The Politics by Benjamin Paloff

 

The world of contemporary poetry is a little richer, and a little wiser, now that Paloff’s work is a part of it.

 

Benjamin Paloff’s first collection of poetry, The Politics, drinks from the same well famously tapped by the High Moderns, including T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.  Specifically, Paloff holds to one of their primary tenets, elucidated in Eliot’s well-known essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: authors should harness the entire history of literature and thought when they sit down at their desks to write.  As Eliot did in The Waste Land, Paloff brings long-dead authors’ literature and ideas into a contemporary social and philosophical context.  This technique is announced by the nature of the epigraphs that appear before the table of contents: one is from Kafka (“Do not let evil make you believe you can have secrets from it”), and one is from contemporary indie rock band, The New Pornographers (“Making history has never been so easy”).  The titles in the table of contents are also indicative of the juxtaposition of historical periods that Paloff uses throughout the book to generate tension and surprising moments: more than half of the poems are persona poems from the point of view of thinkers such as Maimonides (a medieval Jewish philosopher), Seneca (a Stoic philosopher), and Philo (a later philosopher responsible for fusing Jewish and Stoic thought).  You can read “Maimonides on What Is Meant by Vision,” the poem that opens the collection, at Versedaily.org.

 

Paloff has a gift for combining the historical with the contemporary in such a way that, even though many of the ideas are lofty and ancient, readers will recognize the world of these poems as their own (“No such thing, no such thing as a self-cleaning oven,” writes Paloff in “Maimonides on What is Meant by Vision”).  In fact, it is a delight to discover that Paloff combines elements of the distant past with current concerns as well as one of the contemporary masters of the technique, Anne Carson.  In Paloff’s “Seneca on Suicide,” for example, Seneca says, “Part of me still wants to meet this Sara Lee / what nobody does it like.”

 

Those lines, as well as many in each of the book’s poems, represent Paloff’s masterful juxtaposition of high and low diction and subject matter.  If a reader is put off by the mention of Sara Lee, they have only to read a few more lines to locate a bit more gravitas: “…if we were / to think about it for the rest of our lives / we still wouldn’t understand what each of us feels / about the other.  That’s as far as epistemology takes us. / That’s at least how far apart we are.” The Sara Lee moments will have most readers smiling, even as the philosophical moments remind us that great poetry is a catalyst for self-reflection and a panacea for the commercials and shallow news reports that fill our days.

 

Fans of Eliot, as well as fans of more recent poets for whom the autobiographical self is obscured by the historical, philosophical self will enjoy this collection and will want to keep an eye out for Paloff’s future work.  If some readers find flaw with The Politics, it may be that while we have excellent access the to the brain of each speaker, the rest of the body—with its sensuous connection to the world through smell, taste, and touch—is almost entirely ignored.  “I feel around the dark room, its counters and drawers, with my head,” says the mathematician speaker of “APOLOGIA,” and, indeed, Paloff’s speakers do feel their way around with their intellects rather than their hands, eyes, or noses.  Other masterful “thinker” poets who have a similar intellectual and fragmentary movement to their work, and to whom Paloff deserves some comparison (Jorie Graham and John Ashbery among them) have a way of writing from the head without neglecting the visceral experience of the body.  Paloff, however, offers us a direct and inspired connection to the history of Western thought that other contemporary poets, Graham and Ashbery included,  rarely do.  The world of contemporary poetry is a little richer, and a little wiser, now that his work is a part of it.

 

The Politics by Benjamin Paloff, Carnegie Mellon UP, 2011.
Reviewed by B. Lussier.

 

Buy The Politics at Amazon.com.


More Benjamin Paloff:

Read “Maimonides on What is Meant by Vision” at Versedaily.org.

Read another poem by Paloff, his author statement, and his bio at the NEA Writers’ Corner.

 

 


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