Rendering the Poem Combustible: Arthur Vogelsang’s Orbit

Ethel Rackin

Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 77 pages. $15.95.

From his first collection A Planet (1983), Arthur Vogelsang has explored the earth’s history, our various human capacities, and the fear that ensues when we come face-to-face with the realities of the world we inhabit and continue to (de) create. However, even as Vogelsang poses questions about our very existence and the possibility of its future, the expedition his poems take us on, to borrow the title from his 2011 Expedition: New and Selected, is always particularized, in both excruciatingly prescient and ecstatic ways. In his latest collection, Orbit, Vogelsang’s maximalist poetics seem supercharged, amplifying the poet’s original concerns regarding our collective fate.

Orbit is split into three sections: “Then,” “Now,” and “When,” an order that clearly suggests a chronology, if not a kind of teleology. Poems dealing with often disturbing and bloody historical events, such as “Verde Valley 1311 AD,” “1150 AD,” and “Before 1901” are grouped in the first section; poems that take up various forms of contemporary rhetoric, such as “Life Is Slightly Different Than You Think It Is” and “Demented Discusses Distinguished” are grouped in the middle section; and poems that warn us of the future we face, including “Face It,” and “Wait a Minute, It’s Simple” fall at the end of the collection. Thematically, however, the collection also circles back on itself, as if to suggest the constant orbital movement in and through time.

As a whole, Orbit delineates ways in which our collective present and future are reflective of a chaotic history of bloody wars, massacre, religious fanaticism, and charlatanism. And since veracity is often called into question within individual poems, Vogelsang not only describes this bind, but enacts it.  For instance, “Don’t Ask”—a poem that catalogues various ways that different peoples “fought” including “the heroes and gods,” “three thousand Chinese,” the speaker himself, “we,” and “Achilles”—ends with the line, “Much of this is make-believe and much isn’t” (12). Other poems end with a similarly self-reflexive gesture, such as the heartbreakingly beautiful “The Plan,” which depicts a couple of survivors of “dire circumstances,” who nonetheless “began to laugh” (35). The poem ends: “You do not today on the sofa know the current stopped. / But probably I have to tell you, or maybe not.” Rather than detract from the power of the poem, such turns reenact the complex psychological strategies we often employ to shield each other and ourselves from realities we’d rather not face. So if there is a numbing effect, it is employed to up the ante of the poem’s epistemological argument on our inability to make sense of what is beyond our comprehension or simply senseless.

Throughout, Vogelsang calls to task both our leaders and our own quietism, dizziness, and apathy. Take “Mandate,” for instance:

One of our kings, not me,
Was often distant and jagged to the people,
Occasionally without meaning to the people.
He could not talk the talk.
On his provincial walks he was unhelpful and myopic,
And at court his aesthetics were simplistic.
Really he was political (an opposite of independence),
Hysterical and bitter (an opposite of courage),
And minor (a butler of standards).
He could not walk the walk, as I just said.
His people collected their own taxes,
And like some counterfeit Elvis
He allowed excited rioters to touch him
While the guard of that entire state watched.
There were very small blue flashers on his aluminum barricades,
Short fences which were portable and light
Enough for a little girl to lift or push, though no one did. (10)

From “kings” to “some counterfeit Elvis,” “Mandate” offers an almost painfully incisive depiction of the all too familiar political hack, a ruler unfit in every way, who nonetheless gets away with conning the people, since no one bothers to “lift or push,” to overthrow his flimsy “short fences.”

All the while, the speaker is implicated through negation. The first line’s “not me” could suggest that the speaker is himself a king, leaving us to wonder whether he represents the positive “opposite” traits contained within parentheticals; another type of tyrant; an identical type who merely wishes to distance himself rhetorically by detailing the other king’s egregious faults; or the “hysterical” king himself and, therefore, an unreliable narrator.

Then, mid-way through the poem, Vogelsang reintroduces the speaker: “And he could not walk the walk, as I just said.” By juxtaposing the second part of the idiomatic expression “walk the walk, talk the talk” with a comment on his previous lines or speech, the speaker seems almost fatigued by his need to describe and describe again, highlighting the poem’s theme of our repeated failure to perceive and act on social threats. As is so often the case in Orbit, we are left with innumerable psychosocial questions, nearly rendering the poem combustible.

The collection ends with a poem that takes up contemporary and future dilemmas most poignantly. “Wait a Minute, It’s Simple,” like many of the poems throughout the collection, employs the structure of dream narrative; the poem’s darkly humorous events seem just this side of plausible. Not exactly surrealist, but inflected with a similar sensibility, Vogelsang’s art represents twenty-first century hybrid poetics at its best. The poem begins:

As thoughtful I chewed fruit breakfast
Had three dilemmas in mind—
My young professor had become 91,
Two, those in charge had wacked us with an eternity challenge,
And three I had to make a visit to her
And was afraid because nearness to death,
Didn’t want to be near someone 91.
So that’s just two dilemmas isn’t it? (74)

This opening sets up the rest of the narrative on “dilemmas” one and two, and creates suspense regarding the third dilemma faced by the speaker.

The first situation involves a futurist “government science dilemma. / Imperative to go far into space/ (well, / Just Mars / but that is far)” “Because distance can’t sling gravity and money / That far to get back.” This dystopic vision of interplanetary relocation “on a budget” is believable, even as it may also represent the speaker’s self-aware “projection.” And whereas the second situation, involving the speaker’s initial dread and oddly romantic encounter with a figure who seems to cheat death, “living actively at home” at 91 is more plausible still; it too involves watching an unidentified “them” “blast off / And then float around, on [a] big-screen TV.” This eerily mundane vision acts as haunting reminder that even as the speaker earlier took comfort that space travel “wasn’t [his] job,” noticing how “awful for these volunteers” and “future citizens of Earth,” he cannot escape the specter of futurity’s grim realities.

The final line of “Wait a Minute, It’s Simple” constitutes a fitting ending, not only of the poem, but also of the collection as a whole: “As the sun gets closer and we run, third dilemma” (75). Perhaps more dangerous than any other threat, the prospect of our shifting planetary relationship, of catastrophic climate change, is now upon us, rearing its unimaginable horrors. And Vogelsang’s work uniquely imagines this moment by proffering warnings and providing us space to dream. The explosive poems collected in Orbit testify to this poet’s indispensable vision in the face of the perils we encounter, as we remember the past and anticipate the future.

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