Gossamer Lid by Andrew Brenza
Trembling Pillow Press, 2015; 112 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
Andrew Brenza’s first book, Gossamer Lid, is made up of three interspersed sets of poems: one set named after constellations, one a set of poems all entitled “Gossamer” and numbered 1-28 (with 4, 10 and 13 missing) and a third, smaller set with indecorous, non-celestial titles: (“Life Sucks,” “What’s Your __________?,” “Uneasy Play.”) The poems that engage constellations include the shape of their eponymous constellation on the page, with the poem to the side, underneath, or interspersed.
The book’s first poem “Ursa Major and Minor” opens: “a room is salmon in a bear’s throat” (15). Brenza’s poems are nervous about rooms, hesitant about being swallowed by the closeness of interior spaces, a closeness in which a room can become its own tiny episteme. His poems are interested in clinical distance, a stepping away that allows for big feelings to be private, to be what follows observation. Constellations, in these poems, offer the solace of expansive space, and yet they are points of reference rather than groups of stars that might be witnessed.
The poems do not take up stargazing, but use the constellations and the mythology embedded in their names as a kind of counterfactual map, a way of being several sizes at the same time. As the constellations fit on the page, we tower above the star maps printed in the text. As we’re embedded in the poems, we shrink to be tiny among the poems’ stars. The poems exist in an endless ideal night, the words set among the stars, or not among night at all, as the constellations read both as a star map and as a fixing of the stars in the book rather than in the sky.
The “gossamer lid” of the book’s title offers a space that is both sealed and full of light, like the “Gambrels of the Sky” that make up Dickinson’s “everlasting Roof.” Brenza attends both to the threads—the gossamers (whether the stars in the constellations or the lines of the poems) that make up the unit of the lid—and the entirety of the lid itself. Brenza’s poems, cued by their title, celebrate the doubleness of a whole made from a series of gaps small and large, menacing and protective: “gossamer lid” simultaneously suggests spider web and network of celestial light.
Webbing and its multiplicity of strands is Brenza’s dominant model for linking many different kinds of relationships. In “Leo” “a robin’s ear cocked / for the sound of worms—// which is itself not wholeness / but reticulation.” (38) “Carina” begins “At the time of this writing—07:55:30 Eastern Standard Time on April 25, 2014, to be exact—the world was a room with approximately 7,228,866,156 corners. Whether dome of skull wears dome of sky or dome of sky wears dome of skull is hard to say” (40). It is not just a shifting of scale that matters to Brenza’s poems, but a scalar disorientation: as humans, it’s hard to tell if we’re big or small, how to understand the enormity of our environmental impact as a species against how tiny we are in the frame of the sky, how quickly within its history our lives disappear.
To get at this disorientation and its extremes, poems in the collection do wildly different kinds of work. Some poems vanish into their surface, building a network of short, abstracted phrases threaded together around a star map. Others use long, declarative sentences and think directly about the polyscalar experience of being human—alternately and simultaneously impossibly big and small.
Among the poems at their most declarative, the final stanza of Hercules reads:
Thus, the sun is set to rising in its particular way. Thus, your head is
shaped along its paths in its particular way. Thus, the sun is shining on the
paths of your head in its particular way. Thus, your head is set to shape the
rising of the sun in its particular way. Thus, elsewhere, it is different in its
particular way—different but not too different like the differences between
butterflies and thumbs (35)
In a number of poems, the text shrinks to almost disappear among its constellation.
the surfaces of want
is mobius ribbon indulgent
beyond a snake eating itself
the regularity of its meaning
in each dawn chorus entering you
a depthless discomfort of indifference
glittering in the trees
thus, the way you trace the under-
cells of your skin looking for an in (24)
In the book, it looks like this:
The opening lines of the poem reach for the repetition of small enclosed spaces and their repeated patterns, taking up a series of circuits that are designed to remain unbroken: an ouroboros, a mobius strip. The cycle of days runs the risk of being another unbroken system. What’s kept out (as of the body) and what’s included fills the frame of the poem’s focus as it considers how to take those cycles apart without stopping them: how to have days that mean more, how to notice being in a body enough for it to be renewably compelling, without displacing the momentum that allows us to keep pace with time.
The majority of the poems in Gossamer Lid are sweetly pensive, observing and accounting, moving toward and away from what they see. In the final third of the book, that sweetness is set into contrast with a set of interspersed poems that spend time with an object world both more regional and more narrowly contemporary than that of the rest of the book. A phrase like “finite strands of hair” in “Sagitta” shares space in the final poems with the lines in “What’s Your ________?”: “Jersey girl * bedroom eyes * / booze rooster * ovulation kit” (67).
A number of formal experiments repeat in Gossamer Lid, including a small set of poems, (including “What’s Your ______?”) with similarly charged two-word phrases organized in blocks of text that fill the width of the page, each phrase separated from another by asterisks. Like the poems oriented toward constellations, these poems take up the relationship between the fragmentary and the comprehensive. They make a kind of completeness out of parts, the kind that couldn’t exist except in fragments.
web of birdsong
nest of ear
hood of light
above the houses
hood of air
caul of cloud
The poems allow closeness—both physical and emotional proximity—to feel expansive, and often far away, while they enable the celestial to feel immediate: a scalar blur of stars on the page as though the text itself were emitting light.