By Michael Bazzett
Reviewed by Mitchell R. McInnis
Michael Bazzett's poetry is said to have hints of Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Simic, James Tate, and even Philip K. Dick. His most recent collection, The Interrogation, echoes those influences and origins, but in so many ways, it's also reminiscent of W. H. Auden's "On the Circuit"—the jet-lagged poet wandering among the evening's gathering of "pelagian travelers," wondering if drinks will be served or, "Is this a milieu where I must / How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig! / Snatch from the bottle in my bag / An analeptic swig?" This is not to say that Bazzett seems to have a penchant for tippling, but to say that he's somewhat ambivalent about his success. To put it another way, I'll borrow from Norman Mailer's description of his own success: "But once [the artist] is successful, especially if it happens quickly, it's as if the bird were now an emu." Mailer's description of a writer's transmogrification is both humorous and endearing. Once successful, the writer loses his ability to remain a pure observer at parties, memorizing dialogue, watching what everyone else is up to, imagining couplings without others observing his prurient grimace. But the couplings happen after midnight, and the writer must call his wife, must promise to be home in time to tuck his children into bed. And he lives in Minnesota, which means everyone else has to get home to tuck their kids in as well, so the party's over.
Mailer addresses only the transmogrification of a writer via success. The playful poke at Bazzett's current home and my former home, Minnesota, is mine alone. But place and climate contribute much to an individual's worldview, and as Kazuo Ishiguro asked years ago while facing down a barrage of questions from readers unhappy with his perplexing, unresolved endings, "Would Faulkner have been Faulkner if he'd had to go town to town answering all his reader's questions—retail-fashion—where the customer is always right?" Irreverence is the only badge—outside of dime-store notebooks and too many pens—we poets get to carry.
But I should circle back. All of these conclusions draw from knowledge of the subject collected outside the purview of Bazzett's press kit. Very little of this fits with his modus operandi. He's a cool customer. Careful but not evasive when it comes to the "I" of his poems, also comfortable with "we." His voice is polymorphous; he's a trickster. Confession ain't his bag.
Bazzett wears his influences much less like disguises and much more like a toolbelt. He's shrewd that way. For instance, beneath his confessed indebtedness to Simic, there's a deeper indebtedness to George Oppen and the objectivists. Specifically, a tonal distancing that is meditative and often clinical or even curatorial in its latex-gloved approach. The pure perceiver's objectivism slowly dissolves within each encounter, resolving into what Peter Nicholls once described as "a poetics of being." Nicholls used the phrase to describe the manner in which Oppen systematically avoided simplistic aesthetic categorization. This concept is akin to what Mikhail Bakhtin described as the "carnivalesque." In Bakhtin's language, this "carnival sense" is "a weakening of one-sided rhetorical seriousness, its rationality, its singular meaning, its dogmatism."
This sentiment describes perfectly Bazzett's poem "The Monster." The poem's occupants are visitors to a sideshow in a "warehouse painted to look like a cave." Spectacle's gone retail, and in this case, requires consolation once the visitors recognize that the monster is "too old." Fortunately, because it's retail they offer coupons, enabling the group to get a good rate on battling a "bona fide monster / of 'cannibalistic mettle & unequivocal medieval rage.'" Not so much, hence the coupon. Nonetheless, the group's titular leader, Steve, declares the whole thing "strictly half-assed."
We glimpse another bit of subterfuge to the otherwise domestic lyric in "Ithaca." The speaker in this poem opens with a confession: "I had that slight burst one gets with the third glass of wine and decided to walk to sunny Ithaca, white rock like a tooth through blue water." Destination Ithaca off the coast of Kefalonia, not the one on the shores of Cayuga Lake. "I excused myself from the olives & brie and slipped out the side door," he tells us. He gets to the shore before realizing others have joined him. Perhaps his wander has become insurrection? Nope. Confusion ensues, and a chuckle. One shadowy figure says, "Let him go," and he does. "I leapt over the collapsing / white lip of that first wave and was running like a boy / across the tremulous roof of the sea." Along with his glorious variations, Bazzett consistently provides readers with lines elegant to the ear, eye, and lip. And his timing with these lines is both vaudevillian and thespian.
In another poem, "The Meat of It," Bazzett trades on a story about his son. It's the earnest and playful kind of poem that plays well at readings. So where's the interrogation? Where's the danger? Where's that Simic-like sense of burlesque that flirts like a stripper, dresses like an Otto Dix painting, and is cunning as the Stasi, bloodthirsty as the KGB, and deliberative as a Jesuit? Flat out, it isn't here.
What is here is both substantial and ambitious, though. Not to mention elegant. Memorable lines like "So much moonlight is sickly these days" hint again and again at the previously mentioned transmogrification. They hint at romanticism. These hints ebb against a recent statement from Bazzett, upon receiving an NEA grant: "I believe our current impoverished relationship with the world and each other stems from our inability, quite literally, to imagine it could be otherwise. This NEA fellowship will fuel a little bit of that imagining. It feels simultaneously to be a blessing, a happy accident, and a call to action."
Bazzett's ambition is laudable and his loose formulation of reimagining relationships, ourselves, and how we fit together sharply perceives how American culture works. Poets like Philip Levine and David Biespiel are earnest but misguided in their ambition for American poetry to weigh in on politics, but such sentiment often reveals itself to be theme-park nostalgia, a wish for an aspirational political system and intellectuals (in the Gramsci sense of the term) that are not there. As Yeats reminds us, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity." That said, the notion of the personal as political has been transformative in change-hungry regions like West Africa and the Czech Republic in peaceful, impactful ways. And anyone who's read Aimé Césaire and Vaclav Havel knows just how outré and transformational such work can be.
To circle back to Oppen and his late-career arc toward romanticism, what Nicholls described as Oppen's exertions toward "an elision of thinking and being" seems potentially instructive to a poet with Bazzett's talent and breadth of voice. To be a sower atop the mulched soil. And The Interrogation indicates that he's up to something similar. His Oppen-like tone dissolves by book's end, leaving the poet, and indeed being itself, unconcealed. Unconcealed in a state of what philosophers call aletheia.
Underlying any comparison of one poet to another is what Harold Bloom famously called the "anxiety of influence." Poets disagree wildly about this notion. Clayton Eshleman went so far as to say Bloom was "dead wrong" on the subject. I tend to have more of a middling instinct on the subject and think there's nothing too controversial in the idea that poetry often comes from other poetry, and oracular poetry is very rare. On the other hand, the tradition of ars poetica is rich and as close to sacred as a lineage of iconoclasts will allow. Bazzett substantiates his own inklings of his lineage and transmogrification in the book's final, wistful poem, "The Plot":
I want to be a bone
in the body of something
larger. An animal
snuffling and panting
as they drag it from the woods,
strips of muscle tensing beautifully
even as its limbs
tear at the ropes.
Wherever Bazzett's transmogrification leads, it will surely be worthy of a careful and enthusiastic readership.