Annelyse Gelman, Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone, Write Bloody Publishing, 2014
REVIEW BY LUISA BANCHOFF
Why stare at anything that doesn’t blind you? It is a question that made my eyes ache, a question that I could not brush aside for lack of an answer. It is a question that, ironically, made me blink as if staring into a bright light even as I sat at a dimly lit desk reading the line in Annelyse Gelman’s Ars Poetica, the first of more than 40 poems in her collection Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone.
Gelman’s book is full of questions – some posed by the poet directly, others planted by a provocative image or compelling line and left to linger in the minds of her audience. Rather than strive to find an answer, however, Gelman invites us to be a part of the poetic process, to be active players in a game where we may not know how high the stakes are until we find ourselves drawn in by a particular image that we’ve witnessed in our own lives. Gelman’s dedication reads “For you.” This is perhaps the best indicator of how personal poetry should be for an audience as well as a poet.
In the magnetizing, turbulent world Gelman creates through her poetry, metaphors operate with an inner logic that runs beneath the seemingly strange combination of objects and ideas, actions and consequences. A woman buys her lover an aluminum abacus to count evil thoughts. Another slices open her thumb with an unnerving deliberation as she contemplates death while cutting a melon. A man considers his own infidelity while toasting the bride at a wedding reception in outer space. As a reader, I found myself obligated to believe in Gelman’s sometimes surprising choices of metaphor if only because the images she creates through these unlikely partnerships are too beautiful to turn away from.
Gelman’s poems, however, are not a mere compilation of poignant characters confined to a separate world distinct from the rest of us. Just as many of her metaphors broaden the range of creative images I was accustomed to, so too did the level of self-awareness in many of her pieces led me to reconsider the role of the poet in her own work, which furthermore called me to reevaluate my preconceived notions of what poetry ought to do for both reader and writer. Gelman’s authoritative voice as the poet entered her work on occasion to offer her own humorous critique of the writing process. In “<3,” she laments the progression of the poem and her choice of cookie dough as a metaphor for the human heart, regretting that “maybe / string cheese would have been a better metaphor but it’s / too late now, I’ve already made it about cookies.” Later on, she expresses her own doubt about the meaning of these images, conceding that “There’s a joke about monogamy in all this / somewhere.” With this self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek attitude to her work, Gelman demands her readers to question her authority as poet and not take every metaphor as the indicator of absolute truth in a poem.
There are countless other aspects of Gelman’s collection that deserve to be recognized for their contribution to making this book an enjoyable read, including Gelman’s masterful manipulation of words to subvert her audience’s expectations. She begins her poem “Vows,” with the line “In space, no one can hear you toast the bride,” cleverly employing onto a common phrase before diverting its course to construct a striking new image. Similarly, in “Class of Whatever,” she writes “I made my bonfire. I slept in it.” By evoking familiar sayings, Gelman reminds her readers of their prior knowledge they bring with them to each poem they read; by turning these phrases on their head, she broadens audience understanding of what each word contributes to the image it evokes and the impression it leaves. Just as many of her images persisted long after I first read them, so too did the surprising yet graceful twists and turns of Gelman’s diction work their way into my mind and lend themselves to memorization.
In addition to the innovative ways in which Gelman challenges readers to reconsider the genre, her work never loses sight of poetry as foremost an experience of the senses. “The Electrician,” one of my favorite pieces from the collection, she captures a tragic scene in just 12 lines. A man’s body is found floating on a lake, both of his legs broken, a soaked and decaying manual for time travel in his pocket. The last two stanzas read:
in water, starfish swim themselves apart to grasp
a greater bamboozlement; we careen gently
toward the present tense until it’s ominous
when you don’t say I love you. Matisse
paints goldfish, but he’s really painting
the light. I never get tired of light.
Without directly characterizing her speaker’s sense of grief and shock, Gelman manages to leave an irremediable ache in the chest of this reader. Though I cannot say what led to this one man’s death, nor where he had intended to go with his time-traveling contraption, nor how the speaker must feel, I feel deeply tied to this poem through the light – how it falls onto the surface of the lake, illuminating the body, distinguishing between water and ink. And though it is more difficult to gauge the writer’s self-awareness and the broader audience’s anticipated reaction, though the tension between poet and work remains unresolved, it produces something beautiful that, like the light, does not leave me tired, even if it may cause my eyes to hurt just a bit more. But it is an ache worth experiencing. It is an image worth staring at, even if it may blind you.
Annelyse Gelman is a California Arts Scholar, the inaugural poet-in-residence at the University of California at San Diego’s Brain Observatory, and recipient of the 2013 Mary Barnard Academy of American Poets Prize and New Pacific Studio’s 2013 Lavinia Winter Fellowship. Her debut poetry collection, Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone, was released from Write Bloody Publishing in April 2014. Her recent work has appeared, or will soon appear, in Hobart, Atticus Review, Indiana Review, The Economy, MARY, Rufous City Review, and elsewhere. She divides her time between the United States and New Zealand. For more information, please visit www.annelysegelman.com.
Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone
by Annelyse Gelman
Write Bloody Publishing, April 2014
$15.00 paperback, ISBN-10: 193891242X