Review of The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish by Joshua Weiner
Chicago University Press
Charting the River
by LynleyShimat Lys
About LynleyShimat Lys
LynleyShimat Lys is a poet, playwright, and essayist living in Jerusalem. Lynley also does social media work for H_NGM_N and tries to stay connected to the literary world online. Recent work appears in the chapbook "Turn up the Volume: Poems about the State of Wisconsin," a project of Poets for First Amendment Protection, and in the journals Verse Wisconsin, Deep Water Literary Journal, Leaves of Ink, and Flashquake.
“Paris is between two layers, a layer of water and a layer of air… The layer of water is salubrious; it comes first from heaven, then from the earth. The layer of air is unwholesome, it comes from the sewers.”
- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
“There is no thing here that does not, where one least expects it, open a fugitive eye, blinking it shut again; but if you look more closely, it is gone. To the whispering of these gazes, the space lends its echo.”
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Where is the edge between poetry and history, between history and memory? Joshua Weiner's collection The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish, envisions poetry on a grand scale, a triptych of the title poem enveloped by the landscape panorama of “Rock Creek Park (II)” and the eye of “Cyclops.” If Walter Benjamin had written the expansive Arcades Project as a poem sequence, it might read like “Rock Creek (II).” The eponymous waterway of Washington D.C. rushes through the center of the poem, “like Coltrane stretching / tight vibrato / phrases ... undirected/ as prisoners of / Guantá namo / flooding cells in protest.” Along with allusions to Whitman's Specimen Days, jazz, and politics, the poem traces the history of the United States through personal histories, street names, and “fragmented stone tools of the Algonquin,” asking, “If Rock Creek is a passage / what will I find there / in its leaves & pages, legible / by moonlight.” Rock Creek serves as a way to read America, the branches of culture, memory, and landscape.
The eye of “Cyclops” opens from the eye itself, the eye as camera apparatus, “Staring from the bathroom mirror / reflection of an eye / the hole that released me.” The eye and the camera implicate the speaker and the reader in the personal and the political, Guantánamo detainees and broken relationships. The eye shifts from “the day's bright eye / the bright eye of night,” to “an open eye / of water like a lake,” becoming “two eyes / converging without rivalry,” and “One self / only / I stare / at where she was / and see her / disappear / into the blind spot.” The eye serves as synecdoche for the I; alone it becomes a cyclops; it loses both depth perception and political accountability.
The sequence of poems bounded by “Rock Creek (II)” and “Cyclops” weaves between dreamscape, landscape, ephemeral and liminal spaces, and the prison poems of Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet. The title poem “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish,” evokes folk art and the plight of the Biblical Jonah fleeing his destiny of Nineveh and hiding in dreams. It references the politics of Jewish statehood, “a man being swallowed by his kin, his skin / a man being swallowed by the State / (Leviathan in 1948),” envisioning the State as a giant sea creature. It offers the philosophical reading “a man being swallowed by a room / in which he finds a man being swallowed by a fish.” The poems in this section enact variations between movement, the flow of thought, and stillness.
“Things To Do While You're Here” paints a dream sequence, with the knowledge that “This is your nightmare, but you can do something with it,” to which the speaker responds, “And for what seemed a long time I chose not to wake up.” The poem “The Winter's Tale” depicts the audience and actors of a performance of Shakespeare, “with the Besian school massacre / (344 dead in Chechnya, teachers and children) / transparent backdrop to this university production,” filling the liminal audience space with salient news of other exits from the world stage.
“Rock Creek” considers partnership and parenthood, as well as the speaker's own eventual exit, “under a beech / whose leaves are lit to a hundred hues – / green dazzling network shifting tones, / intensities, and casting on / my eye a duplicating view: / Two boys; us two. And seeing them / without us—one of those moments when / the weave in time breaks open.” The theme of the eye echoes in these verses. The sense of flow and motion carries through the theater audience and the meditation on passing on.
The counterpoint to this flow appears in the deep centering of the poems “First Walk After Cancer” and “Hikmet: Çankiri Prison, 1938,” where a sense of calm emerges, “In this moment, there were no waves to fall into; … There was only the earth beneath me, the sun above me, and me.” And in “First Walk After Cancer,” the speaker sees “lost glove in bare tree; blue jay; my favorite shoes; / green lights everywhere, seen, if not understood.” The objects form a string of green lights, signs to come back to life, a place of stillness and rebirth.
“The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish” offers a panorama of American life and world events seen through the prism of Rock Creek and the relationship between the I and the eye. The ambitious scale of the project finds support in the careful measure of the individual lines. Like the course of Rock Creek and the man being swallowed by a fish, these poems reveal new facets with every reading.