Friday, March 6, 2009

Review of Timothy Geiger's "The Curse of Pheromones"

Review of Timothy Geiger’s The Curse of Pheromones (63 pages, $14, Main Street Rag)

The Curse of Pheromones by Timothy Geiger is simply a wonderfully enjoyable set of poems. The books consists of a scattering of painful narratives about personal tragedies set against a larger backdrop of poems about the inescapability of time, loss, and death, and the question of how one lives and what one believes given the knowledge of death. The poems offer timely and useful insight into these questions, sometimes with great gravity, sometimes with considerable levity. Most of the poems are short, accessible, and philosophical.
The poem, “Ambient,” printed here in its entirety is typical of the poems in the collection, with its disarming clarity of description leading to a more disturbing and resonant reflection on our lack of knowledge regarding the source of the ambient light surrounding us.

This close to the city
the nearest star to the moon
is a full head-turn to the left--
ambient light
makes even what’s clear
hard to see.
Like the word to
occurring in four
of the first six lines
of this poem--
to the city, to the moon,
to the left, and to see--
it’s not always how a thing operates
so long as it looks,
or sounds, good in action.
A simple hole
punched in a piece of cardboard
is still the best way
to view a total eclipse,
as I learned
in sixth-grade catechism class
when Sister Ellen said
“Always keep it simple
in order to see God.”
But not even faith
can help the invisible stars
filling the sky
with their utter lack of spectacle,
fast asleep
in the shadow
of so much light.

If “Ambient” can be said to be about keeping a proper humility and inquisitiveness as a human being, then “Gold-Star Coastal Tour Lines” is about how to survive given the danger of humility becoming diminishment and depression. In this poem we are reminded of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” when we hear a speaker who wants “to leave / the humbug behind / and drift / into the light and almost holy sea.” Fortunately, for the speaker, before he is lost to the overwhelming presence of the sea, he hears “the Captain” say “find something close and hold it / like you would a lover. / If you go over / this is how to survive.”
The source of this drive to make meaning out of life is made clear in the occasional more personal poem, such as in “Apparitions,” a poem which may be the best, but is certainly the most emotionally intense in the book.

He told me in whispers
about the hobgoblins
always rumbling under the bed.
We were only seven years old.
No one believed him but me.
Twice a day they came

with a needle and scalpel.
The bandage turned pink
around the tube that drained
his eyes. We shouldn’t have climbed
the abandoned water tower--
my best friend slipping on ice

into a rusty iron handrail,
the new year turning
its pockets inside-out.
I may have misheard
the word “hospital”
and thought he said

“hobgoblins.” Is it just the dead
or does every memory
leave a ghost as well--
clockwork eyes made of glass,
my best friend blind
by Valentine’s Day.

Such revelation of personally-felt tragedy is repeated in “Sleep,” where we read

In a field of Pennsylvania wheat
I watched my best friend

begin to die. Cancer,
he said, was hollowing his spine

and his dreams
had never been more vivid.

Again, in “Sacrament,” it is the personally tragic that leads to attempts at constructing meaning, permanence, or at least understanding: “I had lost the ability to believe. / Tragedy followed me like a burnt match, dead birds and thunder. / But for my do that needed to be fed, I’d given up altogether.”
My only complaint against The Curse of Pheromones is that the first poem, from my overgeneralized perspective that all poets are ultimately optimistic and Romantic (else why would they continue to write), should surely have been the last. Out of this gathering of existentially-grasping work, “Believe” gives the reader this all-important question: “why, after all this time listening, / are you still sitting there / when you’ve so much left to do?”

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