No Planets Strike
(Apologies for hopping in the way-back machine, y’all, but I just got around to reading this book and, uh, here it is.)
The cumulative effect of a whole mess of Josh Bell is akin to visiting a national park in which the laws of physics have gone subtly but undeniably wrong. His tone is one that begs for the soothing balm of the pathetic fallacy—if a waterfall could seem sleepy, if a meteor shower could express disinterest, if a beautiful, beautiful rainbow could shudder with contempt. If it’s possible to be exhausted and antic simultaneously—bored with fluency while in the midst of its expression—that sentiment appears in the very first poem of the collection, “Coming Attractions”:
The poem recumbent. The poem retarded. The poem rhadamantine. The dictionary
The poem of daily manifestos. The poem who stutters, who finds not love.
Then with the “Poem Coming Out of My Ears.” Then the untouchable poem
and the furbearing poem. The barnstorming poem and the poem your mother
warned you about,
the poem that ends with the line “and that’s the thing/ that really cracks
me up/ about chaos theory.”
Clearly, Bell doesn’t think of these pending poems as “attractions” at all. He thinks of them as absurdities, essays no less crippled for their weird vigor, a collection of bespangled and inappropriately deft mannequins. Here are the poems of a man who has no belief that his abundant gifts can save him, and paradoxically seeks salvation by unpacking those gifts in a kind of shoot-the-moon gamble for unadorned sincerity. It’s a great paradox, beautifully and comically executed. It’s also a relief to read poems that neither deny nor enshrine the poet’s incompatible abundance of rhetorical apparatuses. Apparently, it’s wicked hard for many of the saucier young poets to make use of the seething lexicons in their heads without inadvertently creating personae that seem glib or flippant, as if the price of admission to such a hall of expressive wonders is a flattening of emotional register. You can be manifold in your eloquence and shallow in your sentiments, or you can be earnest and sincere and write as if you haven’t been exposed to dozens of fully expressive and essentially autonomous languages.
Bell recognizes this choice for the trap it is. His writing is clever without ever congratulating itself for its own cleverness. In his “Meditation on Insomnia,” he references Kung-Fu, identifies a television as an “affable poltergeist”, describes Michele Yeoh as “a walking / stick and a ballerina clown, a glove of liquid / marble clinging to golden kindling”, narrates her cinematic adventures, offers a few supplemental anecdotes and a brief biography—only to conclude by noting merely that
[…] After awhile,
sleep comes so hard and fast you can feel
like you are falling. Everybody knows that.
I love the resignation of that last sentence, depending as it does on wisdom so common as to be useless. The trick, of course, is that there is no trick: the poem follows the distracted wanderings of a highly adept mind sunk in a mood or condition for which knowledge and aptitude are symptoms, not treatments. All the clutter that accumulates in the attic of Bell’s brain, artfully assembled and catalogued with an irresistibly inventive discursiveness, would prove claustrophobic if Bell himself took any apparent comfort in it. The degree of craftiness in a poem like “Poem against Matt Guenette’s Ex-Girlfriend”, in which Bell writes of Virginia Beach as
the epileptic coast pole-axed
by an acetone surf, the sun-block
sealing off each body from the next,
and memory the air-tight junk fish
poking like a stylized font from the sand
would be insufferable if the poem wasn’t so resolutely frank in its admission of failure, folly, error and misapprehension. Plenty of Bell’s poems conclude with, depend upon or consider states of sleep and death and unconsciousness; the effect isn’t one of morbidity or moroseness but rather a persuasively simple concern with finding a place or a means of rest.
There is, of course, a great pop avatar for themes of restlessness and a nature that is both hapless and threatening: the zombie, neither dead nor alive, falling apart yet impacable, slow but inexorable, hungry but never satisfied. No Planets Strike has a series of wonderful zombie poems, each titled “Zombie Sunday” with a following subtitle. The poems don’t concern zombies per se but instead offer up epistolary pleas to a “Gentle handed holy father, or whomever”: the object of address varies widely, but seems always to contain the function of whatever force or being should somehow have prevented the speaker from inhabiting his emotionally undead state, or could at least be petitioned to relieve it. Of course, neither explanation nor exculpation is forthcoming. In the last “Zombie Sunday”, the speaker asks directly “How will the dead be raised? / With what bodies will they come?” and earns no answer, seems to expect none. The form of the “gentle handed holy father” here is that of the moon, ur-icon of lover’s longing and perpetual poetic icon, and to Bell it is both these things and also a big dumb intransigent rock. This irreconcilable and inevitable simultaneity—effort and investment without hope or relief—leads Bell to conclude his epistle with the following claims: “I would murder you for money. / They will dredge you from the sky.”
Would, but won’t; will, but haven’t. This is helplessness, a kind of twisting in the wind. You can think of it as a failure of motion—a weathervane doesn’t exactly go anywhere, now does it?—but it also affords an opportunity for fine sensitivity. Balanced on a precise enough point, the weathervane can detect the slightest degrees of action and render them expressively. The zombie-logic of Bell’s garrulous discontent lends itself equally well to the slough of despond known as broken-heartedness, and no review of No Planets Strike would be complete without mentioning Ramona, who turns up like a hard, coppery rain of bad pennies. In “Cyborg”, her eyes “are river-traffic, are fast / and fish-tailing milk, / are troublesome / devices, are difficult / to mimic”; in “Poem to Line My Casket with, Ramona” she is invited to
Come practice your whorish gestures in the graveyard, Ramona.
Come sharpen your teeth on the tombstones.
Cough up the roots if you know what’s good for you.
When coyotes are teaching their young to howl,
ghoulies rehearse the Courtship of Wrist-bones.
And in “Love Double-Wide” the poet notes
Is like a bad tattoo although
you out it on the back of my
eye. It starts “Ramona” and I
can’t read the rest anymore.
I’m tired but I remember what
It says. […]
Ramona proper, of course, doesn’t matter in her details or character. What matters is the function she serves, that she exhausts even in memory, that the endeavor of addressing her animates the mind long after the body of the relationship has ceased to function.
No Planets Strike makes operatic exactly this dilemma, what the kids used to call existential woe. It cannot sleep and it cannot quit, and if that sounds like a kind of torture, well, yes, indeed. But torture often exists to extract talk, and Bell—funny, futile—says everything he can say with every means he has to say it without ever reckoning his volubility will make much of a difference in the end. Sometimes, eloquence is the plainest abjection.