The table of contents for Exclusions (Tupelo Press, 2020), the poet Noah Falck’s second full-length collection following 2012’s Snowmen Losing Weight, has all the implacable mystery of a scrap list you come across looking for a pair of scissors or a Band-Aid in someone else’s junk drawer. Single words or two-word phrases, the entries range from the epic and abstract—Fiction, War, Future, Sound—to the contemporary everyday—Pilates, Guyliner, Online Dating.
As titles, the words evoke the confidence of odes and essays, or perhaps a John Ruskin lecture, attempts to capture the essence of something or persuade the reader of its inherent characteristics. But the poems in Exclusions never capture, and they never persuade. More to the point, they almost never attempt. Instead they work like this:
Someone spends her entire life
dreaming of how it will end.
It makes her sad. We sail
a small boat within her heart
and discover another heart,
though it looks more like a moon
lit from within by a single
exploding bottle rocket.
This is “Poem Excluding Answers,” a perfect poem and one that happens to capture, in its title, the simultaneous familiar humility and immense daring of the project that is Exclusions.
Each poem in Exclusions works by absenting what the title names.
“How isn’t the weather?” Falck begins in “Poem Excluding Small Talk”—deftly turning inside-out the way we think about what we live inside, and what lives inside us.
“The premise of it was writing an idea or an object or a person out of a poem,” Falck told me in 2018, in an interview for Rain Taxi, more than two years before the book would be released. “So, a poem excluding politics, excluding mathematics, excluding death. Just thinking about what was going to be removed from a poem or a world—and I see poems as worlds—what would be left there? What would be the remaining pieces?”
The “exclusion poem” is similar to the erasure poem in this sense, but where erasure poems inevitably feel contained by the original text—literally prescripted—the mode that Falck has invented here feels boundless and capacious.
“Exclusions purports to leave everything out, and yet somehow this book has everything in it,” the poet Natalie Shapero writes for the jacket copy. “Birth, death, rust, sex, smoking, shadows, floodlights, Olympic mascots, how ‘the sun flattens / into a sort of messy bruise / over the lake.’” Whatever you call the landscape of this poetry, Shapero says, it is “a place of uncanny wildness and heft.”
One can read many of the poems taking the titles as solid-ground starting points, as literal Experiences. Walk a straight line through Falck’s “Poem Excluding Happy Hour,” and at the end, when “the clouds give birth to / other clouds and the rain runs down our / cheeks” and “our / hearts are mistaken for mountains,” you will have experienced a world without happy hours.
But the conceit of naming each absence in the title means that the exclusions are present, even hauntingly omnipresent. If Falck sees “poems as worlds,” then these are not merely worlds “without”—these are wounded worlds.
These poems, Zach Savich writes, “conjure worlds in which what’s missing shows us what matters most.” Read this way, we enter the poems expecting to trace the edges of a lacuna and even, perhaps, to peer inside—only to discover, through the poet’s steadfast and fluent resistance to the prescriptive, that which is excluded is that which has contained you. It’s not always the thing named in the title that is precisely, explicitly, or exclusively “what” is missing—but each poem articulates a mysterious, poignant absence.
When a poem does speak of the excluded thing—this happens in War, Cancer, Color—it feels like an accident, and the poem an early draft. As the Romans required of their rites any time a priest misspoke a sacred phrase, you want the poem to start over again and step right.
But in almost every case, the rite succeeds. One spell shatters another—across each line break, our perspective on what is contained and what is containing switches with the ease of a phoropter’s falling lenses. Take “Poem Excluding Red Rover”:
Today we send a crow over, our
thoughts paginated as to show how
the mind goes down hill over the
frenzied course of an afternoon in the
yoked light spring, summer, winter,
look faraway until we’re inside the
weather, inside a hypothesis, the
adjectives of a favorite song, lonely,
lonely buildings in the dark where
someone else is singing.
This is how one of Falck’s exclusion poems works: What is purportedly (or secretly) excluded becomes vaster than we ever imagined, reminding us in a flash of the origins of the word mundane: Anything can be reduced to nothing, or revealed to be nothing less than the world. There is in these poems an avoidance of the specific bric-a-brac of our present mundanity that works to make the worlds inviolate and palpably other. There are sci-fi thrillers, zip codes, fifth innings, AIDS, City Hall, and strip clubs, but these touchpoints seem abstracted or made into archetypes—as when “The hills fill with hip-hop.” Without this avoidance, the exclusion poems would likely risk being too literal, closer to erasures from a context we immediately recognize.
