There’s A Box In The Garage You Can
Beat With A Stick by Michael Teig
BOA Editions, 2013; 95 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
A recent exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum featured work by celebrated artist and teacher Hans Hofmann, a painter whose distinctly vibrant canvases embody his theory of push-pull. To Hofmann’s mind and eye, color is the agent of depth and space. Placing certain shades together or apart can bring form to the surface, or push it back. As a means of interrogation, a book of poems can pose one or several questions, in voices varying in degree of insistence and directness. Some questions are meant to drift in the background, unanswered, while others storm to the forefront, demanding replies. Acting in force and counterforce, questions—like Hofmann’s colors—move poems from the page and into the mind.
In Michael Teig’s second book of poems, There’s A Box In The Garage You Can Beat With A Stick, the inquiries of the poems congregate around three centralizing concerns. In the foreground looms the question of the real. What is real? Where is real located? Cognitive and sonic associations, layered with the figurative language of metaphor (“All birds are descriptions”) and simile (the Éluard-esque “an orange in his hand like a planet”), dissolve assumptive boundaries, as in the poem, “Have I Forgotten Anything”:
One dog barks then
the spaces between them are barking
and then a hummingbird like
a tiny green zipper opens the air.
In his essay, “Attila József and the Poetry of the Conscious Mind,” George Gömöri remarks on the Hungarian poet’s ability to write by “assimilating diverse and often unrelated influences.” Embedded in Teig’s dream-rich, associatively-driven cosmos is the consciousness of a speaker who believes animals have personhood, who marks the detrimental effect of the human population on seas and gulfs as they are drained of their aquatic life. Personification and functional shifts in syntax (“they wooden hut” and “He may infant”) construct a unique reality, perhaps arising from the mind’s errors in translating the foggy realm between sensing and saying. After all, this is a universe—a mind—where:
Some men are so beautiful that their insides
are lined with the skin of lions,
with the narrow skin of birds. (“I Abandoned My Plans. I Had No Plans.”)
Inside men, inside the unseen: Mid-ground, lives the question of proximity. How close are we to one another? How close is it possible to be? Rooted in the planetary now, the poems are less engaged with death and what does—or does not—happen afterwards. In a voice vulnerable, humorous, and encouraging, the speaker addresses themes of the domestic, the environmental, and the animal as connected to—as rooted in—the self. The poem, “I rinsed my face and wished to be rid of it.” is aware of the material attributes of contemporary society and time’s insistent cycle of now/gone:
Also cell phone towers, sad endings,
dickheads, and the rich. This memory
and the one just now replacing it.
This recurring tomorrow.
Despite our desires for permanence and continuity, today is always tomorrow, the movement of time a forward-reaching history. In the background, behind those sad endings, hovers the question of control. Who is in control? Where is the locus of control centered, especially when the outer and inner terrains continually shift? As William Carlos Williams’ Icarus crashes into the sea, he does so “quite unnoticed” at the edge of an unconcerned world. In these poems, figurative language does important work as the speaker unflinchingly observes the overlooked or discarded:
flattened like veterans.
One dumpster, four pigeons.
All manner of men. (“Night Jar”)
Characteristically, the lines never meander, and within two couplets blooms a sharp commentary on media, war, poverty, and urban environments, the politicized vocabulary linked with a governed landscape. In his essay, “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime,” Douglas Crase quotes Emerson: “Other world? There is no other world; here or nowhere is the whole fact.” Like nesting dolls or an Escher print, Teig’s macrocosm holds many systems, denying the existence of none. Political, it also is a land of “offhanded flowers,” where “The moon touches up windows” and “the future/is always just browsing.” Stepping onto and off this modern stage at will, the poems acknowledge powerlessness while demonstrating the power of—and inherent in—the imagination.
As with the intricacies of Hofmann’s color relationships, these poems, through their connectivity and juxtapositions, through their dexterous leaps of mind and perception, rise from the page and occupy, in dazzling multiplicity, the unseen yet fully habitable rooms of consciousness, rooms writers and readers enter to consider questions guaranteeing at best transitory answers. In these pages Teig insists on embracing the push and pull of an uncertainty that springs from within and bears down, from without.