limbs laid out before me: a
child’s arm, the leg of a
rabbit, two twitching fins in
varying stages of
decay. Although I’m unsure,
a letter I find indicates they’ll
work if I can somehow get
The passive reception of torture in these poems presents an obvious and effective symbol for the dire effects of American mob mentality and its political/economic system on everyday people. These impossible situations also unify a collection otherwise driven more by music and lyrical leaps. The collection’s opening poem, “The Maturation of Man:,” forecasts the stuttering yet highly rhythmic foundation that anchors this lyricism:
Because rain. Because hard. Because
pain in my ribs, because buckle and
wait. Because cramping. Because
kneeling low. Because pause. Because . . .
A similar start-and-stop, strained motion is apparent in “Went we. Inside. My colon a tree: (Diagnosis),” the first in a cryptic sequence of prose poems scattered throughout the book. These poems depict the diagnosis, surgery, and supposed recovery of our hero: “Went we. Inside. My colon a tree. Broom heavy with light. With heavy cut leaves left. Standing the spill of. My levee. My leaving. My find young ulcers . . . ”
Most of the poems in Manoleria utilize caesura enjambment, white space, and excessive periods, dashes, and other such punctuation, creating the sense that the speaker is gasping for air or choking on his own words. Our hero is tortured by the language he uses to express himself almost as much as he is by his captors. Reading these poems as they are formatted takes some patience; it’s a lot easier to ignore the graphic manipulation and read them like typical free verse. If one reads Khalastchi in such a way, essentially skimming over the stuttering elements, his verse is cleary one of kaleidoscoping images and associative language, recalling Franz Wright and the high-wire transformations in Donald Barthelme. If one does in fact take the time to read these poems the way they are constructed, one must contend with the constant disruption of Khalastchi’s images and syntax. Much like Nick Flynn’s redaction poems in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Khalastchi’s pervasive use of caesura makes for a disjointed but oddly powerful verse.
Khalastchi experiments with form not only within the poems but also across them. Manoleria consists of four repeating “types” of poems scattered throughout the book: the “torture” poems, which typically organize short lines into couplets, tercets, or quatrains; the “because poems” wherein all the lines begin with “because” as the speaker seeks a logical reason for his current state; the series of brief prose poems that depict the speaker receiving surgery for a mysterious, unnamed illness; and a number of poems (five of which are titled “Manoleria:” and two of which are multi-page sequences) fully justified in the center of the page. This formal variation adds visual variety to the collection. It also emphasizes the speaker’s restless, varied attempts at finding order (though it is never achieved) within a chaotic and abusive world.
When combined with the collection’s disturbing content, this formal disorientation produces a book that’s not exactly a comfort and joy to read—the reader can feel as isolated and, in some poems, as abused as the protagonist. This causes the reader to not only read the poems but to experience them as well. Much like the collection’s hero who “awake[s] in the dirt / of a garden,” the reader can feel lost in this confusing world, even as its repeating elements add unsettling coherence. Though it may seem far from Marketplace, the result feels disquietingly close to contemporary life.