Yet still, Falck manages to slip in bone-deep truths about the feeling-tone of contemporary life. Lines like “we wake / to someone’s conclusion” (in “Poem Excluding Gun Control”) leap out as unexpected confrontations with our world, with our experience of daily waking. Others capture something reaching at once to individual and collective truths about right now, like this passage from “Poem Excluding Vandalism”:
As if by habit, sadness arrives.
We torture it with a downpour
of faith, with kissing noises.
Later, we don’t know how to
look each other in the eyes.
If Falck speaks from the contemporary moment without speaking directly of it, this, too, is his prepositional relationship to place. In conjuring worlds, the poems may infrequently name places like Hollywood and Texas, but we can’t use these to put the action on a map. Definite but elusive articles are implied everywhere: the city is the city, the hills the hills.
And yet, Falck dedicates the book “for Sherri & Roza / and for everyone in the Rust Belt.” Falck famously created and continues to curate the Silo City Summer Reading Series, a multimedia poetry event held three times each summer in an abandoned, 130-foot concrete grain elevator on the Buffalo River south of the city’s downtown core. Outside of his poetry, the Dayton-born and Buffalo-based artist has developed a reputation as an advocate for the Rust Belt through his work to demonstrate and celebrate the ways this landscape and its artistic communities are connected to but richly distinct from the coastal megalopolises that amass so much attention and capital in the arts.
It is worth noting that, in Exclusions, Falck does not set out to speak of or for the Rust Belt but neither does he orient himself away from this place and its people after the dedication. Just as he can show us what it feels like to be inside the contemporary moment without pontificating about it or even signaling it as his subject, Falck, in Exclusions, emerges as a “Rust Belt poet” to a degree and with a subtle authority that no contemporary has yet achieved.
“Now the snow is black and we feel / dirty in its presence,” he writes in “Poem Excluding Future.” The reader’s response to a line like this will likely vary by position, in the same way that some see in the paintings of Charles Burchfield fantastic transformations, while others, familiar with his source material, see documentary precision.
But, again, the full measure of this book will not be determined in the land of black snow and empty silos. As with any art, we have to look to the force and angle at which it drives into the current of time.
Typically, today, a collection of poems needs to make noise to get the attention of a wide readership. Even for dedicated readers and supporters of poetry, new books may sit unopened for months, and David Orr’s annual roundup of the “best” typically comprises releases already forgotten by most of his audience. Poetry books that remain near the forefront of any kind of collective consciousness do not come out every year, and when they do come out and, however briefly, arrest our scrolling, they usually require a syzygy of novelty, marketing, and emergence of a mass experience that calls for the exact answer the book provides.
In the early months of 2020, one by one, in pairs and clusters, or sometimes as whole cities at once, we began living in a “poem excluding.” As easily and irrevocably as passing across an enjambment, we entered life without.
Most readers will understand all too well the extraordinary pressures and exigencies that are squeezing publishers right now but nonetheless wish that Tupelo Press, like Fiona Apple or Run the Jewels, had pushed Exclusions up from its original May release date into April instead of back to August. But, if the press had accelerated or held steady on the release, readers might have been denied Falck’s thoughtful and creative plans for the book’s launch, which will see him touring Buffalo for a series of intimate, in-person, and appropriately distanced readings, and giving virtual performances for individuals and small groups outside the region.
Whether or not Falck passes beneath the syzygy that would guarantee the widest possible readership, the poetry book for our timeーthis precise timeーhas appeared.
In the context of quarantines and social distancing, there are points in Falck’s collection so prophetically on the nose (How about “Poem Excluding Happy Hour”? Or “Poem Excluding Hi-Five”?) that you have to laugh. But these are mere accidents.
While we are learning to go without privileges and experiences that until recently we assumed to be universal and guaranteedーone-day delivery of trivial things, human touch, texts that just say beers?ーExclusions offers a profound and even compassionate set of exercises. Through them, we experience the essential woundedness of perspective, but also that the constraint of this original wound, named or unnamed, is the key to its unknowable vastness.
This doesn’t have to be a high-concept act of imagination. It can be as easy as remembering that
and music in the stains of how
we touch each other
(in “Poem Excluding Sophistication”), or as simple as seeing yourself in someone else’s deathbed, like this moment in “Poem Excluding Nature”:
No news is good news, you say.
But you want to say more.
You want to say things
that bring to mind a cold rain.
The book will endure. And on re-reading, months or years from now, Exclusions will hold not only for anyone who experienced the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 but also for readers who have experienced all kinds of rug-pulls, upendings, and public or private catastrophes, an uncannily familiar strangenessーthe kind of strangeness in your own face when, to yourself in the mirror or to another face looking back,
You flash a smile as if to
say there are museums in all of us.