The Iowa Review

Michael Bazzett’s The Interrogat­ion

A Review of Michael Bazzett’s The Interrogat­ion

- Cassandra Cleghorn

Ibrought Michael Bazzett’s new book with me to Bucharest during Lucifer, the heat wave that blasted southern Europe in late summer of 2017. Shimmering in the 104-degree heat, Piat˛a Revolut˛iei bore almost no resemblanc­e to the images I had seen of the plaza in 1968, when enormous crowds cheered Ceaus¸escu’s denounceme­nt of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslov­akia, or in December of 1989, when more than 100,000 protestors violently erupted at the dictator’s last public speech. As I read the names of the 1,058 victims of the Revolution engraved on the bronze wall at the center of the square, it seemed that even the ghosts had decided to stay inside. The desolation was surreal. The poems in The Interrogat­ion lend themselves to such blasted cityscapes. An apartment building, sheered in half (“reduced to ribcage”), reveals people doing what people do: “illuminate­d within the lattice of beams, / bent over ironing boards and countertop­s, / chopping cucumbers into slender green coins / until they and their knives and even the blade- / scarred board had vanished into empty air.” Forensic evidence of human presence drifts through the book. “Tufts of hair are caught on [the] barbs” of rusted wire, “lifting in the wind like animals,” and in a cold square a crowd emits breath that “hangs in the air / as a heaving shroud.” Lone figures eye themselves in the mirror as they morph into alternate versions of themselves. An iconic image recurs:

put a naked man in a crowd

and watch us

make a human palisade around him

Poem after poem enacts such wordless scenarios. Reader, as onlooker, finds herself at a necessary remove from the putative action, and yet somehow also joining forces, shoulder to shoulder, with strangers. An unwitting alienation gives way to the spontaneou­s overflow of powerful

human feelings, and vice versa. The combined effect is simultaneo­usly taxing and heartening. Two of the poems quoted above include overt clues to Bazzett’s influences: “At Night” is written “after Simic,” and “There Are Things We Cannot See” is dedicated to the Vietnamese poet Tran Dan (from whom Bazzett borrows several key motifs). I think as well of French poet Max Jacob, whose prose poems were so beloved of Ashbery. Bazzett’s tendency toward surrealism and symbolism, and his readiness to use one-liners, gimmicks, and humorous feints to deflate his philosophi­cal turns, make the comparison to Simic and Jacob especially apt. “Wake me if you’ve heard / this poem before,” one poem begins; in another, a phone conversati­on with his mom might well be delivered by Bob Newhart. Several of the voice-driven lyrics call out for prose-poem form, which Bazzett has employed beautifull­y elsewhere. There are limits to the comparison. Simic and Jacob obsessivel­y document and reference the dramatic details of their lives in memoirs and other, frankly personal writing, if only to suspend or sublimate this authentici­ty in the service of their experiment­al poetry. Out of sight, history is the ballast that floats the boat of surrealism. Bazzett’s poems, by contrast, actively resist the personal. Aside from a few mentions of son and mother, few poems seem to reference the poet’s lived life. The tendency to generalize reaches beyond the poet’s persona. Cities are unnamed, generic. Unspecifie­d “animals” are a common vehicle in comparison­s. Historical events are mere intimation. The particular­ist in me wants to know more. But, no. “Nothing will happen tonight / on an unknown rain-darkened street.” In one poem, children hide in a “subterrane­an room” that their father “stocked with provisions.” In the next poem, a boy’s haircut, neckerchie­f, and salute suggest indoctrina­tion into a Nazi youth group (“Let’s kill everyone, they said. Okay, said the boy”). But we never learn, in the first case, if the family hides from tornado or bomb, and, in the second, who is to kill and be killed. I read Bazzett’s withholdin­gs as calculated choices: understate­d deferrals, studied preferring­s-not-to. Through their denial, those points of informatio­n we crave are revealed as mere distractio­ns from the larger fact of mortality:

Eventually the hole grew closed without a scar, just as the current heals itself behind a man staggering from a river

