By Carolyn Guinzio
Reviewed by David Nilsen
Carolyn Guinzio's Spine ponders the traces of our existence we leave outside ourselves, and the traces broader existence leaves behind in us. The book is a series of textual Venn diagrams of the overlapping spaces between digital and organic worlds, our interior and exterior spaces. These circles orbit one another like binary stars, traverse each other leaving whispers behind, and increasingly share territory. Guinzio is obsessed here with these traces of separate planes of life left behind in others.
"A Post On This Thread," the collection's first poem, lays out this exploration with a series of images of fleeting action just missed, in which the action can only be inferred from evidence left behind. A walk in the woods in search of morels yields only stalks, the tasty bells nibbled away by deer, which themselves have fled the scene, robbing the wanderer of two different delights. A quail can be heard but not seen. A swing still sways in an empty playground, but the hand that pushed it has retreated. Vultures soar overhead, testifying to a recent or imminent death.
From here this inspection of fragments and shreds left behind (or before) us is inferred, illustrated, implied, but is rarely so plainly invoked as in the opening poem. Most often, we are given just a small sample in a longer poem, a thread unexamined that, if followed, goes nowhere, a tease of what is omitted. "Swedish Fish" begins with the lines "I ran over a shadow / and the car went bump." The poem, a clever examination of our dueling animal/angel natures as seen in the poet's small son while he sits in the back seat of her car, never revisits this initial image. It is there, I believe, as a foil, an example of the poet's interest in the traces of other realities that intersect our small focus. We constantly filter out so much information just so our minds can function. In art and writing, we filter out all but a few small themes and images. What happens when a poet allows a few wayward images back into the text, unexplained and unquarantined? She is writing about a car ride and her son's existence and her parenting, and yet there at the beginning, she hits a shadow—undefined—and the car goes bump. Then whatever life was just snuffed out is in the rearview mirror, forgotten.
As the book progresses, Guinzio begins to illustrate these ideas visually. Many pages display two poems overlaid, one "primary" and more concrete, the second more ephemeral, in grey text like smoke beside the black lines of the main body. These shadow texts are sometimes seemingly unrelated to the main poem, but more often they either directly echo lines from the primary text or at least riff on them. In "A Philosophy," the main structure of the poem looks at the insistence of the past and the inevitability of the future, the firmness of existence and the dark nothing of nonexistence. To the right of this text is repeated the poem's final line in pale grey, each word on a separate line with random tabbing, sprayed like scattershot along the margin: "It will never be gone because it was always there."
In "a pure form of being," we are given this gorgeous line about untouched nature, the wild places and things that haven't fallen victim to our colonialism: "How beautiful the things / we don't own by proximity." Interlaced between the lines of this brief poem are words of the shadow text, evolving the thought one step further: "How beautiful the things we've never seen."
And those things are many. Guinzio seeks at points to zoom in on the smallest details around her, beyond the flowers and the birds we're used to in pastorale poems, down to the thinnest slivers of existence. One poem looks at the lowly May-fly, a creature whose entire life passes in a day, a being the poet here proposes sees shades we can't possibly discern with the long-winded sweep of our lives. For the May-fly, "the day's sky is . . . every possible sky." Taking this up a level to the realm of human experience, Guinzio looks in "Spindrift" at how much detail we omit when navigating distances. The poem begins, "Have you got a pen? / From your place, you're going to want to make a right." The poem then lists the remainder of steps in the directions, steps which become progressively more ephemeral until, by poem's end, they are all but useless in their temporal specificity: "Go toward the guy in a mallard hat fishing off the end of the ramp. / If you see a pair of swallows with mud in their mouths, you missed the turn." In "Optics," she worries what her partner will think upon discovering she is sitting right where he left her, unaware her mind has been whirring at high speed through a dizzying series of thoughts. She has been still, but she has not been idle, an indiscernible distinction from outside her head.
There is an image on the book's back cover of one of those tall cell phone towers that has been done up to look like a tree. Birds are flying to nest in its "branches." This is the perfect icon for Spine's exploration of the ways the most feral and the most technological spheres of our lives intersect. The book toys with this theme early on, as in a poem in which a waterlogged cellphone is blurred with stone chairs under a waterfall, or in another in which still-life images are poetically rendered from scenes captured by a Google Car. As the book progresses, the intrusion of the digital/social world into every aspect of our lives is more subtly exposed. A poem that looks at philosophy in the decay of an urban space ends unexpectedly with "Be / the first person to like this."
The integration of our life in the wild with our life on the web is perhaps best illustrated in a piece that again utilizes the poem/shadow poem structure. In "How To Take a Picture of a Leaf / Reciprocal Likes," Guinzio poignantly unfolds in her primary text the double standard we apply to body image. She wants to take a picture of a leaf, a leaf she says is more beautiful for its partial decay than it would have been while still healthy, but she prefers her companion with softer hands to hold the leaf for her photo, keeping her own rougher, lined hands out of the shot. The accompanying shadow poem is a list of reciprocal social media acknowledgements. "I like your baby / you like my dad / I like your garden / you like my cat," the list begins. It isn't till we get to "You like my leaf" we see what's happening. Every little picture we share on Facebook or Instagram has a story, stories that are both elevated by their exposure to so many through social media and reduced by the singular brevity of those platforms. In this list that reads like a banal series of clichéd postings, Guinzio zooms in on one and shows us the full color of the scene, the depth of feeling behind it, the human connection that propelled it, the existential irony at the root of it.
The final poem in Spine provides the lines that are sure to be quoted repeatedly in reviews of this book, so succinctly do they draw together the questions and worries of the collection. "The Moving Walkway Is Ending" (a title that fittingly includes technology and its limits) begins with these words:
We are not here. My fellow-
assemblages of cells and I thread
our minds through the loops
of our bodies, and thus the terminal
burden is eased.
Ultimately, Guinzio exposes identities that are as tangential to the physical world as the various planes she explores throughout the book are to each other. The digital and the organic intermingle. The minutely temporal and the eternal share at least one space of time. In the end, our minds are threads looped through the buttonholes of our bodies.