22 July 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 2

A Kind of Listening Seems To Be Answering His Sight: Ralph Angel's Exceptions and Melancholies, Poems 1986-2006

Exceptions and Melancholies, Poems 1986-2006
Ralph Angel
Sarabande Books, 2006.
175 pages. $15.95.
Check Amazon.com or Powell's Books.

Cartesian philosophy insists that the senses are unreliable. It is the significant ability of the mind to judge and to understand the world that distinguishes humanity with Self. When Descartes in Meditations on a First Philosophy considers his own nature, he concludes he is "a thinking thing… something that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, senses and also has mental images." Ralph Angel, in his new and collected poems Exceptions and Melancholies Poems 1986-2006, perfects a voice that demolishes the distances of sensory experience. His poems are like filters of experience from the mindside, as it focuses, listens, waits for, messages, and attunes the mystery of existential wonder.

Fulfilling the promise of his early work, Angel's new book is characterized by deep consciousness, the rigors of his syntax anchoring his voice. His new poems exemplify what is true of the rest of his work collected here as he summons Self, human presence, from the collision of worldly details. If we exist in the noise of body, and commerce, and community, Angel's work captures sublimated landscapes of deep feeling and spiritual incident. Consider the first lines of the opening poem, "With Care":

Whoever has a quiet mind

up on the roof the season turned the bath towels purple.

Quiet is the demolition. The neighbors got to know each other
someday soon.

Displacement here is the strategy of being. Immediately, the poem forces us to acknowledge our own "bodiness" as we are absorbed by color. Also, a syntactical effect, in which tense itself is confused, forces us to question meaning. Though the line "someday soon" offers a sense of immediacy, the word "soon" distracts. Without warning we're suddenly in the past, or the future. In Angel's poetry this makes a portraiting effect, of a place, or an experience of knowing-a-place, which happens at all of our points of knowing it at once. Angel's sentences are trains that fly past us, as we glimpse ourselves in their momentary windows. "I said I found the lakes there," he writes in the same poem, "and odd pieces of meaning that have nothing to do with you // and wink back." One of the most compelling aspect of Angel's work is this monstering of syntax.

Over and over, we find that Angel demands of the sentence everything possible in his meaning. Sometimes the distance in a sentence is overwhelmed by the image-laden phrases it contains, while his phrasing itself illustrates how our experience is complicated, even defined by the rich embattlement of information we sensually receive. In this way, Angel confronts linearity, challenging how we read consciousness. In the poem "Inside Out," for example, the first sentence begins directly while leaving the subject of the final action oblique:

Outside the summer heat was shimmering
and after resting on the beach
I walked until the bay
grew saucer-shaped again
and blue, and so the bowl of pears and even the binoculars
were painted there, and from every
room pushed the land

The speaker's eye here overwhelms consciousness with its gaze as the phrasing confuses perspective with time. The core of this sentence, "I walked" distances itself from the dissonant, though related end, so that the subject of the final phrase "pushed the land away" remains overwhelmed by a visible world—much like the photo-collages of David Hockney, in which a room or person is magnified by the distortions of many smaller perspectives. Instead of finding moments like this difficult, readers will surely be compelled by their existential and resonant effect.

Angel's work achieves and embodies a metaphysical summation of experience, where a fierce intelligence considers and snags moods. The world of perception, which is complicated by variation—the bombardment of our consciousness by the world's many opposing or concerting elements: objects, smells, sights, sounds and emotions, experienced both in the past and in the present—remains a beautiful confusion. His poetry considers complicated emotions as they cross themselves out, attending this mystery:

that the future is ashes
and a kiss on the cheek. This cup
of coffee goes down like chocolate. A footbridge
the eye leaves among cliffsides
of steam.

There is no shame
in failure. No lost,
or blue unfurling courtyard.

Surprisingly, this makes for a very rewarding poetry, both vulnerable and curious. A poignant example of the displacement characteristic of his work is the poem "Soft and Pretty," an 18 line sentence in which both the speaker and reader experience the juxtapositioning of experience from feeling, mind from incident, as they are distanced by the body, only one part in this relativity:

so sit beside the mind that loses
as it wins you know
in its heart and peel an orange
against the shoulder of a friend and somewhere
clean to sweep
and bring back the knowledge of the parapet.

As in the rest of his work, directness—of the body in relation to the mind—here is sculpted in a sentence of Rilkean care and colloquial whim.

In Exceptions and Melancholies, fans of Angel's work will be glad to re-read his early books, finding a body of poems unified by a voice struck with amazement and intimacy. New readers may stumble over some of these poems only to find themselves suddenly stopped by lines that resonate with that part of us Descartes referred to as a "thinking thing", existing in quiet envy of everything seen and felt:

I'm standing still on 10th street. I'm not the only
            one. The dark tastes of salt and oranges. Its eyes

wander round and round. I am its thousand windows. I think
            about the future and the sea. And stay.
                                                                        – "Sampling"

An intense consciousness drives these poems, having to weigh time and image while the body stands rapt with certain, if not bewildering, feeling. Ultimately, Angel writes in the service of the intellect, of a human wonder in which understanding is accompanied by strangeness and mystery.

The poems of this book evidence a complex, nuanced, and delicate synesthesia in which the elements of experience collide without collapsing into clean aphorism. In them, mindfulness and deliberate syntax prove that poetry is still a significant act of our awareness. The meaningful success of Angel's collected work is that his poems enter a human consciousness—our own—that must filter the storming variables of existence as our relation to them falters and feels.

About the author:

Miguel Murphy is the author of A Book Called Rats, a recipient of the Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. His reviews have also appeared in RAIN TAXI.

For further reading:

See the complete list of work by Miguel Murphy at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 7, No. 2, where "A Kind of Listening Seems To Be Answering His Sight: Ralph Angel's Exceptions and Melancholies, Poems 1986-2006" ran on July 22, 2007. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, review, review of poetry.

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