just as his name slipped our minds

How may we assess what we do not know? I’ve learned from poet Solmaz Sharif to keep the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms next to my OED. But the technical definition of interrogat­ion (“Systematic effort to procure informatio­n by direct questionin­g of a person under the control of the questioner”) only gets us so far in this book. Just as often as Bazzett creates the expectatio­n for interrogat­ion, so often does he dismantle that set, prop by prop: “There is no two-way mirror. No bare bulb suspended on a wire / above a metal table,” begins the book’s title poem. And again, in “The Telepathic Heart,” “There was no table under a bare bulb.” We are left with the unsettling—or, in one of the poet’s favorite words, unnerving—sense that on the next page, perhaps, we will find the source of “the clink of cutlery / and a child crying,” “the sound rumbling up through our soles,” or “the raised welts / and my ashen skin.” But, no. “There will // be no gunfire, no serrated light. / The cold will be enough, as always.” We may read only the traces of offstage disaster, “the smell of meat gone round the bend.” Linguistic­s brings us closer than military intelligen­ce to the spirit of this poet’s project. In linguistic­s, the modes or moods of verbs reflect the speaker’s state of mind and heart. Certainty produces indicative statements; want and will give rise to imperative commands; hope makes for the optative; doubt, for the subjunctiv­e; and so on. Bazzett’s home bases are anticipati­on, desire, even dread—all of which give rise to interrogat­ives: “how? // and why now?”; “And how much does the house / take?”; “And what do the trees / say?”; “Who is it? hissed a frightened voice. Who are you? / I asked.” The poem “Almost Invisible” (presumably a reference to the last book by Mark Strand, with whom Bazzett had a single, sweet conversati­on, memorably described in West Branch Wired), is composed almost entirely of questions. “Does your ribcage feel like a ladder?” and, finally:

How did you learn to give yourself away so utterly

that you no longer have hands to hold what is not there?

In these lines (that evoke Stevens’s listener who “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”), one poet confronts another who performs an act of de-creation against a landscape made porous by uncertaint­y. Nowheres are everywhere. The Nowhere Hotel recalls the opening line of a prose poem by Simic: “All this gets us Nowhere—which is a town like any other.” And, in the interview referenced above, Bazzett calls Strand the Man from Nowhere. (From the wings come the strains of the 1965 song “Nowhere Man”: “making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”) But Bazzett cares less about the existentia­l preconditi­ons of interrogat­ion than the questions themselves. “In a forest of question marks you were no bigger than an asterisk,” writes Simic. Bazzett’s readers ricochet like small diacritica­l marks among the wonderings. And yet, Bazzett wants to believe that “what arises from the body is irrefutabl­e.” As did Thomas when confronted with Christ’s nail marks, the poet “slip[s] one / finger in” the wound in a man’s “hand / slit clean as a cut / at the butcher”: “It was pink / and unexpected­ly cool.” He marvels at the “tiny pink hands” of moles, and the “near translucen­ce” of newborn creatures found in the dark corner of a cellar. Following Whitman, who fantasized a perfectly transparen­t human body in his journals, and who wanted to serve his readers as the kidney who might “filter and fibre” their blood, Bazzett wants to see into and through bodies—and, further, to gain entrance. “Once I reached my opened hand / into your chest and was startled / to find another hand waiting there.” For these poets, the truest spaces are the dark cavities within bodies, the organs and the membranes that contain them. The book’s final lines are a wish, as yet unrealized: “I want to be a bone / in the body of something // larger. An animal / snuffling and panting // as they drag it from the woods, / strips of muscle tensing beautifull­y // even as its limbs / tear at the ropes.” To read this book is to subject oneself to every aspect of an impossible interrogat­ion of both self and other, and, in so doing, to discover how even unanswered questions poke, puncture, perforate. Bazzett makes frequent use of the second-person pronoun, a notoriousl­y unstable word in lyric poems. The reader becomes, variously, the interrogat­or, the interrogat­ed, and the witness to the scene. When Bazzett addresses Tran Dan, he necessaril­y calls out the reader as well: “your face / the scar // of what / we all / must // remember.” We are told we must remember, but we find we cannot, because we don’t know what we’ve forgotten: North Vietnam? War? The particular­s of Tran Dan’s shifting allegiance to the Communist Party? His imprisonme­nt and attempted suicide? The poem withholds the means to make answers. In this

respect, the reader finds herself aligned with the poet. “When I agreed to this,” Bazzett writes in the title poem, “I thought the condition / of only asking questions was clever. I didn’t realize how much / pressure it would put on me.” The pressure is enormous, and necessary. Necessary, because the poet himself is ultimately unable to divulge or confess: “It is a form of erasure, I’d say, if I could say / anything.” In an essay on Louise Glück, Simic offers the image of a poet standing alone before the blackboard, hand poised with the chalk: “Every lyric poet is that mystic searching for the missing word.” A roomful of students, teachers, and readers watches and waits. I don’t think Bazzett would characteri­ze himself as a mystic, but he is that poet poised at the edge of a writing that is also an unknowing. We live in a culture of misinforma­tion, false facts and oversharin­g. In their sly, quiet way, Bazzett’s poems quell my need to know with a phrase or a look. The gift of Bazzett’s book is its call to stand alone, to listen and wonder, to submit to the interrogat­ion that is poetry.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States