In the Details

Burt_36.4_book Stephen Burt reviews Allan Peterson's As Much As, in the Boston Review:

What if all that mattered in a life, all that stuck in the mind or pulled at the heart, were the well-defined events and decisions: where to live, what to do for a living, when to get married, whether to go to war? What would we miss? Almost everything that makes a life worth living. We want not just actions and consequences, victories and defeats, but dragonflies and paperclips, daydreams and counterfactual syllogisms. And perhaps poetry—that verbal art form without obvious consequence, whose shapes are not the shapes of events and plots—best suits those apparently negligible phenomena: if it cannot preserve them, it can at least show how we care.

That is not the only goal for poets, nor is poetry the only art that adopts it (Virginia Woolf to the white courtesy telephone, please). But it is a goal that many poets take on, by precept or example, and there may be no better example right now than Allan Peterson. No other poet—to judge by this third book, As Much As—focuses so fully on the inward effects of apparently inconsequential observations; no other poet makes them speak so well. Though he entitles one poem “Pure Description,” Peterson almost never describes scenes literally and at length; poets who do so can lose a lopsided contest against the resources of visual art, as Peterson must know (until 2005 he taught painting and ran the art department at Pensacola State College in Florida).

Instead, Peterson uses what he sees as a starting point for effects of inwardness, of ratiocination, above all of analogy. His title means that anything can matter as much as anything else, approached rightly, but it also means that he will use as much of “as”—as many similes—as he can. Unmoored from action, without preset pattern— no rhyme schemes, no New Sentences, no Oulipian bravado—his relatively short poems add to the world they explore by webs of simile, by like and as and so. “Docks along the coast looked like a thumb piano. / I listened.” “One harebell starts the yard in its frenzy / of reexplaining. / What takes its place appears lovingly / like caressing a pet.” Bird song consists of “short notes like dog names, / one or two syllables, something unmistakable.” Wrong numbers on a telephone exist “within hearing but unheard / even when you hold them to your ear / the way people will touch a photo / in a private ritual.”