Review by C Derick Varn
Amy Gerstler, Scattered at Sea (Penguin Poets, 2015), pp. 96.
Amy Gerstler’s poetry has always had a maniacal edge. In prior collections, she illustrates an ability to make hard-hitting and real observations in a verse that remains slight and tends to be both scattered and surreal. This tendency remains prominent in her most recent collection with Penguin, Scattered At Sea. However, while her manic style seemed more unique in the late 1990s when Gerstler first burst onto the stage, now, in the age of social media, her poetry seems to share much more with other poetry we might now see as having a referential quality that responds to internet meme culture. Yet, despite my distrust of this absurd and now more common style, the manic quality has any endeared me to Gerstler’s work more than alienated me from it, particularly in the case of this latest collection.
Gerstler scatters her topics and observations, but there are some “movements” reigning in her madcap poetry. The first section focuses on sex, the next on banality, the third on death, while the latter seems to explore spirituality. The themes are remarkably consistent: the core things of life , such as sex, death, going to the grocery store, can cause disorientation, loss, and wonderment. We are scattered like the sea creatures on the cover, both comically but also beautifully.
Gerstler’s habits of normalizing the absolutely strange and making the banal seem secretly odd is used to good effect in this collection. One sees, in poems like “Stoics” and “The Suicide’s Wife,” a willingness to go to places that seem both serious and humorous, both banal and weird. The strength in accepting death becomes almost caricatural in “The Suicide’s Wife” and in both “Early Greek Philosophy” and the “Stoics,” our selective acceptance of the abundant wisdom from people who still looked in bird intestines for hints of the future renders even common intellectual presumptions strange.
In “The Suicide’s Wife” one can see strength, humor, and grief all at once, but scattered through the poem:
six weeks later she looks great
thin and translucent
a statue of justice sans blindfold
she wears beautiful blouses now
peach, gold, seedling green
has never been better
lushness nips at the heels
This can be contrasted with a cartoonish image of the Suicide’s wife almost comically soaked to the bone, even her panties water logged, which occurs just before it. The juxtaposition here is very powerful: the comic mingling with the tragic, statuesque composure crammed near cartoonish images of overwhelming grief, felt tragedy paired with strength from surviving it. The depth of feeling is hidden in playful idiom and slice-of-life observations.
This is not to say that playfulness or Gerstler’s bold irreverence is lacking from the poem. In the aforementioned “Early Greek Philosophers,” Gerstler is humanely mocking all involved:
On sorting the jumble of events into gorgeous order
Getting a lot of the science right
While still pawing through entrails to divine the future
A vigorous lot of intellectual adventurers
Whose mission was to explain the universe
Wild minds we have only in fragments
Because whether papyrus scraps, birch bark
Or this mortal coil
Dammit, matter just doesn’t last
Gerstler’s point is not just that philosophers are sillier than we make them out to be, but that our wider preoccupation with ‘eternal truths’ seems somewhat ridiculous when paired with the decay of earthly things, including our bodies. The intellectualization often assumed in the spiritual and philosophical is often complicated in Gerstler’s pairing it against bodies—both male and female—which seem awkward, almost alien, and utterly amusing. One can see these images popping up over and over again. For example, in “Sea Foam Place” the poem turns on these lines:
to our bodies we can
barely walk a straight line,
remaining (most days) only
We stagger and shudder
as buckets of blood or sperm
or chocolate mousse or spittle
or lymph or sludge sluice
continually through us…
I love the way you wear your
face, how you ride this life.
I delight in the sight of you,
your nervous, inquisitive eyes,
though I try to act otherwise.
Gerstler uses the seemingly disgusting litany of fluids that strangely animate our bodies turning into a memory of attractiveness and affection. Similarly, in her poem “Womanishness,” we see the viscerally moist used to make one’s body more alien than one’s mind:
The dissonance of women. The shrill frilly silly
drippy prissy pouty fuss of us. And all the while
science was the music of our minds…”
The repetition of such child-like sounds pairs disarmingly well with Gerstler’s intended effect. The language also mirrors that of misogynistic mocking of a woman’s opinion, but it’s the body being mocked while the “science was the music of our minds” which inverts both gendered and poetic expectations for the stanza. This effect seems playfully sloppy at first—partly because of its subject matter—but is actually quite expert it is ability to undermine itself for poetic and emotional effects.
These juxtapositions can be dizzying, even slightly annoying. In several of Gerstler’s ‘catalogue’ poems, the apparently arbitrariness of the images doesn’t produce as the emotional resonance of the rest of the collection. One can see this in “A Short History of Sublime Moments on Hold,” “”Press five to put continents between you and a former love/ . . .Press eight to be connected to an invertebrate.” Sometimes the shock of the an image is a little too much—for example, “cunts that taste of mustard.” Gerslter’s love for idiom, particularly onomatopoeia, can be tiresome, such as “Prehistoric Porn Film” – “twig crack, muzzle cuff snuffinglicks nuzzleshove….” In short, sometimes the scattered nature of the poems doesn’t cohere enough and the idiosyncrasy of Gerstler’s style produces a flat note. Yet the overall effect is richer than these over indulgences would indicate.
Grestler’s overall effect is surprising cohesive—more late Coltrane than Ornette Coleman—and it can be deeply effective. In the last section of the collection, the poems become the more clearly reflective. One can feel it in “Kitchen Annunciation”:
Brute beast led by sensuality
And yearning, weak as an earthworm,
Don’t shun my light. Correct your
Affections. Revel while you’re flesh.
Gerstler’s direct address and violation of the ban on telling being particularly effective here. Awe and wonder are here, but so is mortality. In Gerstler’s playful juxtapositions, there is a reflection on life that is deceptively deep for a poet who presents her work in the form of almost childlike idiom.
C Derick Varn is a teacher, poet, and theorist living in Cairo. He is a reader for Zero Books and the editor of the online literary magazine, Former People. His poetry has appeared in Axe Factory, Writing Disorder, Union Station, and Unlikely Stories.