Robert Vaughan’s latest is meant to unsettle. The book is broken down into three subsections of poems and microfictions: Cacophony, Aviary, and Demented. A key for my reading comes from “Tilted” from Christine & the Queens: “I start the books at the end/ I got my chin up for nothing/ My crying eye is because of the wind/ My absences are a feeling/ I can’t stand…I pretend to have understood everything.” So much of Askew is about atmosphere, of feeling unable to stand because of circumstance, of not understanding fully what has transpired and why it happened. I got my critic’s chin up, only to feel like interpretation and categorization isn’t the game here.
Askew isn’t about understanding. It’s about jarring unsettlement. I often found myself disoriented by Vaughan’s poems and microfictions. The first poem (“When Crossing Guarded”) gives a wise roadmap to “help me endure another dark/ dawn, leap over the intrinsic/ yearning to disregard it all.” Vaughan’s poems are often about dispossession—fears of losing the self, of losing that moment when you find yourself temporarily. In “Ode to the Dead,” lines like “I am afraid of who I am/ When you leave/ I scatter” echo across the pages. There are poems about moments of loss, and of breaking. In “Minutia” you hear so much of the voice—a somewhat ironic, hurting, sarcastic speaker: “he will leave you-they all do/ then return from afar and want/ it all back, the accumulation/ of broken bones, gasps, unending nights/ Fine, you’ll say. Have them.” I feel like these poems and fragments are the “Have them” throughout it all. They’re gifts from a voice outside storytelling. They’re parts of a voice askew, seeking to reassemble the collage of broken bits of life.
The quest for the self is paramount in this collection, as it reassembles fragments of identity through moments in time. In “The West was Once a Direction,” the speaker asks: “How does one remain oneself in the ongoing search for discovery?”—the answer comes a few lines down: “Look, I am living/ but on fumes…A story is, after all, a kind of smothering.” Askew is about moments, fragments, shards. It’s not about a story—because it wants the reader to recenter himself/herself in those moments of dislocation and disorientation. Those three subdivisions bring the reader to a certain place—from discordant noise, to flight, but flight that’s caged, to a feeling of dementia. Nick Flynn says that “Ache runs rampant, fractured by longing: for places and people, arrested moments, former selves, fleeting lovers. These may be compact poems and microfictions, but don’t underestimate their size: Vaughan approaches the page with an honest, elastic and heartfelt expansiveness that holds space for all.” Flynn’s assessment is accurate. These poems are truthful, revelatory, and fragmentary. I found, as with so many poetry collections, that some of these fractures felt more successful than others, but ultimately that seems to be the point of Askew. I struggled with poems like “Candy Crushes,” “No More I Love You’s” or “Moonstruck,” but I felt odd exhilaration with words from the “The Moors”:
Why are the morning hours so
empty and barren? It is when
the thread of loneliness lays one’s soul
out to dry, yet the glimmer of hope,
intact, sends one to the shower to rejuvenate.
Do I plummet into the throes
of depression at the complications
of my own doings? For it would
seem at this late date that in questioning
self-sanity, the clutches of terror and
despair wreak heavily, waiting patiently
in shadows, under lids, under lightness
of being, under carpets swept clean with delusion.
I find Askew strongest in these moments. There can be a hallucinatory quality to some of these poems, punctuated with the rhythms of the songs chosen at the start of sections like “Aviary.” Vaughan uses the incantations of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s “Maps” to set the stage with its echoes of “Oh say, say, say/ Oh say, say, say,/ Wait, they don’t love you like I love you/ Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” I feel rhythm and longing throughout this collection—it builds into a crescendo of evocative moments of tilting understanding. I reveled in the language and dislocation in Askew and lost my need to seek a unifying story, a smothering in Vaughan’s words, for some time in his fractured, and yet always longing, poetic world.
by Robert Vaughan
Cowboy Jamboree Press; 131 p.
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